Tadeusz Kościuszko was a Polish statesman, military leader and engineer who became a national hero in several countries, including Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and the United States. Born to modest but well-to-do nobility in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, he inherited a country that pioneered democracy, federalism, and constitutionalism centuries before the U.S., making his alliance to the American cause even more appropriate.
From the 16th to early 17th century, Poland one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe, and one of the freest in the world: at a time when absolute monarchies were the unquestioned norm, the Commonwealth’s citizens were governed by a unique system known as Golden Liberty, which combined elements of monarchy, democracy, and federalism. Its king was elected by a legislature controlled by the nobility, who had equal legal status and enjoyed extensive legal rights and privileges, regardless of their rank and status. Both the parliament and a bill of rights constrained the king’s power and guaranteed various rights, including the right to rebel against any monarch who violated civil liberties. Individuals had a right to veto a majority decision in the parliament, which meant decisions needed unanimous support. At a time of constant sectarian strife, religious freedom was guaranteed, which is why the Commonwealth was among the most diverse states in Europe.
(Regarding Poland’s Golden Liberty: though elitist by today’s standards, roughly 10-15 percent of the population had these freedoms and could take part in the political process, which was far more than elsewhere in the world; it would be centuries later that the U.K. would top the list with 14 percent, while more absolute monarchies like France, Prussia, and Russia had only one to five percent of their populations with such freedoms)
Given this context, Kościuszko was an ardent defender of self-determination and freedom—especially since Poland, by the time of the American Revolution, was being picked apart by the despots of Austria, Prussia, and Russia (and would disappear entirely by the turn of the 18th century). As soon as he learned about the American Revolution, he set sail for America in June 1776 and submitted an application to the Second Continental Congress, offering to volunteer for the cause. Being in desperate need for a man of his talents, they assigned him to the Continental Army the next day.
Kościuszko had an extensive military education, particularly in military engineering. His earliest tasks were building fortifications at Fort Billingsport, New Jersey to protect the banks of the Delaware River from a possible British attack. He reviewed the defenses of Fort Ticonderoga, one of the most formidable fortresses in North America, but his recommendations were turned down by the garrison commander; just months later, the British had found the exact weakness Kościuszko warned about reinforcing against, forcing the Americans to abandon the fort.
In New York, Kościuszko was handpicked by General Horatio Gates to survey the land between American and incoming British forces, choose the most defensible position, and fortify it. He found the perfect spot and laid out a strong array of defenses that was nearly impregnable from any direction. His sound judgment and meticulous attention to detail allowed the Americans to withstand the British attacks during the Battle of Saratoga forcing them to surrender. Gates remarked, “the great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampment”.
Kościuszko also spent two years strengthening the fortification at West Point, which were widely praised as highly innovative. He personally appealed to George Washington to assign him to combat duty in the southern theater, where his skilled military engineering proved pivotal, and for which he was ultimately promoted to brigadier general.
Before returning to Europe, Kościuszko wrote a will, which he entrusted to Thomas Jefferson. The two had become good friends well after the war and corresponded for twenty years in mutual admiration; Jefferson described him “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known”. In the will, Kościuszko left his American estate to be sold to buy the freedom of black slaves, including Jefferson’s, and to educate them for independent life and work. At one point during the war, he had been assigned a black orderly, Agrippa Hull, whom he treated as an equal and friend—true to his convictions. Unfortunately, complications with the execution of his will in the U.S. meant his wishes never got fulfilled.