The mere concept of a written constitution is itself a revolutionary idea. No longer is government to be based upon the whims of a monarch or the commands of a dictator. In the history of the world's nations, the first written constitution was that adopted for the United States of America in 1787. The second written constitution was that which Poland adopted in 1791. Geographically distant, Poland and the United States shared both a kindred spirit and a common challenge. In contrast to all of its powerful neighbors, Poland in the late 18th century was remarkably democratic. Its kings were elected and its parliament, or Sejm, possessed broad legislative authority. The political privileges were extended to about ten percent of the adult population, and were generally limited to male property owners. Unfortunately, by the 1780's, this democratic experiment was in serious danger. The liberum veto allowed any deputy to block legislation. So ineffective was the government that it was no longer able to defend itself against the intrigues of Russia, Austria, and Prussia.
Poles came to realize that freedom is not so much a privilege to enjoy, as it is a reward for those who will honor and defend. On October 6, 1788, the four year Sejm began its deliberations. Under the leadership of Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kollataj, extensive reforms were incorporated into a Constitution that was approved by King Stanislaw August Poniatowski on the third day of May, 1791.
We shall never know whether the Constitution of May 3, 1791, might have provided the structure for true reform in Poland. Sadly, it was in effect for only a short time.
The Constitution approval evoked immediate response from St. Petersburg and Berlin. Both governments were displeased with the reforms and demanded that the Confederated Sejm was dissolved and the proposal withdrawn. Alarmed at the renewal taking place in Poland, the Empress Catherine of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia ignited a conflict among the Polish Sejm members and the king, regarding religious minorities civil rights. Their plan succeeded and created a muddle among the conservative and progressive groups, and the king. In October of 1767, Russian troops assembled in the capital. The king was left with little room for action and decided to bow under the Russian demands and accepted the "eternal and invariable" principles, which Catherine then vowed to "protect in the name of Poland's liberties". These principles included: the free election of kings, the absolute rule of the veto, the right to renounce allegiance to the king, the szlachta's right exclusively to hold office and land and the landowner's power of life and death over his peasants, and they successfully blocked any possibility of reform.
Why should we honor Poland's Constitution of 1791? Clearly, the Constitution never fulfilled its immediate and short term objectives. Poland did not survive the second and third partitions, and as a political entity, it was effectively eliminated from the map of Europe for more than a century. In operation for only a few years, the Constitution never developed into a full expression of political liberty. Of what relevance is the Constitution to us, who are removed from its focus both by thousands of miles and by many generations?
We honor the Polish Constitution of 1791 not so much for what it achieved as for what it represents. It is a symbol of the Polish people and of their struggle for liberty, justice, and honor. The Polish Constitution was written by the aristocracy. With the most noble of intentions, its authors saw government as an instrument of service for the common good. They recognized that government must serve not the interests of the few, but the welfare of the entire nation. With this thought, they were prepared to sacrifice their wealth and good fortunes for the cause of a free and independent nation. Indeed, the Constitution of 1791 epitomized recognition that duty and responsibility were the true foundations of liberty. This unparalleled sense of generosity was most profound, so much so that it earned admiration from all ends of the political spectrum.
The Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, is a reflection of the Polish spirit, a spirit that is devoted to truth and justice at all times, under all circumstances, and despite all impediments. Its words, its concepts, its principles are not an exceptional portrait of the Polish character. Rather, they are a shining symbol of the finest qualities of the Polish nation. How else can one explain the survival of Poland despite 120 years of foreign domination. How else could Poland have survived the long period of Communist repression. Surely it is no accident that the downfall of communism began in the shipyards of Gdansk. Surely it is no accident that a native son of Poland was spoken as a defender of liberty from his post as supreme pontiff.
The Constitution of May 3, 1791, stands for the proposition that free people everywhere must step forward despite all odds, to undertake the burdens of serving as champions of liberty. Truly, this is the belief which we honor today.
King Stanisław August, principal author of Constitution. A year later he acquiesced in its overthrow.
Jan Matejko's painting d on the centenary of the passage of the Constitution shows Stanisław August Poniatowski, King of Poland, being bourn in triumph from the Royal Palace, seen in the background where the Constitution had just been passed, to Warsaw's St. John's Cathedral. The painting hangs in the National Museum in Warsaw.
In 1791, the "Great" or Four-Year Sejm of 1788–92 adopted the May 3 Constitution at Warsaw's Royal Castle.
Andrzej Wiatrowski, Colonel,
Polish Army Reserve