All the powers except Russia recognized the new constitution. Edmund Burke called it “the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time,” and declared that Stanislas II had earned a place among the greatest kings and statesmen in history;48 but this enthusiasm may have reflected England’-s pleasure at Catherine’s defeat.
The Empress concealed for a time her hostility to the new Poland. But she did not forgive the expeditious expulsion of her troops, nor the replacement of Russian with Prussian influence in Polish affairs. When the Peace of Jassy (January 9, 1792) ended her war with Turkey, and the involvement of Prussia and Austria in war against Revolutionary France (April, 1792) freed her from fear of her former accomplices, she looked around for another opening into Poland.
It was provided for her by conservative Poles. They quite agreed with Catherine that Poniatowski’s constitution had been approved by a Diet so hastily assembled that many nobles had been unable to attend. Felix Potocki and other magnates were furious at the abandonment of that liberum veto which had insured their power against any central authority, and they were unwilling to surrender their right to elect—and therefore dominate—the king. Refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the new charter, Potocki led a group of nobles to St. Petersburg and asked the Empress to help them restore the older constitution (of 1775) which she had promised to protect. She answered that she did not care to interfere in Poland at the request of a few individuals, but that she would consider an appeal from a substantial organized Polish minority. Informed of these negotiations, Frederick William II, involved against France and unwilling to wage war against Russia, informed the Polish government (May 4, 1792) that if it intended to defend its new constitution by force of arms, it must not expect support from Prussia.49 Potocki returned to Poland, formed (May 14, 1792) in a little town of the Ukraine the Confederation of Targowica, and invited to his standard all those who wished to restore the old constitution. His followers called themselves Republicans, condemned the alliance of Poland with Prussia, praised Catherine, and begged for her blessing and her troops.
She sent both, and, so strengthened, the confederates marched toward Warsaw. Their propaganda for “freedom” made some impression, for several towns received them as liberators; and at Teresapol (September 5) Potocki was hailed as in effect the new king of Poland. Poniatowski called upon the Diet to give him all powers needed for defense. It appointed him dictator, summoned all adult male Poles to military service, and adjourned. Stanislas made his nephew, the twenty-nine-year-old Prince Józef Poniatowski, commander in chief of the army, which he found untrained and miserably equipped. Józef ordered all detachments of the army to join him at Lubar on the River Slucz; but many had been surrounded by Russian forces, and could not come, and those that came were too weak to withstand the Russian advance. The young commander withdrew to Polonne, his center of supplies, in an orderly retreat made possible by the valiant rear-guard action of Thaddeus Kosciusko, who had fought for the colonies in America, and was already, at forty-six, old in the honors of patriotism and war.
On June 17, 1792, the Poles encountered a major Russian army at Zielence, and defeated it in the first pitched battle won by Poland since Sobieski’s days. Here again Kosciusko proved his skill, by seizing a hill from which his artillery commanded the field; and Józef, hitherto distrusted by subordinates twice his age, won their respect by leading his reserves in person to force the retreat of the Russians. The report of this victory rejoiced Poniatowski, but was almost outweighed by news that Prince Ludwig of Württemberg, a Prussian-army commander in charge of the Polish forces in Lithuania, had deserted his post, leaving his troops in such disarray that on June 12 the Russians easily captured Wilno, the Lithuanian capital.
Józef’s army remained the sole defense of Poland. Its supplies were so low that some of its regiments fasted for twenty-four hours, and only a dozen charges of ammunition were left in the artillery. The Prince ordered retreat to Dubno; accused of cowardice, he took a stand at Dubienka (July 18), and with 12,500 men fought 28,000 Russians to a draw. He fell back in good order to Kurow, where he awaited the reinforcements and supplies that had been promised him by the King.
But Stanislas had given up. The refusal of Frederick William II to honor the terms of the Prusso-Polish alliance, the treachery of Prince Ludwig, the hundreds of desertions from the army that he had collected at Praga, had been too much for his never very valiant spirit. He sent a personal appeal to Catherine for some honorable terms; her reply (July 23) was an ultimatum requiring him to join the Confederation of Targowica, and to restore the constitution of 1775. He was shocked by her uncompromising tone; was this the same woman who had once responded to his reckless love?
It was his tenderness that now dominated him. He had thought of resisting, of arming himself and going to the front to lead a forlorn defense; but his wife, his sister, and his niece wept so copiously at the thought of his death and their own desolation that the King promised he would yield. And, after all, of what use would resistance be? Now that no help—now that attacks on the undefended western front—could be expected from Prussia, how could Poland stand against Russia? Had he not striven to dissuade the Diet from flouting Catherine and risking all on the promises of Prussia? Had he not pleaded for a large army properly equipped, and had not the Diet, after voting the men, refused the funds? Even if the existing Polish army won a victory or two over the Russians, could not Catherine, surfeited with soldiers by peace with Turkey, send wave after wave of disciplined and well-armed troops against his scattered and disorganized remnants? Why sacrifice more lives, and surrender half of Poland to devastation, when surrender would be the end in any case?
The new Russian ambassador, Yakov Sievers, sent to his sister a sympathetic picture of Poniatowski in this hour of physical and spiritual collapse:
The King is still [at sixty] a handsome man who wears well, though his face is pale, but one can see that a dark veil has been drawn over his soul. He speaks well, and even eloquently, and is courteous and attentive always and to everyone. He is lodged badly, slighted, despised, and betrayed; and yet he is the most amiable of men. Leaving his high position out of the question, and regarding him simply from the personal point of view, I may say that his good qualities outweigh his bad ones. Certainly, after Louis XVI, he is the most unfortunate of monarchs. He loves his kinsfolk most tenderly, and it is just these very people who have been the cause of all his misfortunes.50
On July 24, 1792, Poniatowski read the Russian ultimatum to his privy councilors, and advised them to trust to Catherine’s magnanimity. Many councilors protested against such simplicity. One of them, Malachowski, offered to raise within an hour 100,000 gulden for defense, and urged that even if Warsaw had to be abandoned, the Polish troops could retreat to Cracow and raise a new army in the populous south. Poniatowski’s motion to surrender was defeated in the Council by a vote of twenty to seven. By his authority as dictator he overruled them, and ordered his nephew to make no further resistance. Józef replied that instead of such capitulation the King should hasten to the front with what forces he could gather, and fight to the end. When Stanislas insisted that the army must join the Confederation, all the officers but one sent in their resignations, and Józef returned to his former home in Vienna. On August 5 a Russian army occupied Praga. In October Józef sent a plea to his uncle to abdicate before every shred of honor had gone. In November Potocki, with the advance guard of the Confederation, made a triumphal entry into Warsaw, and lectured Poniatowski on the duties of a king. But Potocki’s victory was soon seen to be a calamity, for in January, 1793, Prussian troops entered Poland, and then moved on to occupy Danzig and Thorn, without Potocki’s Russian allies raising a musket to prevent them. It became clear that Russia and Prussia had agreed to partition Poland again.
Catherine and Frederick William had signed such an agreement on January 23, but they kept it secret till February 28. Potocki appealed to Poles of all parties to rise in defense of Poland; they laughed at him; Józef denounced him as the betrayer of his country, and challenged him to single combat; Stanislas forbade the duel.
By the second partition Russia took 89,000 square miles of eastern Poland, with 3,000,000 population, including Wilno and Minsk; Prussia took 23,000 square miles of western Poland, with 1,000,000 population, including Danzig and Thorn; Poland retained 80,000 square miles and 4,000,000 souls—approximately one half of what had been left to her in 1773. Austria had no share in this second spoliation, but was mollified by Russo-Prussian promises to aid her in acquiring Bavaria. The Western powers, still absorbed in the struggle with Revolutionary France, took no action against this second rape, which Catherine explained to them as made necessary by the development of revolutionary agitation in Warsaw, endangering all monarchies.
To give the theft a garb of legality she ordered Poniatowski to summon a Diet to meet at Grodno, and bade him come there in person to sign an alliance with Russia. At first he declined to go, but when she offered to pay his debts—which now amounted to 1,566,000 ducats—he accepted this added humiliation for the sake of his creditors. The Russian ambassador was supplied with funds to bribe a sufficient number of deputies to attend the Diet, and he found it easy to corrupt several members of the King’s suite to report every word and action of their master. This “Last Diet” (June 17 to November 24, 1793) was persuaded to sign a treaty with Russia, but it refused for months to ratify the second partition. Told that they would not be allowed to leave the hall till they had signed, the members still refused, and sat in silence for twelve hours. Then the marshal put the question to a vote, and, hearing no answer, declared that silence was consent (September 25). The residue of Poland became again a Russian protectorate; the constitution of 1775 was restored.
If one man could redeem the nation it was Kosciusko. Financed by the Czartoryskis, he went to Paris (January, 1793), and besought the help of France for a Poland warmly sympathetic with the French Revolution. He promised that if help came the Polish peasants would rise against serfdom, the townsmen against the nobility; Poniatowski would abdicate in favor of a republic, and a Polish army would support France in its war with Prussia.51 The French leaders welcomed his proposals, but the outbreak of war with England (February, 1793), and the invasion of France by the Allies, ended all chance of aid to Poland.
During Kosciusko’s absence some burghers, Freemasons, and army officers raised a new Polish army (March, 1794). Kosciusko hurried from Dresden to Cracow to join it; he was appointed commander in chief with dictatorial powers; he ordered every five houses in Poland to send him a foot soldier, every fifty houses a cavalryman, and bade these recruits to bring whatever weapons they could muster, even pikes and scythes. On April 4, with four thousand regulars and two thousand peasant recruits, Kosciusko attacked a force of seven thousand Russians at Raclawice, near Cracow, and defeated it partly by his generalship, partly by the effectiveness of the peasants’ scythes.
On hearing of this victory the radical, or “Jacobin,” element in Warsaw organized an insurrection. Middle-class leaders hesitantly joined it. On April 17 these rebels attacked the Russian garrison of 7,500 men, slew many of them, and defeated a Prussian contingent of 1,650 troops; the occupation forces fled, and for a moment Warsaw was under Polish control. A similar uprising freed Wilno (April 23), hanged the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, and regained parts of Poland almost to Minsk. On May 7 Kosciusko promised liberation to the serfs, and guaranteed ownership of the lands they tilled. So many volunteers and conscripts came to his standard that by June of 1794 he commanded 150,000 men, only 80,000 of them properly equipped.
Against them came wave after wave of disciplined Russian or Prussian troops. On June 6 an allied army of 26,000 surprised the Poles near Szczekociny; Kosciusko had time to bring up only 14,000 men. He was beaten with heavy losses; he sought death in battle, but it evaded him; the Polish remnant retired to Warsaw. On June 15 the Prussians took Cracow; on August 11 the Russians recaptured Wilno; on September 19 a Polish army of 5,500 men was annihilated at Teresapol by a Russian force of 12,500 seasoned soldiers under Suvorov; on October 10 Kosciusko himself, with 7,000 Poles, was overwhelmed by 13,000 Russians at Maciejowice; he was seriously wounded and was taken prisoner. He did not, as legend supposed, utter the despairing cry “Finis Poloniae!” but that defeat was the end of the heroic revolt.
Suvorov, uniting various Russian armies, stormed the entrenched camp of the Poles at Praga, and his battle-crazed troops slaughtered not only the defenders but the civilian population of the town. Poniatowski surrendered Warsaw to avoid a greater massacre. Suvorov dispatched Kosciusko and other rebel leaders to imprisonment at St. Petersburg, and sent the King to Grodno to await the pleasure of the Empress. There, on November 25, 1795, he signed his abdication. He appealed to Catherine to let some part of Poland survive, but she determined to solve the Polish question by putting an end, as she thought, to the Polish nation. After fifteen months of dispute Russia, Prussia, and Austria signed the Third Partition Treaty (January 26, 1797). Russia took Kurland, Lithuania, and western Podolia and Volhynia—181,000 square miles; Austria took “Little Poland,” with Cracow and Ludlin—45,000 square miles; Prussia received the remainder, with Warsaw—57,000 square miles. By all three partitions Russia absorbed some 6,000,000 of Poland’s 12,-200,000souls (1797), Austria 3,700,000, Prussia 2,500,000.
Thousands of Poles fled from their country; aliens received the confiscated properties. Poniatowski remained in Grodno, playing at botany and writing memoirs. After Catherine’s death Paul I invited him to St. Petersburg and assigned him the Marble Palace and 100,000 ducats a year. There he died, February 12, 1798, in his sixty-sixth year. Kosciusko was freed by Emperor Paul in 1796, returned to America, then to France, and continued his efforts for Polish liberation till his death (1817). Józef Poniatowski escaped to Vienna, joined in Napoleon’s campaign against Russia, was wounded at Smolensk, fought valiantly at Leipzig, was made a marshal in the French army, and died in 1813, honored even by his enemies. Poland ceased to be a state, but continued to be a people and a civilization, sullied by religious persecution, but distinguished by great poets, novelists, musicians, artists, and scientists, and never abandoning the resolve to rise again.