Particular concern for Polish lawfulness among our neighbors

Wawel Royal Castle. Crown Treasury, fragment of a coin cup with the image of king Stanisław Leszczyński. Photo: PAP / Irena Jarosińska.

King Augustus II would eagerly change the political system in Poland and establish a dynasty. But it was only the Constitution of 3 May 1791 that implemented both these things although such changes would have been useful much earlier.

If one reads carefully the history of Poland, it turns out that the prelude to the third partition of Poland in 1795 was not only in the two previous partitions. A big country in the middle of the continent cannot lose its statehood so quickly and easily. At first, it had to somehow substantially bother its neighbors for more than 23 years that have elapsed between the first and the third partition. But the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth caused no inconvenience to anybody if only because of its weakness, and for the same reason the rulers of neighboring countries had their eye on it.

When, in the middle of the 17th century Poland unexpectedly swiftly and, in actuality, to a large extent willingly, yielded to Charles X Gustav, king of Sweden and the latter was unable to “consume” the prey, in Radnot, Transylvania nothing less than a treaty on the partition of Poland was signed. The signatories to the treaty of Radnot were a team slightly different from the later, actual partitioners of Poland and it all ended with bad intentions. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth survived nearly one a half centuries more but for most of that time as – a more or less discrete – Russian protectorate governed with the help from the West, precisely: from Prussia. For different reasons more cautious in this matter was the tsar Peter I, more ostentatious – Catherine II.
On September 13, 1732, shortly before the Polish king Augustus II passed away, Austria and Russia signed an agreement against Saxon and French influence in the Commonwealth. When, on December 13, the agreement was joined by Prussia the pact was nicknamed “Treaty of the Three Black Eagles” and was an expression of particular concern for Polish matters:

“[The three powers decided] to use all means consistent with the Polish constitution so that the election would elect a king who would be able to maintain peace and good relations with neighboring states; experience has shown that the French party in Poland incites constant unrest against the emperor and king of Prussia, and at the same time threatens Russia with intrigues in Constantinople [in Turkey]. In Poland, a party supporting Stanisław [Leszczyński] may arise and incite to acts that are unlawful and contrary to the decisions of the Commonwealth […] the allies, therefore, undertake to deploy armies on the Polish borders during the election, not in order to impose the choice by force of arms, but to protect Polish freedom from any embarrassment on the part of third countries”.

The elective nature of the Polish monarchy itself was an incentive to do so and the three black eagles (out of which two were two-headed) showed, for the first time together, a concern for the rights in Poland, Polish law, and Polish liberty. The Treaty of the Three Black Eagles wasn’t ratified and had spurred no political effects. After Augustus II’s death the history accelerated and already in 1733 both candidates for the Polish throne, against whom the Treaty warned, became kings of Poland, elected in a double election. On this occasion, not for the first time, Russian troops entered Poland in a situation where Russia wasn’t officially at war with the Commonwealth.

Son of Augustus II, Frederick Augustus, later reigning as Augustus III needed their help. His counter-candidate, Stanisław Leszczyński, needed only money from his son-in-law, the king of France, Louis XIV and appeal to the true popularity of his person and candidature which had considerably risen during the reign of Augustus II. Stanisław Leszczyński won 13 thousand votes, Augustus III – only over a thousand. But the legally elected and victorious Leszczyński soon had to flee the country as the Russian army for the second time – and not the last one – settled who would fill the Polish throne.

The Russian protectorate over the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at times had to seek Prussian support and, since the Treaty of the Three Black Eagles – the Austrian one. Usually, until the first partition in 1772 Russia had manage to incapacitate Poland by itself. In the official rhetoric it was called guarding the principal civil liberties within the Commonwealth – the royal election (lit. “free election”) and liberum veto. For Poland’s neighbors the free election was an occasion to place a favored candidate on the Polish whereas the liberum veto, i.e. the unanimity rule in parliamentary voting guaranteed them that Poland be militarily defenseless. Every sejm [session of the Diet – trans. note] could be paralyzed while the army’s numerical strength as well the taxes to maintain it weren’t fixed but determined anew at each session. By buying vetoes it was possible to virtually deprive Poland of its army. In the 18th century the ratio between the Russian and Polish armies was about 10:1.

Poland’s neighbors didn’t always play together. Even after the Treaty of the Three Black Eagles the Russians arrived in Berlin while Berlin and Vienna waged the Silesian Wars. Nothing resulted inexorably from the situation of Poland and cooperation between the enemies around. In order to succumb to that joint power at the end of the century, the Commonwealth had to succumb first to its own helplessness, which was conserved by its neighbors. What was the decisive event from which the Commonwealth began its descent into oblivion? Norman Davies – and not only him – believes that it was the Battle of Poltava in 1709.

Not battle of ours, but such an important one in the history of Poland, because as a result of it, Russia, victorious over the Swedes, could begin a wide-ranging expansion to the West. And what did Poland’s sovereignty look like before Poltava?

On June 27, 1697, the nobility gathered in the election fields near Warsaw elected François Louis, prince of Conti, Louis XIV’s cousin, as king. But on the same day, the few supporters of the later Augustus II, the elector of the Holy Empire and the hereditary duke of Saxony, hailed this very man as king.

The prince of Conti was in little hurry to his kingdom, and the Duke of Saxony was quicker. He reached Kraków when Conti had not yet reached Gdańsk. The primate did not want to crown him, so another bishop was found. He could not legally obtain the keys to the door of the Wawel treasury containing regalia, so a hole was made in the wall. Faced with the coronation of his rival, prince Conti returned from Gdańsk to France, which was prompted by the appearance of Augustus II’s army at Oliwa.

Along with Augustus II, the Saxon army came to Poland and it was it that were responsible for maintaining order in the country. It can hardly be considered an occupation, since the nobility crowned the Saxon prince as the king of Poland. Undoubtedly, Augustus II acted for the Polish raison d'état by taking Podolia and Kamieniec from Turkey at the beginning of his reign. On the other hand, the alliance of the Polish monarch with tsar Peter I plunged the Commonwealth into the Great Northern War. Augustus II, initially with only Saxon troops, and Peter I attacked Charles XII, the king of Sweden.

Augustus II dreamed of domains on the Baltic Sea that could be inherited by the Wettins, which would strengthen the position of himself and his descendants in the Commonwealth. He would eagerly change the political system in Poland and establish a dynasty. But it was only the Constitution of 3 May 1791 that implemented both these things although such changes would have been useful much earlier.

Did Augustus II, acting in his own interest and that of his successors, have the good of the Republic of Poland in mind? As to intentions, probably not, as to hypothetical effects, one can speculate.

Charles XII fared better in the Northern War for some time. Threatened with the ravages of Saxony, Augustus II officially abdicated in 1706, and in reality he was deprived of his crown from 1704. In that year, Charles XII found himself a candidate for the king of Poland in the person of the young voivode of Poznań, Stanisław Leszczyński, who was “elected” as king in a Swedish military camp.

The whole of central Poland was taken over by the Swedes, their army burned Wawel, which should not have contributed to Leszczyński’s adherents, but he did have them and the division of the nobility, when some were “with the Saxon” (“od Sasa”) and others “With Las” (i.e. Leszczyński – “od Lasa”), reflected the popular mood and cast a shadow on his five-year reign.


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