It’s Fourth of July weekend, the annual holiday commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the birth of the United States. As an American, it’s probably the day when I should be least aware of my Polish ethnicity as I watch things blow up in the sky, consume copious amounts of barbecued food, and sport the colors red, white and blue.
Yet, when I sat down to ponder how I could reconcile my strong Polish pride with my American identity on this Independence Day, I realized that Poles and Polish values have shaped the U.S. from the very beginning in several fundamental ways. Our two nations’ stories are forever intertwined, making each Pole in the U.S. as patriotic as the most “red-blooded” American. At our core, we share four main values: religious freedom, democracy, self-reliance and sacrifice.
The right to practice whichever faith you choose has been one of the U.S.’s most sacred hallmarks since the very beginning. After all, the Puritans settled in Massachusetts Bay during the early 17th century to escape persecution by the Church of England. Continuing this trend, Roger Williams founded the Rhode Island colony in 1636 as a safe haven for people of all creeds. Eventually, the religious tolerance movement culminated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion.
Conversely, much of Europe was anti-religious freedom at this time. In Spain, the Inquisition was torturing Jews in horrible ways. Germany endured bloody religious conflicts where Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other, such as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Amidst this climate of intolerance, Poland stood apart. As early as 1334, King Casimir the Great granted significant protections and freedoms to Jews, who were being persecuted nearly everywhere else in Europe. Just as the Puritans would later migrate to America, Jews migrated to Poland from all over to find safety and tolerance.
Poland’s climate of religious freedom continued even afterward. It entirely avoided the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants during the 16th and 17th centuries, and Jews enjoyed significant autonomy until World War II. Both Poles and Americans have prized this right almost above all others.
It is said that the ancient Greeks invented the concept of democracy. American history books teach that our founding fathers drew much of their inspiration for democracy from the ancients. Although true, it paints an incomplete picture.
In the 16th century and even earlier, Poland was already experimenting with democracy. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth elected its king. When the old king died, all of the nobles in the country converged on Warsaw where they exercised their right to vote for a new leader. The peasants had no such rights, but compared to the rest of Europe, which had absolute monarchs at the time, these free elections were extremely progressive.
In addition, a parliament of nobles, or Sejm was established. This Polish congress served as a check on the king and could veto virtually anything, from new laws, to war declarations, to taxes.
In a way, early American democracy did not differ much. Just as only nobles could vote in Poland, only white male landowners could vote in the U.S. Eventually, democracy expanded in both countries, but it was present in the hearts and minds of Poles and Americans long before other nations even considered it.
An old American philosophy encourages people to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and “make something of themselves.” The idea of working hard to attain success has pervaded American society throughout history, from the earliest pilgrims, to westward migrants seeking gold and land, to the “rags to riches” businessmen in the news today.
Poland has played a direct role in this narrative. Beginning in the mid-to late-nineteenth century, over two million Polish immigrants arrived in places like New York, Pennsylvania and Chicago to improve their lives. They began on the lowest rungs of society, taking back-breaking jobs in the stock yards, mines and lumber mills. Many lived in poverty, but they were determined to provide a better life for themselves and, especially, for their children.
Poles are among the many immigrant groups who built the U.S. industrially, eventually turning it into the most powerful nation on earth. They embody the best in hard work, perseverance and ambition. Today, many Poles have risen to the highest positions of power in the U.S. and serve as shining examples of the opportunity this great country provides.
Perhaps the most important value that Poles share with Americans is the belief of sacrificing yourself to protect all of the other values.
During the American Revolution, ordinary farmers and tradesmen left their crops and shops to fight and die for an independent country, free from an overbearing British government. The Civil War, the bloodiest in our nation’s history, witnessed American boys dying to preserve the union and its many freedoms. World War I was America’s first military foray into Europe. The famous slogan “We must make the world safe for democracy” served to energize the American soldiers “over there.” In the 1940s, the U.S. faced its most serious threat to date. World War II cost the U.S. hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fought to defend the world against the Nazis.
Likewise, Poland has never shied away from sacrifice. After the third partition and disappearance of Poland in 1795, the fight was just beginning. Heroic leaders like Thaddeus Kościuszko led courageous revolts against the occupying Russians and Prussians. After being defeated in Poland, Kościuszko and Casimir Pułaski came to the United States to assist in the American Revolution. This willingness of Poles to sacrifice themselves for a young America speaks more than anything else to the connection between the two countries’ values. These Polish heroes saw something in the U.S. that shook them to the core and encouraged them to fight, and in the case of Pułaski, to die for American freedom.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, Poles continued to sacrifice themselves for a free Poland. Revolts in 1830, 1848 and 1863 proved that their Polish identity was alive and well. During World War I, the Poles gained independence only to lose it in World War II, during which their underground resistance movement did much to support the allies’ fight against the Nazis. Finally, a decades-long struggle against the Soviet Union culminated in a free Poland in 1989.
This section on sacrifice is certainly the longest, and for good reason. All of the other values that Poles and Americans share exist only because millions have fought for them over the centuries. As I sit and reflect on the significance of being an American of Polish descent on July Fourth, I realize and appreciate how many have given their lives so that I have the freedom to type these words.