The Radicalism of the May 3rd Constitution
The story of Poland's 1791 May 3rd Constitution is a tale full of intrigue, romanticism and determination. When the Sejm (Polish parliament) established
May 3rd as a day of celebration they were reminding Poles and their friends everywhere that the May 3rd Constitution was and is an appropriate symbol of
a people and a nation's determination to celebrate the ideals of justice, liberty and honor of all peoples.
The story of this remarkable document begins with the excesses of King Augustus II. A contemporary proverb perhaps best sums of the tenor of the
times, With a King from Saxony, you can eat, drink and loosen your belt! (Za Krola Sasa, jedz, pij i popuszczaj pasa). Many nobles were
unaware or did not care about the power-plays of the neighboring countries and those who were not members of the nobility were left without any voice or
control in governmental affairs due to the implementation of the liberum veto which allowed any one member of the nobility to block legislation.
"Constitution of third of May", oil on canvas, 1891, 227 x 446 cm, Royal Castle in Warsaw. May 3rd Constitution was the first written national constitution in Europe,
and the world's second, after the United States Constitution, by Jan Matejko
In 1763 August II died and Stanislaw Antoni Poniatowski (who was one of Catherine of Russia's many lovers) was selected as the next King. On
September 1794 he was installed and took the name Stanislaw II August. For a brief period reforms were began under the new king but the news of the
reforms reached Catherine and Frederick the Great of Prussia. Using long established relationships in the Polish Sejm they created and fostered conflict
and unrest among the nobility. As a result was the King bowed to Catherine's wishes and stopped all talk of reform. (It didn't hurt that there were Russian
troops in the capital to ensure "peace.")
This did not stop the talk of reform it simply moved out of Warsaw. In the little Ukrainian town of Bar, dissenting reformers formed the
Confederacy of Bar in 1768. The Confederacy of Bar attempted to overthrow King Stanislaw II. Once again Russia intervened and the rebellion was over
in 1772. For the first time Russia transported thousand of Poles to Siberia for "re-training."
Russia, Prussia and Austria characterized Poland as dangerous and pointed to the anarchy of the Bar Confederacy as ample proof that something
needed to be done to bring Poland back under control. As a result the First Partition Treaty was signed. It may have been at this time that Poland
learned that liberty and freedom was not a natural right but rather a reward for the willingness to defend it and honor it.
While the big three assumed the Polish question was resolved, the people of Poland were still defiant. Nobles who had sat on the fence on
the question of reforms now saw the need to act. The King and the Sejm only needed an opportunity. The opportunity came in the form of a war. War broke
out between Russia and Prussia and Turkey. The King saw his chance and called the Sejm into session.
The Sejm would meet for four years from 1778 - 1792 and became what is now known as the Great Sejm. There were two factions the patriots who
wanted reform and an end to Russian interference and the "hetmani" who wanted to maintain close ties to Russia and opposed any changes to the
structure of the government.
Ignacy Potocki, Hugo Kollataj, Stanislaw Staszic and Stanislaw Malachowski hammered out the draft constitution. The constitution centralized
executive power with the King but curtailed the power of the King by limiting his authority to contract public debt, to declare war, or negotiate treaties
or diplomatic acts. The Sejm was split into two houses under the King, acknowledged Roman Catholicism as the dominant religion but guaranteed freedom of
religion for all, people who lived in the city were given the right to own land, the be heard by a judge, access to civil service positions and military
ranks, they were also granted position sin the Sejm and the right to vote on matters that pertained to cities - the same privileges already enjoyed by
the nobles. Serfdom was abolished. The constitution increased the size of the standing army to 100,000 and imposed a tax on the nobles and the church.
On May 3rd, 1791, a day the King and the leading reformers knew many of the Sejm members would be absent the proposed constitution was put to
a vote. Poland's 1791 Constitution of May 3rd is the second oldest democratic constitution in the world; only the constitution of the United States
of America is older and the first in Europe.
However, the Polish Constitution was not greeted with enthusiasm in other European capitals. Russia, Prussia and Austria banded together to wipe
out and stop from spreading further what they called the Polish cancer of freedom. The war with Turkey over, Catherine again called on her contacts
in Poland. The hetmani were furious they had been knowingly duped over the timing of the vote on the Constitution and angry over the loss of their
privileges and with Catherine's help they formed the Confederation of Targowica. The Confederation along with 97,000 Russian troops attacked.
Prince Jozef Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko lead the resistance but their untried and tested troops were not match for the battle hardened
Russian army. The king, under pressure form Catherine was forced to join the Confederation of Targowica. As a result, the second partition of Poland was
made. Only a small portion of land was left to Poland the majority divided between Russia and Prussia. A puppet King and a Russian Army was also left
behind to remind the Poles that they were not in control of their fate.
Kosciuszko, along with other Poles who had fled before the partition, organized a revolt. The fighting was bitter and brutal but faced with food
shortages, and inferior weapons, Kosciuszko and his army were defeated in Szczekociny on May 6th 1794. Poland was partitioned again and this time nothing
was left of the county - but the nation the people did not die.
For a brief period after WWI Poland re-emerged as a nation. The hopes of the newly re-emergent nation were dashed when invaded by Nazi Germany from
the west on September 1, 1939 and seventeen days later by Russia from the east.
Poland continued to fight along side her Allies during WWII in the hopes of regaining Poland's right to self -determination. Between July and
October 1940, during the Battle of Britain, Polish pilots flying in the defense of England downed over 200 of the 1100 Axis planes lost. Polish forces
continued their contributions with the successes at Monte Cassino in 1944 and later, the famous Polish airborne operations in Arnhem. The end of WWII
however, bought betrayal for Poland and Poland was subjected to Soviet control.
During those dark years the ideals expressed in the May 3rd Constitution did not die. In 1960, President John F. Kennedy reminded us all that,
"Poles have never wavered in their belief that freedom would triumph in the end…" The world watched amazed in 1980 as Solidarity emerged and Poles
re-asserted their right to govern themselves.
After the totalitarian system was overthrown, the Polish Sejm re-established May 3rd as a National Day for Poles and their friends to remember
and honor the determination of the Polish people to exist and participate on the national stage. As the Honorable Carl L. Bucki stated in his 1996
address to the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo, "The Constitution of May 3rd, stands for the proposition that free people everywhere must step forward
despite all odds, to undertake the burdens of serving as champions of liberty…"
There can be no doubt that Poland and her people have accepted this challenge, Poland's military participation on the national stage since
1989 has included, and missions in Afghanistan, Angola, South Vietnam, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cambodia, Iraq, Liberia, Kuwait, Kosovo, and Korea.
Presently over 2,000 Polish soldiers serve in 15 peace keeping missions around the world under NATO and the UN in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Read the article about Jozef Poniatowski, check articles
about Polish history and people.
Written by Holly (Chris)
| Send comments to Holly
Here is one of the books that I recommend for the beginners. This overview of Polish history was written by Adam Zamoyski and it is entitled:
The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture
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