How Noble of Him! Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski

Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski enjoyed good health, lived to a ripe old age, and did not stain himself with treason against the fatherland or other shameful deeds. It is difficult to ignore his wisdom and wit. And yet he has largely been forgotten. On the 200th anniversary of his death, we look back at the life of this 18th-century bibliophile, literary patron, theatregoer, womaniser, and polyglot.

As part of one of Poland’s most prominent and wealthy families, Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father was the most influential politician of his generation, while his mother was the heiress to one of the largest fortunes in the Republic.

His childhood wasn’t always easy. He overcame smallpox, which killed his younger brother. Thus, he became the only hope for a family that had been allied with the Jagiellonians. The ambitions of the Czartoryski elders knew no bounds. However, their wives bore more daughters than sons.

Gentleman from the Blue Palace

Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski enjoyed good health, lived to a ripe old age, and did not stain himself with treason against the fatherland or other shameful deeds. It is difficult to ignore his wisdom and wit. And yet he has largely been lost in the annals of time. He disappeared in the shadow of his dashing wife Izabela, née Flemming, and his son (who might actually have been the offspring of his wife’s lover) Adam Jerzy, leader of the Great Emigration. He became a secondary figure in books about the partitions, King Poniatowski, Kościuszko and the May 3 Constitution.

His laconic biography in Wikipedia does not help us understand what kind of man he was. One has to turn to literature in order to understand more. Luckily, two extensive works have recently been published on the Familia – an 18th-century Polish political faction led by the House of Czartoryski and allied families. The group wanted to raise Poland from its decline in the 18th century, but forgot that the end does not justify the means.

Historians Zofia Wojtkowska and Witold Banach are quite unanimous about this great person in Polish history. Adam Kazimierz had a lot of advantages and two huge disadvantages: he was neither a warrior nor a political animal. Unlucky for him, these were the exact traits that his homeland needed at the time. Saving the state was beyond the prince's capabilities. However, he did a lot to ensure that the nation survived.

It is to his cultural fortitude that we owe the Czartoryski Library [one of the preeminent museums in Poland – ed], the pioneering Dictionary of the Polish Language; and the National Theatre. He educated the young generation of patriots at the School of Cadets. He laid the foundations for the state education system. Much to the shock of his contemporaries, he proposed to educate women as well. The prince also contributed to the establishment of the Ossolineum [a cultural institute founded in Lwów, then part of Poland – ed]. With these facts in mind, it is easier to forgive him for carrying himself as a foreigner and leaving the country in times of crisis. Unfortunately, the public today is more interested in tabloid-style news. Therefore, even serious historians wonder whether Adam Kazimierz fathered any of Izabela’s children (she gave birth to eight, but half did not live to adulthood). In the era of the Enlightenment, libertarianism spread like wildfire in Poland. Czartoryski not only ceded the crown to Stanisław August Poniatowski, but also his wife, in his own mind behaving like an English gentleman. He personally accompanied Izabela to her trysts with the king. He was no saint either. Legends circulated about the castings he arranged for would-be actresses. Diplomacy in the boudoir

Adam Kazimierz was born in 1734 in Gdańsk, which was then a territory of Russia. This time the Familia bet on the wrong horse. Disregarding the fact that it owed its elevation to the Wettin dynasty, it backed the candidature of Stanisław Leszczyński in the run for the throne. France, supporting the Piast family, was far away, and the Saxons and their allies were closer.

The Czartoryskis learned from this mistake. Adam’s godfather became King August III when the boy was only 18 months old. Instead of Paris, the Familia began to align itself with Vienna and St. Petersburg. And when it felt strong enough, it ceased to be a court party altogether.

"Europe's nicest bachelor." Adam Kazimierz in a portrait by Louis Marteau. Photo: PAP/Alamy Stock Photo
The Czartoryskis' opposition was absolute. They were ready to break off parliaments and risk civil war just to crush an opponent. After the battering inflicted on them by the Prussians in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), the prestige of the ​​House of Wettin declined. Adam's father, Augustus, general of the Podolia lands, and uncle Michał, Grand Chancellor of Lithuania, believed that the time had come for a change. They thought themselves to be more enlightened people than other magnates, patriots, with only the good of the fatherland in mind. In reality, they suffered from the same ailment as the Potockis and Radziwiłłs: they identified the raison d'etre of the state with the interests of their own families. And they were not against accepting aid from neighbouring powers.

  French tutors, in addition to teaching Adam good manners and language skills, instilled in him a love of art and literature. Crowning his education was the Grand Tour. Young aristocrats in the 18th century were expected not only to sightsee but also to present themselves at European courts, make useful acquaintances, and make political observations. Czartoryski-junior, however, spent his time mainly in antique shops and bookstores. Upon his return to the country, he allowed himself to be made a member of parliament, but it was soon noticed that parliamentarism à la Polonaise was not his cup of tea.

The prince traveled to St. Petersburg, which was the most significant trip in terms of the interests of the Familia. It was then that he met the future Tsarina Catherine and took up residence in the bed of her lady of the court, the famously beautiful Praskovya Bruce. He did not know that Stanisław (not yet Augustus, but Antoni) Poniatowski had visited Russia two seasons earlier and had gone a rung higher. Perhaps the decision to make the prince's cousin, the puppet ruler of the Polish Republic, was already germinating in the higher echelons of the Russian court. Countess Bruce was also set to be promoted – she served the brooding Catherine as a tester of lovers.

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August Czartoryski’s biggest dream was for a crown atop his son’s head, but he had a domestic wife chosen for him. Izabela, daughter of a Polonized and disgustingly wealthy Saxon, George Flemming, was less than 16 years old at the time of the wedding. The betrothed, doubting that the ugly, pox-ridden duckling would turn into a beautiful swan, cared little for her. Besides, a political solstice for the ages was fast approaching. August III died before the Familia could overthrow him. Adam Kazimierz, obeying his father, supported the invitation of Russian troops to Poland. This was to tip the scales in favour of the Familia and its candidate for the throne. Adam Kazimierz became marshal of the Convocation Sejm of 1764 and – in the absence of the intimidated opposition – effectively led the proceedings. A package of laws was passed, making up Poland's repair programme.

The Czartoryskis were at the height of their power. When a Russian deputy communicated to them the Tsarina's will, Prince Augustus was furious. "You didn't want the crown when you could have had it, you fool. Now you'll see how good it will look on him," he said, after which he diplomatically fumed. Adam, however, was relieved.

What kind of king would he have been? One might imagine that a better one than Stanisław Poniatowski. They shared a lack of decisiveness, but Czartoryski – financially independent and devoid of any illusions about Catherine – would have better represented the majesty of the Republic. He would not have cloaked himself before Russian officials. Devoid of complexes and nouveau-riche tendencies, he would have surrounded himself with competent people. Poland would probably have fallen anyway, but at least it would have fallen in style.

Taking a step back

The Familia tried to oppose the transformation of the Republic into a Russian protectorate. However, Ambassador Repnin found a way to limit its influence. The plot, which was to demand equal rights for dissenters while letting go of the opposition, worked because the king was too afraid to stand up for himself. Frightened by the prospect of losing his throne, Stanisław August Poniatowski began to distance himself from his uncles. As a result, he exchanged one guardianship for another. Instead of the Czartoryskis, he had to listen to the Russians.

Discouraged, Adam Kazimierz went abroad for a year. After that, he stopped going on political missions, but he did his job as commandant of the School of Cadets with great enthusiasm. After all, the idea was to create a new elite for the nation. The prince organised the programme himself, hired teachers, and translated and wrote textbooks. The school's 950 graduates were to fight with the sabre (Tadeusz Kosciuszko) or at least with the pen (Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz) for the Polish cause in the future. The ageing Prince Augustus passed on the title of general to his son, although the latter considered even hunting a waste of time. The fact that a man who had never smelled gunpowder in his life and had only ever seen battles depicted in paintings was the one entrusted with preparing the army reform explains why the Republic declined.

When Adam Kazimierz became his own master, he persistently refused to take the positions that were rightfully his due to his family and wealth. In this way, he facilitated the careers of the king's other followers. And Poniatowski had a terrible way of dealing with people, betting on two-faced men who, as soon as they felt confident, unscrupulously betrayed him and Poland.
Izabela converted from cosmopolitanism to Polishness. Portrait of the duchess in the costume of a gipsy woman by Kazimierz Wojnakowski. Photo: Wikimedia
Education still remained close to Czartoryski's heart. He did not turn down an invitation to join the Commission on National Education. He wrote articles about education and signed them with the name of the main character in Ignacy Krasinski's book. Some of his letters had several print runs and influenced public opinion to an extent that is difficult to assess. They were also studied carefully by school administrators and teaching staff.

In the middle to late 18th century, when the Russians were destroying the country and going after members of the Bar Confederation, Adam Kazimierz was just starting out as a writer of comedies. Wojciech Bogusławski himself praised a two-act play by the title of "Panna na wydanie."

The first partition of Poland took the Familia by surprise. Part of the Czartoryski estate found itself in Russia. The prince had to take an oath of allegiance to Catherine on behalf of his father. Humiliated, he then carried the intention of leaving his homeland forever, luckily, his wife convinced him otherwise.

Marshal and Field Marshal

Adam Kazimierz maintained contact with the king for the longest time out of the entire Familia. This changed in 1785, when his sister, Elżbieta Lubomirska, who hated her former lover, Poniatowski, supported a claim that the court was preparing an assassination attempt on her brother. Czartoryski believed it and allowed himself to be manoeuvred into the plot. He lost a libel suit and, offended, left for his estate in Puławy. But the role of oppositionist did not suit him. He was in his element when he read, travelled, and invented social pranks (for April Fool's Day he arranged a feast of tasty-looking but inedible food).

Meanwhile, patriotic agitation was growing in the country. Izabela switched from being cosmopolitan to being Polish and helped make Sarmatian clothes and hairstyles popular. The prince gave in to his wife's zeal and reconciled with the king, which opened the way to an agreement between the feuding factions and reforms, culminating in the adoption of the May 3 Constitution. He stood by it faithfully, unlike Poniatowski, who refused to join. He paid for this with a temporary loss of wealth.

As Kosciuszko's patron, he could not count on the favours of the Tsarina, but then a helping hand was extended to him by Izabela’s one-time lover Repnin. He advised the Czartoryskis to send their sons as hostages to St. Petersburg.

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His honour and the estate were saved. But after the fall of Poland, Adam Kazimierz was more willing to spend time in the Austrian partition. He accepted the titles of general and field marshal from the Habsburgs, as well as the Order of the Golden Fleece. He restored his library, which had been destroyed by Catherine's soldiers, and supported his wife in the laudable work of creating a museum of national memory in Puławy. The Czartoryskis' residences became a refuge for survivors of the sunken ship of the Republic.

When Prince Józef Poniatowski's army liberated Galicia, Adam Kazimierz played a comedy: he asked his cousin to take him prisoner, as he wanted to be fair to the emperor. Three years later, as Speaker of the Sejm of the Duchy of Warsaw, he announced the rebirth of the Kingdom of Poland. Not being a Bonapartist, he nevertheless wished Napoleon's army, then setting out for Moscow, a victory.

That was the end of the political activity of "Europe's nicest bachelor," as Witold Banach wryly calls the prince. Zofia Wojtkowska characterises him as a "brilliant theoretician."

A farewell worthy of a king

Adam Kazimierz Czartoryjski died in Sieniawa on March 19, 1823. So he had a chance to reign for 58 years, and become the Polish equivalent of Franz Joseph I or Elizabeth II. His funeral was worthy of a monarch. However, it remembered not so much the man as a symbol of a bygone era. The embalmed corpse was escorted by a funeral procession first to Lwów, and then to Warsaw, to the Holy Cross Church, which served as the Czartoryski family necropolis. The prince's last earthly journey lasted thirteen days.

In his farewell sermon, Jan Paweł Woronicz, poet and bishop of Kraków, compared Czartoryjski to an "old Polish larch" and asked: "Who in a hundred years will hover over Him as we do today?"

Two hundred years have passed, and hardly anyone remembers the commander of the School of Cadets. His abundant writing is only read by theatre scholars and literary historians and is not reissued or studied in schools. There are three streets named after Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski in Poland: in Brzeziny, Chełm and Miłomłyn.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

– Wiesław Chełminiak

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by Roberto Galea

Witold Banach “Czartoryscy, czyli wieczna pogoń” [“Czartoryskis, the eternal pursuit”], Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 2022; Zofia Wojtkowska “Saga rodu Czartoryskich” [“The sage of the Czartoryski clan”], Iskry, 2022
Main photo: Life's work - The School of Cadets. The painting "Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski at the School of Cadets" by Jan Piotr Norblin. Photo: PAP/Alamy Stock Photo
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