Testimony from Mount Vernon

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz

  • Tadeusz Kościuszko
  • George Washington

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz (1758 –1841) was a Polish poet, playwright, and statesman. He was a leading advocate of the constitution of May 3rd 1791. He was born in Polesia, modern-day Belarus. Many of Niemcewicz’s works were devoted to the history of the Eastern Lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He started his public career as aide to Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, a powerful Polish aristocrat of Lithuanian-Ruthenian origin. Meanwhile, during the 1794 Kościuszko Uprising, Niemcewicz served as aide to Tadeusz Kościuszko, a national hero of Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, and the US. 

In 1797 Niemcewicz accompanied Kościuszko to America, where the general had won fame fighting in the country’s struggle for independence. During his ten year residence in the United States (with a break for a visit to Poland), Niemcewicz travelled from Virginia to Maine and spent a considerable amount of time in New Jersey and New York. He married an American woman and gained US citizenship. He was also elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. In 1807 Niemcewicz returned to Poland, which had been recently liberated by Napoleon, and was made secretary of the senate. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, he became secretary of state and president of the constitutional committee in the autonomous Kingdom of Poland, which was under Russian rule. In that period, Niemcewicz became a central figure in Polish cultural life. During the failed November Uprising of 1830–31, Niemcewicz was a member of the rebel Polish government.

Streets of Philadelphia, Source: Shutterstock

Niemcewicz’s Palace, Skoki, Polesia, Source: Shutterstock

Travelling extensively around the US, he wrote a diary that was published under the title Under their Vine and Fig Tree. Travels through America in 1797-1799, 1805 with some Further Account of Life in New Jersey. The document is especially interesting because of its historical and human value. It records a key historical period in the nation-building process of the United States after its successful struggle for independence. Niemcewicz wrote his diary through the eyes of a foreigner who had just come to America after a failed fight for his own motherland.

Mount Vernon, Source: Shutterstock

Many parts in Niemcewicz’s memoirs provide an extremely valuable first-hand insight into the lives of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Adams, the country’s first three presidents with whom the Polish exile was on friendly terms. John Lucas, a prominent American historian of Hungarian origin, has written that “Niemcewicz’s description of Washington’s manners, countenance, and of the estate in Mount Vernon are first-rate sources, since his talent for observation was excellent”. As a result, Niemcewicz’s work stands among the best travel journals by foreign visitors during the early years of the American republic. He admired the success of the US, which was in his opinion “the result of freedom”, whose light “penetrates the poorest hut”. In his diaries he showed that equality, independence, and freedom were prized possessions in the US. On the other hand, his picture of Black and Native Americans is realistic yet very deeply sympathetic. The terrible lot of the African slaves in particular is mentioned in the memoirs with profound compassion. Niemcewicz considered slavery to be “an insult to human dignity”. Meanwhile, Indians were for him the real and righteous masters of America.

Niemcewicz’s contribution to American culture stems from the fact that he was the author of the first biography of George Washington, which is called A Brief Discourse on the Life and Affairs of George Washington. His description of General Washington at Mount Vernon is believed to be “the most warm and intimate portrait of Washington which exists”.