The Polish Constitution of the 3rd of May 1791, while never actually instituted, remains nonetheless an object of great pride in the history or Poland. It is recognized as the second earliest document of its kind, created just a few years after the Constitution of the United States of America.
The Polish Constitution was created during one of the most tragic and traumatic moments in the country’s history. The Republic of Poland, after the first partition had become only a shadow of its former self as a sovereign state. The loss of huge territories to powerful neighbors, resulted in a crisis of escalating proportions. Parliament was in a state of paralysis and the king’s rule had been rendered impotent as reflected in the weakness of Poland’s military.
Just when the dream for a rebirth of the Republic of Poland was dying as the embers of a burnt out fire, a flame of hope was ignited. This was due to the fact that Poland’s menacing neighbors in the late 80’s of the 18th Century had begun to quarrel among themselves. Russia, in league with Austria, was now involved in a war with Turkey which enjoyed the support of the Prussians. In 1788, as the czar’s army hurriedly left Poland for Crimea, Catherine the Great of Russia begrudgingly agreed to certain reforms for Poland.
In October of 1788, the Four Year Parliament returned to session. It had recreated itself into a legal confederacy, overruling the practice of dissolution. This Parliament under the leadership of Stanislaw Malachowski, proposed many programs and created a legion of commissions with the objectives of obtaining Polish independence and reunification as well as reviving the economy.
After a treaty with Prussia in March of 1790, an election was called to create a new group of delegates to help expedite the work of Parliament. The most important moment arrived on the 3rd of May, 1791 when the carefully selected delegates, with the agreement of Malachowski as well as the knowledge of the King, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, unveiled a project, prepared in secrecy by Father Hugo Kollataj’s group, and declared it “A Constitution for the Republic”. The Constitution was signed by the King.
All seemed so simple and the soldiers and populace celebrated joyously on Castle Square as news of the Constitution spread. It’s language was actually quite modern and progressive in tone, supporting reforms and eradicating many of the deficiencies of the old Republic.
Alas, Poland’s powerful neighbors as well as corrupt and cowardly internal forces did not allow for the passage of a single bill propounded by the Constitution. The resulting bitterness and discouragement culminated in the second partitioning of Poland in January, 1793 when the nation fell to foreign powers, to be occupied for over a century.
Nevertheless, the fact that this Constitution actually saw the light of day will remain a point of great pride in Polish history. Fittingly, May 3 is celebrated in honor of the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Poland.
Fr Jerzy Kusy
translated by Sophia Wisniewski