Nearly a hundred years ago, the Polish American Society in Poland sent a unique and heartfelt message to the United States. This massive “greeting card” contains 5.5 million signatures of Polish citizens. The Polish Declarations of Admiration and Friendship for the United States of 1926 fills 111 leather-bound volumes that take up nearly fourteen feet of shelf space within the Library of Congress.
This forgotten treasure may be the most extraordinary gift from one nation to another. It stuns in sheer size, sentiment, effort, and beauty. It is a fascinating piece of history I doubt will ever be duplicated.
By the Numbers
I discovered this amazing artifact when I visited the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. recently. My inner history geek pinged with interest. I had never heard of this significant collection of documents. The more I viewed the pages, the more impressed I became, and remain.
Sheer numbers underscore the national effort to create this collection of Polish Declarations. It took eight months to create and assemble the document. Signatures represent government officials from the president to local towns. University students and professors signed the document. Students from 1,170 secondary schools and 20,000 elementary schools participated. Historically, it is equivalent to a census of school-age children in 1926 Poland. For perspective, consider nearly one-sixth of the Polish population signed the documents.
Organizers held events around the country on July 4, 1926 to celebrate the American Independence Day and collect signatures. Colorful illustrations of buildings, coats of arms, historical monuments, rural and urban scenes, and famous historical figures embellish the leather-bound volumes. Prominent Polish artists of the time all contributed their time and talents.
Artwork includes official seals, coats of arms, calligraphy, and photographs. Decorative bindings adorn the volumes. Many of the sheets are decorated with works of art by students or faculty. Elsewhere, the signatures are arranged in clever designs, and a brief poem or congratulatory message frequently appears at the top of the sheet.
Long live Liberty, Equality, and Justice!
History helps underscore the significance of this effort, and the Polish admiration for democracy. Poles such as Thaddeus (Tadeusz) Kościuszko and Casimir (Kazimierz) Pulaski fought beside Americans in the Revolutionary War. (See earlier post on Kościuszko.) On May 3, 1791, Poland passed the first European constitution of independence, patterned after the U.S. constitution passed in 1787. However, Russia invaded Poland a year later. By 1795, the monarchies of Russia, Prussia and Austria absorbed Poland into their borders. Poland disappeared from the map of Europe for 123 years.
For centuries, Poles have looked to the United States as a model of political organization and to American democracy as a promise for their own future.
In 1918, at the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson advocated for a free Poland. In appreciation, Poland conferred their country’s highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle upon Wilson. He accepted the award at a quiet ceremony after he left office. Click here for photo of the medal.
Four years later, the Declarations were presented to President Calvin Coolidge at a ceremony held at the White House on October 14, 1926. It also acknowledged American participation and aid to Poland during World War I. It was then turned over to the Library of Congress to store and preserve the volumes.
How to view and access the Declarations
Today, every page has been digitized and is available to view online. The digitalization was spearheaded and to a great extent financed by contributions from members of the Friends of Polish Library in Washington. To view this wonderful collection, click below.
Library of Congress, Catalog of the 1997 exhibit featuring the Declarations. It includes a list of all 235 school districts of the time. Click here.