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12/05/2006 Entry: "Thaddeus Kosciuszko"

"This is a tough subject to address when so many of you may be heading for Iraq. I would prefer to speak of sweeter things. But I also know that 20 or 30 years from now any one of you may be the Chief of Staff or the National Security Adviser or even the President—after all, two of your boys, Grant and Eisenhower, did make it from West Point to the White House. And that being the case, it’s more important than ever that citizens and soldiers—and citizen-soldiers—honestly discuss and frankly consider the kind of country you are serving and the kind of organization to which you are dedicating your lives. You are, after all, the heirs of an army born in the American Revolution, whose radicalism we consistently underestimate.

"No one understood this radicalism—no one in uniform did more to help us define freedom in a profoundly American way—than the man whose monument here at West Point I also asked to visit today—Thaddeus Kosciuszko. I first became intrigued by him over 40 years ago when I arrived in Washington. Lafayette Park, on Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the White House, hosts several statues of military heroes who came to fight for our independence in the American Revolution. For seven years, either looking down on these figures from my office at the Peace Corps, or walking across Lafayette Park to my office in the White House, I was reminded of these men who came voluntarily to fight for American independence from the monarchy. The most compelling, for me, was the depiction of Kosciuszko. On one side of the statue he is directing a soldier back to the battlefield, and on the other side, wearing an American uniform, he is freeing a bound soldier, representing America’s revolutionaries.

"Kosciuszko had been born in Lithuania-Poland, where he was trained as an engineer and artillery officer. Arriving in the 13 colonies in 1776, he broke down in tears when he read the Declaration of Independence. The next year, he helped engineer the Battle of Saratoga, organizing the river and land fortifications that put Americans in the stronger position. George Washington then commissioned him to build the original fortifications for West Point. Since his monument dominates the point here at the Academy, this part of the story you must know well.

"But what many don’t realize about Kosciuszko is the depth of his commitment to republican ideals and human equality. One historian called him 'a mystical visionary of human rights.' Thomas Jefferson wrote that Kosciuszko was “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.” That phrase of Jefferson’s is often quoted, but if you read the actual letter, Jefferson goes on to say: And of that liberty which is to go to all, and not to the few and the rich alone.'

"There is the clue to the meaning of freedom as Thaddeus Kosciuszko saw it."
Message To West Point, by Bill Moyers, TomPaine.com, November 29, 2006 This is an excerpt from the Sol Feinstone Lecture on The Meaning of Freedom delivered by Bill Moyers at the United States Military Academy on November 15, 2006. (via Dr. Alterman)

I lived on a street named after General Kosciuszko when I lived in Kolobrzeg, Poland.

The whole excerpt:

"This is a tough subject to address when so many of you may be heading for Iraq. I would prefer to speak of sweeter things. But I also know that 20 or 30 years from now any one of you may be the Chief of Staff or the National Security Adviser or even the President—after all, two of your boys, Grant and Eisenhower, did make it from West Point to the White House. And that being the case, it’s more important than ever that citizens and soldiers—and citizen-soldiers—honestly discuss and frankly consider the kind of country you are serving and the kind of organization to which you are dedicating your lives. You are, after all, the heirs of an army born in the American Revolution, whose radicalism we consistently underestimate.

"No one understood this radicalism—no one in uniform did more to help us define freedom in a profoundly American way—than the man whose monument here at West Point I also asked to visit today—Thaddeus Kosciuszko. I first became intrigued by him over 40 years ago when I arrived in Washington. Lafayette Park, on Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the White House, hosts several statues of military heroes who came to fight for our independence in the American Revolution. For seven years, either looking down on these figures from my office at the Peace Corps, or walking across Lafayette Park to my office in the White House, I was reminded of these men who came voluntarily to fight for American independence from the monarchy. The most compelling, for me, was the depiction of Kosciuszko. On one side of the statue he is directing a soldier back to the battlefield, and on the other side, wearing an American uniform, he is freeing a bound soldier, representing America’s revolutionaries.

"Kosciuszko had been born in Lithuania-Poland, where he was trained as an engineer and artillery officer. Arriving in the 13 colonies in 1776, he broke down in tears when he read the Declaration of Independence. The next year, he helped engineer the Battle of Saratoga, organizing the river and land fortifications that put Americans in the stronger position. George Washington then commissioned him to build the original fortifications for West Point. Since his monument dominates the point here at the Academy, this part of the story you must know well.

"But what many don’t realize about Kosciuszko is the depth of his commitment to republican ideals and human equality. One historian called him “a mystical visionary of human rights.” Thomas Jefferson wrote that Kosciuszko was “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.” That phrase of Jefferson’s is often quoted, but if you read the actual letter, Jefferson goes on to say: And of that liberty which is to go to all, and not to the few and the rich alone.'

"There is the clue to the meaning of freedom as Thaddeus Kosciuszko saw it.

"After the American Revolution, he returned to his homeland, what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1791 the Poles adopted their celebrated May Constitution—Europe’s first codified national constitution (and the second oldest in the world, after our own.) The May Constitution established political equality between the middle class and the nobility and also partially abolished serfdom by giving civil rights to the peasants, including the right to state protection from landlord abuses. The autocrats and nobles of Russia feared such reforms, and in 1794, when the Russians sought to prevent their spread by partitioning the Commonwealth, Kosciuszko led an insurrection. His untrained peasant forces were armed mostly with single-blade sickles, but they won several early battles in fierce hand-to-hand fighting, until they were finally overwhelmed. Badly injured, Kosciuszko was taken prisoner and held for two years in St. Petersburg, and that was the end of the Polish Commonwealth, which had stood, by the way, as one of Europe’s leading centers of religious liberty.

"Upon his release from prison, Kosciuszko came back to the United States and began a lasting friendship with Jefferson, who called him his “most intimate and beloved friend.” In 1798, he wrote a will leaving his American estate to Jefferson, urging him to use it to purchase the freedom and education of his [Jefferson’s] own slaves, or, as Jefferson interpreted it, of “as many of the children as bondage in this country as it should be adequate to.” For this émigré, as for so many who would come later, the meaning of freedom included a passion for universal justice. In his Act of Insurrection at the outset of the 1794 uprising, Kosciuszko wrote of the people’s “sacred rights to liberty, personal security and property.” Note the term property here. For Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” Kosciuszko substituted Locke’s notion of property rights. But it’s not what you think: The goal was not simply to protect “private property” from public interference (as it is taught today), but rather to secure productive property for all as a right to citizenship. It’s easy to forget the difference when huge agglomerations of personal wealth are defended as a sacred right of liberty, as they are today with the gap between the rich and poor in America greater than it’s been in almost one hundred years. Kosciuszko—General Kosciuszko, from tip to toe a military man—was talking about investing the people with productive resources. Yes, freedom had to be won on the battlefield, but if freedom did not lead to political, social and economic opportunity for all citizens, freedom’s meaning could not be truly realized.

"Think about it: A Polish general from the old world, infusing the new nation with what would become the marrow of the American Dream. Small wonder that Kosciuszko was often called a “hero of two worlds” or that just 25 years ago, in 1981, when Polish farmers, supported by the Roman Catholic Church, won the right to form an independent union, sending shockwaves across the Communist empire, Kosciuszko’s name was heard in the victory speeches—his egalitarian soul present at yet another revolution for human freedom and equal rights.

"After Jefferson won the presidency in l800, Kosciuszko wrote him a touching letter advising him to be true to his principles: “do not forget in your post be always a virtuous Republican with justice and probity, without pomp and ambition—in a word be Jefferson and my friend.” Two years later, Jefferson signed into being this professional officers school, on the site first laid out as a fortress by his friend, the general from Poland."

Posted by GM

 

 

 

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