The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800: The Challenge

By R. R. Palmer | Go to book overview
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XIII
THE LESSONS OF POLAND

IT HAS been the fate of Poland, more than of most countries, that outsiders have been mainly concerned to see in it a spectacular object lesson, hurrying on from interest in the Poles themselves to find evidence for general truths of wider application. Very much this same treatment will be accorded to Poland in this chapter, which is a compressed account of the Four Years' Diet of 1788-1792 and its background; but it may be said, as an apology to the Poles, that in this book the affairs of all other countries are presented in the same way, so as to fit them into a story of political disturbance in the Western World as a whole. Poland will first be exhibited as a land of aristocracy triumphant. The question will then be asked, as it was asked of the American Revolution in Chapter VII, whether the Polish Revolution of 1791 was a revolution at all, and if so in what sense; and what observers in other countries -- such as Burke in England, the revolutionaries in France, and the rulers of Prussia and Russia -- thought that they learned from it.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau drew lessons from Poland in 1771. With the country dissolving in civil war, subverted by Russia, and sinking into the First Partition, the author of the Social Contract, at the request of certain Polish patriots, offered his diagnosis of their situation. The conservatism of his advice has often been pointed out. "Don't shake the machine too abruptly," he said; don't multiply enemies within the state by sudden changes; don't in your attempts at reform lose the liberties that you have.1 His diagnosis nevertheless went to the root of the matter. The trouble with Poland, he thought, was that it had no consistance, no staying power to resist pressure and infiltration from outside. What it needed was character, a character of its own, resting on the collective consciousness or will of its people -- "national institutions which form the genius, the character, the tastes, and the customs of the people, which make them what they are and not something

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1
Considérations sur le gouvernement de la Pologne, in Oeuvres ( Paris, 1827), X, 146, 15.

-411-

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