• May 2, 2013
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Constitution of May 3, 1791 — The rights to be proud of by Poles in Lithuania

© Kurier Wilenski

Constitution of May 3, 1791 — the first constitution of its type in Europe — was the major step to reform the Polish state before its demise and partition.

At the time the “Government Act” was signed — since the Constitution was adopted as such — responded to the increasingly deteriorating situation in the very weak Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth state. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was constantly engaged in armed conflicts or was a scene of these battles. In addition the Russian military forces were stationed in the country. The prevailing anarchy was fostered by some of the country’s magnates fighting for so-called “Golden Liberty” system in the name of their private business, not concerned with the reason of state and country’s well-being.

The Polish state was surrounded by the increasingly stronger neighbours: Prussia, Austria and Russia.  The latter was stronger and stronger since the Peter the Great time. The neighbouring powers made sure that no reforms would be carried out in Commonwealth, and that it would stay divided, with corrupt political system and prevailing anarchy. Any military attempts to oppose to the situation such as the Bar Confederation, resulted in defeat, and effectively in the First Partition of Poland in 1772.

At last current world events appeared to have been opportune for the reforms and initiation of serious political changes in Poland in the eighties of the XVII century, as its neighbours were preoccupied with wars and unable to intervene forcibly in Polish affairs. The “Great” (Four Year) Sejm and Senate in the years 1788-1792 was than a discussion forum on the objectives of the reform. There were several projects of the new legal code, yet the final shape of the constitution was given by Hugo Kołłątaj.

The documents’ preamble introduced the most important principles, like popular sovereignty, freedom, the need to rescue the state as well as nation’s rights to be independent internally and externally.

The Constitution guaranteed the nobles their civil liberties and personal security; szlachta was named “the first defenders of civil liberties and the Constitution itself”. The Constitution referred to the country’s “citizens”, which was meant to include also townspeople and peasants, not just nobles.  This was revolutionary at that time compared with the old status quo.

Constitution of May 3, 1791 reflected the needs of modern republicanism when  it comes to political system. It proclaimed a separation and balance between the three branches of government: legislature, executive and judiciary.

Legislative power rested with the Guard of the Laws [Straż Praw] – which was equivalent to the government with the king as a leader. The Guard consisted of five Ministers — Minister of Police, Minister of Seal (i.e. Internal Affairs), Minister of Seal of Foreign Affairs, Minister of War and Minister of Treasury. The Ministers were held accountable to the Sejm, the council was appointed by the king. Roman Catholic Primate of Poland, heir to the throne, the Marshal of the Sejm and two secretaries were the members of the Council, as well; but they did not have the voting rights.

The Constitution proclaimed, that “Nation needs the integrity of the state and defense from an invasion. All citizens are the defenders of the state integrity and civil liberties”. The executive power  – the king – was the nation’s commander-in chief, commanding its armies. The army was not only to guard the state integrity, but to execute the civil rights if they were violated.

On 20 of October 1791 the “Great” (Four Year) Sejm passed the bill – called the Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations – as a regulation act. The document specified, that two countries shared a common government, military, and treasury.

Constitution of May 3 defined a federal state – Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – with two integral parts, i.e. Crown of the  Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It is  acknowledged, that the document declared the unitary Polish Commonwealth.

Change in the international political situation allowed Russia to focus on Polish issues, after all. The Targowica Confederation formed by conservative magnates opposed to Constitution aligned with Catherine [of Russia] started the Polish-Russian War of 1792 and overcame the state reforms. The Targowica Confederation magnates were inspired by czarina Catherina I-st;  they were defending their own particular privileges.  They turned to Russia asking for intervention, therefore the 100 000 strong Russian army entered Poland and Lithuania.

The invaders, interested in keeping violation and anarchy in Poland, were not going to allow for any realization of the serious state reforms. Therefore the Second Partition of Poland was followed by the Third and final partition between the neighbouring powers: Russia, Prussia and Austria. Nevertheless the Constitution of May 3 influenced greatly Europe and the world. It was considered a very modern political system at that time, reforming the organization of the state internal affairs.

The memory of the Constitution of May 3 was a foundation of Polish aspiration for an independent country at the time of partition. It was well known, that Poles were able to form a modern and effective state, which  – in better times – would be valuable at the international arena. The memory of Constitution was also a foundation of Poland’s regained independency.  Poland collapsed as a degenerate state, but regained its independency as a modern republic. The May 3 anniversary of its adoption has been observed as Poland’s most important national holiday, in the memory of moral regeneration of the ascendants, mobilization the country’s citizens to strive for the political well-being of their country and the defense from the external powers.

And this aspect of the Constitution May 3, 1791 calls for the warm appreciation among the Poles and Lithuanian Poles as well.

Marcin Skalski

Source: http://kurierwilenski.lt/2013/05/02/%EF%BB%BFkonstytucja-3-maja-prawo-do-dumy-polakow-na-litwie/

Tłumaczenie by Jadwiga Granowska w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by by Jadwiga Granowska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu. 

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