The Constitution of May 3, 1791 is generally known as the first national constitution of the modern world from Europe and the second in the world after the constitution of the Unites States (1789). The document was designed to correct some of the old political flaws and its traditional “Golden Freedom” system, which gave rights and privileges to the nobility. The constitution was adopted as a “Government Act” by the parliament of the Polish-Lithuanian Union and remained in force until the Russo-Polish War from 1792.
Polish-Lithuanian Union was a great European power in between 16th and 17th century and at some point was the biggest state from Europe. However, people were starving in the Union and important personalities demanded reforms because of the bad situation. Many historians confirm that a major cause of the Union’s fall was the “free veto” which allowed any deputy to nullify all the legislation enacted by that deputy.
The idea of reforming the Union was seen with suspicion not only by nobles, but also the neighbour states which feared the emergence of a democratic power at their borders. Therefore, Catherine II of Russia and Prussian King Frederick the Great provoked a conflict between some members of the parliament and the King of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski on the subject of the citizen’s rights of religious minorities. Catherine and Frederick declared their support for the Polish nobility and its “freedoms” and by October 1767 the Russian troops gathered near the Polish capital. The King of Poland were forced to accept Russia’s demands and agreed on the five “eternal and unchanged principles” which included:
– The right of “free veto”;
– The free choice of the king;
– The right to abandon loyalty to the king and to revolt against him;
– The right to hold land and official functions;
– The right of life and death of a landowner on his peasants;
Russia divided the Union in three parts
Thus, all the privileges of the nobility through which the Union’s political system (Golden Freedom) were illegal, after the Russian intervention it was guaranteed as “eternal through Cardinal Laws”. In other words, the Polish-Lithuanian Union becomes a protectorate of the Russian Empire.
However, not everyone in the Union agreed to King Stanislaw. In 1768 several magnates vowed to oppose the Russian intervention and triggered a civil war in the city of Bar. The war was fought until 1772 when the Russian intervened and stopped it. As a response, Russia among with Prussia and Austria signed the treaty of Poland’s First Partition. The Polish-Lithuanian Union lost one third of its territory and one third of the population. This first of the three partitions basically eradicated Poland from the map of Europe and was clearly showed the Union either will be reformed, either will disappear.
The perfect moment for a new Constitution
With the support of King Stanislaw, a new wave of reforms has been introduced. The most important one was the establishment of the National Education Commission (the first Ministry of Education in the world) which included new schools, printed textbooks, scholarships for poor students, etc. Besides this, the Union Army was upgraded, economics and social reforms were introduced and industry development was encouraged.
Reformists were advantaged because Poland’s neighbours were too busy with the wars (Prussia against France and Russia and Austria against Ottoman Empire) and they no longer intervened forcefully in Poland. It was the perfect moment to introduce a constitutional law. Therefore, on May 3, 1791 after a context of a “coup d’état”, the Government Act was read and adopted with an overwhelming majority. King Stanislaw described the Constitution of May 3 as “based primarily on those of England and the United States.”
Too good to be true
The Constitution was composed of 11 articles and introduced the principle of popular sovereignty and separation of powers in the state, the legislative branch, the executive and the judiciary. It promoted the democratization of the state by limiting the legal immunities, the right to own real estate and the right to occupy positions of officers in the army and public functions even if the person wasn’t noble. After less than 19 months, the Constitution was abolished by the Russian armies.
May 3 was declared a public holiday in the same year when the Constitution was adopted. However, the holiday was banned until 1919 when it was introduced in the newly independent country, but it was banned again when the WWII began. Finally, in 1990 the Constitution Day was officially reintroduced as an official Polish holiday and 17 years later Lithuania declared it a national holiday.