The Polish Constitution of May 3rd, 1791 was first in Europe and second in the world the Government Act following the United States Constitution of September 17th, 1787 and preceding the French September Constitution by several months. The American Constitution was forged in the fire of the American War of Independence, the French one was produced by the Revolution, while the Polish Constitution bloomed from bloodless changes effected by forces striving to recover independence of their own state and sovereignty of their nation and the enable development of the country predetermining an effective protection of independence. The three constitutions produced at the end of 18th century are still considered the first modern constitutions in the world.
The Constitution of May 3rd, 1791 was adopted by the Great Seym (Parliament – Seym being equivalent for British House of Common) of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, a dual monarchy comprising Poland and Lithuania. Drafted over 32 months beginning on October 6th, 1788, and formally adopted as the Government Act (Ustawa rządowa), the document was designed to redress the Commonwealth’s political defects. The system of Golden Freedoms, also known as the “Nobles’ Democracy”, had conferred disproportionate rights on the nobility (szlachta) and over time had corrupted politics. The adoption of the Constitution was preceded by a period of agitation for – and gradual introduction of – reforms beginning with the Convocation Seym of 1764 and the election of Stanisław II Augustus Poniatowski as the Commonwealth’s last king.
Poland was once an European power
The Commonwealth – the Polish-Lithuanian state composed of the Crown – Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a European power still during the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries. However, it became dependent on its neighbours – Prussia, Austria and Russia in particular during the 18th century but it was still the largest state on the continent. Its republican system efficient earlier turned to anarchy. Enlightened people raised their voices calling for reforms already during the first half of the 18th century.
The Enlightenment, an intellectual and philosophical movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century greatly influenced certain Commonwealth circles during the 1764–95 reign of its last king, Stanisław II Augustus Poniatowski.
“Enlightened” King of Poland
Attempts to lift the country from its downfall started with the new reign commenced with the election of Stanisław II Augustus Poniatowski in 1764. He was an “enlightened” Polish magnate who had been a deputy to several Seyms between 1750 and 1764 and had a deeper understanding of Polish politics than previous monarchs. Although this election was also conducted at the presence of the Russian army, the new king, a former favourite of the Russian Empress Catherine II, aimed, contrary to her intentions, at a civilisational, cultural, economic and military rebirth of the state and at gaining independence from Russia and changing relations with the country from vassal to partnership. Consecutive attempts at reforms were subverted by Russia. Russian interventions and the dislike towards the king among a major part of magnates and conservative gentry opposing reforms led to Confederacy of Bar in 1768. The gentry fought under the flag of the Confederacy defending their faith and freedom and trying to overthrow the king and to prevent reforms. The fall of the Confederacy in 1772 brought about the First Partition of Poland meaning a loss of 1/3 of the territory and population to Russia, Prussia and Austria.
To nullify any legislation by shouting
The Convocation Seym of 1764, which elected Poniatowski to the throne, was controlled by the Czartoryski family’s reformist Familia party and was backed up by Russian military forces, which the Czartoryskis invited. In exchange for passing decrees favourable to them, the Russians and Prussians let the confederated Convocation Seym enact a number of reforms, including the weakening of liberum veto (a form of unanimity voting rule that allowed any member of the Seym – legislature – to force an immediate end to the current session and to nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting) and ensuring it no longer applied to treasury and economic matters. A more comprehensive reform package was presented by count Andrzej Zamoyski, Knight of the Order of the White Eagle but opposition from Prussia, Russia and the Polish nobility thwarted this ambitious programme, which proposed to decide on all motions by majority voting. In part because election of Poniatowski was imposed by Empress Catherine the Great, his political position was weak from the beginning. He proceeded with cautious reforms such as the establishment of fiscal and military ministries and the introduction of a national customs tariff, which was soon abandoned because of opposition from Frederick the Great of Prussia. These measures had already been authorized by the Convocation Seym. More legislative and executive improvements inspired by Familia or the King were implemented during and after the 1764 Seym.
The First Partition of Poland made the need for far reaching changes which would result in adopting the Constitution
The Partitions of Poland, three territorial divisions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth took place towards the end of the 18th century. They were perpetrated by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, by which Poland’s size was progressively reduced until, after the final partition, the state ceased to exist.
The First Partition of Poland was decided on August 5th, 1772. That made the need for far reaching changes necessary to save the country obvious to broad circles of the gentry. The political life gained in vigour which was reflected in the development of political writings and polemics on problems basic for the situation and the future of the country. The international situation of the late 1780s proved favourable for the reformers.
The Great Seym
It is also called the 4-year Seym for the period of its activity commenced its deliberations on October 6th, 1788 meeting at normal 6 week sessions. The atmosphere was patriotic. A majority of the Seym was composed of an anti royal opposition, although it was not homogeneous. Among the leaders of the oppositions, there were defenders of the old system:
- Franciszek Ksawery Branicki, a Polish nobleman, magnate, count, diplomat, politician, military commander and one of the leaders of the Targowica Confederation. Later sentenced to hang however, he escaped the death penalty and received in absentia from the Supreme Criminal Court during the Kościuszko Uprising (1794); appointed the Great Crown Podstoli in 1764, Ambassador in Berlin in 1765, Master of the Hunt of the Crown in 1766–1773, Artillery General of Lithuania in 1768–1773, Ambassador in Moscow in 1771, Field Crown Hetman in 1773 and Great Crown Hetman of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1774 and 1794
- Seweryn Rzewuski, a Polish nobleman, writer, poet, general of the Royal Army, Field Hetman of the Crown, Voivode of Podolian Voivodeship and one of the leaders of the Targowica Confederation.
- and Stanislaw Szczęsny Potocki, of the Piława coat of arms, a military commander of the forces of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and then Poland; knight of the Order of the White Eagle, awarded in August 1775; Great Chorąży of the Crown in 1774–1780, voivode of Ruthenian Voivodeship in 1782–1791, Great Lieutenant General of the Crown since 1784, General of Artillery of the Crown in 1789–1792, Marshal of the Targowica Confederation in 1792
as well as ardent partisans of reforms including:
- Ignacy Potocki, a Polish nobleman, member of the influential magnate Potocki family, a politician, writer, and office holder, the Marshal of the Permanent Council (Rada Nieustająca) in 1778–1782, Grand Clerk of Lithuania from 1773, Court Marshal of Lithuania from 1783, Grand Marshal of Lithuania from April 16th, 1791 to 1794; an educational activist, member of the Commission of National Education and the initiator and president of Society for Elementary Textbooks; an opponent of king Stanisław II August in the 1770s and 1780s, and a major figure in the Polish politics of that era; during the Great Seym he was a leader of the Patriotic Party and the reform movement and eventually backed the King in many reform projects; an advocate of a pro-Prussian orientation, he helped to conclude an alliance with Prussia in 1790; also co-authored the Constitution of May 3rd, 1791.
- Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, an influential Polish aristocrat, writer, literary and theatre critic, linguist, traveller and statesman; a great patron of arts and a candidate for the Polish crown; a member of the Seym (parliament), Crown General of Podolia and Marshal of General Confederation of Kingdom of Poland. Adam Kazimierz was educated in England and prepared to take over the Polish throne. But in the period when Poland was left without an elected king, Adam Kazimierz refused the crown (1763), which was accepted by his first cousin Stanisław August Poniatowski, who reigned as Stanisław II Augustus
- and Hugo Kollataj, a Polish Roman Catholic priest, social and political activist, political thinker, historian and philosopher; he is seen as one of the most prominent figures of the Enlightenment in Poland and one of the most active propagators of changes.
They called themselves a patriotic party.
The most modern bill adopted in near coup d`etat atmosphere
The work on the future constitution accelerated early in 1791. First of all, a reform of towns was carried out. On April 18th, 1791, the Seym passed the bill on royal towns (it did not concern private towns) which was later incorporated in the Constitution of May 3rd. Towns were granted self-government and the burghers obtained rights and privileges similar to those enjoyed by the gentry. All this time, the leaders of the patriotic party were soliciting for support of the society. A broad propaganda campaign was launched. The draft of the Bill on Government (which is the official name of the Constitution) came on the agenda on May 3rd, 1791 on the second day after the Easter parliamentary holiday when many deputies were still absent. The king and the leaders made the supporters of the reform arrive early in the capital. The idea was to surprise the antagonists and to make it impossible for them to prevent passing the bill by force. The royal guards were positioned near the Royal Castle where the Seym gathered while the neighbouring square and the adjacent streets were filled by the people of Warsaw who supported the changes. The draft Constitution had a sweeping majority in the Seym. After 6 hours of fierce discussion, the king swore the Constitution and then everybody passed to a nearby church for thanksgiving prayers and singing “Te Deum laudamus”. These events were accompanied by an enormous enthusiasm of the gathered crowds. On May 5th, the Seym completed the formalities legalising the Constitution unanimously. It passed also the Declaration of the Gathered Estates (i.e. of the Seym) confirming the Bill on Government.
The Constitution introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility and placed the peasants under the protection of the government, thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. The Constitution banned pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto, which at one time had placed a seym at the mercy of any deputy who might choose, or be bribed by an interest or foreign power, to revoke all the legislation that had been passed by that seym. The May 3rd Constitution sought to supplant the existing anarchy fostered by some of the country’s reactionary magnates, with more egalitarian and democratic constitutional monarchy.
The peaceful character of the Polish revolution favourably compared to the events in France
The Commonwealth’s neighbours reacted with hostility to the adoption of the constitution. Frederick William II’s Kingdom of Prussia broke its alliance with the Commonwealth, which was attacked and then defeated in the War in Defence of the Constitution by an alliance between Catherine the Great’s Imperial Russia and the Targowica Confederation of anti-reform Polish magnates and landless nobility. The King, a principal co-author, eventually capitulated to the Confederates.
On the contrary to the invaders the reaction of many European courts was favourable and the public opinion in many countries supported the Polish changes. In countries, like England, the peaceful character of the Polish revolution was favourably compared to the events in France.
The elimination of the sovereign Poland for 123 years
The constitution remained in force for less than 19 months before being overthrown by Russian armies allied with conservative Polish nobility in the Polish–Russian War of 1792, also known as the War in Defense of the Constitution. It was annulled by the Grodno Seym on November 23rd, 1793. The development of the international situation was causing apprehensions concerning the future of the reform and the fate of the country. In 1793, Russian and Prussian troops entered the Commonwealth again and the Second Partition was signed on January 23rd, 1793. Unlike two other partitions, Austria did not participate in that division of Polish land. The Poles could not accept that, nor the prospect of a total collapse of the state. The Insurrection of 1794 under the leadership of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, both Polish and US hero did not re-establish formally the Constitution of May 3rd as it produced much deeper reforms, especially concerning the situation of peasants, while the system of authorities was adjusted to the current political and war needs.
In reaction to the unsuccessful Insurrection the Third Partition of Poland took place on October 24th, 1795. With this partition, the Commonwealth ceased to exist and Poland lost sovereignty for 123 years.
The miracle of the Constitution did not save the state but did save the nation
The constitution has been both idealized and criticized for either not going far enough or for being too radical. After the downfall of the Insurrection and the Third Partition of Poland liquidating the Polish state, traditions, legends and myths of the Constitution of May 3rd proliferated. They developed and strengthened the national consciousness and helped the nation divided among the three partitioning powers to last through 123-year-long period of enslavement combined with attempts at a denationalisation of the Poles, they stimulated struggle for independence till the nineteen eighties. For generations, the memory of the constitution – recognized by political scientists as a progressive document for its time – helped keep alive Polish aspirations for an independent and just society, and continued to inform the efforts of its authors’ descendants. Bronisław Dembiński, a Polish constitutional scholar, stated a century later that, “The miracle of the Constitution did not save the state but did save the nation. In Poland it is mythologized, and viewed as a national symbol and the culmination of enlightenment in Polish history and culture. In the words of two of its co-authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, it was “the last will and testament of the expiring Country.” The May 3rd anniversary of its adoption has been observed as Poland’s most important civil holiday since Poland regained independence in 1918.
Removed from the list of national holidays
May 3rd was declared a Polish holiday on May 5th, 1791. The holiday was banned during the partitions of Poland but reinstated in April 1919 under the Second Polish Republic – the first holiday officially introduced in the newly independent country. It was again outlawed during WWII by both the Nazi and Soviet occupiers. It was celebrated in Polish cities in May 1945, although in a mostly spontaneous manner. The 1946 anti-communist demonstrations did not endear it to the Polish communists, and it competed for attention with the communist-endorsed May 1st Labor Day celebrations in the Polish People’s Republic. This led to its “rebranding” as Democratic Party Day and removal from the list of national holidays by 1951. Until 1989, May 3rd was a frequent occasion for anti-government and anti-communist protests. The Solidarity honoured the memory of the Bill on Government and after the totalitarian system was overthrown in the parliamentary elections of June 1989, the Seym of the Republic of Poland, at the request of the Senate, re-established the May 3rd Constitution Day on April 6th, 1990. In 2007, May 3rd was declared a Lithuanian national holiday. Polish-American pride has been celebrated on the same date, for instance in Chicago, where since 1982 the Poles have marked it with festivities and the annual Polish Constitution Day Parade.
“The noblest benefit received by any nation at any time …”
The constitution was a milestone in the history of law and the rise of democracy. Irish statesman Edmund Burke described it as “the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time … Stanislas II has earned a place among the greatest kings and statesmen in history.” It was the first to follow the 1788 ratification of the United States Constitution. Poland and the United States, though geographically distant, displayed similarities in their approaches to the design of political systems. The May 3rd Constitution has been called the second constitution in world history. American expert on constitutional law Albert Blaustein called it the “world’s second national constitution”, and American journalist Bill Moyers wrote that it was “Europe’s first codified national constitution (and the second oldest in the world)”. British historian Norman Davies calls it “the first constitution of its type in Europe”.
I am writing this text two days before the transmission of the state celebrations of The May 3rd Constitution which will take place next to the Royal Castle in Warsaw. It`s going to be seventh coverage made by me since 2010. Year by year I learn more about one of the most important dates in history of my country, Each time it reminds me I belong to great nation – the people who are able to stand against invaders. I must say that:
I love Poland and hope you will fall in love with my country one day.
PREAMBLE OF THE CONSTITUTION OF MAY 3rd, 1791
In the name of God, One in the Holy Trinity. Stanislaw August, by the grace of God and the will of the people King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ruthenia, Prussia, Mazowsze, Zmudz [Samogitia], Kiev, Wolyn, Podole, Podlasie, Livonia, Smolensk, Sever and Czernihov; together with the confederated estates in dual number representing the Polish people. Recognizing that the destiny of us all depends solely upon the establishment and perfection of a national constitution, having by long experience learned the inveterate faults of our government, and desiring to take advantage of the season in which Europe finds itself and of
this dying moment that has restored us to ourselves, free of the ignominious dictates of foreign coercion, holding dearer than life, than personal happiness the political existence, external independence and internal liberty of the people whose destiny is entrusted to our hands, desiring as well to merit the blessing and gratitude of contemporary and future generations, despite obstacles that may cause passion in us, do for the general welfare, for the establishment of liberty, for the preservation of our country and its borders, with the utmost constancy of spirit ordain the present constitution and declare it to be entirely sacred and inviolable until the people, at the time by law prescribe, by their clear will recognize a need to alter it in any of its articles. To which constitution the further statutes of the present seym shall apply in everything.
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
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The interior of outdoor broadcasting vehicle during the ceremony of May 3rd celebrations in Warsaw.