Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz was born in 1757 into the minor nobility in Skoki, Poland, now Lithuania. The eldest of 16 children, he joined the Cadet Corps in Warsaw and entered the army upon graduation. He took the first of several trips through Europe in 1784, observing and learning. In 1788 he was elected to the Polish parliament where he was an exemplary speaker and began a prolific writing career. He played an important role in drawing up the May 3, 1791 Constitution. In the 1794 insurrection to rid Poland of foreign armies, he served beside Kosciuszko as his aide-de-camp. After the Poles were defeated, both men were imprisoned by the Russians. Released in an amnesty two years later, they sailed for America and arrived in Philadelphia in 1797.

Kosciuszko introduced his colleague to his American friends. Cultured, witty and intelligent with a knowledge of English, Niemcewicz quickly became popular in New York City society, where he familiarized Americans with Polish culture. He became friends with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. In Philadelphia, he was introduced to President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. He traveled to Georgetown, now part of the District of Columbia, where he met retired President George Washington at a dinner party. So impressed was General Washington with Mr. Niemcewicz that he invited him to visit his Mount Vernon home.

On June 2, 1798 Niemcewicz arrived for a twelve day stay. An habitual diarist, the details of his visit provide historians with a valuable look at the home life of the retired President, and are a source of the only detailed account of the lives of the estate's African American slaves. Though General Washington treated them well for the most part, Niemcewicz described their huts as "more miserable than the most miserable of the cottage huts of our [Polish] peasants."

He made detailed entries about the General's work day and habits. He described the interior and exterior of Mount Vernon. Of the plantation, he described the various crops and animals, farming methods, trees, flowers, and the beautiful view of the Potomac River. Niemcewicz was very charmed by Mrs. Washington and was especially attracted to her granddaughter Nelly. He described her as "a young woman of great beauty...her sweetness is equal to her beauty, and this being so perfect of form."

He engaged Washington in conversation, sometimes for hours at a time. Subjects ranged from farming to geography to the American Revolution to the Anglo-French war, but the General shied away from politics. Niemcewicz did not indicate that he discussed the situation in Poland with his host. But in a later thank you letter to the former President, he contrasted the predicament of his homeland to the tranquility of Mount Vernon. In Washington's reply to Niemcewicz, he lamented that Poland was not free, and wished for the country to someday enjoy "liberty and the rights of man" and for Niemcewicz to be in his homeland "as happy in the enjoyment of these desirable blessings under your own vine and fig tree, as the people of the United States may be under theirs."

In 1800 Niemcewicz married an American woman, Susan Livingston Keane, and they made their home in Elizabeth, N.J. Two years later he returned to Warsaw to settle his father's estate and did not return to New Jersey until 1804. He resumed his life as a gentleman farmer, philosopher and traveler, even making it to the then remote Niagara Falls.

But three years later when he received news that Napoleon's army had chased the Russians out of Poland and created the Duchy of Warsaw, he returned to Poland without his wife. Ever hopeful that his homeland could again become free, he served as the Duchy's Secretary of the Senate, as well as holding academic positions. After Warsaw was retaken by Russia, Niemcewicz remained, became president of a committee for a new constitution and held political posts in the opposition, such as was allowed by the Russians. He continued writing plays, poems and history, and keeping his diary. Many of his works were inspirational to the Polish cause for independence, like "Historical Songs of the Poles."

He was a supporter of the November uprising of 1830-31 and went to London to try to procure military aid from Britain. This mission having failed, and the insurrection defeated, Niemcewicz joined other Polish exiles in Paris where he died in 1841 at 84. He is buried in Montmorency Cemetery in the French capital. His funeral was attended by American and Polish citizens who lived there.

written by Martin S. Nowak
September 2007, Check all Martin's articles at Martin Nowak Corner

Read articles about May 1st, 2nd and 3rd in Polish Calendar and about The Radicalism of the May 3rd Constitution.

I recommend a wonderful book about Polish history. This overview of Polish history was written by Adam Zamoyski and it is entitled:
The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture

This article was published in the complete paper edition of Polish-American Journal, you may subscribe to it here.

Martin Nowak is a resident of Lancaster, N.Y, a baby-boomer who was born and raised on Buffalo's Polish East Side. He attended Alfred State College in New York and is a U.S. Army veteran who recently retired after a career in the federal civil service. He has previously contributed Polish-themed articles to various publications and provided data used in a recent book on the U.S. presidents.

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