Constitution of May 3, 1791

The end of the 18th century produced three constitutions considered the first modern constitutions in the World. The American Constitution of September 17, 1787 was the oldest. The second in the World and the first in Europe was the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791 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 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. 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. Attempts to lift the country form its downfall started with the new reign commenced with the election of Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski in 1764. 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.

The First Partition 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 seventeen eighties proved favourable for the reformers.

The 4-year Seym (called so far the period of its activity) commenced its deliberations on October 6, 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, Rzewuski and Stanislaw Szczesny Potocki, as well as ardent partisans of reforms including Ignacy Potocki, Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski and Hugo Kollataj who was one of the most active propagators of changes. They called themselves a patriotic party.

The work on the future constitution accelerated early in 1791. First of all, a reform of towns was carried out. On April 18, 1791, the Seym passed the bill on royal towns (it did not concern private towns) which was later incorporated in the Constitution of May 3. 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 3, 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 heated 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 5, 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 of May 3 established constitutional monarchy, abolished elections of kings introducing hereditary throne, established government called the Guardian of Laws and introduced responsibility of the ministers to the Seym. Catholicism was considered the reigning religion. However, other denominations were assured tolerance. The privileged position of the gentry was maintained while considerable rights were granted to burghers. It was declared that the peasants were assured a protection of the law and of the countrys government which paved the way to some more significant changes in the future. Peasants were recognised as a part of the nation for the first time in the Polish history which was clearly stated in the article on peasants and on the army. The provision on an obligatory review of the Bill on Government every 25 years was a novelty. May 3 was declared a national day. The Constitution did not close the process of reforms, but only its certain stage. The work on further changes was commenced nearly the next day.

Also, 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. At the same time the development of the international situation was causing apprehensions concerning the future of the reform and the fate of the country. In 1793, Russia and Prussia effected the Second Partition of Poland. 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 did not re-establish formally the Constitution of May 3 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.

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 3 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.

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 3 Constitution Day on April 6, 1990.

Polish Embassy Home Page

Copyright © 1996-2009 Polish World