Poniatowski, Stanisław II Augustus (1732–1798; Ruled 1764–1795)
PONIATOWSKI, STANISŁAW II AUGUSTUS (1732–1798; ruled 1764–1795)
PONIATOWSKI, STANISŁAW II AUGUSTUS (1732–1798; ruled 1764–1795), king of Poland. In his youth Poniatowski traveled across Holland, France, and England (1748–1754), learning much about the civilization and culture of these countries, which made him take a critical view of the situation in his own country. After his return, he became Poland's envoy in St. Petersburg (1757–1758), where he had a love affair with the Grand Duchess Catherine (later Catherine II the Great), wife of the heir to the Russian throne. He deluded himself into thinking that this would help him gain Russia's support in Polish matters. After his return to Poland, he became fully dependent on the powerful Czartoryski family; his uncle, Prince Michał Fryderyk Czartoryski, was vice-chancellor of Lithuania and leader of a powerful political party called Familia, or 'the Family'. After the death of King Augustus III, the Czartoryskis, with the support of the Russian Empress Catherine II, put forward Poniatowski's candidacy for the Polish-Lithuanian throne, secured his election (7 September 1764), and had him crowned on 25 November.
Having assumed power, the king, in defiance of his protectors' intentions, tried to reform the political system of the country toward a constitutional monarchy on the English model, with a strengthened executive, an efficient parliament (abolition of the liberum veto ), and a satisfactory fiscal system. In his view, it was necessary to raise the intellectual level of the Poles and Lithuanians and strengthen their sense of community if the state was to be reformed. While some small reforms were carried out in 1764–1766, they met with broad opposition from the magnates, who were supported by Russia and Prussia. The king's adversaries set up the Confederation of Bar (1768–1772) and opened hostilities against him and against Russia. The king's attempts to come to an agreement with them failed, and after four years of fighting the confederates were routed by Russian forces and, in the last stage, also by Polish royal troops. The fighting gave Russia, Austria, and Prussia a pretext to declare Poland a country of rampant anarchy and to carry out the first partition of Poland (1772), despite the protests of the king.
Even though Catherine greatly restricted the king's powers and put him under the control of her ambassador, Stanisław succeeded in implementing some of his plans, especially in the field of culture and education. Thanks to him a Knight's School was opened as early as 1765; later he supported the Piarist order's educational reforms and the establishment of a Commission for National Education (1773). He deserves credit for promoting literature (his famous Thursday lunches assembled many writers), the theater, and the visual arts. He initiated town planning projects and architectural work in Warsaw (rebuilding of the Royal Castle and constructing the Łazienki palace complex) and supported painting and sculpture, and he planned to set up academies of art, science, and literature as well as a national museum. He also protected mining and supported the establishment of factories; on his initiative a mint was built in Warsaw.
Under the tutelage of Russia, however, political life in the country stagnated. The king was at first opposed by the political elite. In about 1775–1778 he managed to set up his own party, rallying noblemen who freed themselves of magnates' domination. During the Four-Year Sejm (1788–1792) the king established close cooperation with the patriotic party, which entrusted him with drafting a plan for a new political system. This plan became the basis for the Constitution of 3 May 1791. The adversaries of the constitution formed the Confederation of Targowica (1792); Catherine demanded that Stanisław join the confederates, and he did so, convinced that it was impossible to stand up to Russian military power. Despite some Polish military successes, the king ordered Polish forces to stop fighting. The constitution was rescinded, and Russia and Prussia carried out the second partition of Poland (1793).
After his capitulation to Catherine II's demands, Stanisław lost the popularity he had enjoyed during the work on the constitution. Though he joined the Kościuszko Insurrection (1794) against the partitioning powers, he was himself removed from power. After the fall of the insurrection, at Catherine's command, Stanisław went to Grodno (January 1795), where he abdicated on 25 November. After the death of the empress (1796) he left Grodno at Tsar Paul I's command, settling in St. Petersburg, where he died. He is one of the most controversial figures in Poland's history. His political activity still arouses emotions and conflicting evaluations among historians, but the services he rendered to Polish culture are indisputable.
See also Catherine II (Russia) ; Poland, Partitions of ; Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of, 1569–1795 ; 3 May Constitution .
Rostworowski, Emanuel. Ostatni król Rzeczypospolitej: Geneza i upadek Konstytucji 3 maja. Warsaw, 1966.
Zahorski, Andrzej. Spór o Stanisława Augusta. 2nd ed. Warsaw, 1990.