Stanisław August (1732-1798)
Louis XVI is often listed as one of the most tragic figures of the 18th century. He was a ruler, who – having ascended the throne of one of the most (at least apparently) powerful absolute monarchies – lost all power and eventually ended his life on a guillotine. Stanisław August did not die in such a spectacular fashion; he died in his own bed. However, his fate seems even more tragic. It should not be forgotten that the bed in which he was dying of stroke was located in the Marble Palace in Saint Petersburg, where the Tsar ordered him to stay after the abdication.
Louis XVI lost his crown and life; Stanisław August lost everything. When he ascended the Polish throne in 1764, the surface area of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was about 700 thousand square kilometres, and although it was weak, it was one of the biggest European countries. When he was on his deathbed in 1798, this country did not exist anymore. As was proclaimed in the trilateral convention of partitioning powers of 1797, the country’s organism was ‘politically annihilated’ for eternity. As a monarch, politician and person, Stanisław August admitted the biggest possible defeat. Its magnitude was amplified by the fact that despite the later accusations, he was not a traitor or Russia’s marionette deprived of free will. He was a politician with a strong personality, who acted according to his own programme and whose rule had one goal – to improve the situation in the Republic. However, despite his attempts, the situation steadily declined, which the King often witnessed powerlessly, but not passively.
Stanisław August was born on 17 January 1732 in Wołczyn, as the sixth child of Stanisław Poniatowski and Konstancja Czartoryska. Owing to the family’s standing, he received a wide education. As a result of the free election in 1764, he was elected the King of Poland.
From the beginning of his reign, he supported reforms. In 1765, he established the Knights’ School – an elite military academy intended to educate the future army. He also set up a King’s conference with ministers – an early form of government – and the King’s Chancellery. In addition, in 1773, the National Education Commission was instituted. It was the first central institution in the world fulfilling the function of the contemporary Ministry of Education. Among the greatest accomplishments of the King are the Great Sejm and the enactment the Constitution of May 3, 1791 – the first constitution in Europe and second in the world, after the constitution of the United States.
Stanisław August was also a great patron of art and literature. He organised the famous Thursday Dinners, where he invited scholars, writers, and poets.
However, the scope of King’s activity was limited by the funds of the Royal treasury, which were always lacking. The Republic – deprived of money and lacking an army – was not strong enough to resist the partitioning powers. On 25 November 1795, Stanisław August abdicated. He died on 12 February 1798, in exile in Saint Petersburg. His ashes were placed in Saint John’s Cathedral in Warsaw.