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3 May Constitution


3 MAY CONSTITUTION. The first Polish constitution was adopted by the Four-Year Sejm (parliament) on 3 May 1791. It was the first such basic law in written form in Europe and the second in the world after the constitution of the United States (1787). The Constitution of 3 May was drafted at the Four-Year Sejm (17881792) by reformers led most actively by King Stanisław II August Poniatowski, Hugo Kołłątaj, and Ignacy Potocki. The constitution was preceded by two acts regarded as integral to it: the Reorganization of the Sejmiki [provincial diets] Act (adopted on 24 March 1791) and the Act on the Status of Towns and Townsmen's Rights (18 April).

In accordance with Enlightenment ideas, the Constitution and these two related documents introduced the principle of the nation's sovereignty and the separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers. Landless noblemen (usually dependent on magnates) were excluded from the Sejm and the sejmiki, and townsmen were given the opportunity to acquire nobility through the purchase of a landed estate or by virtue of services rendered to the country or professional work. The citizens of royal towns were guaranteed personal immunity and were granted the right to purchase landed estates and hold junior official posts. The towns received the right to send their representatives to the Sejm, where they would have an advisory voice on matters concerning towns. State protection of the Jews was confirmed. The constitution maintained serfdom, but peasants were to be put under the protection of the law and the government, inter alia with regard to contracts concluded with landowners.

The constitution abolished the election of kings; after the death of the current king, the throne was to be hereditary in the Saxon dynasty. Legislative power was vested in a bicameral Sejm (with a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate), which was to be responsible for legislation and taxation and would have broadly conceived control over the government as well as jurisdiction in offenses against the nation and the state. Laws were to be adopted by a majority vote; the deputies (204 plus 24 plenipotentiaries of towns) were to be elected for a term of two years. The competency of the Senate was restricted to a suspensory veto; if the Chamber of Deputies upheld its decision, the bill became law without the consent of the Senate. The role of the sejmiki, and indirectly also of the magnates, was restricted. The executive was strengthened: confederations (a form of legal rebellion) were banned and the liberum veto (the principle of unanimity that allowed a single deputy to dissolve the Sejm and invalidate its decisions or even to prevent it from assembling) was abolished.

The Council of Ministers, called the Guardians of the Laws, was to be the highest executive body. It was to be composed of the king, who had the decisive voice, the primate, and five ministers, and was to direct the central administration and supervise five commissions (ministries)education, foreign affairs, justice, war, and treasury. The monarch was responsible to no one, while the ministers were responsible to the king and the Sejm for their policies and could be brought before the Sejm court if they broke the lawthis was thus the world's first legally formulated principle of ministerial responsibility. The reform of the judiciary united the various noblemen's judicial courts into uniform collegiate country courts of first instance; courts of appeal were set up in towns. The constitution was a great step forward toward a centralized government. It laid the foundations for cooperation between landowners and rich burghers and opened possibilities for the further political and legal transformations that would be indispensable for the development of Poland's fledgling capitalism.

The Constitution of 3 May was supplemented on 20 October 1791 by the Mutual Pledge of the Two Nations, which emphasized the federal character of the state and the equal status of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish Kingdom. The Duchy was to have the same ministerial posts as Poland, and it retained its separate system of laws. This was a compromise between the Lithuanians' aspiration for sovereignty and reform of the political system, on the one hand, and the tradition of union between the two states and the preservation of the Commonwealth's federal character, on the other. The constitution gained the support of the majority of the nobility, townsmen, and many magnates. In 1792 its opponents set up the Targowica confederation in defense of the old system and asked Russia to intervene militarily. The achievements of the Constitution of 3 May were canceled by the fall of the Commonwealth with the Third Partition in 1795.

See also Catherine II (Russia) ; Lublin, Union of (1569) ; Poland, Partitions of ; Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of, 15691795 ; Poniatowski, Stanisław II Augustus .


Kowecki, Jerzy, ed. Konstytucja 3 maja 1791: Statut Zgromadzenia Przyjaciół Konstytucji. Warsaw, 1981.

Leœnodorski, Bogusław. Dzieło Sejmu Czteroletniego 1788 1792: Studium historyczno-prawne. Wrocław, 1951.

. Institutions polonaises au Siècle des Lumières. Warsaw, 1962.

Rostworowski, Emanuel. Ostatni król Rzeczypospolitej: Geneza i upadek Konstytucji 3 maja. Warsaw, 1966.

Marcin Kamler

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