Proclamation of the Constitution of 3 May (1806) by Kazimierz WojniakowskiPolish History Museum
On the 3rd of May 1791 in Warsaw, the sejm (parliament) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth adopted the Constitution of the 3rd of May – the second written constitution in the world and the first in Europe.
Called the Governance Act, it was the culmination of nearly half a century of attempts to reform the country. It was shaped by both enlightenment thought and local political experience.
A map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1734) by Guillaume DelisleOriginal Source: POLONA
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed as a result of the Union of Lublin in 1569. It was one of Europe’s largest countries, and was inhabited by many nationalities, including Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Jews, Germans and Tatars.
The dualistic Polish-Lithuanian state distinguished itself from others by religious tolerance, as well as a unique law with a dominant role of the parliament (sejm) and the limited power of the elected king.
The Polish-Lithuanian state reached the peak of its power at the turn of the 16th and 17th century. The wars of the second half of the 17th century – the Cossack uprising of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Swedish invasion and conflicts with Russia and Turkey – ruined the country and weakened its international position.
The Senators' Chamber in the Royal Castle in Warsaw (1694) by Charles de la HayeOriginal Source: POLONA
The crisis did not bypass political institutions. Sejm deliberations were increasingly suspended by the liberum veto, a protest by a single member of parliament. This paralyzed the work of the state's main decision-making body.
Liberum veto was intended to prevent the tyranny of the majority over the minority. But after 1652 it became commonly accepted that the veto invalidated not only a specific law, but also the work of an entire session of the sejm.
Portrait of Augustus III in a Polish costume (ca. 1737) by Unkown painter after Louis de SilvestreOriginal Source: MNK Cyfrowe
The Reign of the Saxon Kings
The reigns of August II and August III of the Saxon Wettin dynasty are considered to be a period of decline for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but it was then that the first calls for reform appeared.
Participation in the Great Northern War (1700–21) brought not only depopulation and destruction of entire areas of the country, but also political dependence on the growing power of Russia. During this period, the crisis of the state reached an apogee. Sessions of the sejm were regularly broken up, often by foreign courts, who feared the strengthening of the Commonwealth. In this way, liberum veto became an obstacle to repairing the state.
A local assembly of the nobility inside a church (1808) by Jean-Pierre NorblinPolish History Museum
The growing powerlessness of the state, especially in comparison with the power of neighbouring absolute monarchies, resulted in the emergence of voices proposing reform of the state and calls for the nobility to change their way of thinking.
One of the first supporters of the reform was the two-time ruler of the Commonwealth (1704–09, 1733–36) and later (from 1738) the Duke of Lorraine, Stanisław Leszczyński (1677–1766). In a work attributed to him, entitled “A Free Voice Securing Freedom”, he advocated the introduction of terms for the sejm, which would prevent it being suspended. Liberum veto was supposed to act only in relation to specific laws and have no power to suspend sessions of the sejm.
A huge influence on the change in thinking about the state was exerted by Piarist priest and school reformer Stanisław Konarski (1700–73). He was in favour of replacing the liberum veto with majority voting. His views were an inspiration for the creators of the reform programme propagated in the first period of the reign of Stanisław August.
Konarski understood that political reforms require the education of an ideal citizen. The Collegium Nobilium, founded in 1741, was to serve this purpose. A special role in the programme of this facility was played by patriotic education, conducted in the spirit of respect for freedom and responsibility for the Commonwealth. Konarski’s program was also implemented in other Piarist schools, including the college in Vilnius.
Portrait of Reverend Stanisław Konarski (around 1750) by Unknown painterOriginal Source: MNK Cyfrowe
True nobility consists only of virtue, nobility without virtue, personal culture and without good manners is wicked and entirely meaningless. [Stanisław Konarski, “Speech on the shaping of an honest man and good citizen”]
The election of Stanisław August (1778) by Bernardo Bellotto (Canaletto)Polish History Museum
A new creation of the world
In the Saxon era, the most far-reaching programme of reform of the Commonwealth was created by the Familia, a faction of two powerful aristocratic families, the Czartoryskis and Poniatowskis.
Familia leaders saw the main threat to the existence of the state in the expansiveness of Prussia, and the greatest chance to support it, in an alliance with Russia. In order to gain influence in the Saint Petersburg circles, the Czartoryski family sent a close relative, Stanisław Antoni Poniatowski, to the city, where he entered into an affair with Catherine, who later became the Empress of Russia in 1762.
After the death of Augustus III, thanks to the support of the empress, Poniatowski became the new ruler and took the name of Stanisław August.
Portrait of Stanisław August in coronation robes (1768/1771) by Marcello BacciarelliPolish History Museum
Stanislaus Augustus Rex
The king is talented and educated, but above all he is consumed by a desire for reform. If he could, he would reform the whole country, the whole nation, in one day, to raise it to the level of other nations with a greater culture... Antonio Eugenio Visconti, Papal Nuncio
The king, together with the Czartoryski family, carried out a number of fiscal and military reforms in the early years of his reign (1764–66), and even limited the liberum veto. However, the reformers underestimated the hostility of Russia and Prussia to the attempts to strengthen the Commonwealth.
The reforms introduced by the king and the Familia, were met with stiff resistance from the opposition and Russia. The intrigues of the Russian ambassador, Nikolai Repnin, led to the suspension of the renewal programme, and to the establishment of a Russian “guarantee” over the catalogue of the inviolable political principles of the Commonwealth, including the liberum veto and free elections. This was meant to strengthen the domination of Saint Petersburg over the Polish-Lithuanian state.
Kazimierz Pułaski at Częstochowa by Józef ChełmońskiOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons
Opponents of Stanisław August and the Russian intervention established a confederation in Bar in Podolia in February 1768. The confederates, who claimed to defend their faith and independence, fought against the Russian army for four years.
Battles took place in the shadow of the game of empires, reluctant towards the rise of Russian power. The diplomatic riddle was solved by the empires at the expense of the defenceless Commonwealth.
Picture of Europe - satirical drawing depicting the First Partition (1772) by UnknownOriginal Source: POLONA
The shock of the first partition
The reformers underestimated the hostility of Russia and Prussia to the attempts to strengthen the Commonwealth. In 1772, Russia, Austria and Prussia enacted a partition, unceremoniously tearing off nearly one third of the country. The invaders forced the ratification of this plunder through the sejm.
An attempt to prevent the humiliating ratification of the partitioning treaties was made by Tadeusz Reytan, Member of Parliament from Nowogródek, supported by several other MPs, including Samuel Korsak and Stanisław Bohuszewicz.
Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland (1866) by Jan MatejkoPolish History Museum
Reytan's dramatic protest did not prevent the ratification on the Partition treaty by the Polish-Lithuanian Parliament.
After the first partition, Stanisław August decided that guaranteeing the existence of the state and carrying out even limited reforms was possible only under the Russian protectorate. Catherine II agreed to cooperate with the king.
The Empress aimed at consolidating Russian power in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but she did not intend to strengthen Stanisław August too much. She strove for a balance between the monarch and the magnate opposition.
Permanent Council (before 1800) by Unknown authorOriginal Source: POLONA
At the partition session of the sejm, a Permanent Council was established – a body that, in the eyes of Saint Petersburg, was to restrict Stanisław August.
It consisted of 36 senators and deputies and was chaired by the monarch. The Council consisted of the departments of foreign affairs, treasury, army, justice and administration. The council was reformed in 1776 thanks to the cooperation of the king and the Russian ambassador Otto Stackelberg. It became a tool of effective executive power.
A view of the Kazimierzowski Palace, the headquarters of the Cadet Corps (1785) by Zygmunt VogelPolish History Museum
The king aimed not only at political, but also important social changes. By cooperating with a group of progressive scholars and politicians he managed to transform educational system.
In 1765, Stanisław August founded the Cadet Corps, which was to prepare cadets for military service and holding civilian offices by bringing them up in a spirit of love and sacrifice for their country.
Portrait of Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski as the Commandant of the Cadet Corps (ca 1782) by Josef GrassiOriginal Source: MNK Cyfrowe
The Cadet Corps' graduates were to be citizens zealous for its [the Commonwealth’s] fame, for increasing its internal strength and widespread respect, for improving its governance (Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski).
The improvement of education was one of the king's most momentous reforms. On October 14th 1773, the sejm, at the request of the king, established the Commission of National Education (KEN), which reorganized the school system and curricula. It established communal schools for all children and district schools for noble children. Students – girls among them – used pioneering textbooks developed by the Society for Elementary Books under the leadership of Ignacy Potocki.
KEN schools paid more attention to the natural sciences, mathematics and the Polish language than others had before. But they continued to propagate the patriotic education postulated by Konarski. The king's brother and later primate – bishop Michał Jerzy Poniatowski became the president of KEN.
Catherine II greeted in Kaniv (ca 1787) by Jan Bogumił PlerschPolish History Museum
Towards the change
The years 1787–88 brought important changes in international politics. Russia, waging wars on two fronts, with Turkey and Sweden, had to give up its active policy in the Commonwealth.
Under these circumstances, the political leaders of the Polish-Lithuanian state saw an opportunity to break the country out of its stagnation. At the beginning of the 1788 sejm, Stanisław August remained faithful to the programme of the alliance with Russia, confirmed in 1787 during his meeting with Catherine II in Kaniv, seeing it as an opportunity to protect the country from another partition.
The magnate opposition, lead by Grand Marshal of Lithuania Ignacy Potocki, sought to abolish the Permanent Council, to hand over power to the sejm and increase the size of the army. This republican programme was well received by a society engulfed by patriotic rapture.
Simultaneously, differences began to emerge between the so-called patriotic party around Potocki and Great Hetman of the Crown, Franciszek Ksawery Branicki. The hetman sought to regain power over the army. To achieve this, his supporters tried to awaken a fear among the nobility that the reforms would hit their privileges.
Proclamation of the Constitution of 3 May (1806) by Kazimierz WojniakowskiPolish History Museum
The Great Sejm
The sejm met in Warsaw in October 1788. Anti-Russian sentiments prevailed among the deputies, and the debates were held in an atmosphere of a heated political dispute, fuelled by observers and Warsaw townspeople.
These sentiments were picked up by the patriotic reform party headed by Ignacy Potocki, Stanisław Małachowski and Hugo Kołłątaj, utilising the diplomatic support of Prussia.The sejm ordered the Russian troops to leave the territory of the Commonwealth and decided to enlarge the army to 100,000 soldiers.
The liquidation of the Permanent Council and the transfer to the sejm of the administrative bodies overseeing the treasury, army, diplomacy and internal affairs meant that the parliament took over as the highest authority in the country.
Stanisław Nałęcz Małachowski was one of the popular parliamentaty leaders and the Speaker of Sejm, while Otto Stackelberg represented Catherine II's interests.
Seeing this as Commonwealth’s attempt to become independent, the Russian ambassador Otto Stackelberg urged Stanisław August to leave Warsaw and to refuse to recognize the sejm. The king, however, did not decide to “separate from the nation” and joined the anti-Russian supporters of reforms.
Work on the new shape of the political system proceeded slowly. Ignacy Potocki's republican “Project for the Form of Government”, presented to the sejm in August 1790, abolished the liberum veto, but simultaneously weakened the power of the king and strengthened the control of local assemblies, ‘sejmiki’ over the sejm.
Debates on the 658-clause draft were protracted. Meanwhile, in the autumn of 1790, two years had passed since the last assembly of the sejm. In this situation, the patriotic party, together with the king, decided to convene sejmiki to elect new deputies and to continue deliberations in a double composition. The new members of the sejm, largely in favour of the king, livened up the pace of work. In this situation, Potocki decided to compromise with Stanisław August.
The basis of the secret negotiations was the king’s proposal, expressing his vision of a constitutional monarchy with a strong position of the ruler. The royal secretary, Scipione Piattoli, was the intermediary in Potocki’s consultations with Stanisław August. Stanisław Małachowski and Hugo Kołłątaj also participated in the work. The latter edited a compromise form of the text. The authors of the constitution decided to pass it in one session to avoid a long debate on each of its points.
Proclamation of the Constitution of 3 May - the oath of Stanisław August. (1791) by Johann Friedrich Bolt after Gustav TaubertOriginal Source: POLONA
Greetings, May dawn ...
Supporters of the constitution convened the sejm on May 3rd, taking advantage of the absence of some members of parliament who were opposed to the Governance Act, and had not yet returned after the Easter break.
The official reason for organizing the session were foreign dispatches informing about the possible partition of the Commonwealth, which were to be read to deputies and senators. The audience was brought to the gallery of the Senate Chamber in the Royal Castle.
Before noon, the parliamentarians began to arrive, passing a crowd of townspeople and the armed royal guard. The atmosphere was nervous and expectant, and further heated by the reading of communications about the planned partition.
A protesting member of parliament, Jan Suchorzewski of Kalisz, was drowned out with shouts. When Ignacy Potocki asked the king if and how the partition could be prevented, the king mentioned the Governance Act and the need to adopt it quickly.
The debate dragged on until late afternoon and it is not known how long it would have continued had it not been for Marshal Stanisław Małachowski. When the king raised his hand to speak, the marshal silenced the room, shouting “The king swears!” After the king took the oath, the deputies rushed to offer congratulations, and then went to the collegiate church of St. John to complete the ceremony.
The original manuscript of the Governance Act (1791-05-05) by VariousPolish History Museum
All power in civil society should be derived...
from the will of the people […] Three distinct powers shall compose the government of the Polish nation […], viz. legislative power in the States assembled, executive power of the King and the Council of Inspection, juridical power in Jurisdictions existing.
The Diet, or the Legislative Power
The Diet, or the Legislative Power The majority of votes shall decide everything, and everywhere; therefore we abolish, and utterly annihilate, liberum veto, all sorts of confederacies and confederate Diets, as contrary to the spirit of the present constitution, as undermining the government, and as being ruinous to society.
The Members of Parliament were to be elected every two years, with the possibility of summoning them to multiple sessions. Laws were to be passed by the chamber of deputies, and the Senate, chaired by the king, had the right to veto, suspending the law until the next term of office. On urgent matters, both houses voted together.
The Governance Act abolished the royal election, which was replaced with a hereditary monarchy. The successor of the childless Stanisław August was to be the elector of Saxony Frederick August of the Wettin dynasty.
The King, or Executive Power
The most perfect government cannot exist or last without an effectual executive power. […] Having experienced the fatal effects of interregna, periodically subverting government […] and being desirous of preventing forever all foreign influence […] we have, from prudent motives, resolved to adopt hereditary succession.
Executive power was vested in the king and the Custodial Council of the Law made up of five ministers. Lower in the hierarchy were government commissions for education, home affairs, the army and the treasury.
As judicial power is incompatible with the legislative, nor can be administered by the King, therefore tribunals and magistratures ought to be established and elected. It ought to have local existence, that every citizen should know where to seek justice, and every transgressor can discern the hand of national government.
The court system was to be based on the election of judges by the representative bodies of nobles and burghers respectively. The separation of powers however was not absolute: the Sejm court constituted the highest tribunal for “crimes against the State”, there was a minister of justice in the Custodial Council (albeit not by title), the government commissions also had certain judicial powers. Little had changed regarding legal status of the peasants.
Szlachta in uniforms of the palatinates (1794-09-11) by Unknown painterOriginal Source: MNK Cyfrowe
The Mutual Assurance of the Two Nations
Having before our eyes a glorious, and to both nations, very worthy union and community […], we pledge we have one universal, inseparable Governance Act, serving the whole of our nation, the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania...
The May 3rd Constitution was passed as a result of a compromise. Radical republicans did not oppose the constitutional monarchy, and supporters of the unitary state succumbed to the persuasion of the defenders of the separateness of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. An important role in the negotiations on the consolidation of the Polish-Lithuanian dualism of the Commonwealth was played by Kazimierz Nestor Sapieha, Marshal of the Lithuanian Confederation.
The Lithuanians were to constitute half of the members of the Army and Treasury Commission and a third of the Police Commission. The representatives of the Polish Crown and Duchy of Lithuania were to alternately preside over the Military and Treasury Commissions. The Polish Crown and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania became equal political partners.
Social meeting in a park by the statue of Freedom (1797) by Kazimierz WojniakowskiOriginal Source: MNW Cyfrowe
Reactions to the Constitution
The constitution brought long-awaited changes and hopes for the future. It was supported by various groups of society and applauded in other countries.
In February 1792, the sejmiki gathered throughout the Commonwealth to elect judges to the tribunals. Supporters of the constitution used this opportunity to investigate the attitude of the nobility to the Governance Act passed on the 3rd of May.
An imaginary view of a sejmik in a church (1808) by Jean-Pierre NorblinPolish History Museum
We cannot help but feel true content after the Governance Act on the third day of May […] in unanimous agreement we all solemnly promise, not only to exercise this Law, but also, with all our strength and at every opportunity, to defend and maintain it.
Most of the local assemblies supported the new law. Some of them swore in the constitution, the rest vouched their faithfulness to it or thanked the authors of the new law. Only every tenth sejmik disregarded the constitution with silence.
The Governance Act was met with greater support in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, than it was in the Polish Crown, where all the sejmiki agreed to the constitution. Shortly after its publication, the document was translated into Lithuanian. This is the first such high ranking text that has survived until today as a monument to the Lithuanian language.
The adoption of the Constitution of the 3rd of May was widely echoed in Europe. The foreign press appreciated not only the advantages of the new regime, but also the peaceful way in which it was introduced. The revolution in the Commonwealth was judged differently by the rulers of neighbouring powers, who were not pleased with the prospect of the strengthening of the Polish-Lithuanian state.
We have seen anarchy and servitude at once removed; a throne strengthened for the protection of the people, without trenching on their liberties; all foreign cabal banished, by changing the crown from elective to hereditary […] Not one man incurred loss or suffered degradation. All, from the king to the day-labourer, were improved in their condition. Everything was kept in its place and order; but in that place and order everything was bettered.
[Edmund Burke, philosopher, “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs”, 1791].
Proclamation of the Targowica Confederation (1792-05-19) by Szczęsny PotockiPolish History Museum
The opponents of the constitution claimed that Jacobine radicalism was spreading in the country, and the Governance Act meant the deletion of freedoms, guaranteed hitherto by Russia and Catherine II.
After negotiations with Empress Catherine II, opponents of the constitution with Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki, Seweryn Rzewuski, Franciszek Ksawery Branicki and Szymon Kossakowski at the helm, signed an act of confederation on April 27th 1792 in Saint Petersburg. The document was announced on May 14th in Targowica, shortly before Russian troops entered the territory of the Commonwealth.
On the northern front, the Russian army reached Brest. In the south, Crown Commander Prince Józef Poniatowski delayed the Russians’ march towards the River Bug. Of particular importance were the victorious Battle of Zieleńce and the fierce Battle at Dubienka, where the corps under the command of Tadeusz Kościuszko fought.
On July 25th 1792, in Warsaw, Stanisław August decided to join the Targowica Confederation in order to “save what can be saved”. However, the Constitution of the 3rd of May and the reforms of the Great Sejm could not be preserved, and the last sejm in Grodno – the last in the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – made history as a shameful event, agreeing to the second partition and abolition of the Governance Act.
Meanwhile, in the occupied country, preparations began for an insurrection, later known as the Kościuszko Uprising.
Chamber of Deputies at the Royal Castle in Warsaw (1804) by Jean-Pierre NorblinOriginal Source: MNK Cyfrowe
The Short-lived hopes
The first anniversary of the Governance Act grew to the rank of a national holiday and a symbol of new hopes for the nation. They were soon to be destroyed, but the symbolic meaning of the date have survived.
Stanisław August during a military parade (ca 1789) by Józef PeszkaPolish History Museum
The king, accompanied by parliamentarians, dignitaries, foreign diplomats, the army and a several thousand strong crowd, went to Ujazdów to lay a foundation stone at the Temple of Divine Providence – a votive offering for the enactment of the Governance Law.
Jakub Kubicki’s classicist project was never implemented due to the fall of the Commonwealth. Only a small chapel was built, around which, throughout the 19th century, Poles illegally celebrated the next anniversaries of the adoption of the constitution.
After Poland regained its independence in 1918, in 1920 the sejm adopted a law “on the performance of the vow made by the Four Year Sejm, on the erection of a temple in Warsaw dedicated to Divine Providence”. These plans also didn’t come to fruition. The will of the creators of the 3rd May were only fulfilled in the 21st century.
Constitution of 3 May (1891) by Jan MatejkoPolish History Museum
In the period of the partitions, the Constitution of the 3rd of May, became a symbol of the strength and will of a nation.
The work of the Stanisław August era gave the stateless national community hope for survival. In subsequent uprisings, the insurgents referred to the heritage of the former Commonwealth, stressing the need for the freedom for Poland, Lithuania and Ruthenia.