Constitution of May 3, 1791
Overview
 
The Constitution of May 3, 1791 was adopted as a "Government Act" (Polish: Ustawa rządowa) on that date by the Sejm
Sejm
The Sejm is the lower house of the Polish parliament. The Sejm is made up of 460 deputies, or Poseł in Polish . It is elected by universal ballot and is presided over by a speaker called the Marshal of the Sejm ....

(parliament
Parliament
A parliament is a legislature, especially in those countries whose system of government is based on the Westminster system modeled after that of the United Kingdom. The name is derived from the French , the action of parler : a parlement is a discussion. The term came to mean a meeting at which...

) of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Historian Norman Davies
Norman Davies
Professor Ivor Norman Richard Davies FBA, FRHistS is a leading English historian of Welsh descent, noted for his publications on the history of Europe, Poland, and the United Kingdom.- Academic career :...

 calls it "the first constitution
Constitution
A constitution is a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed. These rules together make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is...

 of its type in Europe"; other scholars also refer to it as the world's second oldest constitution. It was in effect for only a year, until the Russo-Polish War of 1792.

The May 3rd Constitution was designed to redress long-standing political defects of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and its traditional system of "Golden Liberty
Golden Liberty
Golden Liberty , sometimes referred to as Golden Freedoms, Nobles' Democracy or Nobles' Commonwealth refers to a unique aristocratic political system in the Kingdom of Poland and later, after the Union of Lublin , in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth...

" conveying disproportionate rights and privileges to the nobility
Nobility
Nobility is a social class which possesses more acknowledged privileges or eminence than members of most other classes in a society, membership therein typically being hereditary. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be...

.
Quotations

"… 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."

King Stanis&322;aw August, according to a contemporary American newspaper account; describing the May 3rd Constitution

"[It is] the noblest benefit ever received by any nation at any time. […] Stanislas II has earned a place among the greatest kings and statesmen in history."

Edmund Burke, in response to Prussia|Prussian statesman Ewald von Hertzberg's expression of the fears of European conservatives: "[The Poles] have given the coup de grâce to the Prussian monarchy by voting a constitution. […] How can we defend our state… against a numerous and well-governed nation?"

"… the last will and testament of the expiring Fatherland."

Hugo Ko&322;&322;&261;taj and Ignacy Potocki, two of the Constitution's authors, writing in exile after the Targowica Confederation's victory

Encyclopedia
The Constitution of May 3, 1791 was adopted as a "Government Act" (Polish: Ustawa rządowa) on that date by the Sejm
Sejm
The Sejm is the lower house of the Polish parliament. The Sejm is made up of 460 deputies, or Poseł in Polish . It is elected by universal ballot and is presided over by a speaker called the Marshal of the Sejm ....

(parliament
Parliament
A parliament is a legislature, especially in those countries whose system of government is based on the Westminster system modeled after that of the United Kingdom. The name is derived from the French , the action of parler : a parlement is a discussion. The term came to mean a meeting at which...

) of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Historian Norman Davies
Norman Davies
Professor Ivor Norman Richard Davies FBA, FRHistS is a leading English historian of Welsh descent, noted for his publications on the history of Europe, Poland, and the United Kingdom.- Academic career :...

 calls it "the first constitution
Constitution
A constitution is a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed. These rules together make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is...

 of its type in Europe"; other scholars also refer to it as the world's second oldest constitution. It was in effect for only a year, until the Russo-Polish War of 1792.

The May 3rd Constitution was designed to redress long-standing political defects of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and its traditional system of "Golden Liberty
Golden Liberty
Golden Liberty , sometimes referred to as Golden Freedoms, Nobles' Democracy or Nobles' Commonwealth refers to a unique aristocratic political system in the Kingdom of Poland and later, after the Union of Lublin , in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth...

" conveying disproportionate rights and privileges to the nobility
Nobility
Nobility is a social class which possesses more acknowledged privileges or eminence than members of most other classes in a society, membership therein typically being hereditary. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be...

. The Constitution introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility (szlachta
Szlachta
The szlachta was a legally privileged noble class with origins in the Kingdom of Poland. It gained considerable institutional privileges during the 1333-1370 reign of Casimir the Great. In 1413, following a series of tentative personal unions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of...

) and placed the peasant
Peasant
A peasant is an agricultural worker who generally tend to be poor and homeless-Etymology:The word is derived from 15th century French païsant meaning one from the pays, or countryside, ultimately from the Latin pagus, or outlying administrative district.- Position in society :Peasants typically...

s under the protection of the government, thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom
Serfdom
Serfdom is the status of peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to Manorialism. It was a condition of bondage or modified slavery which developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe and lasted to the mid-19th century...

. The Constitution abolished pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto
Liberum veto
The liberum veto was a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It allowed any member of the Sejm to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting Nie pozwalam! .From the mid-16th to the late 18th...

, which at one time had put the sejm at the mercy of any deputy who might choose, or be bribed
Bribery
Bribery, a form of corruption, is an act implying money or gift giving that alters the behavior of the recipient. Bribery constitutes a crime and is defined by Black's Law Dictionary as the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of any item of value to influence the actions of an official or...

 by an interest or foreign power, to undo legislation
Legislation
Legislation is law which has been promulgated by a legislature or other governing body, or the process of making it...

 passed by that sejm. The Constitution sought to supplant the existing anarchy fostered by some of the country's magnate
Magnate
Magnate, from the Late Latin magnas, a great man, itself from Latin magnus 'great', designates a noble or other man in a high social position, by birth, wealth or other qualities...

s with a more democratic
Democracy
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law...

 constitutional monarchy
Constitutional monarchy
Constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a monarch acts as head of state within the parameters of a constitution, whether it be a written, uncodified or blended constitution...

.

The adoption of the May 3rd Constitution provoked the active hostility of the Commonwealth's neighbors. In the War in Defense of the Constitution, the Commonwealth lost its Prussia
Prussia
Prussia was a German kingdom and historic state originating out of the Duchy of Prussia and the Margraviate of Brandenburg. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organized and effective army. Prussia shaped the history...

n ally, Frederick William II
Frederick William II of Prussia
Frederick William II was the King of Prussia, reigning from 1786 until his death. He was in personal union the Prince-Elector of Brandenburg and the sovereign prince of the Principality of Neuchâtel.-Early life:...

, when the Commonwealth failed to live up to territorial agreements made in their treaty and also failed to consult Prussia before agreeing on the constitution. It was then defeated by Catherine the Great
Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great , Empress of Russia, was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia on as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg...

's Imperial Russia allied with the Targowica Confederation
Targowica Confederation
The Targowica Confederation was a confederation established by Polish and Lithuanian magnates on 27 April 1792, in Saint Petersburg, with the backing of the Russian Empress Catherine II. The confederation opposed the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, which had been adopted by the Great Sejm,...

, a coalition of Polish magnates and landless nobility who opposed reforms that might weaken their influence. Despite the Commonwealth's defeat and the consequent Second Partition of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth
Second Partition of Poland
The 1793 Second Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the second of three partitions that ended the existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by 1795. The second partition occurred in the aftermath of the War in Defense of the Constitution and the Targowica Confederation of 1792...

, the May 3 Constitution influenced later democratic movement
Democratic Movement
Democratic Movement may refer to:*Democratic Movement *Democratic Movement *Democratic Movement *Democratic Movement *Democratic Movement *Democratic Movement...

s. It remained, after the demise of the Polish Republic in 1795, over the next 123 years of Polish partitions
Partitions of Poland
The Partitions of Poland or Partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth took place in the second half of the 18th century and ended the existence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, resulting in the elimination of sovereign Poland for 123 years...

, 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 Country."

End of the Golden Age

The May 3rd Constitution responded to the increasingly perilous situation of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, only a century earlier a major European power and indeed the largest state on the continent. Already two hundred years before the May 3rd Constitution, King Sigismund III Vasa
Sigismund III Vasa
Sigismund III Vasa was King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, a monarch of the united Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1587 to 1632, and King of Sweden from 1592 until he was deposed in 1599...

's court preacher
Preacher
Preacher is a term for someone who preaches sermons or gives homilies. A preacher is distinct from a theologian by focusing on the communication rather than the development of doctrine. Others see preaching and theology as being intertwined...

, the Jesuit Piotr Skarga
Piotr Skarga
Piotr Skarga was a Polish Jesuit, preacher, hagiographer, polemicist, and leading figure of the Counter-reformation in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was called the "Polish Bossuet" due to his oratorical abilities.He was born February 2, 1536 in Grójec, to a family of lesser landless gentry...

, had famously condemned the individual and collective weaknesses of the Commonwealth. Likewise, in the same period, other writers and philosophers such as Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski
Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski
Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski was a Polish Renaissance scholar, humanist and theologian, called "the father of Polish democracy." His book De Republica emendanda was widely read and praised across most of Renaissance Europe.-Life:Modrzewski was born in Wolbórz Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski (ca....

 and Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki and Jan Zamoyski
Jan Zamoyski
Jan Zamoyski , was a Polish-Lithuanian nobleman, magnate, 1st duke/ordynat of Zamość. Royal Secretary since 1566, Lesser Kanclerz ) of the Crown since 1576, Lord Grand-Chancellor of the Crown since 1578, and Grand Hetman of the Crown since 1581...

's egzekucja praw (Execution-of-the-Laws) reform movement
Reform movement
A reform movement is a kind of social movement that aims to make gradual change, or change in certain aspects of society, rather than rapid or fundamental changes...

, had advocated reforms.

As they failed, the state machinery became increasingly dysfunctional. Many historians hold that a major cause of the Commonwealth's downfall was the peculiar parliamentary institution of the liberum veto
Liberum veto
The liberum veto was a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It allowed any member of the Sejm to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting Nie pozwalam! .From the mid-16th to the late 18th...

("free veto"), which since 1652 had in principle permitted any Sejm deputy to nullify all the legislation that had been adopted by that Sejm. This has set up a dangerous precedent. Thus deputies bribed by magnates or foreign powers (primarily from Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

, Kingdom of Prussia
Kingdom of Prussia
The Kingdom of Prussia was a German kingdom from 1701 to 1918. Until the defeat of Germany in World War I, it comprised almost two-thirds of the area of the German Empire...

 and France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

), or simply content to believe they were living in some kind of "Golden Age", for over a century paralysed the Commonwealth's government. The threat of the liberum veto could be overridden by the establishment of a "confederated sejm
Confederated sejm
Confederated sejm was a form of sejm in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. After 1764, sejms were frequently confederated...

", which operated immune from the liberum veto, but that was not a common occurrence.

By the early 17th century, the magnate
Magnate
Magnate, from the Late Latin magnas, a great man, itself from Latin magnus 'great', designates a noble or other man in a high social position, by birth, wealth or other qualities...

s of Poland and Lithuania controlled the state—or rather, they managed to ensure that no reforms would be carried out that might weaken their privileged status (the "Golden Freedoms"). They spent lavishly on banquets, drinking bouts and other amusements, while the peasants languished in abysmal conditions and the towns, many of which were wholly within the private property of a magnate who feared the rise of an independent middle class
Middle class
The middle class is any class of people in the middle of a societal hierarchy. In Weberian socio-economic terms, the middle class is the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socio-economically between the working class and upper class....

, were kept in a state of ruin.

The matters were not helped by the inefficient monarchs elected to the Commonwealth throne at the turn of the century: Augustus II the Strong
Augustus II the Strong
Frederick Augustus I or Augustus II the Strong was Elector of Saxony and King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania ....

 and Augustus III of Poland
Augustus III of Poland
Augustus III, known as the Saxon ; ; also Prince-elector Friedrich August II was the Elector of Saxony in 1733-1763, as Frederick Augustus II , King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1734-1763.-Biography:Augustus was the only legitimate son of Augustus II the Strong, Imperial Prince-Elector...

 of the House of Wettin. The Wettins, used to the absolute rule
Absolute monarchy
Absolute monarchy is a monarchical form of government in which the monarch exercises ultimate governing authority as head of state and head of government, his or her power not being limited by a constitution or by the law. An absolute monarch thus wields unrestricted political power over the...

, attempted to rule through intimidation and the use of force, which led to the a series of conflicts between Wettin supporters and opponents (including another pretender to the Polish throne, King Stanisław Leszczyński). Those conflicts often took the form of the confederations
Confederation (Poland)
A konfederacja was an ad hoc association formed by Polish-Lithuanian szlachta A konfederacja (Polish for "confederation") was an ad hoc association formed by Polish-Lithuanian szlachta A konfederacja (Polish for "confederation") was an ad hoc association formed by Polish-Lithuanian szlachta...

 - legal rebellions against the king permitted under the Golden Freedoms (some conflicts of that era included the Warsaw Confederation
Warsaw Confederation (1704)
The Warsaw Confederation was a confederation against King of Poland August II the Strong. It was formed on February 16, 1704 in Warsaw. It dethroned August II and declared Stanisław Leszczyński king. In response, the supporters of August II formed the Sandomierz Confederation on May 20....

, Sandomierz Confederation
Sandomierz Confederation
The Sandomierz Confederation was a confederation formed on May 20, 1704 in defense of the King of Poland, August II the Strong. It was formed in reaction to the Warsaw Confederation. Its marshal was Stanisław Ernest Denhoff. The confederation lasted until 1717, when it was disbanded by the...

, Tarnogród Confederation
Tarnogród Confederation
The Tarnogród Confederation was a confederation of szlachta in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the years 1715–1716. It was formed on 26 November 1715 in Tarnogród by nobility angered by illegal taxation, levied for Saxon forces operating in Grand Duchy of Lithuania on behalf of Augustus II the...

, Dzików Confederation
Dzików Confederation
The Dzikowska Confederation was a military organisation formed in 1734 in Dzików by supporters of Stanisław I Leszczyński during the War of Polish Succession, under the leadership of Adam Tarło....

 and the War of the Polish Succession
War of the Polish Succession
The War of the Polish Succession was a major European war for princes' possessions sparked by a Polish civil war over the succession to Augustus II, King of Poland that other European powers widened in pursuit of their own national interests...

). Only 8 out 18 sejm sessions during the reign of Augustus II passed legislation. For a period in 30 years around the reign of Augustus III, only one session was able to pass legislation. The government was near collapse, giving rise to the term "Polish anarchy", and the country was managed by provincial assemblies and magnates.

There were also reform attempts in the Wettin era, led by individuals such as Kazimierz Karwowski
Kazimierz Karwowski
Kazimierz Karwowski of Pniejnia coat of arms was a Polish noble and politician. He was marshal of the Sejm in 1740, a deputy to the Crown Tribunal, cześnik of Wizna from 1703, stolink, łowczy and pisarz of Bielsk, podstarości, podstoli and sędzia grodzki of Brańsk...

, Stanisław Dunin-Karwicki
Stanisław Dunin-Karwicki
Stanisław Dunin-Karwicki of the Łabędź coat of arms was a Polish noble, politician and political writer. He held the titles of Cześnik from 1688 and podkomorzy of Sandomierz from 1713 or 1714. He was involved with the Polish Reformed Church. Deputy to several Sejms...

, Stanisław A. Szczuka and Józef Massalski, however, they also proved to be for the most part futile.

Early reforms

The Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

 had gained great influence in certain Commonwealth circles
Enlightenment in Poland
The ideas of the Age of Enlightenment in Poland were developed later than in the Western Europe, as Polish bourgeoisie was weaker, and szlachta culture together with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth political system were in deep crisis...

 during the reign (1764–95) of its last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski. Poniatowski, a Polish magnate, had been a deputy to the Sejms of 1750, 1758, 1760, 1761, 1762 and 1764, and as such had a much deeper understandings of Polish politics than previous monarchs elected to the Polish throne. In 1764 the liberum veto
Liberum veto
The liberum veto was a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It allowed any member of the Sejm to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting Nie pozwalam! .From the mid-16th to the late 18th...

had been weakened, made no longer applicable to "economic matters" such as taxation. Poniatowski had proceeded with cautious reforms such as the establishment of fiscal and military ministries and a national customs tariff
Tariff
A tariff may be either tax on imports or exports , or a list or schedule of prices for such things as rail service, bus routes, and electrical usage ....

. However, the idea of reforming the Commonwealth was viewed with suspicion not only by its magnates but also by neighboring countries, which were content with the state of the Commonwealth's affairs and abhorred the thought of a resurgent and democratic power on their borders.

Accordingly Russia's Empress Catherine the Great and Prussia
Prussia
Prussia was a German kingdom and historic state originating out of the Duchy of Prussia and the Margraviate of Brandenburg. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organized and effective army. Prussia shaped the history...

's King Frederick the Great provoked a conflict between some members of the Sejm and the King over civil rights
Civil rights
Civil and political rights are a class of rights that protect individuals' freedom from unwarranted infringement by governments and private organizations, and ensure one's ability to participate in the civil and political life of the state without discrimination or repression.Civil rights include...

 for religious minorities (the Protestants and the Greek Orthodox). Catherine and Frederick declared their support for the Polish nobility (szlachta
Szlachta
The szlachta was a legally privileged noble class with origins in the Kingdom of Poland. It gained considerable institutional privileges during the 1333-1370 reign of Casimir the Great. In 1413, following a series of tentative personal unions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of...

) and their "liberties," and by October 1767 Russian troops had assembled outside the Polish capital, Warsaw
Warsaw
Warsaw is the capital and largest city of Poland. It is located on the Vistula River, roughly from the Baltic Sea and from the Carpathian Mountains. Its population in 2010 was estimated at 1,716,855 residents with a greater metropolitan area of 2,631,902 residents, making Warsaw the 10th most...

, in support of the conservative Radom Confederation
Radom Confederation
Radom Confederation was a konfederacja of nobility in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth formed in Radom on 23 June 1767 to prevent reforms and defend the Golden Liberties...

. The King and his adherents, in face of superior Russian military force, were left with little choice but to acquiesce in Russian demands and during the Repnin Sejm
Repnin Sejm
The Repnin Sejm was a Sejm of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth that took place between 1767 and 1768 in Warsaw. This session followed the Sejms of 1764 to 1766, where the newly elected King of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski, attempted with some successes to push through reforms to...

 (named after unofficially presiding Russian ambassador Nicholas Repnin
Nicholas Repnin
Prince Nikolai Vasilyevich Repnin was an Imperial Russian statesman and general from the Repnin princely family who played a key role in the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.- Rule of Poland :...

) accept the five "eternal and invariable principles" which Catherine vowed to "protect for all time to come in the name of Poland's liberties": the election of kings; the right of liberum veto
Liberum veto
The liberum veto was a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It allowed any member of the Sejm to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting Nie pozwalam! .From the mid-16th to the late 18th...

; the right to renounce allegiance to, and raise rebellion against, the king (rokosz
Rokosz
A rokosz originally was a gathering of all the Polish szlachta , not merely of deputies, for a sejm. The term was introduced to the Polish language from Hungary, where analogous gatherings took place at a field called Rákos....

); the szlachta's exclusive right to hold office and land; and a landowner's power of life and death over his peasants. Thus all the privileges of the nobility that had made the Commonwealth's political system
Political system
A political system is a system of politics and government. It is usually compared to the legal system, economic system, cultural system, and other social systems...

 ("Golden Liberty
Golden Liberty
Golden Liberty , sometimes referred to as Golden Freedoms, Nobles' Democracy or Nobles' Commonwealth refers to a unique aristocratic political system in the Kingdom of Poland and later, after the Union of Lublin , in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth...

") ungovernable were guaranteed as unalterable in the Cardinal Laws
Cardinal laws
The Cardinal Laws were a constitution enacted in Warsaw, Poland, by the Repnin Sejm of 1767–68. Ostensibly the Cardinal Laws were intended to ensure the "Golden Liberty" of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility, as demanded by nobles united in the Radom Confederation...

. During the 1768 Sejm, Repnin showed his influence in the Commonwealth by arranging the abduction and imprisonment (untli 1773) of three vocal opponents: Kajetan Sołtyk, Józef A. Załuski, Wacław Rzewuski and Seweryn Rzewuski
Seweryn Rzewuski
Seweryn Rzewuski was a Polish-Lithuanian szlachcic.He was Field Hetman of the Crown from 1774 to 1795. Participant of the Radom Confederation in 1767 and one of the leaders of the Hetman Party and the...

. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth thus has been shown to be, effectively, a protectorate
Protectorate
In history, the term protectorate has two different meanings. In its earliest inception, which has been adopted by modern international law, it is an autonomous territory that is protected diplomatically or militarily against third parties by a stronger state or entity...

 of the Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

. Nonetheless, several minor beneficial reforms were adopted (such as restoration of full political rights to the religious minorities), and the need for more reforms was becoming increasingly recognized.

Not everyone in the Commonwealth agreed with King Stanisław August's acquiescence to the Russian intervention. On February 29, 1768, several magnates, including Józef Pułaski and his young son, Kazimierz Pułaski (Casimir Pulaski), vowing to oppose Russian influence, declared Stanisław August a lackey of Russia and Catherine and formed a confederation
Confederation
A confederation in modern political terms is a permanent union of political units for common action in relation to other units. Usually created by treaty but often later adopting a common constitution, confederations tend to be established for dealing with critical issues such as defense, foreign...

 at the town of Bar
Bar, Ukraine
Bar is a city located on the Rov River in the Vinnytsia Oblast of western Ukraine. It is the administrative center of the Barskyi Raion , and is part of the historic region of Podolia. The current estimated population is 17,200 .-History:The city was a small trade outpost named Row...

. The Bar Confederation
Bar Confederation
The Bar Confederation was an association of Polish nobles formed at the fortress of Bar in Podolia in 1768 to defend the internal and external independence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth against Russian influence and against King Stanisław August Poniatowski and Polish reformers who were...

, despite it patriotic focus on limiting the influence of foreigners in the Commonwealth affairs, was also rather conservative, and restrictive with regards to religious tolerance. A civil war begun in Poland, waged by the Confederation with the goal of overthrowing the King and fought on until 1772, when overwhelmed by Russian intervention.

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
First Partition of Poland
The First Partition of Poland or First Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took place in 1772 as the first of three partitions that ended the existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by 1795. Growth in the Russian Empire's power, threatening the Kingdom of Prussia and the...

. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was to be divested of about a third of its territory and population (over 200000 km² (77,220 sq mi) and 4 million people). This was justified on grounds of "anarchy" in the Commonwealth and her 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 under duress and on April 19, 1773, called the Sejm into session. Only 102 deputies attended what became known as the Partition Sejm
Partition Sejm
The Partition Sejm was a Sejm lasting from 1773 to 1776 in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, convened by its three neighbours in order to legalize their First Partition of Poland. During its first days in session, that Sejm was the site of Tadeusz Rejtan famous gesture of protest...

; the rest, aware of the King's decision, refused. Despite protests, notably by the deputy Tadeusz Rejtan
Tadeusz Rejtan
Tadeusz Reytan was a Polish nobleman. He was a member of the Polish Sejm from the constituency of Nowogródek . Rejtan is remembered for a dramatic gesture he made in September 1773, as a deputy of the Partition Sejm...

, the First Partition of Poland was ratified.

The first of the three successive 18th-century partitions of Commonwealth territory
Partitions of Poland
The Partitions of Poland or Partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth took place in the second half of the 18th century and ended the existence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, resulting in the elimination of sovereign Poland for 123 years...

 that would eventually blot Poland from the map of Europe shocked the inhabitants of the Commonwealth, and had made it clear to progressive minds that the Commonwealth must either reform or perish. In the last three decades preceding the constitution, there was a rising interest among progressive thinkers in constitutional reform. Even before the First Partition
First Partition of Poland
The First Partition of Poland or First Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took place in 1772 as the first of three partitions that ended the existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by 1795. Growth in the Russian Empire's power, threatening the Kingdom of Prussia and the...

, a Polish noble, Michał Wielhorski, and envoy of the Bar Confederation, had been sent to ask the French philosophe
Philosophe
The philosophes were the intellectuals of the 18th century Enlightenment. Few were primarily philosophers; rather they were public intellectuals who applied reason to the study of many areas of learning, including philosophy, history, science, politics, economics and social issues...

s
Gabriel Bonnot de Mably
Gabriel Bonnot de Mably
Gabriel Bonnot de Mably , sometimes known as Abbé de Mably, was a French philosopher and politician. He was born in Grenoble of a legal family, and, like his younger brother, the well-known philosopher, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac , took holy orders...

 and Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought.His novel Émile: or, On Education is a treatise...

 to offer suggestions on a new constitution for a new Poland. Mably had submitted his recommendations (The Government and Laws of Poland) in 1770–71; Rousseau had finished his Considerations on the Government of Poland
Considerations on the Government of Poland
Considerations on the Government of Poland — also simply The Government of Poland or, in the original French, Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne — is an essay by Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau concerning the design of a new constitution for the people of Poland...

in 1772, when the First Partition was already underway. Notable works advocating the need to reform and presenting specific solutions were published in the Commonwealth itself by Polish-Lithuanian thinkers such as Stanisław Konarski (On the Effective Conduct of Debates in Ordinary Sejms, 1761–1763), founder of the Collegrium Nobilium; Józef Wybicki
Józef Wybicki
Józef Rufin Wybicki was a Polish general, poet and political figure.-Life:He was a close friend of General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski, and in 1797 he wrote Mazurek Dąbrowskiego , which in 1927 was adopted as the Polish national anthem.During the Kościuszko Uprising, he was counselor of the Military...

 (Political Thoughts on Civil Liberties, 1775, Patriotic Letters, 1778-1778), composer of the Polish National Anthem; Hugo Kołłątaj (Anonymous Letters to Stanisław Małachowski, 1788–1789, The Political Law of the Polish Nation, 1790), head of the Kołłątaj's Forge
Kołłątaj's Forge
Kołłątaj's Forge was a group of social and political activists, publicists and writers from the period of the Great Sejm in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth....

 party; and Stanisław Staszic (Remarks on the Life of Jan Zamoyski, 1787). Also seen as crucial to giving the Constitution moral and political support were Ignacy Krasicki
Ignacy Krasicki
Ignacy Krasicki , from 1766 Prince-Bishop of Warmia and from 1795 Archbishop of Gniezno , was Poland's leading Enlightenment poet , a critic of the clergy, Poland's La Fontaine, author of the first Polish novel, playwright, journalist, encyclopedist, and translator from French and...

's satires of the Great Sejm
Great Sejm
The Great Sejm, also known as the Four-Year Sejm was a Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that was held in Warsaw, beginning in 1788...

 era.

Supported by more progressive magnates, such as the Czartoryski family, and King Stanisław August, a new wave of reforms were introduced at the Partition Sejm. The most important included the establishment, in 1773, of a Komisja Edukacji Narodowej
Komisja Edukacji Narodowej
The Commission of National Education was the central educational authority in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, created by the Sejm and king Stanisław August Poniatowski on October 14, 1773...

("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, and poor students were provided scholarships. The Commonwealth's military was modernized, and a standing army was formed. Economic and commercial reforms, previously shunned as unimportant by the szlachta
Szlachta
The szlachta was a legally privileged noble class with origins in the Kingdom of Poland. It gained considerable institutional privileges during the 1333-1370 reign of Casimir the Great. In 1413, following a series of tentative personal unions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of...

, were introduced. Finally, a new executive body was created, the 36-strong Permanent Council
Permanent Council
The Permanent Council was the highest administrative authority in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1775 and 1789 and the first modern government in Europe...

, comprising five ministries with limited legislative powers, giving the Commonwealth a new governing body, in constant session between the Sejms and immune to liberum veto.

In 1776, the Sejm commissioned Chancellor Andrzej Zamoyski to draft a new legal code
Legal code
A legal code is a body of law written by a governmental body, such as a U.S. state, a Canadian Province or German Bundesland or a municipality...

, the Zamoyski Code
Zamoyski Code
Zamoyski Code was a major, progressive legislation, proposed by Andrzej Zamoyski, Grand Chancellors of the Crown of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in 1776. This legislation was an attempt of codification of the previously uncodified law of the Commonwealth...

. 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
Szlachta
The szlachta was a legally privileged noble class with origins in the Kingdom of Poland. It gained considerable institutional privileges during the 1333-1370 reign of Casimir the Great. In 1413, following a series of tentative personal unions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of...

 of many of their legal immunities. Zamoyski's progressive legal code, containing elements of constitutional reform, facing opposition from conservative szlachta and foreign powers, failed to be adopted by the Sejm.

The Great Sejm

A major opportunity for reform seemed to present itself during the "Four-Year" or "Great Sejm
Great Sejm
The Great Sejm, also known as the Four-Year Sejm was a Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that was held in Warsaw, beginning in 1788...

" of 1788–92, which opened on 6 October 1788 with 181 deputies, and from 1790—in the words of the May 3 Constitution's preamble—met "in dual number", the 171 newly elected Sejm deputies having joined the earlier-established Sejm. On its second day the Sejm transformed itself into a confederated sejm
Confederated sejm
Confederated sejm was a form of sejm in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. After 1764, sejms were frequently confederated...

 to make it immune to the threat of the liberum veto
Liberum veto
The liberum veto was a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It allowed any member of the Sejm to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting Nie pozwalam! .From the mid-16th to the late 18th...

.

Events in the world appeared to play into the reformers' hands
Political opportunity
Political opportunity theory, sometimes also known as the political process theory or political opportunity structure, is a theory of social movements heavily influenced by political sociology...

. Poland's neighbors were too occupied with wars to intervene forcibly in Poland, with Russia and Austria engaged in hostilities with the Ottoman Empire
Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman EmpireIt was usually referred to as the "Ottoman Empire", the "Turkish Empire", the "Ottoman Caliphate" or more commonly "Turkey" by its contemporaries...

 (the Russo-Turkish War, 1787-1792 and the Austro-Turkish War (1787–1791)); the Russians also found themselves fighting Sweden (the Russo-Swedish War (1788–1790)). A new alliance between the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Prussia
Polish-Prussian alliance
The Polish-Lithuanian and Prussian alliance was an alliance signed on 29 March 1790 in Warsaw between representatives of the Republic of Poland and the Kingdom of Prussia. Prussia tried to take opportunity of the Russian Empire's wars with the Ottoman Empire and Sweden and move the weak...

 seeming to provide security against Russian intervention, King Stanisław August drew closer to leaders of the reform-minded Patriotic Party
Patriotic Party
The Patriotic Party , also known as the Patriot Party or, in English, as the Reform Party, was a political movement in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the period of the Four-Year Sejm of 1788–92, whose chief achievement was the Constitution of 3 May 1791...

.

The Sejm adopted several smaller reforms before the final constitution, on towns and burgher rights, and on the voting rights. While the Sejm comprised representatives only of the nobility
Szlachta
The szlachta was a legally privileged noble class with origins in the Kingdom of Poland. It gained considerable institutional privileges during the 1333-1370 reign of Casimir the Great. In 1413, following a series of tentative personal unions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of...

 and clergy, the reformers were supported by the burghers (townspeople), who in the fall of 1789 organized a Black Procession
Black Procession
Black procession refers to a demonstration held by burghers in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's capital of Warsaw on 2 December 1789, during the Great Sejm. It vastly constributed to the passage of a belated major urban reform....

, demonstrating their desire to be part of the political process. Taking a cue from similar events in France, and with the fear that if burghers' demands were not met, their peaceful protests could turn violent, the Sejm on 18 April 1791 adopted a law addressing the status of the cities and the rights of the burghers (the Free Royal Cities Act
Free Royal Cities Act
The Free Royal Cities Act was an act adopted by the Four-Year Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on April 18, 1791, in the run-up to the adoption of the...

).

Reforms were opposed by conservative elements, including the Hetmans' Party
Hetmans' Party
The Hetmans' Party , also known as the Magnates' Party , the Muscovite Party , the Conservative Party and the Old-Nobility Party , was a political party that opposed reforms advocated in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by the Patriotic...

.
The draft Constitution's advocates, threatened with violence from their opponents, and while many opposed deputies were still away on Easter
Easter
Easter is the central feast in the Christian liturgical year. According to the Canonical gospels, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. His resurrection is celebrated on Easter Day or Easter Sunday...

 recess, managed to move debate on the Government Act forward by two days from the original 5 May. The ensuing debate and adoption of the Government Act took place in a quasi-coup d'etat
Coup d'état
A coup d'état state, literally: strike/blow of state)—also known as a coup, putsch, and overthrow—is the sudden, extrajudicial deposition of a government, usually by a small group of the existing state establishment—typically the military—to replace the deposed government with another body; either...

: recall notices were not sent to known opponents of reform, while many pro-reform deputies arrived early and in secret, and the royal guard were positioned about the Royal Castle, where the Sejm was gathered, to prevent Russian adherents from disrupting the proceedings. On 3 May the Sejm met with only 182 members present, about a third of its "dual" number.

The new Constitution had been drafted by the King, with contributions from others, including Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj. The King is credited with authoring the general provisions, and Kołłątaj, with giving the work its final shape.

The bill (the "Government Act") was read out and adopted overwhelmingly, to the enthusiasm of the crowds gathered outside. Soon afterwards, the Society of Friends of the Government Ordinance (Zgromadzenie Przyjaciół Konstytucji Rządowej), an organization including many participants of the Great Sejm and aiming to defend the reforms already enacted and to promote further ones, was formed. The response was however less enthusiastic in the provinces, where the Hetmans' Party influence was stronger.

War in Defense of the Constitution

The Constitution remained in effect for only a year before being overthrown, by Russian armies allied with the Targowica Confederation
Targowica Confederation
The Targowica Confederation was a confederation established by Polish and Lithuanian magnates on 27 April 1792, in Saint Petersburg, with the backing of the Russian Empress Catherine II. The confederation opposed the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, which had been adopted by the Great Sejm,...

, in the Polish–Russian War of 1792, also known as the War in Defense of the Constitution.

Wars between Turkey and Russia and Sweden and Russia having by now ended, Empress Catherine
Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great , Empress of Russia, was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia on as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg...

 was furious over the adoption of the May 3 Constitution, which threatened Russian influence in Poland. Russia had viewed Poland as a de facto protectorate
Protectorate
In history, the term protectorate has two different meanings. In its earliest inception, which has been adopted by modern international law, it is an autonomous territory that is protected diplomatically or militarily against third parties by a stronger state or entity...

. The contacts of Polish reformers with the Revolutionary French National Assembly
National Assembly (French Revolution)
During the French Revolution, the National Assembly , which existed from June 17 to July 9, 1789, was a transitional body between the Estates-General and the National Constituent Assembly.-Background:...

 were seen by Poland's neighbors as evidence of a revolutionary conspiracy
Conspiracy (political)
In a political sense, conspiracy refers to a group of persons united in the goal of usurping or overthrowing an established political power. Typically, the final goal is to gain power through a revolutionary coup d'état or through assassination....

 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."

A number of magnates who had opposed the Constitution from the start, such as Franciszek Ksawery Branicki
Franciszek Ksawery Branicki
Count Franciszek Ksawery Branicki was a Polish nobleman of the Korczak coat of arms, magnate and one of the leaders of the Targowica Confederation....

, Szymon and Józef Kossakowski
Józef Kossakowski (colonel)
166px|thumb|right|[[Coat of arms of Ślepowron|Ślepowron]], the coat of arms of Korwin-KossakowskiJózef Dominik Korwin-Kossakowski of Ślepowron Coat of Arms, , was a Polish-Lithuanian statesman and military commander, a participant of Targowica Confederation and a colonel of the Polish Army.He had...

, Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki and Seweryn Rzewuski
Seweryn Rzewuski
Seweryn Rzewuski was a Polish-Lithuanian szlachcic.He was Field Hetman of the Crown from 1774 to 1795. Participant of the Radom Confederation in 1767 and one of the leaders of the Hetman Party and the...

 asked Tsarina Catherine to intervene and restore their privileges (the cardinal laws
Cardinal laws
The Cardinal Laws were a constitution enacted in Warsaw, Poland, by the Repnin Sejm of 1767–68. Ostensibly the Cardinal Laws were intended to ensure the "Golden Liberty" of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility, as demanded by nobles united in the Radom Confederation...

) abolished under the Constitution. To that end these magnates formed the Targowica Confederation
Targowica Confederation
The Targowica Confederation was a confederation established by Polish and Lithuanian magnates on 27 April 1792, in Saint Petersburg, with the backing of the Russian Empress Catherine II. The confederation opposed the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, which had been adopted by the Great Sejm,...

. The Confederation's proclamation, prepared in St. Petersburg in January 1792, criticized the Constitution for contributing to, in their own words, "contagion of democratic ideas" following "the fatal examples set in Paris". It asserted that "The parliament... has broken all fundamental laws, swept away all liberties of the gentry and on the third of May 1791 turned into a revolution and a conspiracy." The confederates declared to overcame this revolution, they "can do nothing but turn trustingly to Tsarina Catherine, a distinguished and fair empress our neighboring friend and ally", who "respects the nation's need for well-being and always offers it a helping hand."

On May 18, 1792, over 20,000 Confederates crossed the border into Poland, together with 97,000 veteran Russian troops. The Sejm voted to increase the Polish Army to 100,000, but due to insufficient time and funds, this number was never reached. The Polish King and the reformers could field only a 37,000-man army, many of them untested recruits. This army, under the command of King's nephew Józef Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kościuszko
Tadeusz Kosciuszko
Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko was a Polish–Lithuanian and American general and military leader during the Kościuszko Uprising. He is a national hero of Poland, Lithuania, the United States and Belarus...

, did defeat or fought to the draw the Russians on several occasions, but in the end, the defeat loomed inevitable. Eventually, 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 Poniatowski 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. With the new deputies bribed or intimated by the Russian troops, the infamous Grodno Sejm
Grodno Sejm
Grodno Sejm was the last Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Grodno Sejm, held in fall of 1793 in Grodno, Grand Duchy of Lithuania is infamous because its deputies, bribed or coerced by the Russian Empire, passed the act of Second Partition of Poland...

 took place. Russia took 250000 square kilometres (96,525.5 sq mi), and Prussia took 58000 square kilometres (22,393.9 sq mi). The Commonwealth now comprised no more than 212000 square kilometres (81,853.7 sq mi). What was left of the Commonwealth was merely a small buffer state
Buffer state
A buffer state is a country lying between two rival or potentially hostile greater powers, which by its sheer existence is thought to prevent conflict between them. Buffer states, when authentically independent, typically pursue a neutralist foreign policy, which distinguishes them from satellite...

 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
Kosciuszko Uprising
The Kościuszko Uprising was an uprising against Imperial Russia and the Kingdom of Prussia led by Tadeusz Kościuszko in Poland, Belarus and Lithuania in 1794...

. On May 7 he issued the "Proclamation of Połaniec" (Uniwersał Połaniecki), granting freedom to the peasants and ownership of land to all who fought in the insurrection. Revolutionary Tribunals meted summary justice to those deemed traitors to the Commonwealth.

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 in 1795 to the third and final partition of the Commonwealth.

Features

The Polish constitution was one of several of its time reflecting similar Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

 influences, including Montesquieu's
Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu
Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu , generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French social commentator and political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment...

 advocacy of a separation and balance of powers
Separation of powers
The separation of powers, often imprecisely used interchangeably with the trias politica principle, is a model for the governance of a state. The model was first developed in ancient Greece and came into widespread use by the Roman Republic as part of the unmodified Constitution of the Roman Republic...

 among the three branches of government—so that, in the words of the May 3 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. According to Jacek Jędruch
Jacek Jedruch
Jacek Jędruch was a Polish-American nuclear engineer and historian of Polish representative government.-Life:During World War II he participated in the Polish Resistance movement...

, the constitution, in its liberality of provisions, "fell somewhere blow the French
Constitution of 1791
Two national constitutions were adopted in 1791:* Polish Constitution of 3 May 1791* French Constitution of 3 September 1791...

, above the Canadian
Constitutional Act of 1791
The Constitutional Act of 1791, formally The Clergy Endowments Act, 1791 , is an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain...

, and left the Prussian far behind", but was "no match for the American Constitution". King Stanisław August Poniatowski described the May 3 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 adapted as much as possible to the local and particular circumstances of the country." George Sanford notes that the May Constitution gave Poland "a constitutional monarchy
Constitutional monarchy
Constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a monarch acts as head of state within the parameters of a constitution, whether it be a written, uncodified or blended constitution...

 close to the English model of the time."

The Constitution comprised 11 articles, following a preamble
Preamble
A preamble is an introductory and expressionary statement in a document that explains the document's purpose and underlying philosophy. When applied to the opening paragraphs of a statute, it may recite historical facts pertinent to the subject of the statute...

. It introduced the principle of popular sovereignty
Popular sovereignty
Popular sovereignty or the sovereignty of the people is the political principle that the legitimacy of the state is created and sustained by the will or consent of its people, who are the source of all political power. It is closely associated with Republicanism and the social contract...

 (applied to the nobility and townspeople) and a separation of powers
Separation of powers
The separation of powers, often imprecisely used interchangeably with the trias politica principle, is a model for the governance of a state. The model was first developed in ancient Greece and came into widespread use by the Roman Republic as part of the unmodified Constitution of the Roman Republic...

 into legislative (a bicameral Sejm
Sejm
The Sejm is the lower house of the Polish parliament. The Sejm is made up of 460 deputies, or Poseł in Polish . It is elected by universal ballot and is presided over by a speaker called the Marshal of the Sejm ....

), executive
Executive (government)
Executive branch of Government is the part of government that has sole authority and responsibility for the daily administration of the state bureaucracy. The division of power into separate branches of government is central to the idea of the separation of powers.In many countries, the term...

 ("the King in his council") and judicial branches.

The Constitution advanced the democratization of the polity
Polity
Polity is a form of government Aristotle developed in his search for a government that could be most easily incorporated and used by the largest amount of people groups, or states...

 by limiting the excessive legal immunities and political prerogatives of landless nobility, while granting to the townspeople—in the earlier Miasta Nasze Królewskie Wolne w Państwach Rzeczypospolitej (Free Royal Cities Act
Free Royal Cities Act
The Free Royal Cities Act was an act adopted by the Four-Year Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on April 18, 1791, in the run-up to the adoption of the...

) of April 18 (or 21), 1791, stipulated in Article III to be integral to the Constitution—personal security (neminem captivabimus
Neminem captivabimus
Neminem captivabimus is a legal term in Lithuanian and Polish historical law.Short for , ....

), the right to acquire landed property
Landed property
Landed property or landed estates is a real estate term that usually refers to a property that generates income for the owner without the owner having to do the actual work of the estate. In Europe, agrarian landed property typically consisted of a manor, several tenant farms, and some privileged...

, and eligibility for military officers' commissions
Officer (armed forces)
An officer is a member of an armed force or uniformed service who holds a position of authority. Commissioned officers derive authority directly from a sovereign power and, as such, hold a commission charging them with the duties and responsibilities of a specific office or position...

, public offices, including reserved seats in the Sejm itself and in the executive commissions of the Treasury, the Police and the Judiciary, and membership in the nobility (szlachta
Szlachta
The szlachta was a legally privileged noble class with origins in the Kingdom of Poland. It gained considerable institutional privileges during the 1333-1370 reign of Casimir the Great. In 1413, following a series of tentative personal unions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of...

).

Prawo o sejmikach, the act on regional sejms (sejmik
Sejmik
A sejmik was a regional assembly in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and earlier in the Kingdom of Poland. Sejmiks existed until the end of the Commonwealth in 1795 following the partitions of the Commonwealth...

i
), passed earlier on March 24, 1791 (article VI), was similarly recognized. This law introduced major changes to the electoral ordinance, as it reduced the enfranchisement of the noble class; previously, all nobles had been eligible to vote in the sejmik
Sejmik
A sejmik was a regional assembly in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and earlier in the Kingdom of Poland. Sejmiks existed until the end of the Commonwealth in 1795 following the partitions of the Commonwealth...

s (local parliaments), which de facto meant that many of the poorest, landless nobles (known as "clients" or "clientele") voted as local magnates bade them. The voting right was tied to a property qualification (one had to own or lease the land and pay taxes, or be closely related to such a person, to be eligible to vote). Active voting rights were also taken from nobles who held property granted them by magnates or the king, to remove the temptation to vote so as to please their benefactors. Some 300,000 of 700,000 otherwise eligible nobles were thus disfranchised, much to their displeasure. Voting rights were also restored to landowners who were in military service (rights that they had lost in 1775). Less controversially for its time, the voting was limited to males of 18 years of age. The eligible voters would elect deputies to the local (county, Polish: powiat
Powiat
A powiat is the second-level unit of local government and administration in Poland, equivalent to a county, district or prefecture in other countries. The term powiat is most often translated into English as "county", although other terms are also sometimes used...

) sejmik
Sejmik
A sejmik was a regional assembly in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and earlier in the Kingdom of Poland. Sejmiks existed until the end of the Commonwealth in 1795 following the partitions of the Commonwealth...

s, which elected deputies to the general Sejm.

With half the nobility disfranchised, and some half million burghers in the Commonwealth now substantially enfranchised, the Great Sejm's early acts did much to increase equality in the distribution of political power (though the situation of less politically conscious and active classes, notably the Jews and peasants, still waited to be addressed). While the Government Act also placed the Commonwealth's peasantry "under the protection of the national law and government" — a first step toward ending serfdom
Serfdom
Serfdom is the status of peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to Manorialism. It was a condition of bondage or modified slavery which developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe and lasted to the mid-19th century...

 and enfranchising the country's largest and most oppressed social class
Social class
Social classes are economic or cultural arrangements of groups in society. Class is an essential object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, economists, anthropologists and social historians. In the social sciences, social class is often discussed in terms of 'social stratification'...

 — the peasant question was far from resolved, as serfdom remained in force; it would take the Second Partition
Second Partition of Poland
The 1793 Second Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the second of three partitions that ended the existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by 1795. The second partition occurred in the aftermath of the War in Defense of the Constitution and the Targowica Confederation of 1792...

 and Tadeusz Kościuszko
Tadeusz Kosciuszko
Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko was a Polish–Lithuanian and American general and military leader during the Kościuszko Uprising. He is a national hero of Poland, Lithuania, the United States and Belarus...

's Proclamation of Połaniec to move the matter forward.

Legislative power, as specified by the Article VI, rested with the bicameral parliament (elective Sejm and appointive Senate) and the king. The May 3rd Constitution provided for a Sejm, "ordinarily" meeting every two years and "extraordinarily" whenever required by a national emergency (as the Sejm was to be ready to be called into session at any time of need). Its lower chamber—the Chamber of Deputies (Izba Poselska)—comprised 204 deputies(2 from each powiat, 68 each from the provinces of Greater Poland
Greater Poland
Greater Poland or Great Poland, often known by its Polish name Wielkopolska is a historical region of west-central Poland. Its chief city is Poznań.The boundaries of Greater Poland have varied somewhat throughout history...

, Lesser Poland
Lesser Poland
Lesser Poland is one of the historical regions of Poland, with its capital in the city of Kraków. It forms the southeastern corner of the country, and should not be confused with the modern Lesser Poland Voivodeship, which covers only a small, southern part of Lesser Poland...

 and Grand Duchy of Lithuania
Grand Duchy of Lithuania
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a European state from the 12th /13th century until 1569 and then as a constituent part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1791 when Constitution of May 3, 1791 abolished it in favor of unitary state. It was founded by the Lithuanians, one of the polytheistic...

) and 21 plenipotentiaries
Plenipotentiary
The word plenipotentiary has two meanings. As a noun, it refers to a person who has "full powers." In particular, the term commonly refers to a diplomat fully authorized to represent his government as a prerogative...

 of royal cities (7 from each province). The royal chancellery should inform the sejmiks of the legislation in intended to propose in advance, so that the deputies would have time to prepare for the discussions in Sejm. Not only the king, but also all deputies had legislative initiative, and most matters (peace
Peace
Peace is a state of harmony characterized by the lack of violent conflict. Commonly understood as the absence of hostility, peace also suggests the existence of healthy or newly healed interpersonal or international relationships, prosperity in matters of social or economic welfare, the...

, commercial treaties, budget
Budget
A budget is a financial plan and a list of all planned expenses and revenues. It is a plan for saving, borrowing and spending. A budget is an important concept in microeconomics, which uses a budget line to illustrate the trade-offs between two or more goods...

, war tax
Tax
To tax is to impose a financial charge or other levy upon a taxpayer by a state or the functional equivalent of a state such that failure to pay is punishable by law. Taxes are also imposed by many subnational entities...

es, currency issues, education, police and treasury organization, request of regional administration) required simple majority
Simple majority
Simple majority may refer to:In American and Canadian usage:* Majority, a voting requirement of more than half of all ballots castUsage elsewhere:* Plurality, a voting requirement of more ballots cast for a proposition than for any other option...

. Two-thirds majority was required for treaties of alliance, declaration of war
Declaration of war
A declaration of war is a formal act by which one nation goes to war against another. The declaration is a performative speech act by an authorized party of a national government in order to create a state of war between two or more states.The legality of who is competent to declare war varies...

, army complement, increases in national debt, and a three-fourth majority vote was needed for change to permanent taxation. Sejm'supper chamber—the Chamber of Senators
Senate of Poland
The Senate is the upper house of the Polish parliament, the lower house being the 'Sejm'. The history of the Polish Senate is rich in tradition and stretches back over 500 years, it was one of the first constituent bodies of a bicameral parliament in Europe and existed without hiatus until the...

 (Izba Senacka)—comprised 130-132 (sources vary) senators (voivodes, castellan
Castellan
A castellan was the governor or captain of a castle. The word stems from the Latin Castellanus, derived from castellum "castle". Also known as a constable.-Duties:...

s, bishop
Bishop
A bishop is an ordained or consecrated member of the Christian clergy who is generally entrusted with a position of authority and oversight. Within the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox Churches, in the Assyrian Church of the East, in the Independent Catholic Churches, and in the...

s and — without the right to vote — government ministers). The Senate was presided over by the king, who had one vote in it that could be used to break the ties. The senate had a suspensive veto over the laws that the Sejm passed, applicabe till the next election.

Executive power
Executive Power
Executive Power is Vince Flynn's fifth novel, and the fourth to feature Mitch Rapp, an American agent that works for the CIA as an operative for a covert counter terrorism unit called the "Orion Team."-Plot summary:...

, according to Article VIII, was in the hands of a royal council, a cabinet of ministers called the Guard of the Laws (or Guardians of Law). The ministries could not create or interpret the laws, and all acts of the foreign ministry were provisional, subject to Sejm's approval. This council was presided over by the King and comprised the Roman Catholic Primate of Poland (who was also president of the Education Commission) and five ministers appointed by the King: a minister of police, minister of the seal (i.e. of internal affairs — the seal was a traditional attribute of the earlier Chancellor
Kanclerz
Kanclerz was one of the highest officials in the historic Poland. This office functioned from the early Polish kingdom of the 12th century until the end of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795. A respective office also existed in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania since the 16th...

), minister of the seal of foreign affairs
Foreign Affairs
Foreign Affairs is an American magazine and website on international relations and U.S. foreign policy published since 1922 by the Council on Foreign Relations six times annually...

, minister belli (of war), and minister of treasury. In addition to the ministers, council members included — without a vote — the Crown Prince
Crown Prince
A crown prince or crown princess is the heir or heiress apparent to the throne in a royal or imperial monarchy. The wife of a crown prince is also titled crown princess....

, 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, "doing 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.) The ministers, however, were responsible to the Sejm
Sejm
The Sejm is the lower house of the Polish parliament. The Sejm is made up of 460 deputies, or Poseł in Polish . It is elected by universal ballot and is presided over by a speaker called the Marshal of the Sejm ....

, which could dismiss them by a two-third vote of no confidence
Motion of no confidence
A motion of no confidence is a parliamentary motion whose passing would demonstrate to the head of state that the elected parliament no longer has confidence in the appointed government.-Overview:Typically, when a parliament passes a vote of no...

 by the members of both houses. Ministers could be also held accountable by the Sejm court
Sejm court
A sejm court was a court that sat in cases of impeachment — in the words of the May 3rd Constitution of 1791 — of government "ministers [...] charged with breach of law by a deputation designated to examine their deeds [...]."The composition and functioning of sejm courts were spelled...

, and the Sejm could demand an impeachement trial of a minister with a simple majority vote. The king was the nation's commander-in-chief
Commander-in-Chief
A commander-in-chief is the commander of a nation's military forces or significant element of those forces. In the latter case, the force element may be defined as those forces within a particular region or those forces which are associated by function. As a practical term it refers to the military...

, commanding its armies; the institution of the hetman
Hetman
Hetman was the title of the second-highest military commander in 15th- to 18th-century Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which together, from 1569 to 1795, comprised the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or Rzeczpospolita....

 was not mentioned in the Constiution. The decisions of the royal council were carried out by commissions, including the previously created Commission of National Education, and the new commissions for Police, the Military and the Tresury, whose members were elected by the Sejm.

Article X stressed the importance of the education of the royal children, and tasked the Commission of National Education with this responsibility.

To enhance Commonwealth integration and security, the Constitution abolished the erstwhile union of Poland and Lithuania in favor of a unitary state
Unitary state
A unitary state is a state governed as one single unit in which the central government is supreme and any administrative divisions exercise only powers that their central government chooses to delegate...

. Related acts included the "Deklaracja Stanów Zgromadzonych (Declaration of the Assembled Estates) of May 5, 1791, confirming the Government Act adopted two days earlier, and the Zaręczenie Wzajemne Obojga Narodów (Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations, i.e., of the Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
Grand Duchy of Lithuania
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a European state from the 12th /13th century until 1569 and then as a constituent part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1791 when Constitution of May 3, 1791 abolished it in favor of unitary state. It was founded by the Lithuanians, one of the polytheistic...

) of October 22, 1791, affirming the unity and indivisibility of Poland and the Grand Duchy within a single state, and their equal representation in state-governing bodies. The Mutual Declaration strengthened the Polish-Lithuanian union
Polish-Lithuanian Union
The term Polish–Lithuanian Union sometimes called as United Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania refers to a series of acts and alliances between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that lasted for prolonged periods of time and led to the creation of the Polish–Lithuanian...

, while keeping many federal
Federation
A federation , also known as a federal state, is a type of sovereign state characterized by a union of partially self-governing states or regions united by a central government...

 aspects of the state intact. The document was translated into Lithuanian
Lithuanian language
Lithuanian is the official state language of Lithuania and is recognized as one of the official languages of the European Union. There are about 2.96 million native Lithuanian speakers in Lithuania and about 170,000 abroad. Lithuanian is a Baltic language, closely related to Latvian, although they...

.
The Constitution abolished several institutional sources of government weakness and national anarchy, including the liberum veto
Liberum veto
The liberum veto was a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It allowed any member of the Sejm to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting Nie pozwalam! .From the mid-16th to the late 18th...

(replaced by a simple majority vote), confederation
Confederation
A confederation in modern political terms is a permanent union of political units for common action in relation to other units. Usually created by treaty but often later adopting a common constitution, confederations tend to be established for dealing with critical issues such as defense, foreign...

s and confederated sejm
Confederated sejm
Confederated sejm was a form of sejm in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. After 1764, sejms were frequently confederated...

s (paradoxically, the Great Sejm
Great Sejm
The Great Sejm, also known as the Four-Year Sejm was a Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that was held in Warsaw, beginning in 1788...

 was itself a confederated sejm), and the excessive sway of sejmik
Sejmik
A sejmik was a regional assembly in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and earlier in the Kingdom of Poland. Sejmiks existed until the end of the Commonwealth in 1795 following the partitions of the Commonwealth...

s (regional sejms) stemming from the binding nature of their instructions to their Sejm deputies. The confederations were declared "contrary to the spirit of this Constitution, subversive of government and destructive of society". Thus it strengthened the powers of the parliament (sejm) proper, moving the country closer towards a constitutional monarchy
Constitutional monarchy
Constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a monarch acts as head of state within the parameters of a constitution, whether it be a written, uncodified or blended constitution...

. The constitution also changed the government from an elective
Elective monarchy
An elective monarchy is a monarchy ruled by an elected rather than hereditary monarch. The manner of election, the nature of the candidacy and the electors vary from case to case...

 (in its unique Polish variant) to hereditary monarchy
Hereditary monarchy
A hereditary monarchy is the most common type of monarchy and is the form that is used by almost all of the world's existing monarchies.Under a hereditary monarchy, all the monarchs come from the same family, and the crown is passed down from one member to another member of the family...

. The latter provision was meant to reduce the destructive vying influences of foreign powers at each royal election. The royal dynasty itself, was, however, elective, and if it was to die out, a new one would be chosen by "the Nation". In the period when regency
Regency
Regency is the rule of a regent. It may also refer to:* Specific periods when a throne was vacant:** Regency in France, 1715–1723, a.k.a. Régence** British Regency, 1811–1820*The Hōjō Regency during the Kamakura shogunate in Japan.- Other:...

 was needed, the royal council would take that responsibility (as covered by Article IX). The king held the throne "by the grace of God
God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

 and the will of the Nation
Nation
A nation may refer to a community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, and/or history. In this definition, a nation has no physical borders. However, it can also refer to people who share a common territory and government irrespective of their ethnic make-up...

," and noted that "all authority derives from the will of the Nation." The institution of pacta conventa
Pacta conventa
Pacta conventa may mean:*Pacta conventa , a contractual agreement between the Polish nobility and king, in force from 1573 to 1764*Pacta conventa , a contractual agreement between the Croatian nobility and the Hungarian king, in force from 1102 to 1918...

 was preserved. On Stanisław August's death the Polish throne would become hereditary and pass to Frederick Augustus I of Saxony
Frederick Augustus I of Saxony
Frederick Augustus I was King of Saxony from the House of Wettin. He was also Elector Frederick Augustus III of Saxony and Duke Frederick Augustus I of Warsaw...

, of the house of Wettin, which had provided two of Poland's recent elective kings (his daughter, Maria Augusta Nepomucena, was called the infanta of Poland). This provision was contingent upon Frederic Augustus agreement, and he in fact declined the offer presented to him by Adam Czartoryski. He would change his mind ten years later, when Napoleon convinced him to become the king of the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw
Duchy of Warsaw
The Duchy of Warsaw was a Polish state established by Napoleon I in 1807 from the Polish lands ceded by the Kingdom of Prussia under the terms of the Treaties of Tilsit. The duchy was held in personal union by one of Napoleon's allies, King Frederick Augustus I of Saxony...

.

Judiciary
Judiciary
The judiciary is the system of courts that interprets and applies the law in the name of the state. The judiciary also provides a mechanism for the resolution of disputes...

, discussed in Article VIII, was separated from the two other branches of the government. Justice was to be served by elective judges. Court of first instance
Court of first instance
A court of first instance is a trial court of original or primary jurisdiction.Specific courts called the Court of First Instance include:* European Court of First Instance, of the European Union* Court of First Instance...

 existed in each voivodeship, and were in constant session. Appellate tribunals were established for the provinces, based on the reformed Crown Tribunal
Crown Tribunal
Crown Tribunal – was the highest appeal court in the Crown of the Polish Kingdom for most cases, exceptions being the cases were a noble landowner was threatened with loss of life and/or property - then he could appeal to the Sejm court .In 1578 king Stefan Batory created the...

 and Lithuanian Tribunal
Lithuanian Tribunal
The Lithuanian Tribunal was the highest appeal court for the nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was established by Stefan Batory, Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, in 1581 as the counterpart to the Crown Tribunal of the Crown of the Polish Kingdom, established in 1578...

. The Sejm also elected from its deputies the judges for the Sejm court (a precursor for the modern State Tribunal of Poland). Referendary courts of each province were to hear the cases of peasantry. Municipal courts, describied in the law on the towns, complemented this system.

The Constitution's Article I acknowledged the Roman Catholic faith as the "dominant religion
Religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

", but guaranteed tolerance of, and freedom to, all religions
Freedom of religion
Freedom of religion is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance; the concept is generally recognized also to include the freedom to change religion or not to follow any...

. Article II confirmed many old privileges of the nobility, stressing that all nobles are equal, enjoy personal security and the right to property. The Army was to be built up to 100,000 men. The constitution also provided additional levies on the nobility and clergy.

The May 3 Constitution remained to the last a work in progress. The provisions of the Government Act were fleshed out in a number of laws passed in May–June 1791 on sejms and sejm court
Sejm court
A sejm court was a court that sat in cases of impeachment — in the words of the May 3rd Constitution of 1791 — of government "ministers [...] charged with breach of law by a deputation designated to examine their deeds [...]."The composition and functioning of sejm courts were spelled...

s (two acts of May 13), the Guardians of the Laws (June 1), the national police commission (that is, ministry; June 17) and municipal administration (June 24). The constitution included provisions for its own revision
Constitutional amendment
A constitutional amendment is a formal change to the text of the written constitution of a nation or state.Most constitutions require that amendments cannot be enacted unless they have passed a special procedure that is more stringent than that required of ordinary legislation...

, to be handled by an extraordinary Sejm held every 25 years. Co-author Hugo Kołłątaj announced that work was 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
Bill of rights
A bill of rights is a list of the most important rights of the citizens of a country. The purpose of these bills is to protect those rights against infringement. The term "bill of rights" originates from England, where it referred to the Bill of Rights 1689. Bills of rights may be entrenched or...

 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. A new civil
Civil code
A civil code is a systematic collection of laws designed to comprehensively deal with the core areas of private law. A jurisdiction that has a civil code generally also has a code of civil procedure...

 and criminal code
Criminal Code
A criminal code is a document which compiles all, or a significant amount of, a particular jurisdiction's criminal law...

 was in the works.

Significance

The memory of the May 3rd 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 continued to inform the efforts of its authors' descendants. In Poland it is viewed as a national symbol, and the culmination of all that was good and enlightened in Polish history and culture. In the words of two of its co-authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, it was "the last will and testament of the expiring Country." The May 3rd anniversary of its adoption has been observed as Poland's most important civil holiday since Poland regained independence
Second Polish Republic
The Second Polish Republic, Second Commonwealth of Poland or interwar Poland refers to Poland between the two world wars; a period in Polish history in which Poland was restored as an independent state. Officially known as the Republic of Poland or the Commonwealth of Poland , the Polish state was...

 in 1918.

Historians agree that the constitution has a limited practical impact, being in force for over the year. What is seen as much more important, however, is its significance as a sign of moral regeneration, in mobilizing the country citizens and making them concerned wit the political well-being of their country.

Prior to the May 3rd Constitution, in Poland the term "constitution" (Polish: konstytucja) had denoted all the legislation
Legislation
Legislation is law which has been promulgated by a legislature or other governing body, or the process of making it...

, of whatever character, that had been passed at a Sejm. Only with the adoption of the May 3 Constitution did konstytucja assume its modern sense of a fundamental document of governance.

These charters of government form an important milestone
Milestone
A milestone is one of a series of numbered markers placed along a road or boundary at intervals of one mile or occasionally, parts of a mile. They are typically located at the side of the road or in a median. They are alternatively known as mile markers, mileposts or mile posts...

 in the history of democracy
History of democracy
The history of democracy traces back to Athens to its re-emergence and rise from the 17th century to the present day. According to one definition, democracy is a political system in which all the members of the society have an equal share of formal political power...

. Poland and the United States, though distant geographically, showed some notable similarities in their approaches to the design of political systems. By contrast to the great absolute monarchies
Absolute monarchy
Absolute monarchy is a monarchical form of government in which the monarch exercises ultimate governing authority as head of state and head of government, his or her power not being limited by a constitution or by the law. An absolute monarch thus wields unrestricted political power over the...

, 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
Szlachta
The szlachta was a legally privileged noble class with origins in the Kingdom of Poland. It gained considerable institutional privileges during the 1333-1370 reign of Casimir the Great. In 1413, following a series of tentative personal unions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of...

), 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
Suffrage
Suffrage, political franchise, or simply the franchise, distinct from mere voting rights, is the civil right to vote gained through the democratic process...

 was limited to male property owners.

The defeat of Poland's liberals was but a temporary setback to the cause of democracy
Democracy
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law...

. 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 3 Constitution was translated, in abridged form, into French, German and English. French revolution
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

aries 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
Kosciuszko Uprising
The Kościuszko Uprising was an uprising against Imperial Russia and the Kingdom of Prussia led by Tadeusz Kościuszko in Poland, Belarus and Lithuania in 1794...

 tied up appreciable Russian and Prussian forces that could not therefore be used against Revolutionary France. Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine
Thomas "Tom" Paine was an English author, pamphleteer, radical, inventor, intellectual, revolutionary, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States...

 regarded the May 3 Constitution as a great breakthrough. Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke PC was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party....

 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 absolute monarchies were replaced by democratic states, including the reborn, Second Polish Republic
Second Polish Republic
The Second Polish Republic, Second Commonwealth of Poland or interwar Poland refers to Poland between the two world wars; a period in Polish history in which Poland was restored as an independent state. Officially known as the Republic of Poland or the Commonwealth of Poland , the Polish state was...

.

The constitution was a milestone in the Polish - and world's - legal history
Legal history
Legal history or the history of law is the study of how law has evolved and why it changed. Legal history is closely connected to the development of civilizations and is set in the wider context of social history...

, as well as history of democracy
History of democracy
The history of democracy traces back to Athens to its re-emergence and rise from the 17th century to the present day. According to one definition, democracy is a political system in which all the members of the society have an equal share of formal political power...

. It was the first constitution to follow the 1788 ratification of the United States Constitution
United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...

. Lapoint and Wolenski calls it "the second constitution in history". Albert Blaustein
Albert Blaustein
Albert Paul Blaustein was an American Civil Rights and human rights lawyer and expert constitutional consultant who helped draft the Fijian and Liberian constitutions, as well as being called in as a consultant for the constitutions of for Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Peru...

 refers to it as the "world's second national constitution", and Bill Moyers
Bill Moyers
Bill Moyers is an American journalist and public commentator. He served as White House Press Secretary in the United States President Lyndon B. Johnson Administration from 1965 to 1967. He worked as a news commentator on television for ten years. Moyers has had an extensive involvement with public...

 says it was "Europe's first codified national constitution (and the second oldest in the world)." Norman Davies
Norman Davies
Professor Ivor Norman Richard Davies FBA, FRHistS is a leading English historian of Welsh descent, noted for his publications on the history of Europe, Poland, and the United Kingdom.- Academic career :...

 calls it "the first constitution of its type in Europe".

Holiday

May 3rd was first declared a holiday
Holiday
A Holiday is a day designated as having special significance for which individuals, a government, or a religious group have deemed that observance is warranted. It is generally an official or unofficial observance of religious, national, or cultural significance, often accompanied by celebrations...

 (May-3rd-Constitution Day—Święto Konstytucji 3 Maja) on May 5, 1791. Banned during the partitions of Poland
Partitions of Poland
The Partitions of Poland or Partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth took place in the second half of the 18th century and ended the existence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, resulting in the elimination of sovereign Poland for 123 years...

, it was again made an official Polish holiday in April 1919 under the Second Polish Republic
Second Polish Republic
The Second Polish Republic, Second Commonwealth of Poland or interwar Poland refers to Poland between the two world wars; a period in Polish history in which Poland was restored as an independent state. Officially known as the Republic of Poland or the Commonwealth of Poland , the Polish state was...

—the first holiday officially introduced in the Second Polish Republic
Second Polish Republic
The Second Polish Republic, Second Commonwealth of Poland or interwar Poland refers to Poland between the two world wars; a period in Polish history in which Poland was restored as an independent state. Officially known as the Republic of Poland or the Commonwealth of Poland , the Polish state was...

. The May 3 holiday was banned once more during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 by the Nazi
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

 and Soviet
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 occupiers. It was celebrated in the Polish cities in May 1945, although in a mostly spontaneous manner. The anti-communist demonstrations that took place around that day a year later and the competition the date created with the communist-endorsed May 1 Labor Day
Labor Day
Labor Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the first Monday in September that celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers.-History:...

 celebrations led in the Polish People's Republic
People's Republic of Poland
The People's Republic of Poland was the official name of Poland from 1952 to 1990. Although the Soviet Union took control of the country immediately after the liberation from Nazi Germany in 1944, the name of the state was not changed until eight years later...

 to its rebranding (to Democratic Party
Democratic Party (Poland)
The Democratic Party is a Polish centrist party. The party faced a revival in 2009, when it was joined by liberal politician Paweł Piskorski, formerly member of Civic Platform.-History:The party was established on April 15, 1939...

 Day) and removal from the list of national holidays by 1951. Until 1989, May 3 was a common day for anti-government and anti-communist protests. May 3 was restored as an official Polish holiday in April 1990, after the fall of communism. In 2007, May 3 was also declared a Lithuania
Lithuania
Lithuania , officially the Republic of Lithuania is a country in Northern Europe, the biggest of the three Baltic states. It is situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, whereby to the west lie Sweden and Denmark...

n national holiday
Holiday
A Holiday is a day designated as having special significance for which individuals, a government, or a religious group have deemed that observance is warranted. It is generally an official or unofficial observance of religious, national, or cultural significance, often accompanied by celebrations...

.

Polish Constitution Day has been a focal point of ethnic celebrations of Polish-American pride in the Chicago area, going back to 1892. Poles in Chicago
Poles in Chicago
Chicago Polonia, refers to both immigrant Poles and Americans of Polish heritage living in Chicago, Illinois. They are a part of worldwide Polonia, the proper term for the Polish Diaspora outside of Poland. Poles in Chicago have contributed to the economic, social and cultural well-being of Chicago...

 have continued this tradition to the present day, marking it with festivities and the annual Polish Constitution Day Parade
Polish Constitution Day Parade
The Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago is the largest Polish parade outside of Poland, and celebrates the anniversary of the ratification of the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, which historian Norman Davies calls "the first constitution of its kind in Europe".For 115 years, Polonia's...

.

Further reading

  • Jerzy Kowecki, ed., Konstytucja 3 maja 1791 (The Constitution of May 3, 1791), przedmową opatrzył (with foreword by) Bogusław Leśnodorski, Warsaw, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1981, ISBN 83-01-01915-8.
  • Polska Akademia Nauk – Biblioteka Kórnicka (Polish Academy of Sciences
    Polish Academy of Sciences
    The Polish Academy of Sciences, headquartered in Warsaw, is one of two Polish institutions having the nature of an academy of sciences.-History:...

    , Kórnik
    Kórnik
    Kórnik is a town with about 6,800 inhabitants , located in western Poland, approximately south-east of the city of Poznań. It is one of the major tourist attractions of the Wielkopolska region....

     Library), Ustawodawstwo Sejmu Wielkiego z 1791 r. (Legislation of the Great Sejm of 1791), Kórnik
    Kórnik
    Kórnik is a town with about 6,800 inhabitants , located in western Poland, approximately south-east of the city of Poznań. It is one of the major tourist attractions of the Wielkopolska region....

    , 1985. Compilation of facsimile reprints of 1791 legislation pertinent to the Constitution of May 3, 1791.
  • Adam Zamoyski
    Adam Zamoyski
    Count Adam Stefan Zamoyski is a historian and a member of the ancient Zamoyski family of Polish nobility.-Life:Zamoyski was born in New York City, but was raised in England and was educated at Downside School and The Queen's College, Oxford...

    , The Polish Way: a Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture, New York, Hippocrene Books, 1994.
  • Jacek Jędruch
    Jacek Jedruch
    Jacek Jędruch was a Polish-American nuclear engineer and historian of Polish representative government.-Life:During World War II he participated in the Polish Resistance movement...

    , Constitutions, Elections and Legislatures of Poland, 1493–1993, Summit, NJ, EJJ Books, 1998, ISBN 0-7818-0637-2.
  • Norman Davies
    Norman Davies
    Professor Ivor Norman Richard Davies FBA, FRHistS is a leading English historian of Welsh descent, noted for his publications on the history of Europe, Poland, and the United Kingdom.- Academic career :...

    , God's Playground
    God's Playground
    God's Playground is a book written in 1979 by Norman Davies, covering the history of Poland.Davies was inspired to the title by Jan Kochanowski's 1580s Boże igrzysko ....

    , 2 vols., ISBN 0-231-05353-3 and ISBN 0-231-05351-7.
  • Paweł Jasienica, Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów (The Commonwealth of the Two Nations), ISBN 83-06-01093-0.
  • Emanuel Rostworowski, Maj 1791 – maj 1792: rok monarchii konstytucyjnej (May 1791 – May 1792: the Year of Constitutional Monarchy), Warsaw, Zamek Królewski (Royal Castle), 1985.
  • Hugo Kołłątaj and Ignacy Potocki, On the Adoption and Fall of the Polish May 3 Constitution, Leipzig, 1793.

External links

The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.
 
x
OK