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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » April 28, 2011
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Constitution of May 3rd
April 28, 2011   
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The Polish constitution of May 3, 1791, was the first constitution adopted in Europe and world’s second constitution after that of the United States. As Poland this month marks the 220th anniversary of the adoption of the document, Witold Żygulski explains why the constitution was a milestone in this country’s history.

The Constitution of May 3rd was drawn up to address internal problems and the diminishing influence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a state that 150 years earlier had ranked as one of the biggest powers in Europe.

Reforms were first introduced by Stanisław August Poniatowski, the last king of Poland, who reigned from 1764 to 1795. The king established the ministries of the Treasury and military and he also levied a national customs duty. However, forward-looking reforms to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were inconvenient for the Commonwealth’s neighbors. Worried at the prospect of a modern Polish state, Russian Empress Catherine II the Great and Prussian King Frederick the Great provoked a conflict between the Polish king and conservatives in the Polish parliament (the Sejm). When Russian troops approached Warsaw in October 1767, the king and his supporters accepted conditions forcibly imposed by the Russians. The conditions included the right to the liberum veto, a parliamentary device entitling every member of the Sejm to force an immediate end to the current session and to nullify any legislation that had been passed during that session. Russia also enforced the nobility’s right to rebel against the monarchy.

Several magnates, including Kazimierz Pułaski, formed what became known as the Bar Confederation (from the town of Bar) in order to stand up to the armed Russian intervention. So began a civil war that continued until 1772, the year Polish forces gave in to an overwhelming larger Russian army. On Aug. 5, 1772, officials from three countries neighboring Poland (Russia, Prussia and Austria) signed a treaty on the first partition of Poland. The invaders took over 211,000 square kilometers away from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Secret project
At the end of 1790, the Polish king took the initiative to draw up a new constitution. The document was a secret project and its final version was the work of Hugo Kołłątaj (1750-1812), a politician and thinker. Kołłątaj was also the head of the Commission of National Education, the central educational authority in Poland at the time.

The Sejm session which led to the adoption of the constitution was held in an atmosphere of a coup d’état. Many deputies came to the Royal Castle in Warsaw, where the session was taking place, in secrecy and the castle was guarded by numerous troops. After a heated, but short debate, the constitution was adopted with a majority of votes.

The Constitution of May 3rd comprised 11 articles. It introduced the principle of independence for the nobility and townspeople and a separation of powers between a legislature (a bicameral Sejm), an executive and the judiciary.

Peasants came under the protection of the law and government, which was a first step toward the ending of serfdom and the enfranchisement of that social class.

The constitution provided for “ordinary” meetings of the Sejm once in two years and special sessions when required by national emergency. The lower chamber, called the Chamber of Deputies, was made up of 204 deputies and plenipotentiaries of 24 royal cities. The upper Chamber of Senators comprised 132 senators, including province governors, castellans, government ministers and bishops. The constitution abolished the liberum veto.

Royal power
Executive power was in the hands of a royal council, known as the Guardians of the Laws. This council was presided over by the king and included five ministers appointed by him: a minister of police, minister of the seal (internal affairs), minister of the seal of foreign affairs, minister of war, and minister of the Treasury. Decrees by the King required countersignature by a minister.

To enhance the unity and security of the Commonwealth, the constitution abolished the union of Poland and Lithuania in favor of a unitary state called the Republic of Poland. That put an end to the union of the Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which had been established in 1569. The constitution changed the free royal election system to a dynastic elected monarchy, which was meant to reduce the influence of foreign powers in royal elections.

The constitution acknowledged the Roman Catholic faith as the dominant religion, but at the same time it guaranteed freedom to all religions. However, apostasy, or disaffiliation from Catholicism, was still treated as a crime.

The army was to be built up to 100,000 men. The constitution also provided additional taxes of 10 percent on the nobility and 20 percent on clergy. Amendments to the constitution could be made every 25 years by the Constitutional Sejm, which would assemble especially for the occasion.

Kołłątaj continued working on supplementary documents to the constitution, including a document which he said would be an “economic constitution guaranteeing all rights of property and securing protection and dignity for all manner of labor.” The third document was a “moral constitution” which most likely would be based on the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the American Bill of Rights. The Constitution of May 3rd thus remained an unfinished work. It was in effect for only one year before it was killed off as a result of a war which Poland lost against Russia. A group of magnates asked Catherine II to intervene and restore their privileges abolished under the Constitution of May 3rd. With the empress’s support, the magnates formed the Targowica Confederation which aimed to reject the constitution for spreading a “contagion of democratic ideas.”

War on ‘democratic contagion’
On May 18, 1792, over 20,000 Confederates crossed the border into Poland, together with an army of 97,000 Russian troops. The Polish king and the reformers could field only a 37,000-strong army, many of them untested recruits. When in July 1792 Warsaw was threatened with siege by the Russians, the king decided that victory was impossible and that surrender was the only alternative to total defeat. On July 24, 1792, he joined the Targowica Confederation. The Polish army disintegrated and many reform-movement leaders, believing their cause lost, went into self-imposed exile. To the surprise of the Targowica Confederates, there ensued the second partition of Poland, this time conducted by Russia and Prussia. The Commonwealth was reduced to a small European country with a puppet king and a Russian army.

The last attempt at preserving the legacy of the Constitution of May 3rd was an insurrection led by Tadeusz Kościuszko. In 1794, in Cracow, he issued the unprecedented “Proclamation of Połaniec,” granting freedom and ownership of land to peasants who fought in the insurrection. The insurgents had some initial victories, but then the armies of Russia, Austria and Prussia launched a military crackdown. The defeat of Kościuszko’s forces led in 1795 to the third and final partition of the Commonwealth. Poland was wiped off the map of Europe for the next 123 years.
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