Kołłątaj, Hugo (1750

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KOŁŁĄTAJ, HUGO (17501812)

KOŁŁĄTAJ, HUGO (17501812), Polish cleric, reformer of education, politician, promoter of Enlightenment thought, historian, and philosopher. Born in Dederkaly (Volhynia), the youngest son of an impoverished gentry family, he soon chose the clerical path of material and social advancement. He began studies at the Cracow Academy in 1761 and continued in Vienna (17711772) and Italy, especially Rome (17721774); during these travels he studied French, canon law, and theology and made his first contacts with Enlightenment thought.

Upon his return to Cracow in 1775, Kołłątaj took priestly orders and soon joined in the work of the Commission of National Education. From 1775 to 1786 he directed the reform of the Cracow Academy, Poland's oldest university, serving as rector from 1783 to 1786. In the years immediately preceding the Second Partition of Poland (17861792), Kołłątaj resided in Warsaw, playing a leading role in attempts to reform Polish politics and society. He achieved high office (becoming Lithuanian spiritual referendary in 1787 and crown vice-chancellor in 1791) and led a movement to transform Poland's feudal, magnate-dominated society into a modern bourgeois nation led by propertied gentry and burghers, governed by a parliament in permanent session, and with a now hereditary but much weakened monarch. From "Kołłątaj's Smithy" (a term coined by his opponents) came a stream of reformist writings by various authors. Among his concerns was the status of burghers and Jews in a reformed state. Kołłątaj was a coauthor of the constitution of 3 May 1791.

In the face of the catastrophe of 1792, Kołłątaj took up a conciliatory stance, urging King Stanisław II August Poniatowski to find a modus vivendi with the Russian-sponsored Confederation of Targowicaalthough Kołłątaj himself was anathema to the Polish conservatives of the confederation. The Second Partition (1793) found him in Saxony, where he helped prepare the Kościuszko uprising of 1794. Contacts with revolutionary France radicalized some of his ideas. Kołłątaj returned to Warsaw in May 1794, where he became a focal point for supporters of the uprising, burghers, and Jacobins, although he was certainly not the "Polish Robespierre" that the king and others saw in him.

After the Russian conquest of Warsaw in early November 1794, Kołłątaj fled south and was arrested by the Austrians near Przemyśl. He remained incarcerated in Moravian Olomouc until November 1802. During this time he continued his scholarly work, gathering materials and sketching an outline for an ambitious historical and ethnographic project. Upon release, Kołłątaj settled in Russian Volhynia, where, under discreet police surveillance, he continued his scholarly projects and worked on the organization of a lyceum at Kremenets.

Summoned to Warsaw under Napoleon in 1806, Kołłątaj delayed. This delay, plus the emperor's distrust of former "Jacobins," increased his isolation. He was arrested by the Russians in 1807 and interned in Moscow until the next year, when he returned to Warsaw. He failed, however, in his attempts to play a role in the politics and culture of Napoleonic Poland. A late work, Nil Desperandum (1808), offered a vision of a modernized, liberal Poland restored to its old borders, in alliance with France, in a Europe divided into two empires, west (France) and east (Russia).

See also Poland, Partitions of ; Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of, 15691795 ; Poniatowski, Stanisław II Augustus ; 3 May Constitution.


Jobert, Ambroise. La Commission d'Education Nationale en Pologne, 17731794, son oeuvre d'instruction civique. Paris, 1941.

Lech, Marian J. Hugo Kołłątaj. Warsaw, 1973.

Leśnodorski, Bogusław. Les Jacobins polonais. Paris, 1965.

David Frick