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May 3rd Constitution

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Title: May 3rd Constitution  
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Subject: Sejm of the Republic of Poland, Hôtel Lambert, Presidential Palace, Warsaw, Ignacy Potocki, Hugo Kołłątaj, Antoni Barnaba Jabłonowski, Kazimierz Nestor Sapieha, Familia (Polish political party)
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May 3rd Constitution

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Constitution of May 3, 1791
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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.
Created October 6, 1788 – May 3, 1791
Ratified May 3, 1791 (1791-05-03)
Author(s) Template:Plainlist

The Constitution of May 3, 1791 (Polish: Konstytucja Trzeciego Maja; Lithuanian: Gegužės trečiosios konstitucija) was drafted between October 6, 1788, and May 3, 1791, when it was adopted as a "Government Act" (Ustawa rządowa) by the Great Sejm (parliament) of the Polish–Lithuanian CommonwealthTemplate:Mdasha dualistic state comprising Poland and Lithuania ruled by a common monarch. The document was designed to redress political defects of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth; the system of "Golden Liberty" had conferred disproportionate rights on the nobility (szlachta), and over time had corrupted politics. Its adoption was preceded by a period of agitation forTemplate:Mdashand gradual introduction ofTemplate:Mdashreforms beginning with the Convocation Sejm of 1764 and the election of Stanisław August Poniatowski as the Commonwealth's last king, and culminating in legislation adopted by the Great Sejm.

The constitution sought to supplant the prevailing anarchy fostered by some of the country's magnates with a more democratic constitutional monarchy. It introduced elements of political equality between townspeople and nobility and placed the peasants under the protection of the government, thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. It banned pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto, which had put the Sejm at the mercy of any deputy who could chooseTemplate:Mdashor be bribed by an interest or foreign powerTemplate:Mdashto revoke all the legislation that had been passed by that Sejm. The constitution's adoption met with hostile political and military responses from the Commonwealth's neighbors. In the War in Defense of the Constitution, the Commonwealth's ally Prussia under Frederick William II broke its alliance with the CommonwealthTemplate:Mdashwhich was defeated by Catherine the Great's Imperial Russia in alliance with the Targowica Confederation; a coalition of Polish magnates and landless nobility who opposed reforms that might weaken their influence. The King, a principal co-author, eventually capitulated to the Confederates.

The 1791 document remained in force for only 18 months and 3 weeks; it was annulled by the Grodno Sejm on 23 November 1793. By 1795, the Second and the Third Partitions of Poland ended the existence of the sovereign Polish state. Over the next 123 years, the Constitution of May 3, 1791 was seen as proof of successful internal reform and as a symbol promising the eventual restoration of Poland's 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 Country."[b] British historian Norman Davies described the document as "the first constitution of its type in Europe"; other historians call it the world's second-oldest codified national constitution after the U.S. ConstitutionTemplate:Mdashwhich came into effect on March 4, 1789.[1][2][3][4][a]


Main articles: History of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (1648–1764) and History of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (1764–1795)

End of the Golden Age

The Constitution was a response to the increasingly perilous situation in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth,[5] a major European power only a century earlier and still the largest state on the continent.[6] Two hundred years before the document was adopted, when the nobles' democracy was at its peak, King Sigismund III Vasa's court preacherTemplate:Mdashthe Jesuit Piotr SkargaTemplate:Mdashhad condemned the individual and collective weaknesses of the Commonwealth.[7] In the same period, writers and philosophers including Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski[8] and Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki,[9] and Jan Zamoyski's egzekucja praw (Execution-of-the-Laws) reform movement had advocated reforms.[10] As he was struggling with the Sejm, Sigismund's son King John CasimirTemplate:Mdashwhose reign saw highly destructive wars and obstructionism by the Polish nobility (szlachta)Template:Mdashcorrectly predicted in 1661 that the Commonwealth was in danger of a partition by Russia, Brandenburg and Austria.[11]

As their warnings failed to be heeded and sufficient reforms failed to be implemented, the state machinery became increasingly dysfunctional. Many historians hold that a major cause of the Commonwealth's downfall was the parliamentary institution of the liberum veto ("free veto"), which since 1652 had in principle permitted any Sejm deputy to nullify all the legislation that had been enacted by that Sejm.[12] This had set a dangerous precedent:[12] deputies bribed by magnates or foreign powersTemplate:Mdashprimarily from the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and FranceTemplate:Mdash or those deputies who believed they were living in an unprecedented "Golden Age", paralysed the Commonwealth's government for over a century.[12][13] The threat of the liberum veto could only be overridden by the establishment of a "confederated sejm", which was immune to the liberum veto.[14] Declaring a sejm to be a "confederation" or belong to a confederation was a contrivance prominently used by foreign interests in the 18th century to force a legislative outcome.[15]

By the early 18th century, the magnates of Poland and Lithuania controlled the stateTemplate:Mdashensuring that no reforms that might weaken their privileged status (the "Golden Freedoms") would be enacted.[16] The ineffective monarchs elected to the Commonwealth throne around the start of the 18th century,[17] Augustus II the Strong and Augustus III of Poland of the House of Wettin, did not improve matters. The Wettins, used to the absolute rule practiced in their native Saxony, tried to rule through intimidation and the use of force, which led to a series of conflicts between their supporters and opponentsTemplate:Mdashncluding another pretender to the Polish throne, King Stanisław Leszczyński.[17] Those conflicts often took the form of confederationsTemplate:Mdashlegal rebellions against the king permitted under the Golden FreedomsTemplate:Mdashincluding the Warsaw Confederation (1704), Sandomierz Confederation, Tarnogród Confederation, Dzików Confederation and the War of the Polish Succession.[17] Only 8 out of 18 Sejm sessions during the reign of Augustus II passed legislation.[18] For 30 years during the reign of Augustus III, only one session was able to pass legislation.[19] The government was near to collapse, giving rise to the term "Polish anarchy", and the country was managed by provincial assemblies and magnates.[19]

There were also reform attempts in the Wettin era that were led by individuals such as Stanisław Dunin-Karwicki, Stanisław A. Szczuka, Kazimierz Karwowski and Michał Józef Massalski; these mostly proved to be futile.[13][17]

Early reforms

The Enlightenment greatly influenced certain Commonwealth circles during the 1764–95 reign of its last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski. Poniatowski was an "enlightened" Polish magnate who had been a deputy to several Sejms between 1750 and 1764[20] and had a deeper understanding of Polish politics than previous monarchs.[20] The Convocation Sejm of 1764 was controlled by the Czartoryski family's reformist Familia party and was backed up by Russian military forces, which the Czartoryskis invited.[21] The confederated Convocation Sejm passed a number of reform measures, including the weakening of liberum veto and ensuring it no longer applied to treasury and economic matters.[20][21][22] A more comprehensive reform package was presented by Andrzej Zamoyski but opposition from Prussia, Russia and the Polish nobility thwarted more ambitious reforms, including the adoption of majority voting in all instances.[21] Poniatowski's political position was weak from the beginning; his election was imposed by Empress Catherine the Great. He proceeded with cautious reforms such as the establishment of fiscal and military ministries and the introduction of a national customs tariff, which was soon abandoned because of opposition from Frederick the Great of Prussia.[21] These measures had already been authorized by the Convocation Sejm, and further Familia- and King-inspired legislative and executive improvements were implemented during and after the Coronation Sejm of 1764.[21]

The idea of reforming the Commonwealth was viewed with suspicion by its magnates and neighboring countries which had been content with the deterioration of the Commonwealth and abhorred the thought of a resurgent and democratic power on their borders.[24] With the Commonwealth Army reduced to around 16,000, it was easy for its neighbors to intervene directlyTemplate:Mdashthe Imperial Russian Army numbered 300,000 and the Prussian Army and Imperial Austrian Army had 200,000 each.[25]

Russia's Empress Catherine and Prussia's King Frederick II provoked a conflict between members of the Sejm and the King over civil rights for religious minorities, such as Protestants and Greek Orthodox whose positions, which were guaranteed equal with the Catholic majority by the Warsaw Confederation of 1573, had worsened considerably.[22][26][27][28] Catherine and Frederick declared their support for the szlachta and their "liberties", and by October 1767 Russian troops had assembled outside Warsaw in support of the conservative Radom Confederation.[27][28][29] In the face of the superior Russian military force, the King and his adherents had little choice but to acquiesce to Russian demands. During the Repnin Sejm (named after the unofficially presiding Russian ambassador Nicholas Repnin) the King accepted the five "eternal and invariable principles" which Catherine had vowed to "protect for all time to come in the name of Poland's liberties": the election of kings, the right of liberum veto, the right to renounce allegiance to and raise rebellion against the king (rokosz), the szlachta's exclusive right to hold office and land and landowners' power over their peasants.[22][24][27][28] Thus all the privileges of the nobility that had made the Commonwealth's political system ("Golden Liberty") ungovernable were guaranteed as unalterable in the Cardinal Laws.[27][28][29] The Cardinal Laws and the rights of "religious dissenters" passed by Repnin Sejm were personally guaranteed by Empress Catherine, which made it the earliest case of Russia's formal involvement in the Commonwealth's constitutional affairs.[30]

During the 1768 Sejm, Repnin showed his disregard for local resistance by arranging the abduction and imprisonment of Kajetan Sołtyk, Józef A. Załuski, Wacław Rzewuski and Seweryn RzewuskiTemplate:Mdashvocal opponents of the recently proclaimed policies (including religious tolerance) and foreign domination.[31] The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had legally and practically become a protectorate of the Russian Empire.[32] Nonetheless, several minor beneficial reforms were adopted, political rights of the religious minorities were restored and the need for more reforms was becoming increasingly recognized.[28][31]

King Stanisław August's acquiescence to the Russian intervention encountered some opposition On February 29, 1768, several magnatesTemplate:Mdashincluding Józef Pułaski and his young son, Kazimierz Pułaski (Casimir Pulaski)Template:Mdashvowing to oppose Russian influence, declared Stanisław August a lackey of Russia and Catherine, and formed a confederation at the town of Bar.[31][33][34] The Bar Confederation had a patriotic focus on limiting the influence of foreigners in Commonwealth affairs, but was conservative and restrictive with regards to religious tolerance.[33] The Confederation began a civil war to overthrow the King but its irregular forces were overwhelmed by Russian intervention in 1772.[24]

The Bar Confederation's defeat set the scene for the August 5, 1772, partition treaty, which was signed by the Commonwealth's neighboring powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria, at Saint Petersburg.[33] The treaty divested the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth of about a third of its territory and populationTemplate:Mdashover 200,000 km2 (77,220 sq mi) and 4 million people.[35] This was justified on grounds of anarchy in the Commonwealth and its refusal to cooperate with its neighbors' efforts to restore order.[36] The three powers demanded that the Sejm ratify the partition, threatening further partitions if it refused. King Stanisław August yielded and on April 19, 1773, he called the Sejm into session. Only 102 of about 200 deputies attended what became known as the Partition Sejm; the rest were aware of the King's decision and refused. Despite protests from the deputy Tadeusz Rejtan and others, the treatyTemplate:Mdashlater known as the First Partition of PolandTemplate:Mdashwas ratified.[35]

The first of the three successive 18th-century partitions of Commonwealth territory that would eventually remove Poland's sovereignty shocked the Commonwealth's inhabitants and made it clear to progressive minds that the Commonwealth must either reform or perish.[35] In the thirty years before the Constitution, there was a rising interest among progressive thinkers in constitutional reform.[37] Before the First Partition, a Polish noble, Michał WielhorskiTemplate:Mdashan envoy of the Bar ConfederationTemplate:Mdashwas sent to ask the French philosophes Gabriel Bonnot de Mably and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to ask for their suggestions on a new constitution for a reformed Poland.[38][39][40][41] Mably submitted his recommendations Du gouvernement et des lois en Pologne (The Government and Laws of Poland) in 1770–1771; Rousseau finished his Considerations on the Government of Poland in 1772 when the First Partition was already underway.[42] Notable works advocating the need to reform and presenting specific solutions were published in the Commonwealth itself by Polish–Lithuanian thinkers such as Stanisław Konarski (On an Effective Way of Councils or on the Conduct of Ordinary Sejms, 1761–1763)Template:Mdashfounder of the Collegium Nobilium; Józef Wybicki (Political Thoughts on Civil Liberties, 1775, Patriotic Letters, 1778–1778)Template:Mdashauthor of the lyrics of the Polish National Anthem; Hugo Kołłątaj (Anonymous Letters to Stanisław Małachowski, 1788–1789, The Political Law of the Polish Nation, 1790)Template:Mdashhead of the Kołłątaj's Forge party; and Stanisław Staszic (Remarks on the Life of Jan Zamoyski, 1787).[41][43] Ignacy Krasicki's satires of the Great Sejm era were also seen as crucial to giving the constitution moral and political support.[44]

A new wave of reforms supported by progressive magnates such as the Czartoryski family and King Stanisław August were introduced at the Partition Sejm.[29][45][46] The most important included the 1773 establishment of the Commission of National Education (Komisja Edukacji Narodowej)Template:Mdashthe first ministry of education in the world.[35][46][47][48] New schools were opened, uniform textbooks were printed, teachers received better education and poor students were provided with scholarships.[35][46] The Commonwealth's military was to be modernized and funding to create a larger standing army was agreed.[49] Economic and commercial reformsTemplate:Mdashincluding some intended to cover the increased military budget previously shunned as unimportant by the szlachtaTemplate:Mdashwere introduced.[45][46][49] A new executive assembly, the 36-strong Permanent Council comprising five ministries with limited legislative powers, was established, giving the Commonwealth a governing body in constant session between Sejms and therefore immune to their liberum veto disruptions.[29][35][45][46]

In 1776, the Sejm commissioned former chancellor Andrzej Zamoyski to draft a new legal code.[37] By 1780, he and his collaborators had produced the Zamoyski Code (Zbiór praw sądowych). It would have strengthened royal power, made all officials answerable to the Sejm, placed the clergy and their finances under state supervision, and deprived landless szlachta of many of their legal immunities. The Code would also have improved the situation of non-noblesTemplate:Mdashtownspeople and peasants.[50] Zamoyski's progressive legal code, containing elements of constitutional reform, met with opposition from native conservative szlachta and foreign powers and was not adopted by the 1780 Sejm.[37][50][51]


The Great Sejm

Main article: Great Sejm

An opportunity for reform occurred during the "Great Sejm"Template:Mdashalso called the "Four-Year Sejm"Template:Mdashof 1788–92, which began on October 6, 1788, with 181 deputies. According to the Constitution's preamble, from 1790 it met "in dual number" when the 171 newly elected Sejm deputies joined the earlier-established Sejm.[29][43][52] On its second day, the body became a confederated sejm to avoid the liberum veto.[43][53][54] Concurrent world events appeared to have been opportune for the reformers.[29] Poland's neighbors were preoccupied with wars and could not intervene in Polish affairs. Russia and Austria were at war with the Ottoman Empire, the Russians found themselves simultaneously fighting in the Russo-Swedish War, 1788–1790.[29][55][56][57] A new alliance between the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Prussia seeming to provide security against Russian intervention and King Stanisław August drew closer to leaders of the reform-minded Patriotic Party.[29][58][59]

During the Sejm's first two years it passed few major reforms but the subsequent two years brought major changes.[54] The Sejm first adopted several lesser reformsTemplate:Mdashnotably the 1791 Free Royal Cities ActTemplate:Mdashaddressing the cities, burgher (townspeople) rights and voting rights, which was incorporated as a formal constituent of the final constitution.[60][61] While the Sejm comprised representatives of the nobility and clergy, the reformers were supported by the burghersTemplate:Mdashwho in the fall of 1789 organized a "Black Procession" demanding the full political enfranchisement of the bourgeoisie.[59] On April 18, 1791, the SejmTemplate:Mdashfearing that the burghers' protests, if ignored, could turn violent as they had in France not long beforeTemplate:Mdashadopted the Free Royal Cities Act.[62]

The new constitution was drafted by the King, with contributions from Ignacy Potocki, Hugo Kołłątaj and others.[29][44] The King is credited with writing the general provisions and Kołłątaj with giving the document its final shape.[44][54] Stanisław August wanted the Commonwealth to become a constitutional monarchy similar to that of Great Britain, with a strong central government based on a strong monarch.[54] Potocki wanted the Sejm to be the strongest branch of government. Kołłątaj wanted a "gentle" revolution, enfranchising other social classes in addition to the nobility, carried out without violence.[54]

The proposed reforms were opposed by the conservatives, including the Hetmans' Party.[43][63] The draft's advocates, threatened with violence from their opponents, preponed the debate on the Government Act by two days from May 5, while many opposed deputies were away on Easter recess.[64] The ensuing debate and adoption of the Government Act was executed as a quasi-coup d'ėtat; recall notices were not sent to known opponents of reform while many pro-reform deputies returned early in secret.[64] The royal guard under the command of the King's nephew Prince Józef Poniatowski were positioned about the Royal Castle, where the Sejm was gathered, to prevent opponents from disrupting the proceedings.[64] On May 3, the Sejm met with only 182 members present, about half its "dual" number.[61][64] The bill was read and adopted overwhelmingly, to the enthusiasm of the crowds outside.[65] A protest was submitted the next day by a small group of deputies, but on May 5 the matter was officially concluded and protests were invalidated by the Constitutional Deputation of the Sejm.[66] It was the first time in the 18th century that a constitutional act had been passed without the involvement of foreign powers.[66]

Soon after, the Friends of the Constitution (Zgromadzenie Przyjaciół Konstytucji Rządowej)Template:Mdashwhich included many Great Sejm participantsTemplate:Mdashwas organised to defend the reforms already enacted and to promote further ones. It is now regarded as the first modern-style political party in Poland's history.[44][67] The response to the new constitution was less enthusiastic in the provinces where the Hetmans' Party enjoyed considerable influence.[65] General support among the crucial middle nobility stratum was still very substantial; most of the provincial sejmiks deliberating in 1791 and early 1792 supported the constitution.[68][69]


The Polish constitution was one of several to reflect Enlightenment influences, in particular Montesquieu's advocacy of a separation and balance of powers between the three branches of government and his advocacy of a bicameral legislature.[29][70][71] Once the government was established, it aimed to ensure, in accordance with Article V, that "the integrity of the states, civil liberty, and social order shall always remain in equilibrium".[29][70][71] According to Polish-American historian Jacek Jędruch, the liberality of its provisions, "fell somewhere below [those of] the French, above the Canadian, and left the Prussian far behind", but did not equal the American Constitution".[61] King Poniatowski said it was "founded principally on those of England and the United States of America, but avoiding the faults and errors of both, and adapted as much as possible to the local and particular circumstances of the country."[72] George Sanford said that the Polish constitution provided "a constitutional monarchy close to the English model of the time."[29]

The constitution referred to the country's "citizens", which for the first time in Polish legislation was meant to include townspeople and peasants, as well as nobles.[66] The document's preamble and 11 individual articles introduced the principle of popular sovereignty applied to the nobility and townspeople) and the separation of powers into legislative (a bicameral Sejm), executive ("the King and the Guardians", the Guardians of the Laws being the newly established top governmental entity) and judicial branches.[29][70][73] It advanced the democratization of the polity by limiting the excessive legal immunities and political prerogatives of landless nobility.[62][74][75][76] The earlier Free Royal Cities Act (Miasta Nasze Królewskie Wolne w Państwach Rzeczypospolitej) of April 18 (or 21), 1791, was stipulated in Article III to be integral to the constitution. Personal security (neminem captivabimus) was extended to and empowered the townspeople, who also gained the right to acquire landed property and became eligible for military officers' commissions and public officesTemplate:Mdashsuch as reserved seats in the Sejm itself and seats in the executive commissions of the Treasury, the Police and the Judiciary.[62] Membership of the nobility was also made easier for burghers to acquire.[77]

Prawo o sejmikach, the act on regional assemblies (sejmiks), passed earlier on March 24, 1791 (article VI), was similarly recognized.[61][78] This law introduced major changes to the electoral ordinance; it reduced the enfranchisement of the noble classes.[60] Previously, all nobles had been eligible to vote in sejmiksTemplate:Mdashwhich de facto meant that many of the poorest, landless nobles (known as "clients" or "clientele" of local magnates) voted as the magnates bade them.[29][60] Now the voting right was tied to a property qualificationTemplate:Mdashone had to own or lease land and pay taxes, or be closely related to somebody who did, to be eligible to vote.[61][79] Active voting rights were also taken from nobles who held property granted them by magnates or the king, to remove the temptation to vote so as to please their benefactors.[60] 300,000 of 700,000 otherwise eligible nobles were thus disfranchised, much to their displeasure.[60] Voting rights were restored to landowners who were in military service; rights that they had lost in 1775.[60] A common practice at that time, voting was limited to males of at least 18 years of age.[75] The eligible voters would elect deputies to local powiats, or county sejmiks, which elected deputies to the General Sejm.[75]

With half the nobility disenfranchised and half a million burghers in the Commonwealth now substantially enfranchised, the Great Sejm's early acts increased equality in the distribution of political power, although it did not address the situation of the less politically conscious and active classesTemplate:Mdashnotably the Jews and peasants.[55][76][c] While the Government Act placed the Commonwealth's peasantry "under the protection of the national law and government"Template:Mdasha first step toward ending serfdom and enfranchising the country's largest and most oppressed social classTemplate:Mdashthe peasant question was unresolved and serfdom remained in force.[75][76][c] It would take the Second Partition and Kościuszko's Proclamation of Połaniec to deal the matter.[80]

Legislative power, as specified by Article VI, rested with the bicameral parliament (elected Sejm and appointed Senate) and the king.[75][81] The Constitution provided for a Sejm, "ordinarily" meeting every two years and "extraordinarily" whenever required by a national emergency.[75][81] Its lower chamberTemplate:Mdashthe Chamber of Deputies (Izba Poselska)Template:Mdashcomprised 204 deputies (2 from each powiat, 68Template:Mdasheach from the provinces of Greater Poland, Lesser Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and 21 plenipotentiaries of royal cities (7 from each province).[29][75] The royal chancellery was to inform the sejmiks of the legislation it intended to propose in advance, so that the deputies would have time to prepare for the discussions in the Sejm.[81] The king and all deputies had legislative initiative, and most matters (peace, commercial treaties, budget, war taxes, currency issues, education, police and treasury organization, requests of regional administration) required a simple majority.[75] A two-thirds majority was required for treaties of alliance, declarations of war, army complement and increases in national debt, and a three-fourth majority vote was needed for changes made to permanent taxation.[75] The Sejm's upper chamberTemplate:Mdashthe Chamber of Senators (Izba Senacka)Template:Mdashcomprised between 130[75] and 132[29] (sources vary) senators (voivodes, castellans, bishops andTemplate:Mdashwithout the right to voteTemplate:Mdashgovernment ministers).[29][75] The Senate was presided over by the king, who had one vote which could be used to break ties.[75] The Senate had a suspensive veto over the laws that the Sejm passed, applicable until the next Sejm session, when it could be overruled.[75]

Executive power, according to Article V and Article VII, was in the hands of "the king in his council"; a cabinet of ministers called the Guardians of the Laws (or Guard of the Laws, Straż Praw).[82] The ministries could not create or interpret the laws and all acts of the foreign ministry were provisional and subject to the Sejm's approval.[82] This council was presided over by the king and comprised the Roman Catholic Primate of PolandTemplate:Mdashwho was also president of the Education CommissionTemplate:Mdashand five ministers appointed by the king: a minister of police, minister of the seal (internal affairs), minister of the seal of foreign affairs, minister belli (of war), and minister of treasury.[75] Council members also includedTemplate:Mdashwithout a voteTemplate:Mdashthe Crown Prince, the Marshal of the Sejm, and two secretaries.[82] This royal council was a descendant of similar councils that had functioned over the previous two centuries since King Henry's Articles (1573) and the recent Permanent Council. Acts of the king required the countersignature of the respective minister.[83] The stipulation that the king, "doing 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 was responsible for the king's acts.)[83][84] The ministers, however, were responsible to the Sejm, which could dismiss them by a two-third vote of no confidence by the members of both houses.[29][61][75] Ministers could be also held accountable by the Sejm court, and Sejm could demand an impeachement trial of a minister with a simple majority vote.[29][83] The king was the nation's commander-in-chief, commanding its armies; the institution of the hetman was not mentioned.[83] The decisions of the royal council were carried out by commissions, including the previously created Commission of National Education, and the new Commissions for Police, the Military and the Treasury, whose members were elected by the Sejm.[83]

Article X stressed the importance of education of royal children and tasked the Commission of National Education with this responsibility.[86] To further enhance the Commonwealth's integration and security, the constitution abolished the erstwhile union of Poland and Lithuania in favor of a unitary state.[44][87] Its full establishment, supported by Stanisław August and Kołlątaj, was opposed by many Lithuanian deputies and as a compromise, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania received numerous privileges guaranteeing its continued existence.[87] Related acts included Deklaracja Stanów Zgromadzonych (Declaration of the Assembled Estates) of May 5, 1791, confirming the Government Act adopted two days earlier, and Zaręczenie Wzajemne Obojga Narodów (Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations, i.e., of the Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) of October 22, 1791, affirming the unity and indivisibility of Poland and the Grand Duchy within a single state and their equal representation in state-governing bodies.[72][88] The Reciprocal Guarantee strengthened the Polish-Lithuanian union while keeping many federal aspects of the state intact.[87][89] The document, like the constitution itself, was translated into Lithuanian.[85]

The constitution abolished several institutional sources of government weakness and national anarchy, including the liberum vetoTemplate:Mdashwhich was replaced by a simple majority voteTemplate:Mdashconfederations and confederated sejms, and the excessive influence of sejmiks stemming from the previously binding nature of their instructions to their Sejm deputies.[29][61] The confederations were declared "contrary to the spirit of this constitution, subversive of government and destructive of society".[82] Thus it strengthened the powers of the Sejm, moving the country towards a constitutional monarchy.[29][61]

The constitution also changed the government from an elective monarchy in its unique Polish variant to a hereditary monarchy.[29][61][90] This provision was intended to reduce the destructive, vying influences of foreign powers at each royal election.[91][d] The royal dynasty itself was elective, however, and if it were to die out a new one would be chosen by "the Nation".[82] In the period when regency was needed, the royal council would take that responsibility as provided by Article IX.[86] The king held the throne "by the grace of God and the will of the Nation", and "all authority derives from the will of the Nation."[29][75] The institution of pacta conventa was preserved.[83] On Stanisław August's death the Polish throne would become hereditary and pass to Frederick Augustus I of Saxony of the House of WettinTemplate:Mdashwhich had provided Poland's two most recent elective kings before Stanisław August.[61][83] This provision was contingent upon Frederic Augustus' consent, which he declined when the offer was presented to him by Adam Czartoryski.[61] In 1807, however, Napoleon persuaded Frederic Augustus to become the king of the Duchy of Warsaw established by the French Emperor.[44]

The judiciary was discussed in Article VIII, and was separated from the two other branches of the government,[75][83] to be served by elective judges.[75] Courts of first instance existed in each voivodeship and were in constant session.[75] Appellate tribunals were established for the provinces, based on the reformed Crown Tribunal and Lithuanian Tribunal.[75] The Sejm elected from its deputies the judges for the Sejm courtTemplate:Mdasha precursor for the modern State Tribunal of Poland.[75][83] Referendary courts of each province were established to hear the cases of the peasantry.[83] Municipal courts, described in the law on towns, complemented this system.[83]

Article I acknowledged the Roman Catholic faith as the "dominant religion", but guaranteed tolerance and freedom to all religions.[29][57] Article II confirmed many old privileges of the nobility, stressing that all nobles are equal and should enjoy personal security and the right to property.[76] The army was to be increased in strength to 100,000 men.[92] The constitution also provided additional levies on the nobility and clergy.[93]

The Constitution remained to the last a work in progress. The provisions of the Government Act were detailed in a number of laws passed in May and June 1791: on sejm courts (two acts of May 13), the Guardians of the Laws (June 1), the national police commission (a ministry, June 17) and municipal administration (June 24). The constitution included provisions for amendments, which were to be dealt with by an extraordinary Sejm held every 25 years.[61][81] Its co-author Hugo Kołłątaj announced that work was underway on "an economic constitution ... guaranteeing all rights of property [and] securing protection and honor to all manner of labor ...".[94] A third planned basic law was mentioned by Kołłątaj; a "moral constitution"Template:Mdashmost likely a Polish analog to the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.[94] A new civil and criminal codeTemplate:Mdashtentatively called the Stanisław August CodeTemplate:Mdashwas also being prepared.[86][95] The King also planned a reform improving the situation of Polish Jews.[95]

Fall and aftermath

War in Defense of the Constitution and Second Partition

The constitution remained in effect for little over a year before being overthrown by Russian armies allied with conservative Polish nobility in the Polish–Russian War of 1792, also known as the War in Defense of the Constitution.[65] With the wars between Turkey and Russia and Sweden and Russia having ended, Empress Catherine was furious over the adoption of the document, which she believed threatened Russian influence in Poland.[56][57][96] Russia had viewed Poland as a de facto protectorate.[97] "The worst possible news have arrived from Warsaw: the Polish king has become almost sovereign" was the reaction of one of Russia's chief foreign policy authors, Alexander Bezborodko, when he learned of the new constitution.[98] The contacts of Polish reformers with the Revolutionary French National Assembly were seen by Poland's neighbors as evidence of a revolutionary conspiracy and a threat to the absolute monarchies.[99][100] The Prussian statesman Ewald von Hertzberg expressed the fears of European conservatives: "The Poles have given the coup de grâce to the Prussian monarchy by voting a constitution", elaborating that a strong Commonwealth would likely demand the return of the lands Prussia acquired in the First Partition.[98][101]

Magnates who had opposed the constitution draft from the start, Franciszek Ksawery Branicki, Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki, Seweryn Rzewuski, and Szymon and Józef Kossakowski, asked Tsarina Catherine to intervene and restore their privilegesTemplate:Mdashthe Cardinal Laws abolished under the new statute.[65] To that end these magnates formed the Targowica Confederation.[65] The Confederation's proclamation, prepared in St. Petersburg in January 1792, criticized the constitution for contributing to, in their own words, "contagion of democratic ideas" following "the fatal examples set in Paris".[102][103] It asserted that "The parliament ... has broken all fundamental laws, swept away all liberties of the gentry and on the third of May 1791 turned into a revolution and a conspiracy."[104] The Confederates declared an intention to overcome this revolution. We "can do nothing but turn trustingly to Tsarina Catherine, a distinguished and fair empress, our neighboring friend and ally", who "respects the nation's need for well-being and always offers it a helping hand", they wrote.[104]

The Confederates aligned with Catherine and asked her for military intervention. Russian armies entered Poland and Lithuania, starting the Polish-Russian War of 1792.[65] The Sejm voted to increase the army of the Commonwealth to 100,000 men, but owing to insufficient time and funds this number was never achieved and soon abandoned even as a goal.[65][105] The Polish King and the reformers could field only a 37,000-man army, many of them untested recruits.[106] This army, under the command of Józef Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, defeated or fought to a draw the Russians on several occasions, but in the end, a defeat loomed inevitable.[65] Despite Polish requests, Prussia refused to honor its alliance obligations.[107] Stanisław August's attempts at negotiations with Russia proved futile.[108] As the front lines kept shifting to the west and in July 1792 Warsaw was threatened with siege by the Russians, the King came to believe that victory was impossible against the numerically superior enemy, and that surrender was the only alternative to total defeat.[108] Having received assurances from the Russian ambassador Yakov Bulgakov that no territorial changes will occur, the cabinet of ministers called the Guardians of the Laws (or Guard of the Laws, Polish: Straż Praw) voted 8:4 to surrender.[108] On July 24, 1792, King Stanisław August Poniatowski joined the Targowica Confederation, as the Empress had demanded.[65] The Polish Army disintegrated.

Many reform leaders, believing their cause was for now lost, went into self-exile. Some hoped that Stanisław August would be able to negotiate an acceptable compromise with the Russians, as he had done in the past.[108] But the King had not saved the Commonwealth and neither had the Targowica Confederates, who governed the country for a short while. To their own surprise (they thought they had a deal worked out with Catherine II), the Second Partition of Poland ensued.[65][103] With new deputies bribed or intimidated by the Russian troops, the Grodno Sejm took place.[65][109] On 23 November 1793, it concluded its deliberations under duress, annulling the constitution and acceding to the Second Partition.[110][111] Russia took 250,000 square kilometres (97,000 sq mi), while Prussia took 58,000 square kilometres (22,000 sq mi).[109] The Commonwealth now comprised no more than 215,000 square kilometres (83,000 sq mi).[112] What was left of the Commonwealth was merely a small buffer state with a puppet king, and Russian garrisons keeping an eye on the reduced Polish army.[112][113][114]

Kościuszko Uprising and Third Partition

For a year and a half, Polish patriots waited while planning an insurrection.[109] On March 24, 1794 in Kraków, Tadeusz Kościuszko declared what has come to be known as the Kościuszko Uprising.[109] On May 7, he issued the Proclamation of Połaniec (Uniwersał Połaniecki), granting freedom to the peasants and ownership of land to all who fought in the insurrection. Revolutionary tribunals administered summary justice to those deemed traitors to the Commonwealth.[109] After initial victories at the Battle of Racławice (April 4), the capture of Warsaw (April 18) and the Wilno (April 22)Template:Mdashthe Uprising was crushed when the forces of Russia, Austria and Prussia joined in a military intervention.[115] Historians consider the Uprising's defeat to have been a foregone conclusion in face of the superiority in numbers and resources of the three invading powers. The defeat of Kościuszko's forces led in 1795 to the third and final partition of the Commonwealth.[115]



The constitution has been both idealized and criticized for either not going far enough or for being too radical.[71] In either case, its influence was limited and it remained in force for 18 months and 3 weeks.[115] The memory of the constitutionTemplate:Mdashrecognized by political scientists as a progressive document for its timeTemplate:Mdashfor generations helped keep alive Polish aspirations for an independent and just society, and continued to inform the efforts of its authors' descendants.[29] In Poland it is viewed as a national symbol and the culmination of enlightenment in Polish history and culture.[29] In the words of two of its co-authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, it was "the last will and testament of the expiring Country."[b][116] The May 3 anniversary of its adoption has been observed as Poland's most important civil holiday since Poland regained independence in 1918.[117]

The constitution was a milestone in the history of law and the rise of democracy.[4][118] It was the first to follow the 1788 ratification of the United States Constitution.[118][119] Poland and the United States, though geographically distant, displayed some notable similarities in their approaches to the design of political systems.[118] Irish statesman Edmund Burke described it as "the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time ... Stanislas II has earned a place among the greatest kings and statesmen in history."[70][91] It has been called the second constitution in world history;[3][54] American expert on constitutional law Albert Blaustein called it the "world's second national constitution",[1] and American journalist Bill Moyers wrote that it was "Europe's first codified national constitution (and the second oldest in the world)".[2] British historian Norman Davies calls it "the first constitution of its type in Europe".[4][a]

The document's official name was Ustawa Rządowa ("Government Act"), where "government" meant the political system.[54] In the Commonwealth, the term "constitution" (Polish: konstytucja) had denoted all the legislation, of whatever character, that had been passed at a Sejm.[120]


Main article: May 3rd Constitution Day

May 3 was declared an official Polish holiday (Constitution DayTemplate:MdashŚwięto Konstytucji 3 Maja) on May 5, 1791.[121] It was banned during the partitions of Poland but it was reinstated in April 1919 under the Second Polish RepublicTemplate:Mdashthe first holiday officially introduced in the newly independent country.[117][121][122] The holiday was again outlawed during World War II by both the Nazi and Soviet occupiers. It was celebrated in Polish cities in May 1945, although in a mostly spontaneous manner.[117] The 1946 anti-communist demonstrations did not endear it to the Polish communists, and it competed for attention with the communist-endorsed May 1 Labor Day celebrations in the Polish People's Republic; this led to its "rebranding" as Democratic Party Day and removal from the list of national holidays by 1951.[117][121] Until 1989, May 3 was a frequent occasion for anti-government and anti-communist protests.[117] May 3 was restored as an official Polish holiday in April 1990 after the fall of communism.[121] In 2007, May 3 was declared a Lithuanian national holiday.[123] Polish-American pride has been celebrated on the same date, for instance in Chicago, where since 1982 Poles have marked it with festivities and the annual Polish Constitution Day Parade.[124][125]


a ^ The claims of "first" and "second constitution" have been disputed, particularly as different scholars define the word constitution differently. Both the U.S. and Polish constitutions were preceded by earlier ones, including some also termed constitutions, for example, the Corsican Constitution of 1755.[126] See history of the constitution.

b Latin "patria," itself derived from "pater" ("father").

c ^ The contemporaneous United States Constitution sanctioned the continuation of slavery. Thus neither of the two constitutions enfranchised all its adult male population: the U.S. Constitution excluded America's slaves; the Polish Constitution – Poland's peasants.

d ^ Stanisław August had been elected as king in 1764 thanks to the significant support of his ex-mistress, Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great.[127] The Russians spent about 2.5m rubles supporting his election, Poniatowski's supporters and opponents engaged in some military posturing and even minor clashes, and in the end, the Russian army was deployed only a few miles from the election sejm, which met at Wola near Warsaw.[128][129]


Further reading

  •  – compilation of facsimile reprints of 1791 legislation pertinent to the Constitution of May 3, 1791.

Original prints

New constitution of the government of Poland, established by the revolution, the third of May, 1791. London : printed for J. Debrett, 1791. - original old book, on the free access online library Polona

External links

  • Site about the May 3 Constitution that includes a partial English translation by Christopher Kasparek.
  • 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. Jacek Jędruch. Chapter Two – Monarchy becomes the First Republic: Kings Elected for Life
  • Commonwealth of Diverse Cultures: Poland's Heritage

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