"The Peasant Prince" story to be brought to town by Pulitzer winner
OK, it’s an obscure question — here's a hint or two. He was the military engineer who built the original fortress at West Point on instruction from George Washington. He was also the friend of Thomas Jefferson who willed his entire Revolutionary War wages to freeing and educating Jefferson’s slaves. And he was the Polish leader who helped spearhead that country’s completely bloodless but heartbreakingly temporary revolution to try to end serfdom.
If you’ve given up, I have just the book for you: “The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Koscuiszko and the Age of Revolution” (St. Martin’s Press). Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Storozynski takes on this biography of a man who led the charge for liberty in not one but two countries, following his military career from attendance in the inaugural class of Warsaw’s Royal Knight School, through his death as a beloved and countryless general in exile in Switzerland.
How did Koscuiszco end up in America? The answer, alas, is a woman. A disastrously failed elopement ended with his beloved’s father running him out of his country, so after hanging around Saxony for a while and looking up some old school chums in France (where he’d attended the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture as a cover for acquiring military expertise at the Ecole Militaire and the military engineering academy at Mezieres, since the French didn’t allow foreigners to officially attend), he decided to set out across the sea to use his knowledge in service of the American Continental Army.
This whirlwind story is full of names we all recognize from grade-school history, from his arrival at Ben Franklin’s doorstep without introduction (“A talented person should be able to show his worth, and not a letter of recommendation,” he informed the Founding Father), to the plans he drew for West Point which America’s first traitor Benedict Arnold arranged to sell to the British, to serving as General Nathanael Greene’s engineer as Greene drove the redcoats out of the southern states in a long slog that epitomized the phrase “lost the battle but won the war” several times over. Then he finished it all off by culling up his pyrotechnical knowledge from military school to launch the first Fourth of July fireworks after the war was over.
And that’s only the first third of the book.
Storozynski then follows “the general with the unpronounceable name” back across the ocean, where he puts his never-ending sympathy for the downtrodden to use in support of Europe’s first constitution. The process of its adoption was nearly unbelievably peaceful — really, in what other revolution does the king lead the charge to swear a solemn oath to the document limiting his powers? — but short-lived: neighbors Russia, Prussia and Austria, worried about their own serfs taking refuge in the new republic, sent troops in to quash Koscuiszko’s army of rebels, and the result is succinctly summed up in the chapter titled “Poland Is Wiped Off The Map.”
I was puzzled by a line early in the book, in which Koscuiszko responds to an American lobbying for his promotion by saying, “My dear Colonel, if you see that my promotion will make a great many Jealous, tell the General that I will not accept of one because I prefer peace more than the greatest Rank in the World.” Really? The guy attended two military schools and crossed the ocean to fight in a war, but he prefers peace? Yes, actually. There seemed to be no oppressed person on the globe that he wouldn’t use his military strength, connections and personal finances to help — including serfs, slaves, Jews, peasants, black Americans, women and children.
He soaked up the philosophical works that helped fuel the American and French revolutions, and believed fully that education could be the means of betterment for all those whose lives were made miserable by tyranny. It was at his wish that his long-time friend Thomas Jefferson made the fortress at West Point into a military academy. He went to great lengths to see that his American estate, both cash and land, would be used for the freedom and education of slaves after his death, although the recalcitrance of America’s “original sin” prevented his wishes from being carried out. And interestingly enough, he also provided for the education of Alex Storozynski when the Koscuiszko Foundation awarded him a scholarship to attend the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1985.
Storozynski’s father, a Polish army veteran who was exiled during World War II, made sure his son knew the language and history of his homeland as he grew up. Storozynski himself was fascinated by the “peasant prince” who spent his life in service of dismantling the feudal system, hiking around West Point, traveling to Krakow, visiting Koscuiszko’s Philadelphia home. Although he’s seriously involved both in the Polish community and with his work as a journalist, the obsession eventually led his wife Agnieszka to suggest that he write a book, so he brought his prodigious research skills to the task (the bibliography and endnotes alone take up a whopping 74 pages). The result is a marvel: a thoroughly detailed, fast-moving, globe-trotting, name-dropping volume that sets two epic struggles for freedom side-by-side.
Leah DuMouchel is a free-lance writer who covers books for AnnArbor.com.