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Encyclopedia > May Constitution of Poland
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May 3rd Constitution (painting by Jan Matejko, 1891). King Stanislaw August (left) enters St. John's Cathedral, where Sejm deputies will swear to uphold the new Constitution; in background, Warsaw's Royal Castle, where the Constitution has just been adopted.

Poland's Constitution of May 3rd, 1791, was instituted by the Government Act (Ustawa rządowa) adopted on that date by the General Sejm, or simply Sejm, of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It is commonly regarded as the first written national constitution in Europe, and the second in the world, after the Constitution of the United States of America which began to function in 1789.

Contents

Background to the May 3rd Constitution

Prior to the May 3rd Constitution--as the document is known to Poles--the term "constitution" (konstytucja) had denoted all the legislation, of whatever character, that had been passed at a sejm. Only with the May 3rd Constitution did "konstytucja" assume its modern sense of a fundamental document of governance.


The May 3rd Constitution was a response to the increasingly perilous situation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, only a century and a half earlier a major European power and indeed the largest state on the continent. The first of three successive 18th-century partitions of Commonwealth territory by Russia, Prussia and Austria had taken place less than two decades earlier, in 1772. It was clear to progressive minds that the Commonwealth must either reform or perish.


An opportunity for reform seemed to present itself during the "Great" or "Four-Year Sejm" of 1788-1792, which from 1790--in the words of the May 3rd Constitution's preamble--met "in dual number," the newly elected Sejm deputies having joined the earlier-established confederated sejm. While a new alliance between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Prussia seemed to provide security against Russian intervention, King Stanislaw August drew closer to leaders of the reform-minded Patriotic Party. The new Constitution was drafted by the King, with contributions from Ignacy Potocki, Hugo Kollataj, the King's Italian secretary Scipione Piattoli, and others.


The advocates of the constitution, under potential threat of violence from the Sejm's Muscovite Party, and with many opposition deputies still away on Easter recess, managed to set debate on the Government Act forward by two days from the original May 5. The ensuing debate and adoption of the Government Act took place in a quasi-coup d'etat.

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In 1791, the "Great" or Four-Year Sejm of 1788-1792 adopts the May 3rd Constitution at Warsaw's Royal Castle.

Features of the May 3rd Constitution

The May 3rd Constitution introduced the principle of popular sovereignty (applied to the nobility--in Polish, szlachta--and townspeople) and a tripartite division of authority into legislative (a bicameral sejm), executive ("the King in his council") and judicial branches. To enhance Commonwealth integration and security, it abolished the erstwhile union of Poland and Lithuania in favor of a unitary state and changed the government from an individually to a dynastically elective monarchy. The latter provision was meant to reduce the destructive, vying influences of foreign powers at each royal election. (King Stanislaw August himself had been elected in 1764 with the support of his ex-mistress, Russian Tsarina Catherine II, "the Great"--including bribes and a Russian army deployed only a few miles from the election sejm, meeting at Wola, outside Warsaw.) On Stanislaw August's death, in the terms of the May 3rd Constitution, the throne was to pass to the house of Saxony, which had provided two of Poland's recent elective kings.


The Constitution abolished several institutional sources of government weakness and national anarchy, including the liberum veto, confederations, confederated sejms (paradoxically, the Four-Year Sejm was itself a confederated sejm), and the excessive sway of sejmiks (regional sejms) stemming from the erstwhile binding nature of their instructions to their Sejm deputies.


The May 3rd Constitution advanced the democratization of the polity by limiting the legal immunities and political prerogatives of landless nobility, while granting to townspeople personal security and the right to acquire landed property, as well as eligibility for military commissions, public office, and membership in the nobility (szlachta). The Government Act also placed the Commonwealth's peasantry "under the protection of the national law and government"--a first step toward enfranchisement of the largest and most oppressed social class. (It should be remembered that the contemporaneous United States Constitution countenanced the continuation of slavery.)


The Constitution provided for a "ready" Sejm, "ordinarily" meeting every two years and "extraordinarily" whenever required by a national emergency. Its Chamber of Deputies comprised 204 deputies and 24 plenipotentiaries of royal cities; and its Chamber of Senators--132 senators (voivods, castellans, government ministers and bishops).


The royal council ("Guardianship of the Laws"), presided over by the King, comprised 5 ministers (of police, the seal--i.e., internal affairs--foreign affairs, war, and treasury) appointed by the King but responsible to the parliament; the Roman Catholic primate; and--without a voice (vote?)--the crown prince and the marshal of the Sejm. Acts of the King required the countersignature of the respective minister. This royal council was a descendant of the similar council provided for during the previous two centuries, since 1573, in King Henry's Articles. The stipulation that the King, "[d]oing nothing of himself, [...] shall be answerable for nothing to the nation," parallels the British constitutional principle that "The King can do no wrong." (In both countries, the respective minister is responsible for the king's acts.)


King Stanislaw August himself described the May 3rd Constitution, according to a contemporary account, as "founded principally on those of England and the United States of America, but avoiding the faults and errors of both, and adapting it as much as possible to the local and particular circumstances of the country."


Indeed, the Polish and American written national constitutions reflect similar Enlightenment influences, including Montesquieu's advocacy of a separation and balance of powers among the three branches of government so that, in the words of the May 3rd Constitution (article V), "the integrity of the states, civil liberty, and social order remain always in equilibrium"; and Montesquieu's advocacy of a bicameral legislature.


The May 3rd Constitution recognizes, as integral to itself, the act on Our Free Royal Cities in the States of the Commonwealth that had been passed on April 18, 1791 (Constitution, article III) and the act on regional sejms (Sejmiki) passed earlier, on March 24, 1791 (article VI). Some authorities additionally regard as parts of the Constitution the Declaration of the Assembled Estates of May 5, 1791, confirming the Government Act adopted two days earlier, and the Mutual Declaration of the Two Peoples (i.e., of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) of October 22, 1791, affirming the unity and indivisibility of Poland and the Grand Duchy. The provisions of the Government Act were fleshed out in a number of implementing laws passed in May-June 1791, on sejms and sejm courts (two acts of May 13), the Guardianship (June 1), the national police commission (that is, ministry: June 17) and civic administration (June 24).


The May 3rd Constitution remained to the last a work in progress. Its co-author Kollataj announced work underway on "an economic constitution... guaranteeing all rights of property [and] securing protection and honor to all manner of labor..." Yet a third basic law was touched on by Kollataj: a "moral constitution," evidently a Polish analog to the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.


Legacy of the May 3rd Constitution

The May 3rd, 1791, Constitution remained in effect for only a year before being overthrown by the Targowica Confederation, ultimately leading to the third and final partition of the Commonwealth in 1795. But memory of the world's second written national constitution--an amazingly progressive document for its time--for generations helped keep alive Polish aspirations for an independent and just society, and continues to inform the efforts of its authors' descendants. The May 3rd anniversary of its adoption is observed as Poland's most important civic holiday.


Text of the Constitution

Polish and English versions are available at Wikisource. See also external links below.


See also:

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
May Constitution of Poland

References

  • Adam Zamoyski, The Polish Way: a Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture, New York, Hippocrene Books, 1994.
  • Joseph Kasparek, The Constitutions of Poland and of the United States: Kinships and Genealogy, Miami, American Institute of Polish Culture, 1980.
  • Emanuel Rostworowski, Maj 1791 - maj 1792: rok monarchii konstytucyjnej [May 1791 - May 1792: the Year of Constitutional Monarchy], Warsaw, Zamek Krolewski [Royal Castle], 1985.

 
 

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