Considerations on the Government of Poland by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Posted on August 25, 2010

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Rousseau: Love Your Country

On the eve of the 18th century Augustus II (the Strong) occupied the throne of the Commonwealth. He wasn’t legally elected by the nobility, and his various machinations dragged Poland-Lithuania into wars with Sweden and Russia. With Sweden’s intervention Augustus II lost his throne to Stanisław Leszczyński. With the support of Russia the situation changed again, and Augustus II regained his lost position. In 1717, at the Silent Seym (a session of parliament where none of its members was allowed to voice opposition) Augustus’s II ambitions to impose absolutist monarchy were curtailed, but, at the same time, Poland-Lithuania became Russia’s protectorate.

In 1732, expecting that Augustus II would die soon, Russia, Austria and Prussia, whose monarchs liked to style themselves the Holy Trinity, signed the Treaty of Three Black Eagles. Its main goal was to prevent the election of Stanisław Leszczyński or any other candidate backed up by France or Sweden, and, above all, not to allow for any reforms in Poland.

Stanisław Leszczyński was duly elected by the nobles, which led to the War of the Polish Succession, after which Russia placed Augustus III on the Polish throne.

When that king died, the three despots agreed for the election of Stanisław August Poniatowski, who became Poland’s last king. As Catherine the Great saw it, he was so poor and weak that he’d have no choice but to depend on the neighbouring powers in everything.

In response to Russia’s continuous meddling in Poland-Lithuania’s internal affairs a large number of nobles formed an armed confederation. The Confederation of Bar (1768-1772) is known as Poland’s first national uprising. With the help of Turkey and France it lasted for four years, and was eventually quenched by the joint effort of the Holy Trinity’s armies.

Since Catherine the Great liked to present herself as an Enlightened Monarch, the leaders of the Confederation of Bar, among whom was Kazimierz Pułaski (later known as the father of American Cavalry), were labelled as ignorant, intollerant conservatives, opposed to any reforms in the country. Yet it is difficult to agree such notions with the fact that one of them, Michał Wielhorski, was sent to Paris as the confederates’ envoy, in order to ask two Enlightenment thinkers: Gabriel Mably and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to draft proposals for political reforms that would be applied when peace was restored.

The effect were two works: Du Gouvernement et des lois de Pologne by Mably and Considerations sur le gouvernament de Pologne by Rousseau.

Rousseau’s work, although well known to many 18th century Poles, was not published at that time. The English translation was issued as late as 1957. Complementary to the Social Contract it remains an important document for those who want to study Rousseau’s political theory. The former was a theory, the latter was an attempt to apply theory in practice. Rousseau’s advice was taken under consideration when the May 3 Constitution (the first modern codified European constitution) was composed.

The English version is now available at this blog. Go to: Considerations on the Government of Poland

My favourite quote:

You may not prevent them from swallowing you up; see to it at least that they will not be able to digest you.