THE POLISH CONSTITUTION
OF MAY 3, 1791
The end of the 18th century produced three constitutions considered the first modern constitutions in the World. The American
Constitution of September 17, 1787 was the oldest. The second in the World and the first in Europe was the Polish Constitution
of May 3, 1791 preceding the French September Constitution by several months. The American Constitution was forged in the
fire of the American War of Independence; the French one was produced by the Revolution, while the Polish Constitution bloomed
from bloodless changes effected by forces striving to recover independence of their own state and sovereignty of their nation
and the enable development of the country predetermining an effective protection of independence.
The Commonwealth--the Polish-Lithuanian state (composed of the Crown, Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) was a European
power still during the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries. However, it became dependent on its neighbors--Prussia,
Austria and Russia in particular during the 18th century. Its republican system efficient earlier turned to anarchy. Enlightened
people raised their voices calling for reforms already during the first half of the 18th century. Attempts to lift the country
form its downfall started with the new reign commenced with the election of Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski in 1764. Although
this election was also conducted at the presence of the Russian army, the new king, a former favorite of the Russian Empress
Catherine II, aimed, contrary to her intentions, at a civilization, cultural, economic and military rebirth of the state and
at gaining independence from Russia and changing relations with the country from vassal to partnership. Consecutive attempts
at reforms were subverted by Russia. Russian interventions and the dislike towards the king among a major part of magnates
and conservative gentry opposing reforms led to Confederacy of Bar in 1768. The gentry fought under the flag of the Confederacy
defending their faith and freedom and trying to overthrow the king and to prevent reforms. The fall of the Confederacy in
1772 brought about the First Partition of Poland meaning a loss of a third of the territory and population to Russia, Prussia
The First Partition made the need for far reaching changes necessary to save the country obvious to broad circles of the
gentry. The political life gained in vigor, which was reflected in the development of political writings and polemics on problems
basic for the situation and the future of the country. The international situation of the late seventeen eighties proved favorable
for the reformers.
The 4-year Sejm (pronounced like "same" in English) commenced its deliberations on October 6, 1788, meeting
at normal 6-week sessions. The atmosphere was patriotic. A majority of the Sejm was composed of an anti royal opposition,
although it was not homogeneous. Among the leaders of the oppositions, there were defenders of the old system - Franciszek
Ksawery Branicki, Rzewuski and Stanislaw Szczesny Potocki, as well as ardent partisans of reforms including Ignacy Potocki,
Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski and Hugo Kollataj who was one of the most active propagators of changes. They called themselves
a patriotic party.
The work on the future constitution accelerated early in 1791. First of all, a reform of towns was carried out. On April
18, 1791, the Sejm passed the bill on royal towns (it did not concern private towns,) which was later, incorporated in the
Constitution of May 3. Towns were granted self-government and the burghers obtained rights and privileges similar to those
enjoyed by the gentry. All this time, the leaders of the patriotic party were soliciting for support of the society. A broad
propaganda campaign was launched. The draft of the Bill on Government (which is the official name of the Constitution) came
on the agenda on May 3, 1791, on the second day after the Easter parliamentary holiday when many deputies were still absent.
The king and the leaders made the supporters of the reform arrive early in the capital.
The idea was to surprise the antagonists and to make it impossible for them to prevent passing the bill by force. The
royal guards were positioned near the Royal Castle where the Sejm gathered while the neighboring square and the adjacent streets
were filled by the people of Warsaw who supported the changes. The draft Constitution had a sweeping majority in the Sejm.
After six hours of heated discussion, the king swore the Constitution and then everybody passed to a nearby church for thanksgiving
prayers and singing "Te Deum laudamus." These events were accompanied by an enormous enthusiasm of the gathered
crowds. On May 5, the Sejm completed the formalities legalizing the Constitution unanimously. It passed also the Declaration
of the Gathered Estates (i.e., of the Sejm) confirming the Bill on Government.
The Constitution of May 3 established constitutional monarchy, abolished elections of kings introducing hereditary throne,
established government called the Guardian of Laws and introduced responsibility of the ministers to the Sejm. Catholicism
was considered the reigning religion. However, other denominations were assured tolerance. The privileged position of the
gentry was maintained while considerable rights were granted to burghers. It was declared that the peasants were assured a
protection of the law and of the countries government, which paved the way to some more significant changes in the future.
Peasants were recognized as a part of the nation for the first time in the Polish history, which was clearly stated in the
article on peasants and on the army. The provision on an obligatory review of the Bill on Government every 25 years was a
novelty. May 3 was declared a national day. The Constitution did not close the process of reforms, but only its certain stage.
The work on further changes was commenced nearly the next day.
Also, the reaction of many European courts was favorable and the public opinion in many countries supported the Polish
changes. In countries, like England, the peaceful character of the Polish revolution was favorably compared to the events
in France. At the same time the development of the international situation was causing apprehensions concerning the future
of the reform and the fate of the country. In 1793, Russia and Prussia affected the Second Partition of Poland. The Poles
could not accept that, or the prospect of a total collapse of the state. The Insurrection of 1794 under the leadership of
Tadeusz Kosciuszko did not reestablish formally the Constitution of May 3 as it produced much deeper reforms, especially concerning
the situation of peasants, while the system of authorities was adjusted to the current political and war needs.
After the downfall of the Insurrection and the Third Partition of Poland liquidating the Polish state, traditions, legends
and myths of the Constitution of May 3 proliferated. They developed and strengthened the national consciousness and helped
the nation divided among the three partitioning powers to last through 123-year-long period of enslavement combined with attempts
at a denationalization of the Poles, they stimulated struggle for independence until the 1980s.
Solidarity honored the memory of the Bill on Government and after the totalitarian system was overthrown in the parliamentary
elections of June, 1989, the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, at the request of the Senate, re-established on April 6, 1990,
the May 3 Constitution Day holiday.
"THE POLISH WHITE EAGLE"--
THE EMBLEM OF POLAND
The crowned White Eagle has been the Coat of Arms of the Polish State for over 700 years. It is one of the oldest State
Coat of Arms in the world. There are very few other countries, which have kept their coats of arms for such a long period
There are many legends about the origins of the White Eagle, but one of the favorite ones is connected with Poland's first
capital, Gniezno, where Lech, the legendary ancestor of the Piast kings was to find an eagle's nest [in Polish "gniazdo"],
and thus took the eagle as his coat of arms.
As the king of all birds it was one of the earliest symbols of power, victory, force and kingship. Because of these reasons,
many kings in other countries also wanted the eagle in their coats of arms.
THE POLISH FLAG
The national colors of Poland are found in its flag, and consist of two horizontal fields of equal size with the top in
white and the bottom half in red. The Polish flag dates back to medieval pennants. At first it was all red with a white eagle
and was originally a banner, which King Wladyslaw Jagiello used during the Battle of Grunwald in 1410.
The white and red colors began appearing later on banners and flags in the 17th century. The banner of Zygmunt III Vasa
consisted of three strips: the upper and bottom ones being red and the one in the middle white. The banners of Wladyslaw IV
and Jan Casimir were made up of four strips: the upper and third from the top being red and the second from the top and the
bottom one being white. The banners bore the official crest of the State.
During the reign of August II, white ribbons were introduced in the army, according to Saxon customs, and were attached
to the left side of the headgear with ornamental pins. This use of national colors was expanded during 1788 to 1792, when
the Sejm (Poland's parliament) introduced the use of red and white ribbons for the army.
But it wasn't until after the November Uprising that the Sejm formally adopted the white and red colors on February 7,
1831; however, they were only recognized as state colors at the time. After Poland regained her independence in 1919, the
white and red flag was proudly flown.