Polish Fund Talk Reveals Thomas Jefferson’s Betrayal of Kosciuszko Pact

Graham Russell Gao Hodges

News Story: November 18, 2013

Was Thomas Jefferson the great advocate of liberty that we have read about in history texts or was he a typical Virginia aristocrat of his time who was inclined to retain his plantation slaves rather than leverage a pact with Tadeusz Kosciuszko to free them? This was the topic of discussion when Graham Russell Gao Hodges visited Sacred Heart University recently for a talk sponsored by the Polish Studies Fund titled “Tadeusz Kosciuszko and the Black American Revolution.” Hodges is the George Dorland Langdon, Jr., Professor of History and Africana & Latin American Studies at Colgate University. He is also the co-author, with Gary B. Nash, of the 2008 book Friends of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kociuszko and Agrippa Hull: A Tale of Three Patriots, Two Revolutions and a Tragic Betrayal of Freedom in the New Nation.

Hodges began the lecture by noting that much has been written about Jefferson, the third president of the United States, but little about Kosciuszko, who Hodges described as “a brilliant military engineer who enabled victory at Saratoga and tilted the war (the American Revolution) in our favor.” In that conflict, the Polish nationalist served as a colonel in the Continental Army, living in America from 1776 to 1784. Upon his return to his native country, he served as a major general in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Army and organized an uprising against Russia in 1794. He was captured and imprisoned for two years, then pardoned and emigrated back to the U.S. in 1797. Stateside, he was greeted as a hero and repatriated richly for his war service.

Kosciuszko and Jefferson became great friends, though the two had little in common but their apparent virtue and service to the nation. “They explored topics like the meaning of America, the nation as a land of liberty and Franco-American relations,” said Hodges. Kosciuszko even entrusted Jefferson with his will, which dedicated his American assets to the education and freedom of slaves—including Jefferson’s own—then sailed to France in 1798, never to return to America again.

Suffering from old wounds and complications after falling from a horse, Kosciuszko ultimately died in 1817. Jefferson was left to execute his will. By that time, though Jefferson had achieved great power and wealth, he also had a penchant to spend a lot on fine wine and art and was mired in debt. He announced in a Virginia court that he was not in a position to be the executor of Kosciuszko’s will. The document was declared invalid and the related assets, which had grown to $50,000, were assigned to the Pole’s daughters.

Essentially, though the two men had reached a pact of honor, Jefferson betrayed Kosciuszko’s wishes. “What does this say about our early history?” asked Hodges. “Jefferson fascinates as much as he disappoints, while Kosciuszko was someone who had actual virtue.