Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of, 1569–1795

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POLAND-LITHUANIA, COMMONWEALTH OF, 15691795. The Union of Lublin, signed in 1569, joined Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into the Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita) of Both Nations, with one elected monarch serving as king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania. Poland and Lithuania were to have a joint Sejm (parliament) while preserving separate (but parallel) administrations, treasuries, and armed forces. Lithuania gradually integrated with Poland culturally, and the legal status of its nobility was adapted to that of the Polish nobility, so that at the beginning of the seventeenth century there was no difference between the two groups. Lithuanian and Ruthenian noblemen adopted the Polish language and culture and, after some time, also the Poles' state consciousness. Royal Prussia, whose political system was at first distinct, was linked closely with Poland in 1569.

The childless death of Sigismund II Augustus (1572) ended the rule of the Jagiellon dynasty, and the subsequent kings were elected by all noblemen (szlachta) at an electoral Sejm or Diet (referred to as a viritim election). After the episodic reign of Henry of Valois (15731575), Stephen Báthory's ten-year reign (15761586) was marked by attempts to strengthen royal power, but at the same time concessions were made to the nobility, such as the establishment of the Crown Tribunal in Piotrków and Lublin in 1578 and in Lithuania (in Vilnius, Minsk, and Nowogródek) in 1581. The endeavors to subordinate Gdańsk to the Commonwealth (the 1577 war) ended in only partial success, unlike the wars with Russia over Livonia (15791581), which were brought to an end by the favorable Treaty of Iam Zapol'skii (1582).

Claims to the Swedish throne raised by Báthory's successor, Sigismund III Vasa (15871632), drew the Commonwealth into a prolonged, unsuccessful armed conflict with Sweden in Livonia (despite Poland's glorious victory at Kircholm in1605) and in Royal Prussia in 16261629. The attempt to win the Russian throne (the war of 16091618) failed, even though the truce concluded at Deulin in 1618 accorded large territorial gains to Poland. No more successful were the wars with Turkey, punctuated by Hetman Stanisław Żółkiewski's defeat at Cecora in 1620 and a successful defense of Chocim (Khotin) in 1621. The king's support of the Counter-Reformation and his aspirations to gain absolute power were opposed by the nobility and led to a civil war (Mikołaj Zebrzydowski's rebellion, 16061609), which ended in the king's victory but forced him to change his policy of absolutism. Soon after the rebellion (in 1611) the transfer of the king's residence from Cracow to Warsaw, begun in 1596, was completed. Władysław IV Vasa's plans (16321648) to resume the war against Sweden and later against Turkey did not gain the support of the magnates (the highest stratum of the noble estate) or the nobility.


The reign of John II Casimir Vasa (16481668; abdicated) was marked by many warsBohdan Khmelnytsky's Cossack uprising (16481654); the war with Sweden (the "deluge"; 16551660, terminated by the peace of Oliwa); the war with Russia (16541656 and 16591667), concluded by the truce of Andrusovo, which deprived the Commonwealth of vast territories in the east, including Kiev; and Jerzy Lubomirski's rebellion (16651666)which resulted in the economic devastation and depopulation of the country, chaos in political life, loss of territory, and a substantial decrease in Poland's international importance. The lawlessness of the magnates and their political parties (pro-French and pro-Habsburg) increased during the reign of Michael Korybut Wiśniowiecki (16691673). The situation improved temporarily thanks to the splendid victories of John III Sobieski (16741696) over the Cossacks, Tatars, and Turks (at Podhajce in 1667, Chocim in 1673, Żurawno in 1676, and his relief of besieged Vienna in 1683). The king's plans to incorporate Ducal Prussia and strengthen Poland's position on the Baltic were, however, thwarted by the opposition of the magnates.

After John III Sobieski's death (1696) the Commonwealth became a pawn in the policies of the neighboring countries. The participation of Augustus II the Strong of the Wettin dynasty, the Saxon elector and king of Poland (16971706), in the Great Northern War (17001721) ended in his defeat and removal from power by the Swedes. The short reign of Stanisław I Leszczyński (17041709), raised to the Polish throne by the Swedes, came to an end when the Swedish king, Charles XII, was defeated at Poltava (1709). During the second part of his reign (17091733) Augustus II had to subordinate his activity to the will of Russia, Austria, and Prussia, who were interested in keeping the Commonwealth weak.

Meanwhile Polish and Lithuanian magnates clashed over their private interests, the Sejms were not held or were broken by means of the liberum veto (by which any one deputy was able to block a measure and have the Sejm dissolved), and the privileged estates were reluctant to undertake any financial obligations to the state. Taking advantage of this situation, Russia successfully opposed all attempts to reform the Commonwealth's political system and, by guaranteeing the resolutions of the Silent Sejm (1717), which confirmed the state's old system and the nobility's rights and greatly reduced the size of the army, kept the Commonwealth weak and in a state of chaos. Poland's attempt, with France's help, to free herself from subordination to her neighbors through the reelection of Stanisław Leszczyński (1733) was thwarted by Russia's armed intervention. As a result, Augustus III Wettin was installed on the Polish throne (17331763). The country's sovereignty was curtailed still further, anarchy deepened, and an increasingly important role was played by antagonistic magnatial coteries of Saxon favorites and ministers, such as the Branickis, Count Heinrich von Brühl (the prime minister of Saxony), and Alexander Sułkowski.


In 1764 the strongest political party (called Familia, or 'the Family'), directed by the Czartoryskis, Poniatowskis, and Lubomirskis, put forward Stanisław II August Poniatowski as a candidate for the throne; his election (17641795), supported by the Russian Empress Catherine II, made it possible to carry out some limited internal reforms, with Russia's consent. In reply to these reforms, Russia's interference in the Commonwealth's internal affairs, and the king's pro-Russian policy, conservative noblemen and magnates set up an armed union called the Confederation of Bar in 1768; the confederates announced the deposition of the king and launched a bloody civil war (17681772), which spread over nearly the whole country. The fighting was suppressed by Russian troops, with the participation of some Polish royal forces and Prussian units.

The direct consequence of the Confederation of Bar was the first partition of Poland (1772), by which Austria, Prussia, and Russia annexed a total of a third of the Commonwealth's territory. Russian interference in the Commonwealth's internal affairs continued; it was effected mainly through the Permanent Council, a body set up in 1775 to deal with government and administration; while it was dependent on Russia, the council did useful work in the administration of the country. Some reforms were initiated and supported by Stanislaus Augustus (although they were curtailed by Catherine II); for instance, in 1773 a Commission for National Education, a central office dealing with education and upbringing, was set up. But it was only during the Four-Year Sejm (17881792) that the patriotic party, which worked with the king, succeeded in carrying out many important reforms. The Sejm increased the size of the army, set up organs of local administration known as Commissions of Civil and Military Law and Order, increased the rights of townsmen, and, most importantly, adopted the Constitution of 3 May 1791, the first basic law in Europe.

These endeavors to reform the country were thwarted by the Confederation of Targowica, established by Polish magnates in St. Petersburg under Catherine's patronage in 1792, which called for Russian intervention, resulting in the Polish-Russian war of 1792. As a consequence Russia and Prussia carried out the second partition of Poland (1793). In 1794 an insurrection commanded by Tadeusz Kościuszko, attempting to save the remnants of Polish independence, ended in defeat, which led to the third partition of the country in 1795, again by Poland's three neighbors. The Commonwealth ceased to exist as a state and remained under foreign rule until 1918.


The political system formed during the Jagiellonian period survived until the collapse of the Polish state. But important changes in the makeup of the political forces in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries influenced the workings of the state apparatus. In the sixteenth century, alongside the monarch, the entire noblemen's Estate had a say in power. In the last two centuries of the Commonwealth's existence, however, the magnates gained the upper hand (hence the imprecise term "magnate oligarchy"). From the middle of the seventeenth century and, quite blatantly, in the eighteenth century, they exercised total control over all political matters in the country; under Stanisław August decisions were made by just a few families. An important factor that made it easier for the magnates to gain the upper hand was the noblemen's participation in the royal election, adopted in 1572 (viritim election); the noblemen easily gave in to the magnates' pressure.

Royal power was weakened further by the duty of each elected king to swear fidelity to the Henrician articles (1573), which reasserted the basic principles of the Commonwealth's political system and allowed noblemen to refuse obedience to the king, should he violate these principles, and the Pacta Conventa, which listed the king's obligations with regard to foreign policy and financial matters. After the defeat of Zebrzydowski's rebellion (16061607) and even more so after Lubomirski's rebellion (16651666), the king's authority declined and so did the political importance of the middle nobility, while the magnates strengthened their position.

The state could not function properly, because parliament had to adopt all laws unanimously, and the deputies had to observe the instructions given them by the sejmiki (provincial diets). Sejm sessions dissolved when they failed to reach agreement on the submitted bills within six weeks or were broken (from 1652 on) by the liberum veto, which made it possible for a single deputy to invalidate all the laws the session had adopted. Between 1582 and 1762, 60 percent of all Sejm sessions were thus dissolved. The ossification of the political system caused by the nobility's insistence on its freedoms and privileges (the cardinal rights underlying their so-called golden freedom) and the unwillingness of most magnates and noblemen to undertake reforms resulted in the growing inefficiency of the state, particularly in financial and military matters. The Commonwealth was therefore unable to stand up to its much more powerful neighbors, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, which at first planned to incapacitate it and then sought to liquidate it outright. The reforms adopted by the Four-Year Sejm (17881792) and envisaged in the Constitution of 3 May 1791 were annihilated by the fall of the state.


The Commonwealth's economy began to decline in the 1620s. The fall in western Europe's demand for Polish grain and the inefficiency of an agricultural system based on serf labor undermined the manorial farms; the crisis also affected peasant holdings. Recession extended to towns, impoverishing the majority of townsmen. But it was the wars and epidemics of the mid-seventeenth century and the first twenty years of the eighteenth that had truly catastrophic results, leading to the depopulation and devastation of villages, towns, and cities and to a sharp and long-lasting decline of agriculture, handicrafts, and trade.

The first attempts to introduce changes in agriculture were made in the 1720s and assumed a larger scale in the second half of the century. Instead of the corvée, peasants began to pay rent for the land they tilled, manorial estates were parceled out, new crops came under cultivation (fodder crops and then potatoes), and stock breeding was modernized. Handicrafts revived in towns under the Saxons, but a real breakthrough could be noticed only in the last decade of the eighteenth century, when many artisan workshops were set up, breaking the ossified guild system. But as long as the Commonwealth existed there was no real improvement in the situation of peasants or townsmen.

With regard to religion, an important event was the Union of Brest (1596), which was intended to unite the Orthodox and Catholic Churches in the Commonwealth, but in fact split the Orthodox Church into two opposed churches, Greek Catholic (Uniate) and Orthodox, the latter not recognizing the Union. The loss of vast territories in the east (1667) weakened the Orthodox Church in the Commonwealth and led to the predominance over it of the Uniate Church by the eighteenth century. The ban on apostasy (which was punishable by death as of 1668) reflected the triumph of the Counter-Reformation and was a departure from Poland's previous religious toleration. Intolerance, which increased as the general crisis grew in the eighteenth century, was reflected in the fight against non-Catholics, in the ban on public Protestant services and on the construction of Protestant churches (1717), and in the formal exclusion of Protestants from state posts and the Sejm in 1733. The discrimination against non-Catholics gave Russia a pretext to interfere in the Commonwealth's internal affairs.

Political and economic disorganization led to the decline of learning in society in general, and to xenophobia, bigotry, and obscurantism. The noblemen's uncritical self-admiration laid the foundations for Sarmatism, an ideology according to which the origins of the Polish nobility were distinct from those of the peasants. High culture developed in magnates' courts and a few large cities, especially Gdańsk. The Enlightenment, which came to Poland during the reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski, sparked breakthroughs in education and arts and letters. The schools run by the Catholic Piarist order, which had been active in Poland from 1642, were thoroughly reformed in 17501755, while the king formed the Commission for National Education. Theater, music, fine arts, literature, and political writing flourished on the initiative and under the patronage of the king; his court and Warsaw as a whole became cultural centers that influenced the entire Commonwealth.

See also Belarus ; Catherine II (Russia) ; Cossacks ; Gdańsk ; Jagiellon Dynasty (Poland-Lithuania) ; Khmelnytsky, Bohdan ; Khmelnytsky Uprising ; Lithuania, Grand Duchy of, to 1569 ; Livonian War (15581583) ; Lublin, Union of (1569) ; Poland, Partitions of ; Polish Literature and Language ; Polish Succession, War of the (17331738) ; Poniatowski, Stanisław II Augustus ; Reformations in Eastern Europe: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox ; Sigismund II Augustus (Poland, Lithuania) ; Stephen Báthory ; 3 May Constitution ; Uniates ; Union of Brest (1596) ; Vasa Dynasty (Sweden) .


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Marcin Kamler