The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Union with Saxony

On 27 June 1697, Frederick Augustus (1670–1733), the Elector of Saxony, was chosen to be King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. On his coronation, he took the name Augustus II, but because of his unusual strength, he was known as Augustus II the Strong. Saxony was one of the most economically developed countries in Europe in the 17th century. The Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth had a better political future by forming a personal union with Saxony than with most of its neighbours. The new ruler, who already had his own country, was expected to be able to control the nobility of the PLC.

Augustus II’s vision: the wealth of Saxony and the size of the PLC

At the turn of the 18th century, the political system of the PLC was different to that of its neighbours. There were three kinds of state in Europe at that time. The first were states with a strong hereditary monarchy (France, Russia, Denmark, and many German principalities). The second were states in which power was wielded by representative public bodies (the PLC, and partly Switzerland, Venice, the Duchy of Meklenburg, England). The third were states with systems that included features of these two groups (the Netherlands and Sweden until 1680). One feature of the PLC which distinguished it from other states was its free elections to the monarchy, and the right of every noble to vote in them. At the same time, this was the main obstacle hindering the strengthening of the institution of the monarchy.

Augustus II had more power in Saxony than he did in the PLC. He was not an absolute ruler in the Republic, and he constantly had to struggle against the local nobles (especially on questions of tax) and the Sejm. His desire throughout his reign to strengthen his power in both states he governed is clear. He planned to do this by changing the personal union between Saxony and the PLC into a strong and indissoluble bond, a political union. Through the Union of Lublin in 1569, Lithuania, as the weaker partner, had had to give way to Poland. In the early 18th century, Saxony’s economic advantages naturally led to the PLC playing the role of the junior partner.

On the other hand, the huge size of the Commonwealth, its population and its natural resources of raw materials offered huge possibilities, if this political agenda were to be implemented.

One foot in absolutism

We can see the many steps Augustus II took towards strengthening relations between Saxony and the PLC. Diplomatic representatives of the Republic in foreign countries were replaced from the very beginning of his reign by the Saxon diplomatic service. Later, the most important issues in Saxony and the Commonwealth were decided by Augustus II’s faithful advisors, in his secret cabinet where Saxon ministers formed an absolute majority. The ruler tried to have his decisions legitimised by the Council of Senators. In 1710, Augustus managed to oblige the parliament of the Republic to accept 8,000 Saxon soldiers into the Polish and Lithuanian army, and to pay them out of its own coffers. After 1717, the Silent Sejm managed to take some of the best Polish and Lithuanian troops away from the authority of the hetman for a few years, and to transfer them to the command of the favourite Saxon J. Fleming. Augustus II also interfered in taxation. In 1713–1715, the commissariat of Saxon troops, based in Warsaw, announced a tax for the maintenance of Saxon troops without the approval of the Sejm or the Sejmiks. Augustus could not even have done that in Saxony. The explanation for why all these successes were short-lived, and why all of Augustus’ plans failed, is simple: Saxony was too weak to force through reforms of the PLC. At first, the Swedes objected to Augustus’ plans. Later, the Tarnogrod and Vilnius confederations appeared in the Commonwealth. After that, its strong neighbours, Russia and Prussia, conspired to preserve the old political system in the Commonwealth. Augustus’ reforming plans failed, the authority of the ruler of the Commonwealth declined, and there was a danger of decentralisation. The greatest crisis in the monarchy as a ruling institution occurred when the state was ruled by Augustus’ son, Augustus III, between 1733 and 1763.

Democracy of nobles: a system ahead of its time, or anarchy and chaos?

The PLC never came so close to absolutism as it did in the time of Augustus II.

In 1717, fixed taxes were introduced into the Sejm. Restrictions on the hetman and the authority of the Sejmiks were the first significant reforms, about which the Prussian ambassador to the Commonwealth wrote: ‘This is an excellent basis for absolute government.’ But it is important that we do not regret that absolutism was not introduced into the Commonwealth. As a system of government, it was not a remedy for all ailments. Strong government did not save other states from the pain of collapse: Denmark and France stagnated in the 18th century, and absolutism and the arbitrary policies of Charles XII were an important factor in Sweden’s catastrophic decline in the early 18th century.

From the point of view of modern democracy, the reforms in the PLC in the late 18th-century placed it among the most advanced countries in Europe. While most countries experienced some kind of absolutism on their way to democracy, the Commonwealth managed to jump this phase (as did England partially). This suggests that the system of the PLC was no worse than that of other countries. Its prospects in the early 18th century for geopolitical development were just as good.

Mindaugas Šapoka