Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Son of Liberty

Yes, some time has passed between my blog posts. Believe it or not, writing a history thesis is a very time consuming process that leaves little energy for extracurricular writing! Thus, a am pleased to announce History Matters' first guest blogger entry. Today is Abraham Lincoln's 203rd birthday, but this evening we will be discussing a different American patriot: Revolutionary leader Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who was born on this date in 1746. Not possessing the fame of John Adams or "Mad" Anthony Wayne, Kosciuszko was nevertheless much admired in his own day. Thomas Jefferson referred to him as, "the purest son of liberty . . . that I have ever known, the kind of liberty which extends to all, not only to the rich."

Today's post is written by Aaron Urbanski, a former colleague of mine from Gettysburg National Military Park who is completing his master's degree in Applied History at George Mason University. He intends to continue his career in the educational field. Stay tuned for more guest entries on History Matters soon and thank you for your continued support!

"If your best friend was talking about you to someone else, how would he or she describe you? If your employer or one of your colleagues had to write a letter about your professional attributes, would favorable things be said? When it comes to your reputation, how important is your name? Do the letters and sounds that make up your literal name affect the way people perceive you?

There is a small street in a small city in Northeastern Pennsylvania. It stretches from one end of the city to another, has a library, a convenience store, various educational institutions, and numerous family homes. If your GPS tried to pronounce its name, it would likely butcher it. And, unless you lived on it, you likely would have a rough time spelling it. The street is Kosciuszko Street. Either the street planners for this small city had a strange sense of humor or an enlightened sense of history. Or perhaps both.

The street’s namesake is that of Thaddeus Kosciuszko. Born, raised, and educated in Poland, he struggled to find his place in society during his early years. His family was not affluent, but they owned a small portion of land during the middle of the eighteenth century at the time of his birth. As a young man, Thaddeus studied philosophy, ancient Greek and Roman classics, and military sciences. He was also made aware of philosophical theories of democracy and social order, ideas that were not always well embraced by the traditional royal courts of Poland.

Kosciuszko was widely exposed to serfdom, a form of human bondage that shared similar characteristics with American slavery. In Europe, serfs were peasants who worked the fields of a wealthy landowner in return for a insignificant amount of economic stability. Serfs were on the lowest rung of Europe’s social ladder. The family of Thaddeus Kosciuszko owned land on which some thirty peasant families struggled to endure. His opinions on serfdom evolved with his life experiences, but Thaddeus was generally opposed to the institution from his early years as an educated man—a conviction he later brought with him to America’s shores.

Unfortunately for the young Polish student, his achievements in the classroom were not matched by his romantic endeavors with the opposite sex. He fell in love with royalty; Louise Sosnowski, the daughter of one of Poland’s lords. The Kosciuszko family’s land holdings were not deemed impressive. However, Thad’s appointment as a captain in Poland’s military greatly enhanced his social status. Nevertheless, Lord Sosnowski refused to approve the marriage. Kosciuszko chose the next logical step in his relationship with Louise when he attempted to steal her away and make her his bride despite her father’s disapproval. The elopement failed, however, when Lord Sosnowski’s guards intercepted the getaway carriage containing the forbidden lovers. By the point of his sword, Lord Sosnowski demanded of Thaddeus to surrender his hopes of marriage with Louise.

Needing to alleviate his personal anguish, Kosciuszko traveled abroad to escape his forlorn past. Growing tired of the political turmoil in Poland and wishing no role in Poland’s struggling military, he made his way to France. There he received word about America’s rebellion against Great Britain. Attracted to the ideals of democracy, a notion he came to cherish, Kosciuszko boarded a vessel and found himself in the company of none other than Benjamin Franklin. Without money or a place to stay, Thaddeus modestly asked the Philadelphian to locate him a role in America’s war for independence. The Pole told Franklin he could serve as an engineer or military architect, areas in which he had extensive training. In August 1776, Thaddeus Kosciuszko presented his military credentials to the Congress and the Board of War in the structure later named Independence Hall. He had earned himself a position in the Continental Army.

Luckily for Kosciuszko, trained engineers were greatly needed to assist the war effort. His first task was to design the military defenses of Philadelphia. He was also credited with selecting the location for the Battle of Saratoga, a crucial American victory that convinced France to help the Americans in its audacious struggle. Kosciuszko’s greatest achievement, however, was the design and construction of the fortress at West Point on the Hudson River, now home to the United State Military Academy. Within a short period of time, his skilled work with the American army captured the attention of General George Washington.

Washington eventually appointed Kosciuszko a crucial member of his staff. He entrusted him with the design of fortifications, the placement of troops and artillery, and professional confidence to lead. There was one key problem Washington and other American patriots had with Kosciuszko, however. They had absolutely no idea how to spell his name. Variations from correspondence written throughout the war included the following versions:

Kosiusko, Korsuasco, Cusyesco, Cosciusko, Koshiosko, Kosciouski, and Kuziazke, which sounds Japanese more than anything.

Washington even once spelled his name incorrectly two different ways in the same letter. Eventually, the commander in chief did indeed learn to spell his subordinate’s name properly. By the end of the war, not only was Washington’s spelling of “Kosciuszko” top notch, but his praise for the Pole was unsurpassed. One of his last official acts as wartime general was the writing of a letter to Congress on Kosciuszko’s behalf. The declaration noted, “From my knowledge of his Merit and services, and the concurrent testimony of all who know him I cannot but recommend him as deserving the favor of Congress.” Soon after, Thaddeus Kosciuszko was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the American army.

In the end, it did not matter how his colleagues spelled his name. Kosciuszko transformed himself from a poor foreigner on Benjamin Franklin’s doorstep to a vital component of George Washington’s war machine in a matter of years. Per usual, he made new enemies along the way, frequently due to jealously and petty misunderstandings. Today, our names are built in similar ways. How do we influence the ways in which others perceive us? How much control over our reputations do we have? You’ve formed opinions of Thad as you read this. But his story doesn’t end with the American Revolution. Discover what happened when the general returned to Poland as poor as he was when he left his homeland. Do your opinions change?"

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