Constitution Day: Stuart Dowell looks at the history behind today’s celebration and why it is so significant

Adoption of the Polish-Lithuanian Constitution of May 3, 1791. The painting depicts King Stanislaus Augustus entering St John’s Cathedral to swear in the new national constitution just after it had been adopted by the Grand Sejm. Public domain

Today marks the 231st anniversary of the adoption of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth’s constitution.

The first constitution of its type in Europe, and the second in the world just four years after America’s, it has remained a symbol of freedom, national pride and patriotism until today. 

Chiselled into its preamble was the idea that power comes from the people, an astonishing contrast to the absolute monarchies that lurked menacingly all around Poland. It introduced a modern-sounding tripartite division of powers, and legal protections were bestowed on townspeople and peasants.

However, the ideals the constitution contained could not be put into practice as it was soon overturned by the Russian army with the help of the treacherous Targowica confederation. 

This historic document was not the result of a bloody revolution, nor did it establish a new state. However, it was the harbinger of profound reforms in the republican spirit of freedom and the enlightenment.Public domain

The memory of the constitution helped to sustain Polish aspirations for independence during the partitions. 

A reform of the way the kingdom governed itself was much overdue. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had limped to the end of the 18th century in poor condition and was in great need of repair. 

It could not implement the necessary reforms because of the liberum veto, which gave the magnate ruling class the tool they needed to block reforms that would weaken their privileges. 

Not only that, Russia, Austria and Prussia were straining at the leash to tear up the kingdom between themselves, which they had already done in part in 1772. 

The bill was taken to the Sejm sitting at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. After seven hours of deliberations, the Sejm approved the Constitution, and King Stanisław August Poniatowski signed it.Public domain

The early 1790s was a good time to act. Austria and Russia were busy fighting the Ottoman empire and Poland-Lithuania had just convened the Great Sejm, which could push through needed legislation. 

Reform was not popular among all parties though. The magnates, the elite social class known as the ‘little kings’, did not want to see their power eroded. 

With this in mind, the fathers of the constitution, King Stanisław August Poniatowski, Father Hubert Kołłątaj and nobleman Ignacy Potocki decided to act quickly. 

The vote on the bill was scheduled for just after Easter, when most deputies were still in their manor houses, often hundreds of kilometres away. 

Chiselled into its preamble was the idea that power comes from the people. It introduced a modern-sounding tripartite division of powers, and legal protections were bestowed on townspeople and peasants.Jacek Turczyk/PAP

After some delays, it was read out on 2 May 1791 in the Radziwill Palace, today’s Presidential Palace.  

The next day, the bill was taken to the Sejm sitting at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. After seven hours of deliberations, the Sejm approved the Constitution, and King Stanisław August Poniatowski signed it. 

The authors of the May 3rd Constitution described it as "the last will and testament of the fading Homeland”. 

The constitution established a tripartite division of power. Legislative power was to be vested in a bicameral parliament, consisting of the Sejm with 204 deputies from among the nobility and 24 representatives of cities. 

King Stanisław August Poniatowski was the principal author of the Constitution.Public domain

The Senate, to be made up of bishops, voivodes, castellans and ministers, chaired by the king), would have a limited role. 

The executive function was to be performed by the king and the government responsible to the Sejm. 

The king could appoint ministers, senators, bishops, officers and officials, and in wartime was commander-in-chief of the national army.

The judicial role in the state was entrusted to independent tribunals. 

The partitions ended Polish statehood for 123 years.CC BY-SA 3.0

Importantly, the constitution abolished the liberum veto, introducing majority voting.

A hereditary monarchy was introduced, abolishing the free elections. The successor to the throne after Stanisław August was to be Frederick Augustus, Elector of Saxony, grandson of Augustus III Sas, and his descendants.

The constitution confirmed the dominant role of the Catholic religion and the position of the nobility, guaranteeing them the privileges granted in the past.

It confirmed on townspeople the right to self-determination in important matters, to own land and to admit them to the nobility.

The 3rd May holiday was resumed after Poland gained independence at the end of WWI, but it was outlawed during WWII under Nazi and Soviet occupation. Public domain

While it maintained serfdom, the constitution gave peasants “protection of the law and the national government”.

Freedom was also granted to any peasant arriving or returning after escaping, which was intended to encourage peasants from other countries to settle in Poland. 

The adoption of the Constitution of May 3 was widely approved of throughout Europe.

The main losers, though, were the magnates, who could no longer send landless noblemen to the Sejm to do their bidding. They gathered in the town of Targowica and schemed with Catherine II of Russia to overthrow the new regime by forming the Confederation of Targowica.

Teodor Walczak/PAP

After the war, Communist authorities cracked down on any public display of May 3rd celebrations.Teodor Walczak/PAP

In May 1792, the confederates put up an army of 20,000, which together with the Russian army, numbering 97,000, entered Poland without a declaration of war.

The king managed to field an army of only 37,000 recruits. Despite winning a few battles, when the Russian army reached Warsaw, the king decided to capitulate. The second and third partitions soon followed, thereby ending Polish statehood for 123 years. 

Today’s holiday dates back to the Duchy of Warsaw early in the 19th century when Poles celebrated the passing of the constitution.

However, the 3rd of May Holiday was soon forbidden in all annexed Polish territories. Only after the First World War, when Poland regained its independence, was the 3rd of May Holiday resumed.

Since 1989, the 3rd of May Holiday is again a national holiday in Poland, and it has also been celebrated in Lithuania since 2007.Wojciech Pacewicz/PAP

During the Second World War, during the German and Soviet occupation, the holiday was outlawed. 

It was only in 1981 that the Communist government allowed the 3rd of May Holiday to be celebrated.

Since 1989, the 3rd of May Holiday is again a national holiday in Poland, and it has also been celebrated in Lithuania since 2007.