Today in History – May 3, 1791 – Adoption of the Polish Constitution of May 3

This was a constitution that survived for only a year, but was 100 years in the making.  It was the first codified constitution in Europe and the second in the world after the American constitution.

In 1652, the disastrous reign of Jan II Casimir Vasa saw the first use of a constitutional innovation whose growth in the succeeding years contributed to the fatal weakening of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the eventual disappearance of Poland as an independent state – the Liberium Veto.  This parliamentary procedure allowed a single member of the Sejm to end the current session and nullify any legislation passed in that session by yelling Nie pozwalam! (“I do not allow!”).  This allowed magnates and Poland’s neighbors Prussia and Russia to frustrate any attempts to reform the Commonwealth.  Adding to the chaos was the elective nature of the Polish crown, which gave ample opportunity for Poland’s neighbors to interfere in Polish affairs.  Over the next 100 years what was once the strongest state in Eastern Europe descended into anarchy.

In 1772 Austria, Prussia and Russia used the disorder in Poland caused by attempts to reform the constitution to engage in the First Partition of Poland – a third of Polish territory was parceled out to the three states.  The partition shocked the Poles and made reform imperative.  In the late 1780s the reformers finally saw their chance.  Russia and Austria were at war with Turkey.  Russia simultaneously was at war with Sweden.  France was heading into the French revolution.  Prussia for its own reasons saw a value in entering into a defensive alliance with Poland.

This allowed the Sejm to pass with huge popular support the Constitution of May 3.  The constitution was extremely progressive and tried to create a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral legislature, ended elective monarchy, expanded the franchise, equalized relations between townspeople and nobles, limited the privileges of the nobility  mitigated the abuses of serfdom, guaranteed religious liberty and finally abolished the Liberium Veto.

Constitution of May 3, 1791, by Matejko (1891). King Stanisław August (left) enters St. John's Cathedral, where deputies will swear to uphold the Constitution. Background: Warsaw's Royal Castle, where it has just been adopted.
Constitution of May 3, 1791, by Matejko (1891). King Stanisław August (left) enters St. John’s Cathedral, where deputies will swear to uphold the Constitution. Background: Warsaw’s Royal Castle, where it has just been adopted.

Sadly the Constitution remained in effect for only a year.  Poland’s neighbors were threatened by the prospect of a strengthened Polish state.  Reactionary magnates created the Targowica Confederation to restore their “golden liberties” and restore the privileges of the nobility.  They received Russian help and Prussia refused to honor its alliance with Poland.  After a short defensive war fought by the Commonwealth army against an army almost three times larger, King Stanislaw August chose to surrender and was forced to abandon the constitution.  Then to the surprise of the Targowica Confederation, Russia and Prussia decided to partition Poland a second time reducing it to one-third of its 1772 population.  This resulted in the Kościuszko Uprising in 1794, after whose failure Russia, Austria and Prussia partitioned the remainder of the rump Polish state in 1795.  Even though Napoleon briefly created a satellite Polish state and the Congress of Vienna created a “Kingdom of Poland” controlled by Russia – Poland (and for that matter Lithuania) disappeared as independent states for the next 123 years.

The unintended side effect of Polish tumult may have been to provide the French Revolution with breathing room to sustain itself by distracting Prussia and Austria.  The May 3 constitution, later termed by two of its authors as “the last will and testament of the expiring Country,” remains a national symbol in Poland today.

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