|Polish Constitution of May 3rd, 1791
Jan Matejko’s 9×15 ft painting executed on the centenary of the passage of the Constitution shows Stanisław August Poniatowski, King of Poland, being born in triumph from the Royal Palace, seen in the background where the Constitution had just been passed, to Warsaw’s St. John’s Cathedral. The painting hangs in the National Museum in Warsaw.
The Constitution of May 3, 1791
By Hon. Carl L. Bucki
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” These words, so close to the hearts of all true patriots of freedom, begin the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence. But we must not attribute their origin solely to Thomas Jefferson, for these words are identical to those of Wawrzyniec Goslicki, a Polish philosopher whose writings were to be found in Mr. Jefferson’s library. How could it be that a Pole might supply the words of inspiration for the founding of the United States of America? One should not be surprised. Intellectually and philosophically, America and Poland have shared a common devotion to the cause of liberty and freedom. This devotion is what we celebrate today, on this, the 205th anniversary of the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791.
The mere concept of a written constitution is itself a revolutionary idea. No longer is government to be based on the whims of a monarch or the commands of a dictator. In the history of the world’s nations, the first written constitution was that adopted by the United States of America in 1787. The second written constitution was that which Poland adopted in 1791. Geographically distant, Poland and the United States shared both a kindred spirit and a common challenge. In contrast to all of its powerful neighbors, Poland in the late 18th century was remarkably democratic. Its kings were elected and its parliament, or Sejm, possessed broad legislative authority. Although Poland extended political privileges to only about ten percent of the adult population, this percentage closely approximated political access in America, where suffrage excluded slaves and was generally limited to male property owners. By the 1780’s, both of these democratic experiments were in serious danger. In America, the Articles of Confederation had proven itself to be a dismal failure. In Poland, the liberum veto allowed any deputy to block legislation. So ineffective was the government that it was no longer able to defend itself against the intrigues of Russia, Austria, and Prussia.
Both Poles and Americans came to realize that freedom is not so much a privilege to enjoy, as it is a reward for those who will honor and defend. After a long summer of debate, the Constitutional Convention approved its proposal for a new government for the United States on September 17, 1787. In the following year, on October 6, 1788, the four-year Sejm began its deliberations. Under the leadership of Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kollataj, extensive reforms were incorporated into a Constitution that was approved by King Stanislaw August Poniatowski on the third day of May 1791.
We shall never know whether the Constitution of May 3, 1791, might have provided the structure for true reform in Poland. Sadly, it was in effect for only a short time. Russia, Austria and Prussia acted quickly to occupy the territories of Poland, and by 1795, Poland had ceased to exist, except in the hearts of its people. In contrast, the United States could continue its democratic experiment in relative isolation. Protected by a vast ocean from the oppressive monarchies of Europe, the United States enjoyed the opportunity to evolve into a truly democratic society. That process was neither quick nor easy. Witness the struggles for political reform in America, beginning with the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1791, the abolition of slavery as a consequence of a most tragic civil war, the extension of suffrage to women, and the civil rights movement of more recent years.
Why should we honor Poland’s Constitution of 1791? Clearly, the Constitution never fulfilled its immediate and short term objectives. Poland did not survive the second and third partitions, and as a political entity, it was effectively eliminated from the map of Europe for more than a century. In operation for only a few years, the Constitution never developed into a full expression of political liberty. Of what relevance is the Constitution to us, who are removed from its focus both by thousands of miles and by many generations?
We honor the Polish Constitution of 1791 not so much for what it achieved as for what it represents. It is a symbol of the Polish people and of their struggle for liberty, justice, and honor. The American Constitution was drafted by men who had rebelled from the tyranny of the British crown, and who sought to escape the burdens of taxation. The Polish Constitution was written by the aristocracy. With the noblest of intentions, its authors saw government as an instrument of service for the common good. They recognized that government must serve not the interests of the few, but the welfare of the entire nation. With this thought, they were prepared to sacrifice their wealth and good fortunes for the cause of a free and independent nation. Indeed, the Constitution of 1791 epitomized a recognition that duty and responsibility were the true foundations of liberty. This unparalleled sense of generosity was most profound, so much so that it earned admiration from all ends of the political spectrum. The Prussian statesman Ewald von Hertzberg would express the fears of European conservatives. The Poles, he wrote, “have given the coup de grace to the Prussian monarchy by voting a constitution . . . . How can we defend our state . . . Against a numerous and well-governed nation.” Meanwhile, on the left, Karl Marx could only admire this Constitution when he wrote as follows:
“Despite all its shortcomings, this Constitution looms up against the background of Russian, Prussian, and Austrian barbarism as the only work of liberty which Eastern Europe has ever created independently and it emerged exclusively from the privileged class, from the nobility. The history of the world has never seen another example of such nobility of the nobility.”
Although we may reject the contrasting philosophies both of von Hertzberg and of Marx, their respect for the Polish Constitution reveals the inherent integrity of that instrument. Apart from any political point of view, the world can only admire the sincerity of the Constitution’s purpose and objectives.
The Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, is a reflection of the Polish spirit, a spirit that is devoted to truth and justice at all times, under all circumstances, and despite all impediments. Its words, its concepts, its principles are not an exceptional portrait of the Polish character. Rather, they are a shining symbol of the finest qualities of the Polish nation. How else can one explain the survival of Poland despite 120 years of foreign domination? President Woodrow Wilson recognized the vibrancy of this character when he included in his fourteen points the concept of a free and independent Poland. How else could Poland have survived the long period of Communist repression? Surely it is no accident that the downfall of communism began in the shipyards of Gdansk. Surely it is no accident that a native son of Poland now speaks as a defender of liberty from his post as supreme pontiff.
In October 1962, a crowd of 400,000 people greeted President John Kennedy on his visit to Buffalo. Before the largest audience ever to assemble in Western New York, the President expressed well the spirit of the May Third Constitution, when he spoke as follows: “I know that there are some who will say that the people of Poland, however brave, are in a prison from which there is no escape that they will not be permitted to express themselves. But this ignores the driving force . . . of liberty.” Poles have never wavered in their belief “that freedom would triumph in the end. I subscribe to that same belief. Let us remember that [the ideal of freedom] is universal. It knows no oceans, no boundaries, no limitations.”
The Constitution of May 3, 1791, stands for the proposition that free people everywhere must step forward despite all odds, to undertake the burdens of serving as champions of liberty. Truly, this is the belief which we honor today.