225th Polish Constitution Day – May 7, 2016

On May 7, 2016 the Polish Museum will celebrate the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Polish Constitution of 1791. A special Mass will be offered at the Basilica of Saint Stanislaus Kostka at 4:00 pm, followed by preprandials at the Museum at 5:30 pm and a dinner at 6:00 pm. The dinner will be followed by remarks from the Polish Museum webmaster, entitled “Winona’s Poles and Poland Today.”

The following article on Constitution Day was contributed to Nowy Wiarus by Polish Museum volunteer Dan Schyma of Minneapolis, MN:


The May 3, 1791 Constitution of Poland was the second constitution ever written in the world, and the first for Europe.  The American Constitution of September 17, 1787 was the oldest.

Poland and America shared a mutual spirit.  They both had a devotion to the cause of liberty and freedom.  “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” which began the second paragraph of the American Declaration of independence should not be attributed in its origin to Thomas Jefferson alone.  Those exact same words were found in Jefferson’s library in the writings of Polish philosopher Wawrzyniec Goslicki.

The Polish Constitution is honored for what it represents.  It is a symbol of peoples struggle for liberty, justice and honor.  While the American War of Independence and the French Revolution gave birth to their constitutions, the Polish Constitution was written by aristocracy who saw government serving the common good of the entire nation.  It derived from bloodless forces trying to recover sovereignty of their nation, rather than from a war.

The Polish State was remarkably democratic in the late 18th century.  It’s kings had been elected from Henryk Walezy in 1573 up to Stanislaw August Poniatowski, who ruled until the 3rd partition of Poland in 1795.  Its parliament, or Sejm, had broad legislative authority, although the political privileges extended to only about 10% of the population. There were a multitude of reasons the government was highly ineffective and no longer able to defend itself against the advances of Russia, Austria and Prussia.  One reason was the Liberum Veto whereby any deputy in the Sejm by their vote alone could veto and block legislation.  The principle that “no legislation could be enacted without mutual consent” existed in virtually every parliamentary system in Europe, but not to the extent of the perverted form, Liberum Veto.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was ruled during the first half of the 18th century by Saxon kings in Germany who let the nobility do what they pleased.  The Seym was broken up time after time and the Magnates even conducted independent relations with foreign powers.  For the noblemen, it was known as the “Golden Freedom” and Poland was paralyzed, while Russia, Austria and Prussia became more powerful.  As anarchy reigned, the Polish army became outnumbered and outclassed and could not defend its borders.  The Swedish King Karl XII defeated the Polish Saxon King August II.  Within a few years the Swedes were defeated and the throne restored to August II.  The noblemen rebelled and Russian tsar, Peter the Great, under the guise of a peace-maker, got the fractions to sign a truce.  The Polish deputies signed away many of their powers and gave the tsar the legal right to intervene in Polish affairs.  It was a blow to Polish independence followed by two centuries of Russian domination.

After the death of August II and three years of bitter fighting, August III was installed as King. The Saxon decadence continued.  For the Polish noblemen, much of the time was spent making merry.  A slogan of the age was:  “Under the Saxon king, eat, drink and loosen your belt”.  It was normal to spend a fortune on beautiful horses and elegant clothing, while the peasants working the lands were reduced to abject poverty.  It is little wonder that many of the noblemen were unable to read or write.  The few who did, received an education usually in schools run by the Jesuits.  There was little progress in science, literature, history or geography.

After the death of King August III of the Saxon dynasty a new Polish candidate came forth, Stanislaw August Poniatowski.  Catherine the Great of Russia supported the election of her former lover and Poniatowski was elected king in 1764.  Catherine  believed she would easily control the new king, but was surprised by his independence.  Contrary to her intentions, Poniatowski aimed at cultural, economic and military reforms, and the rebirth of Poland with independence from Russia. When the Seym, In 1765, presented a bill to abolish the Liberum Veto the project was quickly quashed by the Russians and Prussians.  When gossip spread that the king planned reforms, armies of noblemen opposing Poniatowski and Russian troops marched into Poland at the Bar in Podolia, a Confederation.  The result was the 1st Partition of Poland in 1772 with Prussia, Austria and Russia signing a treaty awarding themselves 30 percent of Poland’s territory.

In an attempt to keep Poland weak, Russia sponsored setting up a Permanent Council strictly limiting its powers.  With the Partitioning Powers pulling the strings, nothing much could be done until Russia was occupied by a war with Turkey and Sweden.  The Seym became brave and in 1788 voted to increase its army and abolished the Permanent Council.  The “Great Seym” was to sit for four years (1788-92).  Its key achievement was the Constitution of 3 May 1791.

The Constitution of May 3rd established a constitutional monarchy.  Catholicism was considered the religion of the land.  However other denominations were assured tolerance.  The privileged position of the gentry was maintained while considerable rights were granted to burghers.  Peasants were recognized as part of the nation for the first time and were assured protection of the law, mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom.  It banned the Liberum Veto where a single deputy could choose or be bribed to undo legislation passed by the Sejm.  The document remained in force for only 14 months and 3 weeks because of the Second Partition of Poland by Russia and Prussia in 1793.

The Poles could not accept the total collapse of the state and the Insurrection of 1794 under the leadership of Tadeusz Kosciuszko started. Kosciuszko, a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, had successfully fought in the American Revolution and is honored as the founder of West Point having drawn up the blueprints for George Washington.  Kosciuszko, already 46 years old at the time, defeated the Russians at the Battle of Raclawice on April 4th of 1794, but was defeated in the subsequent Battle of Maciejowicze in October of 1794. This resulted in the 3rd partition of Poland.   Poland would no longer exist for the next 123 years.  Poniatowski, a great patron of the arts had built the great classical architectural structure, Lazienki Palace, but now the last King of Poland was a virtual prisoner of Catherine the Great in Russia.  But the Constitution of May 3rd kept the Polish spirit alive until Poland was again independent.

Dan Schyma