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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

The demand of the dissident noblesse


for a long time past to an increasing oppression, which was encouraged by a fanatical and unenlightened clergy, the Polish dissidents had conceived great hopes on the accession of Stanislaus Augustus; they claimed not only liberty of conscience and of worship, but also all the civil and political rights of which they were deprived. "It is no question of establishing the free exercise of different religions in Poland," wrote Frederick to Catherine; "it is necessary to reduce the question to its true issue, the demand of the dissident noblesse, and obtain for them the equality they demand, together with participation in all acts of sovereignty." This was precisely what the clergy and the Catholic noblesse were resolved never to grant. In spite of support from the empress and the King of Prussia, the demand of the dissidents was formally rejected by the Diet of 1766. At the Diet of 1767, Count Repnin, Catherine's ambassador and the real head of the government in Poland, had four of the most recalcitrant senators carried off and sent into exile in Russia. The Diet, terrified, disorganized, immediately pronounced in favor of the dissidents. By the modifications recently introduced into the constitution of their country, the Polish nobles had lost their liberum veto; unanimity of suffrages was no longer necessary in the Diet; the foreign powers were able to insolently impose their will upon it; the privileges of the noblesse, as well as their traditional faith, were attacked at
the very foundations; religious fanaticism and national independence boiled up at the same time in every heart; the discontent, secretly fanned by the agents of Frederick, burst out, sooner than the skilful weavers of the plot could have desired, with sufficient intensity and violence to set fire to the four corners of Poland. By a bold surprise the confederates gained possession of Cracow and of the fortress of Barr, in Podolia; there it was that they swore to die for the sacred cause of Catholic Poland. For more than a century, in the face of many misatkes and many misfortunes, the Poles have faithfully kept that oath.

The Bishop of Kaminck, Kraminski, had gone to Versailles to solicit the support of France. The Duke of Choiseul, at first far from zealous in the cause of the Polish insurrection, had nevertheless sent a few troops, who were soon re-enforced. The Empress Catherine had responded to the violence of the confederates of Barr by letting loose upon the Ukraine the hordes of Zaporoguian Cossacks, speedily followed by regular troops. The Poles, often beaten, badly led by chieftains divided amongst themselves, but ever ardent, ever skilful in seizing upon the smallest advantages, were sustained by the pious exhortations of the clergy, who regarded the war as a crusade; they were rejoiced to see a diversion preparing in their favor by the Sultan's armaments. "I will raise the Turks against Russia the moment you think proper," was the assurance given to the Duke of Choiseul by the Count of Vergennes, French ambassador at Constantinople, "but I warn you that they will be beaten." Hostilities broke out on the 30th of October, 1768; a Turkish army set out to aid the Polish insurrection. Absorbed by their patriotic passions, the Catholic confederates summoned the Mussulmans to their assistance. Prince Galitzin, at the head of a Russian force very inferior to the Ottoman invaders, succeeded in barring their passage; the Turks fell back, invariably beaten by the Russian generals. Catherine at the same time summoned to liberty the oppressed and persecuted Greeks; she sent a squadron to support the rising which she had been fomenting for some months past. After a few brilliant successes, her arms were less fortunate at sea than on land. A French officer, of Hungarian origin, Baron Tott, sent by the Duke of Choiseul to help the Sublime Porte, had fortified the Straits of the Dardanelles; the Russians were repulsed; they withdrew, leaving the Greeks to the vengeance of their oppressors. The efforts which the Empress Catherine was making in Poland against the confederates of Barr had slackened her proceedings against Turkey; she was nevertheless becoming triumphant on the borders of the Vistula, as well as on the banks of the Danube, when the far-sighted and bold policy of Frederick II. interfered in time to prevent Russia from taking possession of Poland as well as of the Ottoman empire.

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