John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 22

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Monarchical Republics: POLAND, Part 2

My dear Sir,

SINCE the letter concerning Poland was sent you, Mr. Coxe’s travels into that kingdom, &c. have fallen into my hands: and they contain so many facts material to our argument, that it is very proper to send you the substance of this account; indeed there is scarcely a book in the world, in any manner relative to the history of government, or to those branches of philosophy on which it depends, which is not much to our purpose.

In the most ancient times, which records or history elucidate, the monarchy of Poland, like all others denominated feudal, was in theory, and pretension, absolute. The barons too, in this country as in all others, were very often impatient under such restraint. When the prince was an able statesman and warrior, he was able to preserve order; but when he was weak and indolent, it was very common for two or three barons in conjunction to make war upon him; and sometimes it happened that all together leagued against him at once. In every feudal country, where the people had not the sense and spirit to make themselves of importance, the barons became an aristocracy, incessantly encroaching upon the crown, and, under pretense of limiting its authority, took away from it one prerogative after another, until it was reduced down to a mere doge of Venice, or avoyer of Berne; until the kings, by incorporating cities and granting privileges to the people, set them up against the nobles, and obtained by their means standing armies, sufficient to control both nobles and commons.

The monarchy of Poland, nearly absolute, sunk in the course of a few centuries, without any violent convulsion, into an aristocracy.

It came to be disputed whether the monarchy was hereditary or elective, and whether its authority was sovereign or limited. The first question is resolved, by supposing that the crown continued always in the same family, although, upon the death of a king, his successor was recognized in an assembly of the nobles. The second, may be answered by supposing, that when the king was active and capable, he did as he pleased; but when he was weak, he was dictated to by a licentious nobility. Cassimir the Great retrenched the authority of the principal barons, and granted immunities to the lesser nobility and gentry; well aware that no other expedient could introduce order, except a limitation of the vast influence, possessed by the Palatines or principal nobility. If this prince had been possessed of any ideas of a free government, he might easily have formed the people and inferior gentry into an assembly by themselves, and, by uniting his power with theirs, against the encroachments of the nobles upon both, have preserved it. His nephew, Louis of Hungary, who succeeded him, being a foreigner, was obliged by the nobility to subscribe conditions at his accession, not to impose any taxes by his royal authority, without the consent of the nation, that is of the nobles, for no other nation is thought on: that in case of his demise without male heirs, the privilege of appointing a king should revert to the nobles. In consequence of this agreement Louis was allowed to ascend the throne: having no son, with a view of insuring the succession to Sigismund his son in law, he promised to diminish the taxes, repair the fortresses at his own expense, and to confer no offices or dignities on foreigners.

Louis died: but Sigismund was emperor, and therefore powerful, and might be formidable to the new immunities. The Poles, aware of this, violated the compact with Louis, neglected Sigismund, and elected Ladislaus, upon his ratifying Louis’s promises, and marrying his daughter.

Ladislaus, having relinquished the right of imposing taxes, called an assembly of prelates, barons, and military gentlemen, in their respective provinces, in order to obtain an additional tribute. These provincial assemblies gave birth to the Dietines; which now no longer retain the power of raising money in their several districts, but only elect the nuncios or representatives for the diet.

Ladislaus the third, the son of the former, purchased his right to the succession, during the life of his father, by a confirmation of all the concessions before granted, which he solemnly ratified at his accession. Cassimir the third, brother of Ladislaus the third, consented to several further innovations, all unfavorable to regal prerogative. — One was the convention of a national diet, invested with the sole power of granting supplies. Each palatinate or province was allowed to send to the general diet, besides the Palatines and other principal barons, a certain number of nuncios or representatives, chosen by the nobles and burghers. Is it not ridiculous, that this reign should be considered by the popular party, as the æra, at which the freedom of the constitution was permanently established? This freedom, which consists in a king without authority; a body of nobles in a state of uncontrolled anarchy; and a peasantry groaning under the yoke of feudal despotism: the greatest inequality or fortune in the world; the extremes of riches and poverty, of luxury and misery, in the neighborhood of each other; a universal corruption and venality pervading all ranks; even the first nobles not blushing to be pensioners of foreign courts; one professing himself publicly an Austrian, another a Prussian, a third a Frenchman, and a fourth a Russian; a country without manufactures, without commerce, and in every view the most distressed in the world. — But to proceed, with an enumeration of the measures by which they have involved themselves in these pitiable circumstances:

Cassimir was involved in several unsuccessful wars, which exhausted his treasures: he applied to the diet for subsidies.

Every supply was accompanied with a list of grievances, and produced a diminution of the royal prerogative. The barons, at the head of their vassals, were bound to fight, and the king could require such feudal services in defense of the kingdom: but Cassimir the third, to obtain pecuniary aids, gave up the power of summoning the nobles to his standard, and of enacting any law without the concurrence of the diet. John Albert, to procure an election in preference to his elder brother, assented to all the immunities extorted from his predecessors, and swore to their observance, in 1469. Alexander, his successor, declared in 1505, the following limitations of sovereign authority to be fundamental laws of the kingdom. 1. The king cannot impose taxes. 2. He cannot require the feudal services. 3. Nor alienate the royal domains. 4. Nor enact laws. 5. Nor coin money. 6. Nor alter the process in the courts of justice. Sigismund the first, succeeded Alexander, and under his reign the Polish constitution was the most tolerable, as the property of the subject was best secured, and the crown had considerable influence: but this did not satisfy the nobles. Under Sigismund Augustus, son and successor of Sigismund the first, that favorite object of the Polish nobles, the free election of the king, was publicly brought forward, and the king obliged to agree, that no future monarch should succeed to the throne, unless freely elected by the nation: before this, the sovereigns upon their accession, though formally raised by the consent of the nation, still rested their pretensions upon hereditary right, always styling themselves heirs of the kingdom of Poland. Sigismund Augustus was the last who bore that titles at his death, in 1572, all title to the crown from hereditary right was formally abolished, and the absolute freedom of election established upon a permanent basis: a charter of immunities was drawn up at a general diet, a ratification of which it was determined to exact of the new sovereign, prior to his election. This charter, called pacta conventa, contained the whole body of privileges obtained from Louis, and his successors, with the following additions: 1. That the king should be elective, and that his successor should never be appointed during his life. 2. That the diets, the holding of which depended solely upon the will of the kings, should be assembled every two years. 3. That every nobleman or gentleman in the realm should have a vote in the diet of election. 4. That in case the king should infringe the laws and privileges of the nation, his subjects should be absolved from their oaths of allegiance. From this period the pacta conventa, occasionally enlarged, have been confirmed by every sovereign at his coronation.

Henry of Valois, brother of Charles the ninth of France, who ascended the throne after the constitution was thus new modeled, secured his election by private bribes to the nobles, and by stipulating an annual pension to the republic from the revenues of France. His example has been followed by every succeeding king, who, besides an unconditional ratification of the pacta conventa, has always been constrained to purchase the crown by a public largess, and private corruption. Such is Polish liberty, and such the blessings of a monarchy elective by a body of nobles.

Under Stephen Bathori, the royal authority, or rather the royal dignity, was farther abridged, by the appointment of sixteen senators, chosen at each diet, to attend the king, and to give their opinion in all matters of importance, so that he could not issue any decree without their consent. Another fatal blow was given to the prerogative in 1578, by taking from the king the supreme jurisdiction of the causes of the nobles: it was enacted, that without the concurrence of the king, each palatinate should elect in their dietines their own judges, who should form supreme courts of justice, called tribunalia regni, in which the causes of the nobles shall be decided without appeal, a mode which prevails to this day.

In the reign of John Cassimir, in 1652, was introduced the liberum veto, or the power of each nuncio to interpose a negative, and break up a diet, a privilege which the king himself does not enjoy. When the diet was debating upon transactions of the utmost importance, which required a speedy decision, a nuncio cried out, “I stop the proceedings,” and quitted the assembly: and a venal faction, who supported his protest, unheard of as it was, obtained the majority, and broke up the assembly in confusion. The constitution was thus wholly changed, and an unlimited scope given to faction. The innovation was supported by the great officers of state, the general, treasurer, and marshal, who being once nominated by the king, enjoyed their offices for life, responsible only to the diets, conscious that they could at all times engage a nuncio to protest, and thus elude an inquiry into their administration; it was also supported by the adherents of many nobles accused of capital crimes before the diet, the only tribunal before which they could be tried: all the nuncios who opposed the raising of additional subsidies by taxes, which the exigencies of the state then demanded, seconded the proposal of putting an end to the assembly. But the principal cause of all were the foreign powers, interested to foment confusions in the Polish councils. Before this, they were obliged to secure a majority; afterwards, they might put an end to any diet, unfriendly to their views, by corrupting a single member. This veto broke up seven diets in the reign of John Casimir, four under Michael, seven under John Sobieski, and thirty during the reigns of the two Augusti. In consequence of this necessity of unanimity, which they call the dearest palladium of Polish liberty, Poland has continued above a hundred years almost without laws.

But as the king still bestowed the starosties, or royal fiefs, which are held for life, and conferred the principal dignities and great offices of state, he was still the fountain of honor, and maintained great influence in the councils of the nation; but this last branch of the royal prerogative was lately wrested from the crown at the establishment of the permanent council.

Thus it appears in the history of Poland, as in that of Venice, Genoa, Berne, Soleure, and all others, that the nobles have continued without interruption to scramble for diminutions of the regal authority, to grasp the whole executive power, and augment their own privileges; and have attained a direct aristocracy, under a monarchical name, where a few are above the control of the laws, while the many are deprived of their protection.

The present wretched state of the towns, compared with their former flourishing condition; the poverty of the peasants, whose oppressions have increased in proportion to the power of the nobles, haying lost a protector when the king lost his weight in the constitution; the total confusion in all public affairs; the declension of importance, and loss of territory — all shew that absolute monarchy is preferable to such a republic. Would twelve millions of inhabitants, under an English constitution, or under the constitution of any one of the United States, have been partitioned and dismembered? No; not by a league of all the absolute sovereigns of Europe against them at once. — Such are the effects of collecting all authority into one center, of neglecting an equilibrium of powers, and of not having three branches in the legislature.

The practice of cantoning a body of soldiers near the plain where the kings are elected, has been adopted by several foreign powers for near a century; and, although it may be galling to the nobility, prevents the effusion of blood that formerly deluged the assembly. This was done, at the election of Stanislaus Augustus, by the empress of Russia and the king of Prussia; five thousand Russian troops were stationed at a small distance from the plain of Vola.

Stanislaus was in the thirty-second year of his age when he ascended the throne, in 1764. From his virtues and abilities, the fairest hopes were conceived of his raising Poland from its deplorable situation; but his exertions for the public good were fettered by the constitution, by the factions of a turbulent people, and the intrigues of neighboring powers. His endeavors to introduce order at home, and independence abroad, which would have increased the power of his country, and her confederation with foreign nations, alarmed the neighboring powers. The spirit of religious intolerance produced a civil war, and the senate petitioned the ambassador from Petersburg, not to withdraw the Russian troops. The royal troops, aided by the Russians, whose discipline was superior, were in favour of religious liberty. The Confederates, secretly encouraged by Austria, assisted by the Turks, and supplied with money and officers by the French, were able to protract hostilities from 1768 to 1772: during this period the attempt was made to assassinate the king.

Count Pulaski, who was killed in the service of the United States, is said to have planned an enterprise so much to his dishonor. No good cause ever was, or ever will be, served by assassination; and this is happily, in the present age, the universal sense of mankind. If a Papal nuncio was found in Poland, capable of blessing the weapons of conspirators against this tolerant king, he was a monster, whose bloody bigotry the liberal spirit of the Pope himself must, at this enlightened period, abominate. The king did himself immortal honor, by his intercession with the diet to remit the tortures and horrid cruelties decreed by the laws of most kingdoms in Europe against treason, and by his moderation towards all the conspirators.

We are now arrived at the consummation of all panegyrics upon a sovereignty in a single assembly — the Partition.

Prussia was formerly in a state of vassalage to this republic; Russia once saw its capital and throne possessed by the Poles; and Austria was indebted to John Sobieski, a sovereign of this country, for compelling the Turks to raise the siege of Vienna, but a century ago. A republic so lately the protector of its neighbors, would not, without the most palpable imperfections in the orders and balances of its government, have declined in an age of general improvement, and become a prey to any invader — much less would it have forced the world to acknowledge, that the translation of near five millions of people, from a republican government to that of absolute empires and monarchies, whether it were done by right or by wrong, is a blessing to them. The partition was projected by the king of Prussia, who communicated it to the emperor and empress. The plague was one circumstance, and the Russian war against the Turks another, that favored the design; and the partition-treaty was signed at Petersburg, in February 1772, by the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian plenipotentiaries. The troops of the three courts were already in possession of the greatest part of Poland, and the Confederates were soon dispersed. The partitioning powers proceeded with such secrecy, that only vague conjectures were made at Warsaw, and that lord Cathcart, the English minister at Petersburg, obtained no authentic information of the treaty until two months after its signature The formal notification, to the king and sen are at Warsaw, was made, by the Imperial and Prussian ambassadors, in September 1772, of the pretensions of their courts to the Polish territory. The remonstrances of the king and senate, as well as those of the courts of London, Paris, Stockholm, and Copenhagen, had no effect; and the most humiliating record, that ever appeared in the annals of a republic, is seen in the king’s summons — “Since there are no hopes from any quarter, and any further delays will only rend to draw down the most dreadful calamities upon the remainder of the dominions which are left to the republic, the diet is convened for the 19th of April, 1773, according to the will of the three courts; nevertheless, in order to avoid all cause of reproach, the king, with the advice of the senate, again appeals to the guarantees of the treaty of Oliva.” It is not to be doubted, that if there had been in Poland a people in existence, as there is in Holland, to have given this amiable prince only the authority of a stadtholder, he would have said, “I will die in the last ditch.”

Of the dismembered provinces, the Russian, which is the largest territory, contains only one million and a half of souls; the Austrian, which is the most populous, contains two millions and a half; the Prussian, which is the moil commercial, commanding the navigation of the Vistula, contains only eight hundred and sixty thousand, and has given a fatal blow to the commerce of Poland, by transferring it from Dantzick to Memel and Konigsburg.

The finishing stroke of all remains. —

The three ambassadors, on the 13th of September, 1773, delivered, “A part of those cardinal laws, to the ratification of which our courts will not suffer any contradiction.

“I. The crown of Poland shall be for ever elective, and all order of succession proscribed: any person who shall endeavor to break this law shall be declared an enemy to his country, and liable to be punished accordingly.

“II. Foreign candidates to the throne, being the frequent cause of troubles and divisions, shall be excluded; and it shall be enacted, that, for the future, no person can be chosen king of Poland, and great duke of Lithuania, excepting a native Pole, of noble origin, and possessing land within the kingdom. The son, or grandson, of a king of Poland, cannot be elected immediately upon the death of their father or grandfather; and are not eligible, excepting after ah interval of two reigns.

“III. The government of Poland shall be for ever free, independent, and of a republican form.

“IV. The true principle of said government consisting in the strict execution of its laws, and the equilibrium of the three estates, viz. the king, the senate, and the equestrian order, a permanent council shall be established, in which the executive power shall be vested. In this council the equestrian order, hitherto excluded from the administration of affairs in the intervals of the diets, shall be admitted, as shall be more clearly laid down in the future arrangements.”

Thus the supreme legislative authority resides in the three estates of the realm, the king, the senate, and equestrian order, assembled in a national diet; but each estate has no negative upon the other, and therefore is no balance, and very little check. The great families and principal palatines will still govern, without any effectual control.

The executive power is now vested in the supreme permanent council; but here neither have they any checks, all being decided by the majority, and the same principal families will always prevail.

These august legislators have acknowledged the principle of a free republican government, that it consists in a strict execution of the laws, and an equilibrium of estates or orders: but how are the laws to govern? and how is the equilibrium to be preserved? Like air, oil, and water, shaken together in one bottle, and left in repose; the first will rise to the top, the last sink to the bottom, and the second swim between.

Our countrymen will never run delirious after a word or a name. The name republic is given to things, in their nature as different and contradictory as light and darkness, truth and falsehood, virtue and vice, happiness and misery. There are free republics, and republics as tyrannical as an oriental despotism. A free republic is the best of governments, and the greatest blessing which mortals can aspire to. Republics which are not free, by the help of a multitude of rigorous checks, in very small states, and for short spaces of time, have preserved some reverence for the laws, and been tolerable; but there have been oligarchies carried to such extremes of tyranny, that the despotism of Turkey, as far as the happiness of the nation at large is concerned, would perhaps be preferable. An empire of laws is a characteristic of a free republic only, and should never be applied to republics in general. If there should ever be a people in Poland, there will soon be a real king; and if ever there should be a king in reality, as well as in name, there will soon be a people: for, instead of the trite saying, “no bishop, no king,” it would be much more exact and important truth to say, no people, no king, and no king, no people, meaning by the word king, a first magistrate possessed exclusively of the executive power. It may be laid down as a universal maxim, that every government that has not three independent branches in its legislature will soon become an absolute monarchy; or, an arrogant nobility, increasing every day in a rage for splendor and magnificence, will annihilate the people, and, attended with their horses, hounds, and vassals, will run down the king as they would hunt a deer, wishing for nothing so much as to be in at the death.

The philosophical king Stanislaus felt most severely this want of a people. In his observations on the government of Poland, published in the OEuvres du Philosophe bienfaisant, tom. iii. he laments, in very pathetic terms, the miseries to which they were reduced.

“The violences,” says he, “which the patricians at Rome exercised over the people of that city, before they had recourse to open force, and, by the authority of their tribunes, balanced the power of the nobility, are a striking picture of the cruelty with which we treat our plebeians. This portion of our state is more debated among us than they were among the Romans, where they enjoyed a species of liberty, even in the times when they were most enslaved to the first order of the republic. We may say with truth, that the people are, in Poland, in a state of extreme humiliation. We must, nevertheless, consider them as the principal support of the nation; and I am persuaded, that the little value we set on them will have very dangerous consequences. — Who are they, in fact, who procure abundance in the kingdom? who are they that bear the burdens, and pay the taxes? who are they that furnish men to our armies? who labor our fields? who gather in the crops? who sustain and nourish us? who are the cause of our inactivity? the refuge of our laziness? the resource for our wants? the support of our luxury? and indeed the source of all our pleasures? Is it not that very populace that we treat with so much rigor? Their pains, their sweat, their labors, do not they merit any better return than our scorn and disdain? We scarcely distinguish them from the brutes, which they maintain for the cultivation of our lands! we frequently have less consideration for their strength, than we have for that of those animals! and too frequently we sell them to masters as cruel as ourselves, who immediately force them, by an excess of hard labor, to repay the price of their new slavery! I cannot recollect without horror that law which imposes only a fine of fifteen livres upon a gentleman who shall have killed a peasant. — Poland is the only country where the populace are fallen from all the rights of humanity; we alone regard these men as creatures of another species, and we would almost refuse them the same air which they breathe with us. God, in the creation of man, gave him liberty — what right have we to deprive him of it? As it is natural to shake off a yoke that is rough, hard, and heavy, may it not happen that this people may make an effort to wrest themselves from our tyranny? Their murmurs and complaints must, sooner or later, lead to this. Hitherto, accustomed to their fetters, they think not of breaking them; but let one single man arise, among these unfortunate wretches, with a masculine and daring spirit, to concert and foment a revolt, what barrier shall we oppose to the torrent? We have a recent instance, in the insurrection in the Ukraine, which was only occasioned by the vexations of those among us who had there purchased lands. We despised the courage of the poor inhabitants of that country — they found a resource in despair, and nothing is more terrible than the despair of those who have no courage. What is the condition to which we have reduced the people of our kingdom? Reduced by misery to the state of brutes, they drag out their days in a lazy stupidity, which one would almost mistake for a total want of sentiment: they love no art, they value themselves on no industry; they labor no longer than the dread of chastisement forces them; convinced that they cannot enjoy the fruit of their ingenuity, they stifle their talents, and make no essays to discover them. — Hence that frightful scarcity in which we find ourselves of the most common artisans! Should we wonder that we are in want of things the most necessary, when those who ought to furnish them, cannot hope for the smallest profit from their cares to furnish us! It is only where liberty is found, that emulation can exist.”

It would be a pleasure to translate the whole; but it is too long. It is a pity that the whole people, whose misery he describes and laments, were not as sensible of the necessity of a less circumscribed royal authority.

Table of Contents: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States

Formatting, font, and spelling modernizations for this version of John Adams’ “A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States,” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell. Copyright for the original version of this book is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired.

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