Four-Year Sejm 1788-1792 – a reformist thought on the verge of losing independence (Interview)
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

Mateusz Ciołkowski: Doctor, we’ve met here today to discuss a difficult period of Polish history, i.e. the years 1788-1792, during which the Four-Year Sejm was held. The period that preceded the collapse of the old Rzeczpospolita and allowed to identify outstanding political publicists and authors of treaties on how to recover our statehood from the crisis in which it was embroiled. Among them, Stanisław Staszic and Hugo Kołłątaj stood out the most. And here is my first question: what sources did these authors rely on?

Dr. Rafał Lis: The debate of the Four-Year Sejm period was characterised by features typical of the tradition of Polish public debate – based on the assumption of freedom and obligation to speak in order to advise on homeland issues. First of all, authors would write with the aim of improving the form of government and the very conditions for the functioning of the Republic of Poland. The exceptional conditions we faced in 1788 – stemming, among others, from the involvement of the Russian Empire in Turkish affairs – made the Rzeczpospolita feel fully sovereign for a certain moment. Therefore, when the Sejm was announced, it provoked many authors to take part in the debate on the status of the State. In a sense, they returned to the reforming tradition, which was very vital in the history of the Rzeczpospolita – the tradition to debate on its reform and restoration. It should be stressed, however, that this time it could have meant something more. Shortly after, the debate revealed – at least in its most famous works – the greatest transformation of political thinking since the 16th century. The exceptionally elevated and patriotic atmosphere of this debate, as well as a strong desire to become independent from Russia, was conducive to bolder speeches from the very beginning – and they could have found fertile ground.

We often hear that a significant part of the most active participants in this debate belonged to a generation that had already been brought up in the conditions of the previously-reformed national education system. Of course, they had to take into account the strong resistance of the conservative noble class, but some part of the society thought in completely different categories. They were probably aware of how Poland was perceived on the international arena and in European literature, especially in the countries of north-western Europe. Well, this perception was negative; the Rzeczpospolita was seen as a slave state that kept the masses of peasant slaves in subordination. There was, of course, a great deal of exaggeration in this, but the issue of the peasants' submission gave rise to very big objections and did not allow to see the positive features of the country's political system. Only Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the author of the famous Considerations On The Government Of Poland, commissioned by the leadership of the Bar Confederation, actually managed to break out of this regularity.

However, returning to the main topic, these were times when there was already no personal submission in the countries of Northern and Western Europe. Trade was developing widely, along with the idea of an institution of ownership - the one referring to persons and property. The importance of personal freedom was, therefore, recognised. In this sense, we can speak of a shift from traditionally understood political freedom to civil freedom, pertaining to personal security, property, contractual rights, free trade and production. Many authors, of whom Montesquieu was the most important, noticed that there could be more freedom of this kind in monarchies than in republics. It seemed that even greater possibilities of such criticism, although interested in spreading the idea of republicanism in a more universal spirit, could shortly be  provided by concepts referring to the idea of natural rights and, finally, human and civil rights. Similar ideas had already begun to reach Poland several years before the commencement of the Sejm.

The most prominent Polish political writers, in particular, Staszic and Kołłątaj, were aware of this criticism. Yet, at the same time, they acknowledged the uniqueness and value of our tradition. Finally, they were aware of the specific and difficult geopolitical situation in which the Rzeczpospolita found itself and from which it should have escaped as soon as possible.

In the first treaties, even in the Notes on the life of Jan Zamoyski by Staszic, published before the commencement of the Sejm, the style of warning narration is dominant. It appeals to the consciences of political decision-makers, i.e. let’s say it again, the Polish nobility, and argues that this is the last moment for the rescue of the statehood. The most important works of the authors mentioned by you clearly show that the reform of the Rzeczpospolita must involve a reformulation of its social model; first of all, by allowing townspeople to enter the political sphere and by granting them rights that were typical to the noble class. Secondly, they wanted to solve the problem of peasants' submission, initially by reducing its extent. Philosophically speaking, they were advocates of a modern approach to freedom as a concept which should be combined with traditionally understood political freedom. And, at this point, both reformers were to prove to be fully Republican.

What was the time-frame for remodelling the social sphere – two, three, maybe five generations?

Staszic and Kołłątaj had to realise that the reform they proposed would be difficult to implement in its entirety. They also probably assumed that it would last for many years and it would be gradual in nature. On the other hand, the philosophical message of their works makes it clear that it was necessary to start as soon as possible, especially when it comes to the position of the townspeople. For example, Kołłątaj called for the noble-only Sejm to be supplemented by a second ‘town’ chamber. Staszic, on the other hand, proposed a one-chamber Sejm composed of representatives of both the nobility and the townspeople. Of course, there were other, even more urgent matters, primarily of fiscal, tax, and military nature. Both reformers called for the strengthening of the military power of the Rzeczpospolita. Staszic was thinking about an army of 100,000, while Kołłątaj – of approximately 60,000. At the same time, however, they called for greater taxes, although still being aware that these had to be linked with the financial possibilities of citizens themselves. Hence, the political concepts of these reformers were inseparable from economic ones, and the economic concepts – from social ones. To sum up, it was ultimately a question of a comprehensive transformation of socio-economic relations. Yet, it had to be carried out as fast as possible, probably with all the expected difficulties. As we might think, it was supposed to be introduced as soon as possible, and only the need to take into account the political circumstances could influence their position. It can, therefore, be assumed that if it was only up to the two reformers, the changes would have happened very quickly. Although, once again, the political vision and the real possibilities for its implementation were two different things. However, despite all this, these real possibilities – which is best evidenced by the influence of Kołłątaj himself, who had to reckon with the more moderate and monarchist position of Stanisław August and some resistance of the conservative Sejm's nobility – influenced the shape of the subsequent legislation.

You mentioned that Western thinkers were critical of the situation in the Rzeczpospolita. Yet, Jean-Jacques Rousseau remains an important exception with his Considerations On The Government Of Poland. In this work, he expressed his great praise about our political system of the time. What arguments did he use to support his position?

Let us start with the fact that Rousseau was a rather troublesome author for Polish reform writers. First of all, in his work, he categorically warned the public against the introduction of hereditary throne in Poland. He believed that although this would limit the power, it would still push the Rzeczpospolita into captivity. It is significant that this tone of argument appeared later in the statements of Polish critics of this concept which was, after all, strongly supported by both reformers. For them, this was the most urgent matter, apart from the demand to increase the size of the Polish army. In the future, this institution was supposed to provide security of the Rzeczpospolita by including it in the structure of European monarchies and some kind of ally relations with them.

Of course, Rousseau warned against this idea as early as in the Bar Confederation period, and this issue returned after 1788, especially at the turn of 1789 and 1790. The idea of succession to the throne provoked the most heated publicist discussions of that time. In the works of the reformers, however, we can find some similarities with the thought of the philosopher from Geneva. The similarities include the approach to executive and legislative power and the relations between these authorities, as well as Rousseau's support for binding deputies' instructions, which he considered to be the most magnificent institution of the Rzeczpospolita.

The Geneva philosopher considered the Rzeczpospolita as a country that did not succumb to the European tendencies of the time. He noticed the omnipresent progressive decline of patriotic values and the growing importance of executive and royal power. Meanwhile, in Poland, as presented by the deputy of the Bar Confederation, Michał Wielhorski, he could see the opposite. Of course, Poland seemed to be a rather peculiar state: a large one, yet with a very weak central government. But, in spite of this, for many years the country had been able to function. In a way, it was fascinating for him. Of course, he ultimately advised the Poles to strengthen their power. Similarly to other foreign critics of our system, he also saw the problem of the submission of peasants. He believed, however, that it should be resolved by evolutionary means.

First of all, Rousseau was impressed by such institutions as the Polish dietines (sejmiks) and confederations. It is significant that he recognised the latter as an institution that exceeded the Roman dictatorship, because it served as a remedy for critical situations which wasn’t a threat to freedom. The same applied to the dietines and binding instructions passed during them; since they preserved the bond between the citizens and representatives without the threat of losing sovereignty of the nation or usurping of power by the latter. I would even agree with the view that these were the points in which Polish experience could complement the constitutionalism typical of Rousseau, which until then could only be applied to small countries.

When reading the reformers' publications, it is hard to resist the impression that the Geneva philosopher might have influenced their way of thinking. He could have helped them to gain a better, more accurate understanding of the essence of sovereignty: the fact that it basically rests on the Sejm which represents the nation, and not on other governing bodies. In any case, they also wanted to assign the greatest competences to the Sejm.

I would like to ask you about the dynastic issue. Do I understand correctly that the idea of restoring a hereditary monarchy in Poland would be aimed at anchoring the state to the dynastic system of Western Europe which would strengthen its geopolitical position?

Yes, that's exactly what it was about. The aim was to connect Poland to the dynastic system of Europe at that time. The supporters of the throne's succession believed that thanks to this institution, the State would be safer, that it would free itself from all the misfortunes resulting from the experience of free elections – above all, from the influence of the neighbouring powers on the throne's manning and the resulting dangers of foreign invasions or civil wars.

The opponents of succession did not necessarily want to maintain the status quo (that is free elections), but rather to reform them. Some of them understood that in their current form, they were dangerous to the stability and sovereignty of the Polish State. Their resistance to the concept of the inheritance of the throne resulted from the conviction that its introduction would lead to a permanent increase in the competence of the monarch within the republican system.

It seems, that for the reformers, in turn, the institution of hereditary throne was the only acceptable compromise that they could reach with the monarchist tradition. In their opinion, such a monarch (actually, they preferred to use the term ‘king’) would not pose a threat to freedom, because he was supposed to have very limited powers in this area. He would not even be the centre of executive power, which they wanted to entrust to committees – bodies of a collegial nature that would be strictly accountable to the Sejm.

Which dynasties were taken into account?

The issue remained open and was of an eminently political or tactical nature. From the doctrinal point of view, this could have been any dynasty, giving hope that Poland would become independent from its neighbours. Such a view was best represented by Staszic. As we know, Kołłątaj was supposed to be already one of the strong supporters of the alliance with Prussia, which could be reconciled with the subsequent indication of the Saxon dynasty.

What was the place of the army in the reformers' considerations?

This issue is very interesting from a doctrinal point of view. In the republican tradition, the concept of a permanent army caused the worst possible associations. It was treated as an origin of despotism, which eliminated the freedom provided by this system. It was believed that a permanent army could be an easy tool for the monarch to use against citizens. In Poland, too, for these reasons, they did not want to strengthen the army, which is why, for a long time, we appealed to the ideal of mass mobilisation. Over time, however, people started to realise its increasing ineffectiveness on the battlefield.

At the time of the Four-Year Sejm, there was basically no possibility of fully returning to this idea. There was rather a common awareness that without a regular army, the Rzeczpospolita would not be able to resist its neighbours, in fact, the biggest imperial powers of the world at that time. Poland would not be able to provide an equally strong army, that is one that would be able to fully face the threats. Russia, Prussia or Austria were all able to prepare 400,000 or 200,000 soldiers for battle. In Poland, we were talking about 100,000 and even this number raised Kołłątaj's objections. Nevertheless, it was believed that although an increase in the number of troops was necessary, it would still not bear the nature of a regular army like in monarchic countries. This would be a civic army, although professional. Kołłątaj wrote that it would defeat the “countless groups of lazy slaves” at the service of individual monarchs.

As we all know, this army was supposed to be under the control of a military commission. Therefore, in the short term, they counted on (at least) an army of 60,000, well-trained and devoted to the cases of freedom and homeland. At the same time, people thought that there would never be a case in which as many as three states would agree on the partition of Poland, as at that time, they were warring over Turkish affairs.

It must be remembered, however, that this was only the beginning of broader changes. Both Kołłątaj and Staszic believed that rapid social reforms, provision of all residents with as much personal freedom and property rights as possible, as well as broad political rights for property owners, would make Poland a true oasis of freedom. They believed that people from all over Europe (who previously had escaped from ‘oppression’, as Kołłątaj admitted, to the ‘land of Franklin and Washington’) would come, thus broadening the civic state. Therefore, these guarantees were aimed at strongly anchoring the States that would benefit from them, as well as binding its new citizens to the Rzeczpospolita, giving hope for a rapid increase in wealth and population growth in the future country, and, probably, a significant increase in its defensive forces.

Enclosing, I would like to quote a certain thesis present in our historiography, stating that at that difficult period, it was not worth undertaking such ambitious reform plans. It would have been more reasonable to wait out, not to irritate the stronger neighbours. After all, as we know today, two decades later, Napoleon played the most important role in European politics, so the geopolitical situation would have changed to our advantage in a relatively short period. Do you agree with this position?

A similar view can be found in the work of Walerian Kalinka, a Polish historian from the last decades of the 19th century. This is an interesting trail. Let us remember, however, that it is easy to take such a position from a time perspective; now we know what was going to happen at the beginning of the 19th century. The then generations of reformers treated the time given to them as the last chance to change the geopolitical tendencies that were unfavourable for us, and deep reforms were supposed to be the means of achieving this.

The reformers felt that these needed to be done because the aim was also to create a new, well-managed, just and rapidly developing state. After all, they also based their deliberations on economic reasons. From today's perspective, we can criticise them for this, but I would refrain from doing so.

Nevertheless, the subsequent partitioning powers were surely aware of the demands made in the debate over the status of the State during the Four-Year Sejm. Moreover, the Constitution of 3 May, adopted in 1791, was more moderate in this respect, and it could already put Poland on the path of greater changes. In one of its articles, the Constitution guaranteed that anyone who crosses the “borders of the countries of the Rzeczpospolita” would be free. What is more, the law on cities, passed a bit earlier, allowed to believe that numerous groups of citizens from among the city's elites would be ennobled within the next decades. The reform has already begun, even if it did not fully meet the more radical demands of the reformers, set out in their most important works. Of course, it can be assumed that these decisions appealed to the imagination of our occupants, but it is difficult to speculate what would have happened if these reforms had been abandoned altogether. In any case, the course of history could have been very different. Let us remember that the next great (or maybe even greater) hope for the transformation of Polish relations, even before the Napoleonic period, was soon to be caused by the Kościuszko Uprising which broke out in 1794, i.e. two years after the conclusion of the Four-Year Sejm.

It is also good to remember that the memory of the attempts of such great reforms and all the hopes connected with them became an important building block for Polish political identity in the next centuries. And they can also prove a valuable contribution of the Polish legacy to the European heritage.

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