In the year 1800, John Quincy Adams, the U.S. Minister to Prussia, undertook a two month tour of Silesia, then part of Prussia. He detailed his experiences in a series of letters to his brother. It was a thoroughly German area in that time (Western Silesia) that Adams visited, yet it is interesting to note the observations of a distinguished American, later President of the United States, of this region. Silesia, during its complicated history, was in centuries past a part of Poland and is currently a part of that nation, comprising its southwestern region.
Starting by horse-drawn coach from his residence in Berlin, Adams' first stop in what is now Polish territory was at Gruenberg, today the city of Zielona Gora. Noting its cloth mills and vineyards, Adams and his party, which included his wife and two servants, continued on their carriage ride deeper to Silesia. Their first stop in the province was at Bunzlau. There, Adams observed the main industry of the town. Even today it is famous, for the Polish name of this place is Boleslawiec, home of the world renowned Boleslawiec pottery.
They then traveled to Hirschberg, present day Jelenia Gora, where they explored its environs, which included hikes up the Riesengebirge, known today as the Karkonosze Mountains - the highest part of Sudeten Mountains (see the photo to the right). This also entailed a short visit across the border into Bohemia, then part of Austria-Hungary, and today the Czech Republic. Adams marveled at the breathtaking scenery from the mountainsides and reveled in observing unique rock shapes. It was his favorite place in Silesia and he bought four paintings of various mountain scenes as a remembrance. He was a meticulous note taker and diary keeper. During this trip he recorded not only his impressions of the area's natural beauty, but also commented on the commerce, customs, economics, road conditions and the situation of the people.
Adams noted the hard-working character of the citizens but expressed sympathy for the plight of the peasants, who worked long hours at hard labor for little in return in an almost semi-feudal state. He was appalled at the sight of the beggars who continually accosted them along their journey. On the character of the people he was divided. He thought the businessmen and leaders he met were friendly and generous hosts yet from time to time he complained about people whom he thought were surly and overcharged for their services.
After two weeks at Hirschberg he visited present day Swidnica and Walbrzych, where the entourage of the King and Queen of Prussia passed beneath his windows. Adams thought that the seizure of Silesia from Austria by King Frederick II of Prussia was very much a good thing for the province. This same Frederick had greedily seized western Poland for himself in the late eighteenth century partitions. No comment from Mr. Adams as to whether this was a good thing. But in his "Letters on Silesia" which detailed his travels, Adams does express the following thoughts about Poland. Not being far from the borders of Poland, he criticizes the fact that "numerous (Prussian) officers have been placed there, who treat the Poles too much as a conquered people," rather than as citizens of Prussia.
Yet as he talks about imports and exports to Poland he never refers to it as a province of Prussia, seemingly regarding it as a separate country. At one point as his carriage travels eastward he remarks that the roads became worse and that it was obvious "by the increasing wretchedness of the inhabitants, by the general degeneracy of the inns, and by the growing proportion of Catholics, that we were fast approaching the borders of Upper Silesia and Poland." This probably was more of an observation of the poverty suffered by the Poles, rather than an indictment against their character.
Adams visited Glatz, modern day Klodzko near the mountains of the Czech border, and also stoppped for several days at Breslau, currently the great Polish metropolis of Wroclaw, capital of Silesia. He was not very impressed with the city as he visited churches, still standing today, the university and places of business. He even heard a church sermon in Polish, attesting to the fact that a substantial minority of Poles lived in Prussian Breslau at the time. On his return trip to Berlin Adams mentioned hearing of Prince and Princess Radziwill, Prussian royals but of one of the leading noble families of Poland, who were vacationing in Dresden.
Adams' letters also detailed the history of Silesia. He noted the role of the Piast family, the founders of the Polish nation, in the history of Poland and Silesia, calling the name one of the most illustrious in Europe. He gives due credit to the dynasty for having saved Europe from the Tartars and for introducing the arts, sciences and commerce to northeastern Europe.
Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal