Perhaps there has never been a more extraordinary gift given by one nation to another than the 111 volumes presented to the United States by Poland on the 150th anniversary of American independence. These volumes consist of a declaration of admiration (figs. 3 & 4) signed by an estimated 5,500,000 Polish citizens, representing more than one- sixth of the total population of Poland in 1926.
It may be difficult for Americans, who sometimes take democracy for granted, to understand the impetus behind this demonstration of admiration. For almost the entire history of the American Republic, Poland's political life had been dominated by foreign, autocratic powers, and Poles had looked to the United States as a model of political organization and to American democracy as a promise for their own future. It is, therefore, not surprising that Poland, only eight years after regaining independence from foreign rule, chose to mark the 150th anniversary of American independence.
The idea of having the Polish people participate in celebrating America's holiday was introduced in February 1926 by the American- Polish Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Poland, established in 1921, and the Polish American Society, founded in 1919 by renowned Polish composer and statesman Ignacy Paderewski. These two organizations invited various government departments, the municipality of Warsaw, and other important Polish institutions and associations to appoint thirty delegates to a national Sesquicentennial Committee to determine an appropriate tribute.
The Committee decided to present the United States with a declaration expressing the esteem, gratitude, and friendship of the people of Poland. This remarkable document would include the signatures of the president of the republic, national and regional officials, religious authorities, members of social organizations, and faculty and students of the major universities, as well as millions of Polish schoolchildren.
The inspiration for the gift was the custom, popular among Polish schoolchildren, of presenting a classmate or teacher with an album (Ksiega Pamiatkowa) inscribed by each child with good wishes, drawings, a favorite poem or merely a signature in commemoration of some special occasion. As organized by Polish American leaders and executed in part by leading contemporary Polish artists, this Ksiega Pamiatkowa became a multi- volume compendium of signatures, original artwork, fine calligraphy, official seals, photographs, and decorative bindings.
Collecting signatures from one-sixth of the national population was a prodigious undertaking. Celebrations to mark the anniversary of American independence were held throughout Poland on July 4, 1926. Many signatures were collected at these events. Other people signed sheets that were distributed through various social, political, educational, and professional institutions with which they were affiliated. The whole process took eight months to complete.
The separate sheets were then collected and hand bound into volumes arranged as follows: signatures of national, municipal, societal, and religious officials (volume 1); regional officials (volume 2); the faculty and students at the major institutions of higher learning (volume 2); faculty and students at Jagiellonian University (volume 3); faculty and students at the Academy of Mining in Krakow (volume 4); the professors and assistants of the State Dental Institute in Warsaw (volume 5); members of all the Polish organizations in Austria (volume 6); teachers and pupils of secondary schools (volumes 7-13); and teachers and pupils of elementary schools (volumes 14-109). Also included is a separate portfolio of loose sheets received after the binding process was completed. The collection is accompanied by a Guide to the Address Presented by the Polish Nation to the United States of America 1776-1926. The guide was written by Konstanty Hejmowski, vicepresident of the American-Polish Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Poland.
Many Poles were well-read in the Enlightenment philosophers whose ideas informed the thinking of the founders of American democracy. Furthermore, ever since the sixteenth century, democratic institutions such as an elected monarch and an active parliament played an important role in the Polish Commonwealth. Thus, the struggle of the thirteen American colonies to win their independence excited the imagination of the Polish people. Numerous Poles who were already in America or came here to offer their services fought in the Revolutionary Army.
Among the better known was Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817), who arrived in America in 1776 and participated in numerous campaigns under Generals George Washington and Horatio Gates. Kosciuszko had studied military engineering as well as architecture in Europe. He was thus able to teach the revolutionary forces how to build fortifications and mount artillery. During an important campaign in New York State, he helped build the fortifications at Ticonderoga and supervised the construction of fortifications at Bemis Heights and Saratoga. It was at these sites that the Americans succeeded in halting a British invasion from Canada intended to cut the infant nation in half. For his service, Congress granted Kosciuszko the rank of brigadier general.
Another well-known Pole who fought for American independence was Kazimierz Pulaski (1747-1779), who arrived in America in 1777. Threatened by arrest for having led an insurrection against foreign domination in Poland, Pulaski fled to France, where he met Benjamin Franklin. Franklin assisted him in reaching America. Because Poland was renowned for its cavalry and Pulaski was an experienced cavalry officer, General Washington gave him command of the Continental Army's regiments of mounted dragoons. Later Congress conferred on him the title commander of the horse and brigadier general.
Pulaski fought in the battles of Brandywine, Warren Tavern, Germantown and Haddonfield and later took part in relieving the siege of Charleston, South Carolina. He was mortally wounded in a battle in Savannah, Georgia, and died shortly thereafter. Pulaski is considered the "father of American cavalry."
At the end of the eighteenth century, precisely when Americans were establishing a republican form of government, Russia, Prussia, and Austria plotted to seize Polish territory in three successive partitions. After the final partition in 1795, the Polish Commonwealth ceased to exist. It was not until World War I that Poland was able to regain its independence with help from the United States.
Even before declaring war in 1917, Americans had assisted the Polish people by providing food for those caught in the clash of armies on the eastern front. When the United States finally entered the war, one of its objectives became the regaining of Polish independence. Point Thirteen in President Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points," his January 1918 statement of American war aims, declared: "An independent Polish state should be erected which would include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant." Accordingly, after the Allied victory in November 1918, an independent Poland was proclaimed.
In 1919 when the new Polish Republic was threatened by Bolshevik Russia, eleven American aviators--Elliott Chess, Carl Clark, Merian Cooper, Edward Corsi, George Crawford, Cedric Fauntleroy, Edmund Graves, Arthur Kelly, Edwin Noble, Harmon Rorison and Kenneth Shrewsbury--volunteered to fight for Poland by flying combat sorties and reconnaissance missions in support of Polish ground troops. They participated in the battle for Warsaw in 1920, a major turning point in the conflict, which halted the Bolshevik advance and brought an end to the war.
The American aviators were named the Kosciuszko Squadron for the Polish patriot who volunteered his services to fight for America's independence. To honor three pilots who perished during the Russo- Polish War, the Poles erected a monument in Lwow with an inscription that read: "They died so that we can live free."
Volume 1, the most impressive of all the volumes in the collection, is bound in red leather and contains 135 pages of signatures. The cover, gilded and blind stamped with an eagle, Poland's national emblem (fig. 5), was executed by Wojciech Jastrzebowski and Bonawentura Lenart and is inscribed In Token to the United States of America on the Occassion of the 150-th Anniversary of Their Independence. Following a title page (fig. 1), is a declaration composed by Sesquicentennial Committee member Zdzislaw Debicki and transcribed in fine calligraphy by Edmund John in both Polish and English (fig. 3 & fig. 4).
The declaration is followed by sheets displaying the signatures of the Polish president, Ignacy Moscicki; the cardinal archbishop of Warsaw, Aleksander Kakowski; the Council of Ministers (fig. 6); members of parliament (Sejm and Senate); the presidency of the Council of Ministers; officials and representatives of 95 other state and municipal institutions, social organizations, and religious bodies; and members of the Sesquicentennial Committee, whose seal is contained in a round metal case attached to the binding. Many of the signed sheets are decorated with finely drawn illustrations of buildings, coats of arms, historical monuments, rural and city scenes, and portraits of famous historical figures. Often the signatures are accompanied by official seals.
Volume 2 is bound in white leather and contains 281 pages of signatures in addition to separate sheets devoted to art. The front and back covers are gilded and blind stamped with emblems of Polish provinces (wojewodztwo) (fig. 9). The first of two sections included in this volume is dedicated to the signatures of members of provincial organizations, regional and district officials of the sixteen Polish provinces that existed during that time--Bialystok, Kielce, Krakow, Lodz, Lublin, Lwow, Nowogrodek, Polesie, Pomorze, Poznan, Slask, Stanislawow, Tarnopol, Warszawa, Wilno and Wolyn--as well as the staff of the Polish Commission General in Gdansk. Sheets in the second section display the signatures of the faculty and students of thirteen higher educational institutions as well as representatives of thirteen regional social organizations and military institutions.
Among the many original and unique illustrations are works by leading Polish painters and graphic artists of the time, such as Stanislaw Czajkowski, Wladyslaw Jarocki, Zygmunt Kaminski, Ferdynand Ruszczyc, Wladyslaw Skoczylas (fig. 14), Ludomir Slendzinski (fig. 10), Zofia Stryjenska (fig. 13), Jan Wroniecki, and Leon Wyczolkowski.
The 1920s were a major turning point in Polish art. The restoration of Polish independence at the end of World War I prompted the country's artists to experiment with different art movements to develop a distinctive "Polish" style. Many of the designs in this volume show a flowing together of symbolism, impressionism, expressionism, or art deco with Polish folk art.
Volumes 7-13, bound in linen and adorned with Polish and American emblems designed by Jastrzebowski and Lenart (fig. 15), contain an estimated 500,000 signatures of teachers and students of about 1,000 secondary schools. Each sheet is decorated with a letterhead that reads "USA, 1776-1926, Szkolnictwo polskie w holdzie narodowi amerykanskiemu na pamiatke 150-lecia niepodleglosci Stanow Zjednoczonych" [The Polish Educational System in Tribute to the American Nation on the Occasion of the 150th Year of American Independence]. Many of the sheets are adorned with drawings and photographs of schools, students, and teachers.
Volumes 14-109, bound in linen and inscribed "1776 4/VII 1926" (fig. 21), contain sheets bearing the names or signatures of teachers and pupils of some 20,000 elementary schools. Each sheet is decorated with a letterhead that reads "Szkolnictwo polskie w holdzie narodowi amerykanskiemu na pamiatke 150-lecia niepodleglosci Stanow Zjednoczonych" [The Polish Educational System in Tribute to the American Nation on the Occasion of the 150th Year of American Independence]. Below this are boxes for the name of the school, location, administrative district, school trustee, school principal and school inspector.
The total number of names or signatures contained in these volumes is estimated at about five million. These volumes also include photographs of schools, teachers, and pupils. Some 235 school districts are represented. They are:
The 111 volumes were presented to President Calvin Coolidge at a ceremony held at the White House on October 14, 1926, along with a commemorative 18K gold medal inscribed "Poland to the United States, 1776 July 4 1926" (fig. 31). Dr. Leopold Kotnowski, chairman of the Sesquicentennial Committee, and Professor Jerzy Iwanowski, made the presentation. According to an October 15, 1926 article in The New York Times, President Coolidge thanked the Polish delegation for the gift, referring to it as an "emblem of good will between nations." The volumes were transferred that same year to the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, where they were briefly exhibited by presidential order.
Some seventy years after their last public exhibition, the Library of Congress decided to put part of the collection on display to mark the opening of the new reading room of the European Division. The recent renewal of democratic institutions in Poland and the restoration of more open relations between Poland and the United States make the reappearance of these volumes all the more meaningful.
Text: Zbigniew Kantorosinski
(Special thanks are due to the following Library of Congress
Related material on the Library of Congress website: