Lewis Littlepage was a young American who was a figure in the final years of the Kingdom of Poland. He was born in Virginia in 1762 into a well-connected family and at seventeen was sent to Madrid to live in the household of John Jay, U.S. Minister to Spain. There, he furthered his education in politics and foreign diplomacy in a hands-on manner.
In 1781 he joined the Spanish army and served with distinction against the British in Gibraltar. Two years later the French General Lafayette accompanied him to Paris, and Littlepage was introduced to the French royal court where he made a favorable impression.
In 1784, Littlepage traveled across Europe with a French prince who was married to a Polish woman. In Poland, he became acquainted with the leading social and political families and was personally introduced to King Stanisław August Poniatowski. Littlepage made an immediate impression upon the king, for he was charming, witty and intelligent bordering on genius. They shared an interest in books and liberal ideas. King Stanisław admired all things American, and Littlepage's friendship with Lafayette and knowledge of France and Spain appealed to him. The king offered Littlepage a position in his court and he enthusiastically accepted.
He returned to see his family in Virginia, and met with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. He sought assurances that his position in Poland would not affect his American citizenship.
On March 2, 1786 Lewis Littlepage was sworn in as King Stanisław's First Confidential Secretary and Chamberlain at the age of twenty-four. The two men developed a deep personal friendship. Language was no barrier, for both spoke French and English.
The king sent Littlepage as envoy on missions to Russia and France, but Littlepage abruptly left his post in Paris to join the Russian navy in a campaign against Turkey in 1788. He served under the command of John Paul Jones, another American who fought for Russia. After a few months Littlepage returned to Warsaw and King Stanisław forgave him for deserting his post in Paris. He was sent to Spain in 1790, where he successfully established diplomatic relations between Madrid and Warsaw. The king knighted him with the Order of St. Stanislaus. The following year found him back in Paris as Poland's special envoy to France.
These assignments were meant to ultimately establish alliances between those countries and Poland in order to block the advances of Russia, Prussia and Austria against it. Poland was in the throes of reform, that were opposed by factions supporting those three powers. At the same time, Littlepage kept up a correspondence with America, principally with Jefferson, that kept the U.S. informed about the situation in Europe.
The king recalled Littlepage to Warsaw in time to see Poland adopt the May 3rd Constitution of 1791, amidst much celebration. Littlepage had nothing to do with its formulation and had serious doubts about its efficacy. When in 1792 Russia invaded Poland and occupied Warsaw, he remained loyal to King Stanisław and was given the military rank of major general. Littlepage, the king and several other aides were held under house arrest in the royal castle. Many of those close to the king turned on him and became informants for the Russians. The result was the second partition of Poland between Prussia and Russia. Littlepage was not involved in "negotiations" over this abominable event.
At this time, he was suffering from an illness, possibly malaria, that had him bedridden from time to time. A reckless spender, he worried about his debts and payments owed him for his services to Poland, for which Russia had assumed responsibility.
In 1794, Kościuszko's rebellion against foreign occupation began. Littlepage was witness to the actions in Warsaw that chased out the Russians, but remained at the king's side in the castle. When accused of being a pro-Russian traitor to Poland by the rebels, Littlepage appealed directly to Kościuszko, protesting his innocence.
He met General Kościuszko and was offered a position of command. Though he did not formally accept, he joined the insurrection and fought against the Prussians in northern Poland, who had come to aid Russia. When the rebellion began to collapse in late 1794, Littlepage went back to Warsaw and took part in the defense of its suburbs. He parted forever with the king, who was taken away to Grodno by the Russians. It is said that only Littlepage's service with the Russian navy in 1788 saved his neck.
After six months he left Poland, once he secured enough money to do so. After a year in Hamburg and Berlin, he returned to Warsaw in early 1796. Poland was no more on the map of Europe, having been completely partitioned among Prussia, Russia and Austria. Littlepage kept up a correspondence with King Stanisław in Grodno and hoped to see him again. He was still greatly concerned about money owed him for his services to Poland, which Russia consented to pay via a commission assembled in Warsaw. In the meantime, he received a small pension to live on, and fretted that he could not afford a return trip to America.
In 1798, still in Warsaw, his health starting to deteriorate, he finally received his compensation from Russia. He continued his correspondence with the king, now in St. Petersburg, and worried about his future. The king's death on February 12, 1798 was a heavy blow to Littlepage, for he had been to him a father figure, his main employer, source of identity and a true friend.
Littlepage remained in Warsaw until 1800, his activities unknown. Finally, in late 1801 he returned to America. He had been gone for sixteen years, and for much of that time had not written his family, who for many years had not known if he was still alive. Only nine months after arriving, Lewis Littlepage died at age thirty-nine on July 19, 1802. His long illness and cause of death remain a mystery, possibly tuberculosis. Thus ended the life of an adventurer, Polish statesman and American citizen. His gravestone in Fredericksburg, Va. includes the following inscription:
Honoured for many years with the esteem and confidence of the unfortunate Stanislaus Augustus, King of Poland, he held under that monarch, until he lost his throne, the most distinguished offices, among which was that of Ambassador to Russia. He was by him created Knight of St. Stanislaus, chamberlain and confidential secretary in his Cabinet, and acted as his special envoy in the most important negotiations.
Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal
Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland's Present, by Norman Davies
I recommend this book about Polish history written by Adam Zamoyski and entitled: The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture