A Momentous May
“This law did not emerge from the mind of an isolated sage, from the lips of a few administrators, but was drawn from the heart of the great mass of the people; it is not merely written in black on white, but it still lives in the memory, in the aspirations of passing generations, and so it is a living law, rooted in the past, and developing in the future. . . . In the May Constitution, the national elements, the child of past traditions, is nurtured on the new present day needs of the Nation. Hence, it has been well and justly said that the May Constitution is the political testament of the Poland that was.”
The above quote is from Poland’s greatest national poet, Adam Mickiewicz, and it is my way of introducing you to this week’s topic, the anniversary of the May 3rd Constitution.
You see, it is almost impossible to understand the history of Poland or even the essential character of the Polish nation unless it is realized that Poland is fundamentally a country in which the parliamentary system is a deep-rooted and age-old tradition.
Historians have continuously pointed out that the most important moments of Polish history are concerned with the problems of parliamentarism and not with the accounts of battles and revolutions. This is why the date of a fundamental reform of its governmental system is so important.
The Poles are, in effect, a nation of Parliaments — a nation whose concept of what is legal requires the freely expressed agreement of all those interested. Nowhere else on the continent of Europe, among all the nations and states which have survived to the twentieth century, is the unbroken continuity of the existence of parliament a feature of national life.
The greatness of the May 3rd Constitution consists in the fact that it eliminated the most fundamental weakness of the Polish parliamentary system — that being the social inequalities. These constitutional reforms were made possible through a spontaneous effort of the Polish people upon hearing that a fresh partition of their country was again in the offing. During the excitement of these tidings the king read out a proposed form of a constitution drawn up by the patriotic party. The aristocracy begged the king to abandon his proposal, but the patriots rushed to the center of the assembly and demanded that the king should then swear to the new constitution, which he did in the Cathedral of St. John. The new act of reform was headed by the words: “All power in a state emanates from the people’s will.” All night the streets of Warsaw were ablaze proclaiming freedom and independence.
It is quite easy to see how strongly the people felt about their rights. The preamble of the May 3rd proclamation clearly expressed the motivating force that gave birth to this remarkable document . . .
“Persuaded that our common fate depends entirely upon the establishing and rendering perfect a national constitution; convinced by a long train of experience of many defects in our government, and willing to profit by the present circumstances of Europe, and by the favorable moment which has restored us to ourselves; free from the disgraceful shackles of foreign influence; prizing more than life, and every personal consideration, the political existence, external independence, and internal liberty of the nation, whose core is entrusted to us; desirous, moreover, to deserve the blessing and gratitude, not only of our contemporaries but also of future generations; for the sake of the public good, for securing our liberty, and maintaining our kingdom and our possessions; in order to exert our natural rights with zeal and firmness, we do solemnly establish the present constitution, which we declare wholly inviolable in every part, till such period as shall be prescribed by law, when the nation, if it should think fit, and deem necessary, may alter by its express will such articles therein as shall be found inadequate. And this present constitution shall be the standard of all laws and statutes for the future diets.”
As you can plainly see, the completeness of this preamble points out the desire of the Poles to succeed. They wanted a democratic liberty in the worst way and they wanted it preserved on a lasting foundation.
Both of Poland’s neighbors on the East and West took up a hostile attitude toward these Polish reforms. Russia’s Catherine II was indeed negative when she stated . . . “The Poles have outdone all the insanities of the Paris National Assembly.”
On the other hand, the opinion of prominent representatives of democratic states, such as France and England were quite favorable. Paris political leader Anacharsis Cloots called it a “happy day in which the friends of humanity, with a gaze full of relief would embrace the fruitful plains of Sarmatia, Gale and America” (here he means the world). England’s famous orator of the times Edmund Burks stated . . . “In contemplating that change, humanity has everything to rejoice and to glory in; nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to suffer.”
It is interesting to note that although our Constitution here in the United States was written in 1776, it was adopted in 1789 only two years prior to this Polish proclamation. Of course, in America it was the final result of a very bloody Civil War. In Poland, not an ounce of blood was shed, not even one disorder was recorded.
During this week we will again commemorate the Constitution of May 3rd, 1791. I hope that I have given you at least a small insight into its meaning on this momentous occasion.
. . . SEE YOU SOON,
GOD BE WILLING . . .