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Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791
Poland's Constitution of May 3rd, 1791, was instituted by the Government Act (Polish Ustawa rządowa) adopted on that date by the Sejm (parliament) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was Europe's first modern codified national constitution, and the world's second, after the Constitution of the United States of America of 1787 which began to function in 1789.
The May 3rd Constitution — as it is known to Poles — was designed to address long-standing political defects of the federation of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which it abolished in favor of a unitary state). The Constitution instituted political equality between townspeople and nobility (Polish: szlachta) and placed the peasants under the protection of the government, thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. The document abolished pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto, which at one time had placed the sejm at the mercy of any deputy who might choose, or be bribed by an interest or foreign power, to undo all the legislation that had been passed by the sejm. The May 3rd Constitution sought to supplant the existing anarchy fostered by some of the country's reactionary magnates, with a more egalitarian and democratic constitutional monarchy.
The adoption of the Constitution provoked the active hostility of the Polish Commonwealth's neighbors, who feared the rebirth of a strong Commonwealth. In the War in Defense of the Constitution, Poland was betrayed by its Prussian ally, while Polish forces loyal to the Constitution were defeated by a Tsarist Russia allied with the Targowica Confederation, a cabal of Polish magnates who opposed reforms that might weaken their influence. Though overthrown in 1792 by that alliance of foreign invaders and internal traitors, the May 3rd Constitution remained, after the demise of the Commonwealth in 1795, for the following 123 years of Poland's political total eclipse, a beacon in the struggle to restore Polish sovereignty. In the words of two of its co-authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, it was "the last will and testament of the expiring Fatherland."
The May Constitution
The term and its significance
Prior to the May 3rd Constitution, the term "constitution" (Polish: konstytucja) had denoted all the legislation, of whatever character, that had been passed at a Sejm. Only with the adoption of the May 3rd Constitution did konstytucja assume its modern sense of a fundamental document of governance.
The mere concept of a written (modern codified national) constitution was in itself a revolutionary idea in the development of human political systems. No longer was the fate of the entire nation to be based upon the whims of a monarch or the commands of a dictator. In the world's history, the first such constitution was the Constitution of the United States of America from 1787. The second was the Commonwealth May Constitution adopted in 1791. Geographically distant, Poland and the United States were quite similar. In contrast to all of its powerful neighbouring absolute monarchies, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was remarkably democratic. Its kings were elected and its parliament (the Sejm), possessed extensive legislative authority. Although Poland extended political privileges only to its nobility (the szlachta), who formed about ten percent of the country's adult population, this percentage closely approximated political access in contemporary America, where effective suffrage was similarly limited to male property owners.
Background to the May 3rd Constitution
The May 3rd Constitution was a response to the increasingly perilous situation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, only a century and a half earlier a major European power and indeed the largest state on the continent. However in 18th century the Commonwealth experiment with democracy has gone terribly wrong, as the law of liberum veto allowed any Sejm deputy to block all legislation. Deputues bribed by foreign powers effectively paralysed the Commonwealth government for more then a century. The first of three successive 18th-century partitions of Commonwealth territory by Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1772 made it clear to progressive minds that the Commonwealth must either reform or perish.
By the reign (1764-1795) of Poland's last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski, the Age of Enlightenment that was sweeping Europe had begun to take root in Poland. The King proceeded to cautiously introduce reforms. Among the most important of these prior to the May 3rd Constitution was the establishment in 1773 of a Commission of National Education — the first ministry of education in the world — and modernization of the Commonwealth's army. On the eve of the First Partition of Poland a member of the Polish-Lithuanian Sejm was sent on a mission to ask the French philosophe Mably and antiphilosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau to draw up tentative constitutions for a new Poland. Mably submitted his recommendations in 1770-1771; Rousseau finished his in 1772, when the First Partition was already underway.
A major opportunity for reform seemed to present itself during the "Great" or "Four-Year Sejm" of 1788-1792, which begun on October 6, 1788, and from 1790 — in the words of the May 3rd Constitution's preamble — met "in dual number," the newly elected Sejm deputies having joined the earlier-established confederated sejm. While a new alliance between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Prussia seemed to provide security against Russian intervention, King Stanisław August drew closer to leaders of the reform-minded Patriotic Party. The new Constitution was drafted by the King, with contributions from Ignacy Potocki, Hugo Kołłątaj, Stanisław Staszic, the King's Italian secretary Scipione Piattoli, and others.
The advocates of the constitution, under threat of violence from the Sejm's Muscovite Party , and with many opposition deputies still away on Easter recess, managed to set debate on the Government Act forward by two days from the original May 5. The ensuing debate and adoption of the Government Act took place in a quasi-coup d'etat.
Features of the May 3rd Constitution
The May 3rd Constitution introduced the principle of popular sovereignty (applied to the nobility — in Polish, szlachta — and the townspeople) and a separation of powers into legislative (a bicameral Sejm), executive ("the King in his council") and judicial branches. To enhance Commonwealth integration and security, it abolished the erstwhile union of Poland and Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in favor of a unitary state and changed the government from an individually to a dynastically elective monarchy . The latter provision was meant to reduce the destructive, vying influences of foreign powers at each royal election (King Stanisław August himself had been elected in 1764 with the support of his ex-mistress, Russian Tsarina Catherine II, "the Great" — including bribes and a Russian army deployed only a few miles from the election sejm, meeting at Wola, outside Warsaw). In the terms of the May 3rd Constitution, on Stanisław August's death the throne of Poland was to pass to the house of Saxony, which had provided two of Poland's recent elective kings.
The Constitution abolished several institutional sources of government weakness and national anarchy, including the liberum veto, confederations, confederated sejms (paradoxically, the Four-Year Sejm was itself a confederated sejm), and the excessive sway of sejmiks (regional sejms) stemming from the binding nature of their instructions to their Sejm deputies.
The May 3rd Constitution advanced the democratization of the polity by limiting the excessive legal immunities and political prerogatives of landless nobility, while granting them to the townspeople (in the earlier Free Royal Cities Act of April 18, 1791, stipulated in Article III to be integral to the Constitution). Townspeople were specifcally granted the personal security and the right to acquire landed property, as well as eligibility for military commissions, public office, and membership in the nobility (szlachta). The Government Act also placed the Commonwealth's peasantry "under the protection of the national law and government" — a first step toward enfranchisement of the largest and most oppressed social class.1
The May 3rd Constitution provided for a "ready" Sejm, "ordinarily" meeting every two years and "extraordinarily" whenever required by a national emergency. Its lower chamber - the Chamber of Deputies - comprised 204 deputies and 24 plenipotentiaries of royal cities ; and its upper chamber - the Chamber of Senators — 132 senators (voivods, castellans, government ministers and bishops).
The royal council ("Guardianship of the Laws"), presided over by the King, comprised 5 ministers (of police, the seal — i.e., internal affairs — foreign affairs, military, and treasury) appointed by the King but responsible to the parliament; the Roman Catholic primate; and — without a voice — the crown prince and the marshal of the Sejm. Acts of the King required the countersignature of the respective minister. This royal council was a descendant of the similar council provided for during the previous two centuries, since 1573, in King Henry's Articles. The stipulation that the King, "[d]oing nothing of himself, [...] shall be answerable for nothing to the nation," parallels the British constitutional principle that "The King can do no wrong ." (In both countries, the respective minister is responsible for the king's acts.)
King Stanisław August himself described the May 3rd Constitution, according to a contemporary account, as "founded principally on those of England and the United States of America, but avoiding the faults and errors of both, and adapting it as much as possible to the local and particular circumstances of the country."
Indeed, the Polish and American written national constitutions reflect similar Enlightenment influences, including Montesquieu's advocacy of a separation and balance of powers among the three branches of government so that, in the words of the May 3rd Constitution (article V), "the integrity of the states, civil liberty, and social order remain always in equilibrium"; and Montesquieu's advocacy of a bicameral legislature.
The May 3rd Constitution recognizes, as integral to itself, the act on Our Free Royal Cities in the States of the Commonwealth that had been passed on April 18, 1791 (Constitution, article III) and the act on regional sejms (Sejmiki) passed earlier, on March 24, 1791 (article VI). Some authorities additionally regard as parts of the Constitution the Declaration of the Assembled Estates of May 5, 1791, confirming the Government Act adopted two days earlier, and the Mutual Declaration of the Two Peoples (i.e., of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) of October 22, 1791, affirming the unity and indivisibility of Poland and the Grand Duchy. The provisions of the Government Act were fleshed out in a number of implementing laws passed in May-June 1791, on sejms and sejm courts (two acts of May 13), the Guardianship (June 1), the national police commission (that is, ministry: June 17) and civic administration (June 24).
The May 3rd Constitution remained to the last a work in progress. Its co-author Kołłątaj announced work underway on "an economic constitution... guaranteeing all rights of property [and] securing protection and honor to all manner of labor..." Yet a third basic law was touched on by Kołłątaj: a "moral constitution," evidently a Polish analog to the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
Legacy of the May 3rd Constitution
The May 3rd, 1791, Constitution remained in effect for only a year before being overthrown, by Russian armies allied with the Targowica Confederation, in the War in Defense of the Constitution. The defeat of pro-Constitution forces ultimately led to the third and final partition of the Commonwealth in 1795. But memory of the world's second modern codified national constitution — an amazingly progressive document for its time — for generations helped keep alive Polish aspirations for an independent and just society, and continues to inform the efforts of its authors' descendants. The May 3rd anniversary of its adoption is observed as Poland's most important civic, May 3rd holiday.
Text of the Constitution
Polish original and English translation are available on Wikisource (direct link ).
- Edmund Burke described the May 3rd Constitution as "the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time.... Stanislas II [August Poniatowski] has earned a place among the greatest kings and statesmen in history."
- Karl Marx wrote of the Constitution: "Despite all its shortcomings, this Constitution looms against the background of Russian, Prussian and Austrian barbarism as the only work of liberty which Eastern Europe has ever created independently, and it emerged exclusively from the privileged class, from the nobility. The history of the world has never seen another example of such nobility of the nobility."
- On May 3, 1941, Sir Winston Churchill said in a radio address: "Today I am speaking to all the Poles all over the world. Today is the 150th anniversary of the Constitution passed by your parliament. Your are right to celebrate this day as a national holiday because, at the time when your Constitution of 1791 was drawn up, it was a model of enlightened political thought. The passing of that legal act was seen by your neighbours at that time as the dawn of a revival of the Polish state. Therefore they hurried to partition your country in order to prevent the consolidation of the Polish nation."
- Pope John Paul II in 1999 to Polish Sejm: "It is difficult in this moment not no mention (...) proud witness of legislative wisdom of of our ancestors, the May Third Constitution."
- The Prussian statesman Ewald von Hertzberg expressed the fears of European conservatives: [the Poles] "have given the coup de grāce to the Prussian monarchy by voting a constitution.… How can we defend our state… against a numerous and well-governed nation?"
- Hugo Kołłątaj and Ignacy Potocki, prominent authors of the Constitution, termed it "the last will and testament of the expiring Fatherland."
- From the Estabilising Act of the Targowica Condeferation: "The desires of Her Highness Empress of Russia [Catherine the Great], ally of Rzeczpospolita [the Commonwealth], are and were no others then by using her armies to return to Rzeczpospolita and Poles the freedoms, and especially security and happiness to all citizens"
- One of the founders of the Targowica Confederation, Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki: "Each true Pole, not blinded by the Prussian and royalist cabal, is convinced, that our Fatherland can only be saved by Russia, otherwise our nation will be enslaved". After Stanislaw Poniatowski abdication and the destruction of the Commonwealth, he said: "About past Poland and Poles [I don't want to talk anymore]. Gone is this country, and this name, as many others have perished in the world's history. I am now a Russian forever."
- It should be remembered that the contemporaneous United States Constitution sanctioned the continuation of slavery.
- Constitution of France
- Pacta conventa
- Stanisław Małachowski
- Swedish Constitution of 1772
- Wawrzyniec Goslicki
- Adam Zamoyski , The Polish Way: a Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture, New York, Hippocrene Books, 1994.
- Joseph Kasparek , The Constitutions of Poland and of the United States: Kinships and Genealogy, Miami, American Institute of Polish Culture, 1980.
- Emanuel Rostworowski, Maj 1791 - maj 1792: rok monarchii konstytucyjnej [May 1791 - May 1792: the Year of Constitutional Monarchy], Warsaw, Zamek Królewski [Royal Castle], 1985.
- Polishconstitution.org: site about the Polish May 3rd Constitution that contributed some texts to wikisource
- History of Polish law until 1795
- The Constitution of May 3, 1791 by Hon. Carl L. Bucki
- Constitutions, Elections and Legislatures of Poland, 1493-1993
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