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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter I. Historicizing the Nation: Images of the Past, Continuity into the Present

Legitimacy of the Polish nation

Joachim Lelewel
Traduction de Zuzanna Ładyga

Texte intégral

1Title: Prawność narodu polskiego (Legitimacy of the Polish nation)

2Originally published: “Legitimität der Polnischen Nation,” and “Légitimité de la nation polonaise,” in Jeune Suisse no. 88, 30 April 1836; Prawność narodu polskiego, in Naród Polski (Paris) 1836, pp. 74–83 (anonymously)

3Language: Polish

4The excerpts used are from the modern Polish edition: Andrzej Walicki and Jan Garewicz, eds., 700 lat myśli polskiej: Filozofia i myśl społeczna w latach 1831–1864 (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1977), pp. 792–798.

About the author

5Joachim Lelewel [1786, Warsaw – 1861, Paris]: historian. Lelewel came from a family of Polonized gentry from East Prussia. He studied in Wilno (Vilnius, present-day Lithuania), where he returned after several years of an academic career in Warsaw and Krzemieniec (Kremenets, present-day Ukraine). The liberal atmosphere of the 1820s influenced the administration of Wilno district, with its Polish educational system under the direction of Adam Jerzy Czartoryski (1770–1861). Lelewel taught history to a cohort of innovative and rebellious students (among others, Adam Mickiewicz), who in some respects tended to oppose the philosophy and science of the Enlightenment, which the majority of Wilno’s academic establishment adhered to. Lelewel also worked on ancient Polish history, published historical sources and sought to devise a democratic ‘philosophy of history’ of the Polish nation. In his historical writings Lelewel did not restrict his interests to the history of Poland but built wide comparisons (for instance, a comparative analysis of Polish and Spanish historical developments) and dealt with ancient and universal history as well. During his work in Wilno he was influenced by the Göttingen historical school (as a student of Gottfried E. Groddeck) but his later writings are much closer to the French ‘democratic’ historiography (e.g., Jules Michelet). Lelewel rejected the assumptions of the previous generation of Polish historians who criticized the tradition of noble republicanism from the perspective of the Enlightenment. In contrast, he emphasized the practical and ideological virtues of the Rzeczpospolita tradition, which he considered a repository of democratic ideas. Along these lines he also advocated the emancipation of the peasantry as a return to ‘ancient splendor’ and joined the radical circles of the revolutionary intelligentsia. During the November Uprising (1830–1831) Lelewel, who had been a member of Parliament in the ‘Congress Kingdom’ since 1828, became a member of the National Government, and after the defeat of the uprising he emigrated to France and later to Belgium. He was one of the leaders of the moderate democrats, dividing his time between historical works and attempts to unify various streams among the Polish émigrés. To his death, the ‘recluse of Brussels’ was an authority for Polish and European democrats.

6Main works: Historyka [Methodology of history] (1815); Bibliograficznych ksiąg dwoje [Two books of bibliography] (1823–1826); Dzieje Polski...potocznym sposobem opowiedział... [A history of Poland in common parlance] (1829); Nowosilcow w Wilnie w roku szkolnym 1823/4 [Novosilcov in Wilno in the academic year 1823/4] (1831); Numismatique du Moyen-Âge, 3 vols., (1835); Porównanie dwu powstań polskich, 1794 i 1830–1831 [Comparison of two Polish insurrections: 1794 and 1830–31] (1840); Polska wieków średnich [Poland of the Middle Ages] (1846–1851) 4 vols., Stracone obywatelstwo stanu kmiecego w Polsce [The lost civil rights of the third estate in Poland] (1846); Polska, dzieje i rzeczy jej [Poland, her history and affairs] 20 vols., (1855–1868).


7The Polish post-1831 diaspora was deeply divided along the lines of political sympathies. The leader of the National Government from the times of the November Uprising, Adam Czartoryski, led its conservative-liberal wing. His group, known as Hôtel Lambert (from his Paris residence), put forward an ambitious foreign policy of the non-existing state, sponsored Polish cultural and scientific societies and tried to compete with Russia in its Balkan politics (see also Ilija Garašanin, The draft). On the extreme left of the Polish diaspora, radicals speculated about a classless society.

8Lelewel was perceived as the main representative of the moderate left— democratic and egalitarian, but not socialist. In his emigration writings he sought to advocate the Polish cause in Western Europe after the defeat of the November Uprising. He sought to encourage patriotic efforts while trying to minimize internal conflicts between various streams of democrats. He believed that the best Polish democratic political program was to return to the principles of Rzeczpospolita, rather than demanding radical social changes based on any utopian model. Lelewel considered the political culture of the Polish gentry eminently democratic. For him it was another incarnation of ancient Slav democracy, earlier destroyed by the fatal influence of Western feudalism. In Lelewel’s interpretation, the primary cause of the partitions was the betrayal of the principle of equality and the subordination of the peasantry to the gentry. Nevertheless, he stressed the privileged position of the Polish peasantry in comparison to feudal Western Europe.

9The ‘Legitimacy of the Polish nation,’ an appeal to foreigners as well as to Polish émigrés, summarized Lelewel’s philosophy of history and his political project. It focused on the idea of Polish independence. According to Lelewel, Poland derived its right to exist from the right of nations and also from its extraordinary and honorable political tradition. Poland had been the most democratic country, and thus the restoration of its independence should have been the main aim of the European democratic movement.

10Overall, Lelewel’s philosophy of history and his political ideas were crucial for Polish Romanticism. His ideas were particularly discussed during the struggle of the young romantics against the older generation of scholars formed by the Enlightenment and particularly after the defeat of the January uprising in 1863–1864, when a new generation of ideologists entered the political scene who rejected the democratic belief in the brotherhood of all nations, the hope for a successful military insurrection and the tradition of liberum veto (see Józef Szujski, Some truths from our history).

11While Lelewel’s philosophy of history and political ideas had a powerful impact on the Polish political discourse of the first half of the nineteenth century, with the advent of positivism, his democratic interpretation of history began to lose its persuasive power. His impact on Polish literature was even more evident than his influence on historiography. Both of the most important Polish romantic poets, Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki (1809–1849), were deeply influenced by Lelewel and reiterated his thesis of ancient Slav democracy. While in the 1860s the conservative historians from Cracow rejected both his historical and political ideas, the so-called Warsaw historical school (Władysław Smoleński, Tadeusz Korzon) revived his democratic interpretation of history. After 1945, Lelewel became a problematic source of ‘progressive values’ for Polish Marxist historiography. He was seen in a favorable light as a friend of Marx and Engels, and as one of the democratic opponents of the Holy Alliance. But his own ideology differed seriously from Marxism. Thus, in the editions of his writings from the 1950s, passages which did not correspond to current political needs were usually cut out. After the demise of Stalinism his reception became restricted to historiography proper.


Legitimacy of the Polish nation

13There is no doubt that every nation and every country has an undeniable right to free and unconstrained self-government. However, in the course of events history endows nations with different customs, prejudices and preferences; various nationalities, demands and needs; differing rights, obligations, confusion of visions and interests, so that this fundamental right of social relations is interpreted differently, sometimes in bizarre, perverted and frightful ways.

14We live in an age of revolution which has sunk such bizarrely deformed rights into the abyss of destruction, although many of them use every opportunity to escape its pit and, rising from the dead, grow in new strength. Since the decline of Napoleon, in the process of aligning the past with the future and the ruin of bygone centuries with the unpredictable visions of tomorrow, the issue of rights and legality has been on everyone’s lips. And there have been many rights which have become the subject of conflicts between nations; in these clashes the rights of some nations were sacrificed for the rights of others that we shall call political, diplomatic, or egotistic nations.

15The Polish nation also used to have its rights, which were discussed and which together with the rights of other nations were sacrificed to satisfy the appetites of mighty thieves and villains. The partition diplomacy of 1807 and 1809 plundered the country anew, sanctioning the previous division and avoiding addressing the fundamental rights of the Polish nation, and hence it certified that this nation’s rights were violated, and therefore it also confirmed that they did indeed exist. What were these rights?

  • 1 Present-day Nemunas.
  • 2 Dvina.
  • 3 One should distinguish between the Ruthenian and Russian languages. The latter is the Moscow diale (...)

16One of them, similarly to almost all other nations, was language. The Poland of the past spoke three languages: Lithuanian, Ruthenian and Polish. The Lithuanian language, common among the inhabitants of the lower lands along the Niemen1 and the Dźwina2, appears in folk songs, rituals and translations of the Bible. The Ruthenian language3 appears in all these, as well as in church disputes, in chronicles and statutes, in legal discourse, and in pastoral poetry. Finally, Polish, the most refined of all Slav languages, dominates not only in the legal, political, social, religious, ecclesiastic, chronicle and historical discourses, but also in poetry and science.

  • 4 It is worth noting that the Moscow dialect—Russian—has not had until very recently any words to de (...)

17Language is a precious national possession, and all Slav nations should cultivate it with devotion, for it expresses their thoughts and ideas. Let foreigners know that as I search the vocabulary of these languages, I cannot find anywhere—either in Polish or in any other Slav dialect—a word that denotes despotism. Allegedly, the first language to have an equivalent of despotism was Russian, where the word used has been samoderzhtsy [independent in power], along with the foreign ‘autocracy,’ ‘tsar,’ and ‘emperor.’ For ‘autocrat’ and ‘monarch’ the Polish language (and probably other Slav languages as well) has adopted the translations ‘samowładca’ [independent ruler] and ‘jednowładca’ [single ruler], whose meaning, however, is not easily assimilated. In contrast, all terms referring to dignities and posts are etymologically linked to words designating free district and community activities. These are terms and rights characteristic of the Polish nation, but brutally disfigured in the land where the waters of the Volga and Neva run.4

18For many nations, the principal right is the right to form a society and social classes. For the Circassians and the Abkhaz, for instance, mere cut-throat plundering in the Caucasian mountains suffices; the Dutch establish their society on exchange trade and transfer; the Kalmucks and Tatars tramp the steppes with their caravans and livestock; other European nations excel in industry, intellectual activity, art and entertainment. Without these activities the nations would not exist, for they are the perpetuating force of the nations’ social life. If we examine Polish history we shall not find any of these activities. [...] The only force which has constituted the social life of the Polish nation has always been political activity. It is the life of its citizens, the nation’s political life that re-mains the most important issue and the sole subject of Polish history; all other social activity is merely an addition—a purely ornamental supplement. For this reason, the history of the Polish nation should be of particular interest to all. Yet, the foreign nations hold it in terrible disregard.

19The history of Poland prompts a conclusion that the issues of its legal system and sovereignty are inseparable from the institutions which instigate the nation’s involvement in the country’s social life. This was well understood by the diplomacy that decided upon this legal system; as soon as there appeared a chance of creating the entity of the Polish state, there always emerged people’s movements, and they were very active whether in the times of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, of the Kingdom created at the Congress in Vienna, or of the Poznań County. Although their institutions were the fruit of foreign seed, they managed to grow on the tormented trunk of Polish history, sprouting new leaves of local legitimacy.

20Not to tire my readers with a detailed description of the popular aspect of Polish laws, I shall only turn to the example of the ministers in the past Re-public, who despite their power and privileges remained primarily the servants of the nation. In the Napoleonic era, the constitutions of French origin placed ministers above the houses of parliament, and the same was true for the constitution of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. However, the ministers never dared to use this privilege because it seemed discordant with the tradition of Polish lawfulness. [...]

  • 5 Polish cities inside the Republic had separate lawsGerman, or other foreign laws—which were in con (...)

21Is there still anyone in France who would like to see the representatives of the tiers état kneeling in parliament as they used to? This is one of the historical laws that the nation rebelled against in 1788. In Poland we have had no such laws—when centuries ago the representatives of the bourgeoisie were forced to leave a parliamentary session, it was not for such a reason, but because they did not want to accept the Polish land laws.5 Moreover, when in 1790 they were called to a brotherly participation in sessions, and when in 1807 they sat down together in equality, there were no degrading laws to clarify or reject.

22If I compare the French to the old Polish tradition, I do not mean to offend the French; I only use this comparison to rephrase the recent argument of their public opinion, which knows how to evaluate such laws. Yet, what can I say about the laws that force the nation’s representatives armed with legislative powers, on entering the parliament, to take an oath to the king and the constitution, which they have the power to alter? This kind of oath calls into doubt their being a nation’s representatives, degrades the dignity of their function, stigmatizes them as enslaved servants; what can I say about the laws that force to abandon the religious formula which, devoid of its eminence, is a useless calling of the divine name insulting common sense? In the past, Poland did not entertain any laws of this kind; it had no knowledge of them, to the extent that, when establishing the 1807 and 1815 constitutions, it did not even consider implementing such abnormalities.

23These laws are a burden to the nation, from which it cannot free itself and against which its greatest minds protest. Likewise, the legal systems of many other nations are still dynastic. Portugal and Spain are engaged in a tiresome battle over the laws and interests of the dynasty; in France the air rings with conflicts about dynastic issues between legitimists and quasi-legitimists, while in the meantime the people suffer! And as they suffer they create laws by themselves, and themselves guard them. Take the example of the Basques: they put their freedom above the law of the dynasty, for which they kill each other! As a result, their existence is halted for the time being. Poland did not preserve any laws of this kind.

24One may oppose this to the image of the Holy Mother, devotedly elevated by the people to the Polish throne; not in order to celebrate civic achievements, but in order to stamp medals to honour her, conduct holy pilgrimages, and sometimes even coronations. Yes, it was the Mother of God that Poland and Hungary chose as their queen, and it was Her coronations that they celebrated. Poland’s invaders usurped the rituals and the name Virgin Mary from one of the crowns, and tore the Patroness’ robe. Free peoples feeling their potency elevate themselves into heavenly heights. In ancient Athens, Jupiter was the king and no one was allowed to mention any other before him. Minerva was a patroness there. In ancient Rome Jupiter kept an eye on the en-tire country and its people. In Poland this role belongs to the Holy Mother of Christ. Her immaculate motherly protection is far better than that of heirs and heiresses of dynasties, or than the untrue and poisonous tales of terrestrial omnipotence and irresponsible inevitability.

25Poland used to be a republic which elected its commander for life, giving him the title of king. Each elector was at the same time a candidate, with no exceptions in terms of material status or the occupied post; loyalty and equality were the only warranties of dynasties and titles. The potency of the people manifested itself in all branches of the country’s system; the independent judicial and representative branches, as well as the administrative were all composed of the nation’s members; their function was to pass the laws. It is the right of Poland and the Polish people—when they rightfully demand their land and independence to be returned—to legally establish their republican principles; this is the heritage of their ancestors that can still be retrieved. Their request is not born out of some new fancy but out of an eternal and rightly deserved law. Who would dare to deny them this right? What man born into this nation could negate this tradition?

26I can hear the lamentations of the betrayers of national rights, who claim that these republican laws not only led Poland to ruin in the past but also stand in the way of the country’s rebuilding. This is because the neighbors who hold a grudge against Poland, who destroyed her and now prevent her laws from being resurrected, obey different principles, and therefore diplomatically reason that if Poland is to be raised from the dead its republican rules must be forgotten. In support of this reasoning they give examples of those nations that surrender their rights and renounce their centuries-old monarchies, exchanging them for others in the name of their countries’ wellbeing. Why, their argument goes, should Poland not surrender her republican rights as well? Why should she not adopt the new laws that political wisdom dictates? Oh, you worshippers of hypocrisy, servants of dishonesty! How sophisticated the attire of your egotism! For your own profit you have torn the insides of your native land, and by tarnishing its centuries-old principles, the principles of its people, you have weakened it and eventually put it to death. You still hold the mutilating sword you used then, and sharpen its edge in foreign, corrupted forces. You want to create the magnate status, the inherited dignity of peers, the right of primogeniture, and privileges foreign to the Polish law; to preserve insignia of rank, the titles gained illegally or in foreign service, usually in service of Poland’s enemies. You want a Poland in which you could gain the greatest profits while taking pleasure in humiliating the people and preserving their servitude and slavery.

27I can also hear other nations’ republican voices who reproachfully say that nothing can be gained from the rights of the old Poland, because like the rights of the ancient Greek system these were only a property of the privileged few—the designated gentry—while the rest of the society was devoid of rights and freedom. Is it these rights, they ask, that Poland wants to have regained? This reproach is easiest to refute; one needs only to unveil one more law of the Polish nation and explain it.

28In Poland, the Negro trade has always been unknown, while the Western peasant who was not free carried the humiliating servant name serf. As the Polish genius deplored this degrading custom they began to call him the dependant, the sujet. Hence the conclusion that the exploitation of the people was not supported by our law but by extremely corrupt practices. The decaying republic did not free its citizens, but in the Great Diet it proclaimed freedom for all People living on Polish soil, and in its final moments passed to its heirs the responsibility to put this proclamation into life. It is this national law closely connected with republican principles that terrifies the aristocrats.

29If we assume that some force prevents Poland from regaining its independence and land as well as from restating and declaring its republican laws, it must be the same evil force that casts obstacles on its way to apply these rights equally to everyone. The requests to return this nation’s rightfully deserved equality have been formulated in a variety of ways. The constitution of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw declared that all citizens are equal in law. This constitution was kept in the Napoleonic spirit, so it preserved the gentry’s privileges and did not deny its rights, but at the same time it made the gentry equal with others, so that a peasant had the same civil and political rights as a member of the gentry.

30In the Congress Kingdom, the constitution of 1815 re-formulated and weakened many of its predecessor’s statements, but it has never denied its laws entirely. In some districts, the number of peasants among the electors allowed to exercise their political rights rose significantly. From Polish gubernias, [among them] regional councils in Wilno, demands were coming to Tsar Alexander to free the people. During the last Samogitian and Ukrainian uprisings numerous citizens [noblemen] returned freedom to the peasants—it seems that the rule of equality was extended to all people.

31It is evident, therefore, that the idea of equality of republican rights for all people, regardless of their status, should be acknowledged as the right of the Polish nation, inherited after the old Republic, and in accordance with the course of humanity’s progress. The institutions it establishes in today’s young Poland, the resurrecting Poland, have been polished for centuries of history and, harmonious with the past, they can be the foundation for constructing a new constitution. The latter is the legality that is demanded by the Polish nation, as well as by other sovereignty-seeking peoples who want to place it among other rights such as the right to independence, to popular rule, and republican principles.

32While other nations are bound to first dispose of the burden of old laws and start building new ones from scratch, the Polish nation ought to find and develop the laws that already exist in its history, to avoid regulations that are contradictory, and reject invented or enforced ones. The men of Polish soil can be proud of the passed on to them by the country’s history, and of the high post that it had furnished for them; this is a calling which they are obliged to answer with dignity. Shame on a man who dares to offend these laws.


1 Present-day Nemunas.

2 Dvina.

3 One should distinguish between the Ruthenian and Russian languages. The latter is the Moscow dialect which originated from the area of the Volga river in the land of Ugrians, who are not Slavs. [Author’s footnote]

4 It is worth noting that the Moscow dialect—Russian—has not had until very recently any words to designate ‘justice’ and ‘virtue.’ They appear only in scientific language. (Also, there are no words for ‘freedom’ and ‘nation.’) [Author’s footnote]

5 Polish cities inside the Republic had separate lawsGerman, or other foreign laws—which were in conflict with the local land laws, that is, state laws. This was a source of constant clashes which proved harmful for the country by bringing about the decay of the cities. [Author’s footnote]


Zuzanna Ładyga (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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