I Will Not Consent
During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, Poland was not only the largest but also the most civilized and most powerful state in central and eastern Europe. And, not surprisingly, it evolved a Constitution which anticipated by 300 to 400 years the most modern ideas of democratic government.
Interestingly, in the 18th century, the number of full citizens in Poland was about 14% of its inhabitants whereas, in England, more than half a century later, the citizenry formed less than 2% of the population. Even before that though, the Royal Republic of Poland bore many striking features which later became cornerstones in the governmental structure of the United States and of England.
An interesting example of one of Poland’s unique unions was the ‘free union’ between Poland and Lithuania concluded in 1413 and expressed in a document unequalled in the history of international relations. It was a treaty that was based on the Christian principle of love and it survived 5 centuries. It was a treaty devoid of any coercion and it fostered an attitude of complete tolerance and respect for local institutions, language and religion and was incorporated into local fiefdoms such as East Prussia and Moldavia.
Up to the closing decades of the 16th century, the constitutional system in Poland grew and developed on the basis of a series of fundamental acts which laid the foundation for the Parliamentary system in Poland — a system that stipulated that the validity of government decrees were always conditional based upon the common consent of the Sejm and the Senate.
After the death of the last Jagiellonian king in 1572, a new set of laws known as the Pacta Conventa evolved. These laws introduced a completely new concept into Polish political life: the citizens gained the right to withdraw their allegiance to the king in case of the latter having transgressed any law or broken any stipulation under which he was elected.
It provided an almost infinite variety on interpretations and gave birth to a number of confederations: associations of citizens that started, more or less, a rebellion against the Crown even though most of these confederations had been undertaken with the best possible intentions of safeguarding and strengthening Poland. This is where the trouble really began.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, the whole constitutional structure was undermined by these confederations. They were abnormally ambitious, reckless and even treasonable individuals who found shelter and justification under the cover of the Pacta Conventa. This was the concept that the rule of the majority could not fully protect the rights of the minority and could lead to some form of tyranny.
For example, when Alexander succeeded Casimir as king, he had great difficulties with the nobles. They refused to cooperate and when he sought their help, they demanded more and greater privileges until the point was reached where the king was little more than a pawn in their hands. It wasn’t surprising then that the nobles who made up the Polish Diet introduced the “Liberum Veto.” Although these nobles didn’t realize it at the time, the “pure democracy” element of government was to lead to its final catastrophe — the blotting of Poland off the map.
The “Liberum Veto” prevented the king from enacting any law without the unanimous consent of the Diet. So, anytime there was a majority, it went for naught. Only when every member of the Diet voted for any proposal did that proposal become law. And so it was — any single protest by any single member could kill any reform or proposed law. If 99 members said ‘yes’ and one said ‘no’ — it didn’t pass.
The downfall of most nations is usually traced not to just one cause but to a combination of circumstances. So it was with Poland. The Liberum Veto deprived the king of supreme power. For instance, if he needed an army, it was impossible for him to raise it unless all of the members of the Diet were in agreement. If the Diet voted for the army, then there was the question of money. Money was needed to pay the army, to feed and to transport it. And, this money came from the pockets of the noblemen. In effect, Poland was ruled by a king who was totally controlled by his nobles.
And to this lack of control a lack of natural geographical borders and a continuing battle with the orthodox religious orders that Poland, a Christian nation, was continually at odds with. Two hundred years passed by.
In the 18th century, an enlightened Polish family known as the Czastoryski tried to do away with the Liberum Veto. They wanted to induce young men to come to their palaces for political training. They became nothing less than an armed force and the effort failed.
It finally took a political confrontation whereas Catherine of Russia in 1788 demanded that Stanislaus Poniatowski (Poland’s king) send Polish forces against the Turks and Swedes (to protect Russia) and the king replied that “according to Polish Law, this would have to be referred to the Diet.”
Swept by a wave of patriotic sentiment, the Polish Diet paid no heed to Catherine but realized that they could lose their country as well and abolished the ridiculous “Liberum Veto” – “I Will Not Consent” finally died.
. . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .