Monday, May 22, 2017
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Poland’s Influence on Thomas Jefferson

The political genius of Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly inborn, but throughout his life he was influenced by the thinking of many individuals and the experiences of various countries and societies. Jefferson used this knowledge when he wrote the American Declaration of Independence.

It is known that Jefferson was greatly influenced by the writings of the Englishman John Locke. But Locke’s writings were deeply imbued with the thoughts and ideas of the Polish Brethren, also known as the Socinians, a religious sect in Poland in the late 1600s that espoused freedom of religion and personal liberty. Locke’s political thoughts were more specifically influenced by the Poles Wawrzyniec Goślicki and Samuel Przypkowski.

Przypkowski (1592-1670) put forth these radical ideas in his writings: freedom of dissent, conscience and religion, social equality, freedom from oppression, and separation of church and state. He argued against blind obedience to authority and in favor of the virtues of reason and free inquiry. He believed that morals could exist outside of the religious realm.

Goślicki (1533-1607), also known by the Latinized version of his name, Laurentius Goslicius, was another great Polish political philosopher. He published a very influential book in Latin, De Optimo Senatore, translated as The Accomplished Senator. It caused a stir among Europe’s royals and was banned by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I for its anti-despotic support of freedom for the common man and limits on the authority of both church and state. Przypkowski’s and Goślicki’s thoughts echo in the writings of John Locke.

Thomas Jefferson’s library contained the writings of Locke as well as a copy of Goślicki’s The Accomplished Senator. When Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he transplanted the ideas of Goślicki into that famous document.

Consider the following passages from The Accomplished Senator and the Declaration of Independence. Goślicki wrote: “The public happiness of the community lives in the private happiness of individuals,” while Jefferson in the Declaration called “the pursuit of happiness” an unalienable right. Goślicki said that “all citizens are born equal,” while Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal.” The Declaration states that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of [basic liberties], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” This seems to be based upon what Goślicki wrote two centuries earlier, that “a nation frustrated by tyranny takes upon itself the undoubted right to fight for its freedoms.”

Jefferson, like many of our Founding Fathers, was a political philosopher who studied the various governments of Europe. The Kingdom of Poland drew attention because of its unique elective monarchy and domination of its parliament by the noble class, and the utter failure of this form.

Because of the structure of its government, by the late 1700s Poland had become dominated by foreign powers and lacked any semblance of a functioning economy, with the common man reduced to a life of abject misery. Poland was often used as an example of a government not to be emulated by the United States.

Jefferson did not take part in the debates of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 because he was in Paris. When he heard of the creation of the office of the president, he was appalled, calling it “a bad edition of a Polish king.” He feared that the president would serve for life, be dominated by the legislature, and come under foreign influence, just like the King of Poland. “What we have always read of the elections of Polish kings should have forever excluded the idea of one continuable for life,” Jefferson wrote. He felt that term limits could ameliorate this threat, but the Constitution contained no such restriction.

But Jefferson was sympathetic to the plight of the Polish people and condemned the partitions of Poland. Late in life he wrote to John Adams that “the partition of Poland was the atrocity of a barbarous government [Russia] chiefly, in conjunction with a smaller one [Prussia] still scrambling to become great, while one of the already great [Austria] ... descended to the baseness of an accomplice in the crime.

Jefferson became friends with Tadeusz Kościuszko and the Polish author and traveler Julian Niemcewicz, and in his talks and correspondence with them expressed his hope for the emergence of an independent and free Poland. It was Niemcewicz who secured membership for Jefferson in the Royal Society of the Friends of Sciences in Warsaw. Kościuszko named Jefferson executor of his estate, and gave him the fur coat that he wears as depicted on his statue in the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.

I recommend

The Peasant Prince: and the Age of Revolution,  by Alex Storozynski

Eyewitness Travel
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland (Eyewitness Travel Guides) by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Jerzy S. Majewski, DK Travel Writers

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