The Shockwave of May 3rd, 1791
On May 3rd the Poles recall that day in 1791 when their country acquired a constitution, the second in the world, after the United States supreme law adopted in 1789.
Drafted at a crucial moment in the history of Poland, the May 3rd Constitution was a harbinger of subsequent developments in constitutional law. Its progressive postulates could not be carried into life, however, owing to both internal and external circumstances. In a sense, the new Polish Constitution was so much ahead of the times that actual developments did not live up to its ideas.
At a time when Poland was at the brink of a catastrophe after long years of internal strife and in the face of mounting pressure from the neighboring powers, having lost extensive areas in both east and west, the May 3rd Constitution proposed profound political reforms that were meant to remedy the principal weaknesses in the country’s political structure. The system of elected kings having proved fatal in the history of the nation, it was to be replaced by a hereditary monarchy. The principle of Liberum Veto, by which any member of the gentry could veto any bill, was to be abolished. The sheer unlimited power of the nobility was to be curtailed by granting certain rights to the lower estate. In effect, the Constitution served to consolidate the nation and the state.
The program of reforms contained in the 1791 Constitution aroused the anger of those who were eager to see Poland disintegrated.
On hearing of the May 3rd Constitution, Prussia’s foreign minister Hertzberg wrote on May 12, 1791: “The Poles have dealt the final blow to the Prussian monarchy by introducing the hereditary throne and founding a constitution which is superior to the English one. Two days later he added: “It would seem that Prussia cannot think of controlling Cdarisk any more ever since the Polish Kingdom has become hereditary and has acquired a system stronger and better organized than the English one. I believe that Poland will thereby become a danger also for the Prussian state, depriving it of Western Prussia, and possibly also Eastern Prussia, eventually. How should we defend our frontiers, laid open from Memel Klaipeda to Cieszyn, against a populous and well governed nation?”
Equally shocked was Russia, ruled by Catherine II. The head of the Polish department in the foreign ministry, Bezborodko, wrote to Chancellor Vorontsev: “The courier from Warsaw has brought the worst news possible: the Polish king has virtually become a sovereign. They have adopted various laws concerning national administration, because the towns people have helped in carrying out the revolution; they are contemplating the liberation of the peasants.
The year 1793 brought another, and this time the final partitioning of Poland by Prussia and Russia. This time the tide has turned in the country, as a result of the new Constitution. When taking his oath in the Cracow marketplace on March 24, 1794. Tadeusz Kosciuszko made it clear that in leading the insurgents he would use his skills solely “to defend the boundaries, to recover sovereignty for the nation, and consolidate universal freedom”. Kosciuszko was supported not only by the patriotic minded sections of the gentry and by the townsfolk, but also by some peasants.
Precisely, the Kosciuszko Insurrection has caused the new Constitution to strike roots in the minds of the people, in spite of the loss of sovereignty. With the progress of time and gradual aggravation of the national plight, the May 3rd Constitution acquired a legendary ring for every Pole, in each section of the partitioned country as well as abroad, in exile. The Poles could be proud that a document of great wisdom and foresight had been drafted in their country, to become a model for other nations in years to come.
Adopted in 1791, the May 3rd Constitution could not avert the dire fate of the Polish people. But the survival of the Polish nation in the well over 100 years of foreign domination and oppression was largely due to the fact that such a Constitution had been drafted in the final years of independence. The Poles were fortified by the formulations of the Constitution, which says, for instance: “Every Pole ought to value the Nation’s political existence, external independence, and internal freedom more than his life and personal happiness. “It has become a custom to honor the authors of the May 3rd Constitution as well as those who have sacrificed their lives for the ideals of national progress and freedom.
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .