Background of Poland's

Constitution of May 3, 1791


Matejko Painting

The Constitution of May Third 1791 painting by the great patriot Jan Matejko (1838)-1893) representing inspiring moments after the resolution of the Constitution. At the end of the session at the Castle, King Stanislaw August goes to the Cathedral of St. John, as he is being kissed on the hands by his devoted royal subjects, to repeat the Oath of the Constitution in front of the Altar, in the face of God. The Marshals of the Great Seym are carried to the Cathedral on the shoulders of the enthusiastic deputies of the Seym.

This work of art, painted in the year 1891 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the resolution of the Constitution of May Third, was presented by Matejko as a gift to the nation, writing about it as follows: "I am a Pole, and the last expression of my feelings - my Motherland...I have made this last gift with the thought that those who are clenched by the band of bondage will someday accept it within the great walls of their Capital and will hang it on the walls of the Castle, where the great reform of the nation took place and was named the Constitution of May Third".

In accordance with the wishes of the artist, the painting is exhibited at the Royal Castle in Warsaw.


The annual commemoration of this event which signified the spiritual and moral renovation of the Polish nation, after a period of stagnation caused by foreign influences under the Saxon kings, has become a proud and integral part of the civic and patriotic activities for Poles and those of Polish descent in many cities throughout the world.

To the Poles and their descendants May 3rd is a national holiday for it bestows upon the Pole a priceless heritage of humanitarianism, tolerance and a democratic precept conceived at a time when most of Europe lived under the existence of unconditional power and tyranny exemplified by Prussia and Russia.

Poland's parliamentary system actually began at the turn of the 15th century, but a series of defensive wars, internal stresses, outside influences, widespread permissiveness and excessive concern for the rights of dissent brought Poland to the brink of disaster and anarchy in the 18th Century. Urgently needed reforms became imperative.

The May 3rd, 1791 Constitution was the first liberal constitution in Europe and second in the world, after the Constitution of the United States.

Following the American pattern it established three independent branches of government - executive, legislative and judiciary. Throughout the constitution runs philosophy of humanitarianism and tolerance, such as perfect and entire liberty to all people, rule by majority, secret ballot at all elections, religious freedom and liberty.

But, most important, the constitution abolished the one vote veto power of individuals who would undermine proposals, for their own dubious reasons.

The constitution curtailed the executive power of the King and State Council. It forbade them to contract public debts, to declare war, to conclude definitely any treaty, or any diplomatic act. It only allowed the Executive Branch to carry on negotiations with foreign courts, always with reference to the Diet (Parliament).

In terms of democratic precepts, the May 3rd Constitution is a landmark event in the history of Central and Eastern Europe.

Among the authors of the Constitution were: Ignacy Potocki, member of one of the most prominent families in the Royal Republic. He prepared the original draft of the Constitution.

Stanislaw Kostka Potocki, brother of Ignacy, statesman, famed orator, member of the Permanent Council of the Diet.

The last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, patron of arts and science who, although lacking qualities of bold leadership, was one of the most enlightened monarchs in the annals of Europe.

Speaker of the Diet, Stanislaw Malachowski, known in the intellectual communities throughout Europe, as "Polish Aristides" for his erudition and abiding sense of justice.

Rev. Hugo Kollontay, founder of the Commission on Education, which was, in fact, the First Ministry of Education in Europe.

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, adjutant of Kosciuszko, poet, writer and patriot who later visited the United States and was guest of Washington and Jefferson.

Most Rev. Adam Stanislaw Krasinski, Bishop of Podola and close ally of the Pulaski family.

The Polish Constitution was deemed too dangerous by the tyranny of absolutism still rampant in Europe. Thus Russia, Prussia and Austria decided to wipe out "the Polish cancer of freedom" from the face of the earth. In 1795 partitioned Poland ceased to exist as a state and in terms of national life, she lost the entire 19th Century, being reborn in 1918 at the conclusion of WWI.

Between 1918 and 1939, the people of Poland were once again free to govern themselves and looked forward to a bright future. That bright future, however, ended very abruptly with the beginning of WWII on September 1, 1939. Invaded by Nazi Germany from the west and Communistic Russia from the east seventeen days later, Poland could not withstand the strength of the combined forces. But Poland continued to fight on the Allied side with the hopes of regaining her new found freedom. The end of the war however, found Poland betrayed and under the communist yoke. The Polish government was based on principles far from those of the Constitution of 1791 as were the other countries in Eastern and Central Europe which were dominated by the Soviet Union.

The spirit of the Constitution did not die and in 1980, the flame of democracy arose again under the banner of Solidarity. Temporarily crushed a year later, Solidarity continued to grow until 1989 when through a peaceful revolution, the communists were taken over and the communist system collapsed.


Poland's Constitution of

May 3rd, 1791

The Second Oldest Democratic Constitution in the World

Polish Constitution Picture

The handwritten original of the Government's Law names the Constitution of May Third of the Year 1791, stitched into the great book containing the records of the Four-Year Seym 1788-1792 kept at the Main Archives of Ancient Records in Warsaw.


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