European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

03 May 2015

Constitution 3 May 1791

In the 18th century Poland (a short term for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) was gradually falling into the sphere of influence of neighbouring countries: Russia, Prussia and Austria. The previous century’s conflicts with Sweden, Russia and Turkey, and the Cossack rebellions in the borderlands, had significantly weakened the Commonwealth. The strong position of the nobility with the infamous liberum veto (the free veto), paralysing any parliamentary proceedings, and the limited power of the king, gravely contributed to the political and economic decline of the state.  The phrase “Poland stands by anarchy” clearly defined the political system of the state at the time.

The election of Stanislaw August Poniatowski  to the throne in 1764 resulted in eager attempts by enlightened Poles to avert further deterioration of the state. However, the opposition of conservative magnates and gentry, supported vigorously by Russia, against a radical programme of reforms, brought about the First Partition of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1772. The shock of the Partition mobilized patriotic circles to increase their efforts to restore the Commonwealth through a series of reforms.  As a result the Commission of National Education and the Corps of Cadets were established.  The Four-Year Diet held in Warsaw between 1788 and 1792 instituted reforms, of which the most important was the adoption of the Constitution of 3 May 1791.

Polish constitutionUstawa rządowa. Prawo uchwalone. Dnia 3. Maia, roku 1791. (Warsaw, [1791]). [Government Act. The law enacted on 3rd May, 1791]  British Library Cup.403.l.8

The Constitution was an act regulating the scope of state rule and a reorganisation of the system of power according to  Montesquieu’s theory, i.e. the division of powers into legislative, executive and judicial. It abolished the two pillars of the gentry’s “Golden Freedom”: free elections of individual kings and the liberum veto. It subsequently established constitutional monarchy as well as vested legislative power in the Diet.  The introduction of political equality between burghers and gentry was another significant provision of the Constitution. It also gave way for the gradual process of free development for the peasants who, for the first time in Polish history, were recognised as part of the nation. In addition it guaranteed freedom to all religious denominations, though Catholicism remained the state religion.  The crushing of the Constitution was inevitable as it made the state governable again and this was against the interests of the neighbouring powers, particularly Russia. Two subsequent partitions followed, and by 1795 Poland was wiped off the map of Europe.  

Die neue Polnische ConstitutionAn allegory of the Constitution from: Goettinger Taschen Calender vom Jahr 1793 (Göttingen, 1793)  C.109.e.2

The Polish Constitution aroused great interest throughout the world. It was preceded only by the Constitution of the United States of 1787 and predated the French Constitution by a few months. The document was widely discussed in the press in Western Europe and North America, and was immediately translated into French and English. It reflected the spirit of the Enlightenment. Although the Constitution had its shortcomings, it was a milestone in the history of law.

Constitutionelle de la PologneTranslation of the Constitution into French: Forme Constitutionelle de la Pologne (Paris, 1791) 114.i.11

It is considered the first modern constitution in Europe and one of the world’s greatest documents of freedom. The 3 May Constitution is as precious to the Polish people as Magna Carta is to the English.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East-Central European Collections

Further reading:

Konstytucja 3 Maja 1791. (Warsaw, 2001) OPK.2005.x.169

Constitution and Reform in Eighteenth-Century Poland. The Constitution of 3 May 1791. Edited by Samuel Fiszman.  (Bloomington, 1997)  98/09571

Henryk Kocój,  Dyplomacja Prus, Austrii i Rosji wobec Konstytucji 3 maja 1791. (Kraków, 1998)  YA.2003.a.583


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