EMBASSY OF THE REPUBLIC OF POLAND National Day: May 3rd - Constitution Day The Constitution of 3 May 1791 (Polish: Konstytucja 3 maja) was adopted by the
EMBASSY OF THE REPUBLIC OF POLAND
National Day: May 3rd – Constitution Day
The Constitution of 3 May 1791 (Polish: Konstytucja 3 maja) was adopted by the Great Sejm (parliament) of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, a dual monarchy comprising Poland and Lithuania. Drafted over 32 months beginning on 6 October 1788, and formally adopted as the Government Act (Ustawa rządowa), the document was designed to redress the Commonwealth’s political defects. The system of Golden Freedoms, also known as the “Nobles’ Democracy”, had conferred disproportionate rights on the nobility (szlachta) and over time had corrupted politics. The adoption of the Constitution was preceded by a period of agitation for—and gradual introduction of—reforms beginning with the Convocation Sejm of 1764 and the election of Stanisław August Poniatowski as the Commonwealth’s last king.
The constitution sought to supplant the prevailing anarchy fostered by some of the country’s magnates with a more democratic constitutional monarchy. It introduced elements of political equality between townspeople and nobility, and placed the peasants under the protection of the government, thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. It banned parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto, which had put the Sejm at the mercy of any deputy who could revoke all the legislation that had been passed by that Sejm. The Commonwealth’s neighbours reacted with hostility to the adoption of the constitution. Frederick William II‘s Kingdom of Prussia broke its alliance with the Commonwealth, which was attacked and then defeated in the War in Defence of the Constitution by an alliance between Catherine the Great‘s Imperial Russia and the Targowica Confederation of anti-reform Polish magnates and landless nobility. The King, a principal co-author, eventually capitulated to the Confederates.
The 1791 document remained in force for less than 19 months; it was annulled by the Grodno Sejm on 23 November 1793. By 1795, the Second and Third Partitions of Poland ended the existence of the sovereign Polish state. Over the next 123 years, the Constitution of 3 May, 1791, was seen as proof of successful internal reform and as a symbol promising the eventual restoration of Poland’s sovereignty. In the words of two of its co-authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, it was “the last will and testament of the expiring Country.”[a] British historian Norman Davies described the document as “the first constitution of its type in Europe”; others have called it the world’s second-oldest codified national constitution after the 1789 U.S. Constitution.[b]
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