Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791

May 3rd Constitution (painting by , ). King Stanisław August (left, in regal -trimmed cloak), enters , where   will swear to uphold the new ; in background, , where the Constitution has just been adopted.
May 3rd Constitution (painting by Jan Matejko, 1891). King Stanisław August (left, in regal ermine-trimmed cloak), 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.

The Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791 (Polish: Konstytucja Trzeciego Maja) was Europe's first modern codified national constitution, and the world's second after the United States Constitution (which was written in 1787 and came into force in 1789). It was instituted by the Government Act (Polish: Ustawa rządowa) adopted on that date by the Sejm (parliament) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was designed to redress long-standing political defects of the federative Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and its Golden Liberty. The Constitution introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility (szlachta) and placed the peasants under the protection of the government,Template:Ref thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. The Constitution abolished pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto, which at one time had placed the sejm at the mercy of any deputy who might choose, or be bribed by an interest or foreign power, to undo all the legislation that had been passed by that sejm. The May 3rd Constitution sought to supplant the existing anarchy fostered by some of the country's reactionary magnates, with a more egalitarian and democratic constitutional monarchy.

The adoption of the May 3rd Constitution provoked the active hostility of the Polish Commonwealth's neighbors. In the War in Defense of the Constitution, Poland was betrayed by its Prussian ally Frederick William II and defeated by the Imperial Russia of Catherine the Great, allied with the Targowica Confederation, a cabal of Polish magnates who opposed reforms that might weaken their influence. Despite the defeat, and the subsequent Second Partition of Poland, the May 3rd Constitution influenced later democratic movements in the world. It remained, after the demise of the Polish Republic in 1795, over the next 123 years of Polish partitions, a beacon in the struggle to restore Polish sovereignty. In the words of two of its co-authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, it was "the last will and testament of the expiring Fatherland."




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. Already two centuries before the May 3rd Constitution, King Zygmunt III's court preacher, the Jesuit Piotr Skarga, had famously condemned the individual and collective weaknesses of the Commonwealth's citizens. Likewise, in the same period, writers and philosophers such as Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski and Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki, and Jan Zamoyski's egzekucja praw (Execution-of-the-Laws) reform movement, had advocated reforms.

By the early 17th century, the magnates of Poland and Lithuania were in near-total control of the Commonwealth — or rather, they managed to ensure that no reforms be carried out that might weaken their privileged status. They looked after their own interests while neglecting the commonweal. They spent lavishly on banquets, drinking-bouts and other assorted amusements, while the peasants languished in abysmal conditions and the city dwellers were hemmed in by an array of anti-municipal legislation and fared much worse than their thriving Western contemporaries.

Many historians hold that a major cause of the Commonwealth's downfall was the peculiar institution of the liberum veto ("free veto"), which since 1652 had in principle permitted any Sejm deputy to nullify all the legislation that had been adopted by that Sejm. Thus deputies bribed by magnates or foreign powers, or simply benighted and content to believe that they were living in some kind of "Golden Age," for over a century paralyzed the Commonwealth's government. The threat of the liberum veto could, however, be overridden by the establishment of a "confederated sejm," which operated immune from the liberum veto. The Four-Year, or "Great," Sejm of 17881792, which would adopt the Constitution of May 3, 1791, was such a confederated sejm; and it was due only to that fact that it was able to put through so radical a piece of legislation.

By the reign (17641795) of Poland's last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski, the Age of Enlightenment had begun to take root in Poland. The King proceeded with cautious reforms. Fiscal and military "commissions" (ministries) were established. A national customs tariff was instituted. Thoroughgoing constitutional reforms were discussed. However, the idea of reforms in the Commonwealth was viewed with growing suspicion by neighboring countries, which were content with the Commonwealth's impotence and abhorred the thought of a powerful — and more democratic — country hard by their borders.

Accordingly Empress Catherine the Great of Russia and King Frederick the Great of Prussia provoked a conflict between Sejm conservatives and the King over civil rights for religious minorities. Catherine and Frederick declared their support for the Polish nobility (szlachta) and their "liberties," and by October 1767 Russian troops had assembled outside the Polish capital, Warsaw. The King and his adherents, in face of superior Russian military force, were left with little choice but to bow to Russian demands and accept the five "eternal and invariable" principles which Catherine vowed to "protect in the name of Poland's liberties": the free election of kings; the right of liberum veto; the right to renounce allegiance to, and raise rebellion against, the king (rokosz); and the szlachta's exclusive right to hold office and land, and the landowner's power of life and death over his peasants.

Not everyone in the Commonwealth agreed with King Stanisław August's decision. On February 29, 1768, several magnates, including Kazimierz Pułaski, vowing to oppose Russian intervention, declared Stanisław August a "lackey of Russia and Catherine" and formed a confederation at the town of Bar. The Bar Confederation opened a civil war with the goal of overthrowing the King and fought on until 1772, when overwhelmed by Russian intervention.

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The Bar Confederation's defeat set the scene for the next act in the unfolding drama. On August 5, 1772, at St. Petersburg, Russia, the three neighboring powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria, signed the First Partition treaty. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was to be divested of over 30,000 square miles of territory, leaving her 74,000 square miles. This was justified on grounds of anarchy in the Commonwealth and the latter's refusal to cooperate with its neighbors' efforts to restore order. The three powers demanded that the Sejm ratify this first partition, otherwise threatening further partitions. King Stanisław August yielded to duress and on April 19, 1773, called the Sejm into session. Only 102 deputies attended; the rest, aware of the King's decision, refused. Despite protests, notably by the deputy Tadeusz Rejtan, the First Partition of Poland was ratified.

The first of the three successive 18th-century partitions of Commonwealth territory by Russia, Prussia and Austria that would eventually blot Poland from the map of Europe, had made it clear to progressive minds that the Commonwealth must either reform or perish. Even before the First Partition, a Sejm deputy had been sent to ask the French philosophes Gabriel Bonnet de Mably and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to draw up tentative constitutions for a new Poland. Mably had submitted his recommendations in 17701771; Rousseau had finished his in 1772, when the First Partition was already underway.

Supported by King Stanisław August, a new wave of reforms were introduced. The most important included the establishment (1773) of a Commission of National Education — the first ministry of education in the world. New schools were opened in the cities and in the countryside, uniform textbooks were printed, teachers were educated, poor students were provided scholarships. The Commonwealth's military was modernized; a standing army was formed. Economic and commercial reforms, previously shunned as unimportant by the szlachta, were introduced, and the development of industries was encouraged. The peasants were given some rights. A new Police ministry fought corruption. Everything from the road system to prisons was reformed. A new executive body was created, the Permanent Council (Polish: Rada Nieustająca), comprising five ministries.

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In 1791, the "Great" or Four-Year Sejm of 17881792 adopts the May 3rd Constitution at Warsaw's Royal Castle (rebuilt in the 1970s after its deliberate destruction by the Germans in World War II).

In 1776 the Sejm commissioned Chancellor Andrzej Zamoyski to draft a new legal code, the Zamoyski Code. By 1780, under Zamoyski's direction, a code (Zbiór praw sądowych) had been produced. It would have strengthened royal power, made all officials answerable to the Sejm, placed the clergy and their finances under state supervision, and deprived landless szlachta of many of their legal immunities. Zamoyski's progressive legal code, containing elements of constitutional reform, failed to be adopted by the Sejm.

Drafting and Adoption

Events in the world now played into the reformers' hands. Poland's neigbors were too occupied with wars — especially with the Ottoman Empire — and with their own internal troubles to intervene forcibly in Poland. A major opportunity for reform seemed to present itself during the "Great" or "Four-Year Sejm" of 17881792, which opened on October 6, 1788, and 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 Stanisław August drew closer to leaders of the reform-minded Patriotic Party. A new Constitution was drafted by the King, with contributions from Stanisław Małachowski, Ignacy Potocki, Hugo Kołłątaj, Stanisław Staszic, the King's Italian secretary Scipione Piattoli, and others.

The advocates of the Constitution, under threat of violence from the Sejm's Muscovite Party (also known as the "Hetmans"), and with many contrary-minded 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: many pro-reform deputies arrived early and in secret, and the royal guards were positioned about the Royal Castle where the Sejm was gathered, to prevent Muscovite adherents from disrupting the proceedings. The Constitution ("Government Act") bill was read out and passed overwhelmingly, to the enthusiasm of the crowds gathered outside.

The fall

The May 3rd, 1791, Constitution remained in effect for only a year before being overthrown, by Russian armies allied with the Targowica Confederation, in the War in Defense of the Constitution.

War between Turkey and Russia having by now ended, Empress Catherine was furious over the adoption of the May 3rd Constitution. Russia had viewed Poland as a de facto protectorate. The contacts of Polish reformers with the Revolutionary French National Assembly were seen by Poland's neighbors as evidence of a revolutionary conspiracy and a threat to the absolute monarchies. The Prussian statesman Ewald von Hertzberg expressed the fears of European conservatives: "[The Poles] have given the coup de grâce to the Prussian monarchy by voting a constitution."

Missing image
Hanging in effigy of the Targowica Confederation traitors (Warsaw, 1794).

A number of magnates who had opposed the Constitution from the start, such as Feliks Potocki and Ksawery Branicki, asked Tsarina Catherine to intervene and restore their privileges abolished under the Constitution. With her backing they formed the Targowica Confederation, and in their proclamation denounced the Constitution for spreading the "contagion of democratic ideas." They asserted that "The intentions of Her Highness the Empress of Russia [Catherine the Great], ally of the Polish Commonwealth, in introducing her army, are and have been none other than to restore to the Commonwealth and to Poles freedom, and in particular to all the country's citizens, security and happiness." On May 18, 1792, over 20,000 Confederates crossed the border into Poland, together with 97,000 veteran Russian troops.

The Polish King and the reformers could field only a 37,000-man army, many of them untested recruits. The Polish Army, under the King's nephew Józef Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, did defeat the Russians on several occasions, but the King himself dealt a deathblow to the Polish cause: when in July 1792 Warsaw was threatened with siege by the Russians, the King came to believe that victory was impossible against the Russian numerical superiority, and that surrender was the only alternative to total defeat and a massacre of the reformers.

On July 24, 1792, King Stanisław August abandoned the reformist cause and joined the Targowica Confederation. The Polish Army disintegrated. Many reform leaders, believing their cause lost, went into self-exile.

The King had not saved the Commonwealth, however. To the surprise of the Targowica Confederates, there ensued the Second Partition of Poland. Russia took 250,000 square kilometers, and Prussia took 58,000. The Commonwealth now comprised no more than 212,000 square kilometers. What was left of the Commonwealth was merely a small buffer state with a puppet king and a Russian army.

For a year and a half Polish patriots bided their time, while planning an insurrection. On March 24, 1794, in Kraków, Tadeusz Kościuszko declared what has come to be known as the Kościuszko Uprising. On May 7 he issued the "Połaniec Proclamation" (Uniwersał Połaniecki), granting freedom to the peasants and ownership of land to all who fought in the insurrection.

After some initial victories — the Battle of Racławice (April 4) and the capture of Warsaw (April 18) and Wilno (April 22) — the Uprising was dealt a crippling blow: the forces of Russia, Austria and Prussia joined in a military intervention. Historians consider the Uprising's defeat to have been a foregone conclusion in face of the gigantic numerical superiority of the three invading powers. The defeat of Kościuszko's forces led to the third and final partition of the Commonwealth in 1795.


Nevertheless, memory of the world's second modern codified national constitution — recognized by political scientists as a very 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. In Poland it is viewed as the culmination of all that was good and enlightened in Polish history and culture. The May 3rd anniversary of its adoption has been observed as Poland's most important civic, May 3rd holiday, since Poland regained independence in 1918.

Prior to the May 3rd Constitution, in Poland the term "constitution" (Polish: konstytucja) had denoted all the legislation, of whatever character, that had been passed at a Sejm. Only with the adoption of the May 3rd Constitution did konstytucja assume its modern sense of a fundamental document of governance.

The very concept of a codified national constitution was revolutionary in the history of political systems. The first such constitution was the Constitution of the United States of America, written in 1787, which began to function in 1789. The second was the Constitution adopted by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on May 3, 1791. These two charters of government form an important milestone in the history of democracy. Poland and the United States, though distant geographically, showed some notable similarities in their approaches to the design of political systems.Template:Ref By contrast to the great absolute monarchies, both countries were remarkably democratic. The kings of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were elected, and the Commonwealth's parliament (the Sejm) possessed extensive legislative authority. Under the May 3rd Constitution, Poland afforded political privileges to its townspeople and to its nobility (the szlachta), which formed some ten percent of the country's population. This percentage closely approximated the extent of political access in contemporary America, where effective suffrage was limited to male property owners.

The defeat of Poland's liberals was but a temporary setback to the cause of democracy. The destruction of the Polish state only slowed the expansion of democracy, by then already established in North America. Democratic movements soon began undermining the absolute monarchies of Europe. The May 3rd Constitution was translated, in abridged form, into French, German and English. French revolutionaries toasted King Stanisław August and the Constitution — not only for their progressive character, but because the War in Defense of the Constitution and the Kościuszko Uprising tied up appreciable Russian and Prussian forces that could not therefore be used against Revolutionary France. Thomas Paine regarded the May 3rd Constitution as a great breakthrough. Edmund Burke described it as "the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time…. Stanislas II has earned a place among the greatest kings and statesmen in history." In the end, the conservatives managed to delay the ascent of democracy in Europe only for a century; after the First World War most of the European monarchies were replaced by democratic states, including the reborn, Second Polish Republic.


King Stanisław August 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 adapt[ed] as much as possible to the local and particular circumstances of the country." Indeed, the Polish and American national constitutions reflected 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" — as well as Montesquieu's advocacy of a bicameral legislature.

The Constitution comprised 11 articles. It introduced the principle of popular sovereignty (applied to the nobility and townspeople) and a separation of powers into legislative (a bicameral Sejm), executive ("the King in his council") and judicial branches.

The Constitution advanced the democratization of the polity by limiting the excessive legal immunities and political prerogatives of landless nobility, while granting to the townspeople — in the earlier Our Free Royal Cities in the States of the Commonwealth Act (Polish: Miasta Nasze Królewskie wolne w państwach Rzeczypospolitej) of April 18, 1791, stipulated in Article III to be integral to the Constitution — personal security, the right to acquire landed property, eligibility for military officers' commissions, public offices, 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 the ending of serfdom and the enfranchisement of that largest and most oppressed social class. Template:Ref

The May 3rd Constitution provided for a Sejm, "ordinarily" meeting every two years and "extraordinarily" whenever required by a national emergency. Its lower chamber — the Chamber of Deputies (Polish: Izba Poselska) — comprised 204 deputies and 24 plenipotentiaries of royal cities; its upper chamber — the Chamber of Senators (Polish: Izba Senacka) — comprised 132 senators (voivodes, castellans, government ministers and bishops).

Missing image
Title page of Piotr Dufour's 1791 edition of the Polish May 3rd Constitution (Government Act).

Executive power was in the hands of the royal council, called the Guardianship of the Laws (Polish: Straż Praw). This council was presided over by the King and comprised 5 ministers appointed by him: a minster of police, minister of the seal (i.e. of internal affairs — the seal was a traditional attribute of the earlier Chancellor), minister of the seal of foreign affairs, minister belli (of war), and minster of treasury. The ministers were appointed by the King but responsible to the Sejm. In addition to the ministers, council members included the Roman Catholic Primate (who was also president of the Education Commission) and — without a voice — the Crown Prince, the Marshal of the Sejm, and two secretaries. This royal council was a descendant of the similar council that had functioned over the previous two centuries since King Henry's Articles (1573). Acts of the King required the countersignature of the respective minister. 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 was responsible for the king's acts.)

To enhance Commonwealth integration and security, the Constitution 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.Template:Ref Under the terms of the May 3rd Constitution, on Stanisław August's death the throne of Poland 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 binding nature of their instructions to their Sejm deputies.

The Constitution acknowledged the Roman Catholic faith as the "dominant religion," but guaranteed tolerance of, and freedom, to all religions. The Army was to be built up to 100,000 men. Standing income taxes were established (10% on the nobility, 20% on the church). Amendments to the constitution could be made every 25 years.

The May 3rd Constitution recognized, 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 Hugo Kołłątaj 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 Kołłątaj: a "moral constitution," most likely a Polish analog to the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.


  1. Template:Note Article IV (The peasants): "we accept under the protection of the law and of the national government the agricultural folk […] who constitute the most numerous populace in the nation and hence the greatest strength of the country [...]."
  2. Template:Note John Markoff describes the advent of modern codified national constitutions as one of the milestones of democracy, and states that "The first European country to follow the U.S. example was Poland in 1791." John Markoff, Waves of Democracy, 1996, ISBN 0803990197, p.121.
  3. Template:Note It bears noting that the contemporaneous United States Constitution sanctioned the continuation of slavery. Thus neither constitution enfranchised all its adult male population: the U.S. Constitution discriminated against America's slaves, the Polish Constitution — against Poland's peasants.
  4. Template:Note King Stanisław August himself had been elected in 1764 with the support of his ex-mistress, Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great — including bribes and a Russian army deployed only a few miles from the election sejm, meeting at Wola outside Warsaw.

See also


  • Adam Zamoyski, The Polish Way: a Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture, New York, Hippocrene Books, 1994.
  • Jacek Jędruch, Constitutions, Elections and Legislatures of Poland, 1493-1993, Summit, NJ, EJJ Books, 1998, ISBN 0781806372.
  • Joseph Kasparek, The Constitutions of Poland and of the United States: Kinships and Genealogy, Miami, American Institute of Polish Culture, 1980.
  • Norman Davies, God's Playground, 2 vols., ISBN 0231053533 and ISBN 0231053517.
  • Paweł Jasienica, Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów (The Commonwealth of the Two Peoples), ISBN 8306010930.
  • Emanuel Rostworowski, Maj 1791 - maj 1792: rok monarchii konstytucyjnej [May 1791 - May 1792: the Year of Constitutional Monarchy], Warsaw, Zamek Królewski [Royal Castle], 1985.

External links

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