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Response to Review no. 1044

It would take churlishness of a very high order not to be gratified by the very positive tone of Professor Frost’s review. My own experience of reviews is that one can rarely write as much as one would like (I have, of course had the opposite feeling as well) and inevitably some of the nuances of what is reviewed fall by the wayside. It is certainly true that I tried to present a picture of a political culture which had a high opinion of itself (an opinion shared by very few others – the Hungarian nobility, or at least some of them, were an exception). I also tried to make the point that the nobility were very conscious of the human failings involved – men and their measures did not live up to the high standards of probity and virtue which the constitution of their Commonwealth demanded (and which, in the prevailing mythology, ‘forbears’ had consistently attained). The extent of noble privilege in Poland-Lithonia was such that any effort at reform would inevitably involve a greater or lesser degree of its curtailment. If nothing else, the liberum veto had to be abolished – and what greater privilege can there be for a politician (all Polish nobles were, almost by definition, politicians) than bringing the processes of state to a halt? Moreover, these privileges had been brought and sanctified by ancestral blood, tears and toil. They could not be lightly surrendered, and so, the polity could not be readily changed. All too often, citizen-nobles could only bewail the inadequacies of the men of own time. Many years ago, when reading Adam Kersten’s biography of Hieronim Radziejowski (1), one of the less savoury dramatis personae of Poland’s 17th century, I was led to wonder at the effect on szlachta mentality of outpourings of the rhetoric of virtue, even as movers and shakers and their families freely indulged in the most perfidious political machinations (not to mention an almost reflex disdain for social inferiors). Regrettably, this was not a theme I could pursue in my book – a legitimate, potentially fascinating line of enquiry, but the evidence we have would be unable to bear it.

I plead guilty to Professor Frost’s charge (if that is not too strong a word) that I could have trawled a wider range of sources – what historian could not? I do not believe it would have materially altered the tone or content of the book. Those records of Sejm proceedings which I did consult were not markedly different in tone from the topoi of the tracts and epistolary writings. As it was, I was able to put far too little of those materials that were at my disposal into the book.

Where Professor Frost and I would seem to differ materially is in our respective assessments of wider noble society. In the end, noble society, or the greater part of it, proved ready to be led by its reformers, but those reformers had to be very careful in that leading. Privilege could be redefined and re-packaged, but it could hardly be eliminated on a significant scale. Poorer nobles could be deprived of quondam rights – because they were poorer. Not enough work has been done on the Russian catspaw Confederacy of Targowica of 1792–3 to enable us to say convincingly how the petty gentry reacted to promises (never fulfilled) to turn back the political clock. I agree that the instructions of the sejmiki, which I used extensively, can show only part of the picture, but I do not believe their evidence can be downplayed. The sejmiki set parameters – if nothing else, of how much the movers and shakers thought their electorates could be made to swallow. Such evidence of behind the scenes manoeuvrings as survives is regrettably sparse, but it points to the role of personal differences and rivalries, not to the concealment of hidden ideological agendas.

Professor Frost suggests that I underestimate the readiness of Polish nobles to embrace reforms, particularly during the Four Years Sejm. All I can say is that those who wanted genuinely radical reform (I am thinking in particular of Ignacy Potocki) found themselves disappointed by the szlachta nation. The king, who initially had such high hopes of bringing about a re-birth of the Commonwealth, had long learned to settle for less. There was a possibility that he and his allies might have engineered significant political reforms at the outset of his reign, 1764–6, and perhaps even have secured the overthrow of the veto (and possibly introduced straightforward majority voting) but any such hopes were inevitably blighted by Russian intervention. The whole concept of reform was muddied, if not discredited, by the Confederacy of Bar of 1768–72, a very Polish mixture of reaction and patriotic exaltation (as well as sheer sordid cynicism). Professor Frost has a very positive view of human nature, but, perhaps to my own discredit, it is not one that I fully share. The constitution of 3 May 1791 represented, at best the turning of a political corner. Where the high hopes of the reformers might have led we cannot say – once more, Russia was there to reassert itself.

As to the final stricture, on Michał Pac, I plead guilty – it was a careless mistake on my part. The man I had in mind was one of Pac’s successors as grand hetman of Lithuania, Ludwik Pociej. In moral terms (see my observations on virtue, above, and, indeed, Professor Frost’s own assessment of Pac) they were much of a muchness. Should a second edition be required, the correction will be easy enough to make.

Notes

  1. A. Kersten, Hieronim Radziejowski: studium władzy i opozycji (Warsaw, 1988).Back to (1)