Today’s post is by Anita Solak, Archives Technician at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
For several weeks in June this year the streets of Washington, DC filled with protests, marches, and demonstrations as Americans of all backgrounds came out to voice their opposition to systemic racism in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the hands of the local police. Outside the White House, at Lafayette Square, multitudes gathered and raised their voices. Amongst the sounds, silently standing was a statue erected in 1910 to commemorate Tadeusz Kościuszko, a freedom fighter, abolitionist, and a patriot from the Revolutionary War era. The base of the statue was marked with anti-racist slogans by the protesters. The base of an exact copy of this statue which stands in Warsaw, Poland was also marked with the slogan “Black Lives Matter” in solidarity with protests occurring across the United States and all over the world.
Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish and American patriot and hero, fought for American liberty and independence. He was appointed a Colonel in the Engineering Corps of the Continental Army. His highest ideal was freedom. He wasn’t able to secure it for Poland, but in America he did succeed. Poland at the time was torn apart by the three superpowers. As of 1795, the third partition left the country nonexistent for the next 123 years.
Kościuszko distinguished himself as an engineer assigned to build and strengthen military fortifications along the Delaware and Hudson Rivers, developing plans for West Point and its Military Academy, and helped to win the strategic Battle of Saratoga which earned French recognition and military assistance for the new nation. For his contributions, he was promoted by Congress to the rank of General Brigadier and received back pay for his service of $18,900 and granted 500 acres of land in Columbus, Ohio.
Kościuszko felt strongly about human bondage, suffering, and servitude. His beliefs were formed early in life by ancient philosophers, later by the ideas of the French Enlightenment, the philosophy of John Locke, and the treatment, conditions, and plight of peasants in his own country. Furthermore, while fighting in the Continental Army, he was detailed and befriended an orderly named Agrippa Hull, a free-born Black American from Massachusetts, who joined the army at age 18. He was one of the most remarkable and unsung Black Americans of the Revolutionary War era. He served with Kościuszko for four years and two months in Washington’s Continental Army. There were 9,000 Black Americans who fought with extraordinary bravery, heroism and dedication in the Revolutionary War. (The military records of Agrippa Hull which I transcribed confirm that he was detailed to Tadeusz Kościuszko.)
Another Black American, Jean Lapierre, served as Kościuszko’s aide-de-camp. As a prisoner of war he was exchanged for a British prisoner. After the war ended, he went back with Kościuszko and settled in Biała Podlaska, now Poland. He fought with Kościuszko during the uprising of 1795 against Imperial Russia and the Kingdom of Prussia. While Kościuszko was imprisoned by Catherine the Great, he offered himself to be exchanged for Kościuszko. When Kościuszko was freed and embraced an emigrant life in Europe, Jean Lapierre became an accountant for the Radziwil family.
In America, Kościuszko observed the great injustice and inhumanity experienced by the enslaved while fighting in the Southern Campaign. He considered the words “All men are created equal” by his friend Thomas Jefferson to be the most important expression of the ideals of democracy. However, the dichotomy between the life of enslaved people and the aspirations of the new nation disappointed him. He bequeathed all his seven years’ earnings and land in a will and appointed Thomas Jefferson its executor.
In the will, he asked Jefferson to use the funds to free as many enslaved people as he could, give them land, livestock, tools, and education so they were able to live free and to their best potential in the new republic. Below is a copy and transcription of Kościuszko’s will from May 5, 1798:
Will of Tadeusz Kościuszko
“5th day of May 1798
I Thaddeus Kościuszko being just in my departure from America do hereby declare and direct that should I make no other testamentary disposition of my property in the United States I hereby authorise my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing Negroes from among his own or any others and giving them Liberty in my name, in giving them en education in trades or otherwise and in having them instructed for their new condition in the duties of morality which may make them good neighbours good fathers or mothers, husbands or vives and in their duties as citizens teaching them to be defenders of their Liberty and Country and of the good order of Society and in whatsoever may Make them happy and useful, and I make the said Thomas Jefferson my executor of this
MS (Albemarle County Circuit Court, Charlottesville, on deposit ViU); entirely in Kościuszko’s hand; subjoined in hand of John Carr and signed by him is a statement of 12 May 1819 that the will was produced in the Albemarle County Court, determined to be in the hand of Kościuszko, ordered to be recorded.“Will of Tadeusz Kościuszko, 5 May, 1798,” from Founders Online, National Archives.
Thomas Jefferson declined to carry through with his promise and obligation toward his friend. He did not want to find himself in conflict with the plantation owners in Virginia. His own slaves were auctioned after his death and the will’s money was squandered as the subsequent executors managed the estate. In 1852, the Supreme Court revoked the will. One may wonder if the course of history would be different if Jefferson had freed his slaves in keeping with the will of Kościuszko? Would we as a nation be farther ahead in social progress today?
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi, “Some Clarifications on Thomas Jefferson”, The Atlantic, December 11, 2012.
- Glinski, Mikolaj, “Kościuszko and the Age of Revolution,” Culture, PL, August, 2010.
- Nash, Gary, “Agrippa Hull: Revolutionary Patriot,” Black Past, July 2, 2008.
- Nash, Gary & Graham Russel Cao Hodges, “Friends of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kościuszko and Agrippa Hull,” Basic Books, 2008.
- Majherek, Jacob, “Kościuszko Knew The Black Lives Matter,” Dissent Magazine, June 25, 2020.
- Trickey, Erick “The Polish Patriot Who Helped Americans Beat the British,” Smithsonianmag.com, March 8, 2017.
- Jeffrey Robinson, “History of Race in America,” ACLU lecture, NACDLvideo, September 14-15, 2017