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)
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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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