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Poland celebrates 232nd anniversary of the Constitution of May 3

232 years ago, on May 3, 1791, the “Four-Year Sejm” (parliament meeting in the years 1788–92) of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, adopted the world’s second and Europe’s first act regulating the organization of state authorities, as well as the rights and duties of citizens, still divided into states, the May 3 Constitution.

The Constitution was designed to introduce reforms that would make the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth leap towards becoming a modern democratic state. It included broadened participation of the townsfolk in its political life, Montesquieu’s advocacy of a separation and balance of powers between the three branches of government, and his advocacy of a bicameral legislature, and a guarantee of tolerance and freedom to all religions.

🇵🇱 Today, Poland celebrates the 232nd anniversary of the Constitution of the 3rd May — the first written constitution of its kind in Europe!#3maja #Konstytucja3Maja #Poland

— ECR Group (@ecrgroup) May 3, 2023

Vital reforms

The document enabled the Sejm to operate smoothly, eliminating the “liberum veto” (a unanimity voting rule, introducing majority voting, and declaring that the Sejm’s decisions could not be challenged by local parliaments (Sejmiki).

It expanded the subject of Polish democracy, while judicial power remained separate from the legislative and executive branches.

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The constitution adopted Roman Catholicism as the country’s main religion but also tolerated all other religions.

Furthermore, the bourgeoisie received the most important privileges previously enjoyed only by the nobility, such as the right to personal and property inviolability, the right to acquire land, access to government positions, and full administrative and judicial autonomy in cities.

Rise and fall of the May 3 Constitution

The constitutional formal procedures were performed for little over a year before being stopped by Russia allied with conservative Polish noble magnates in the Polish–Russian War of 1792, also known as the War in Defense of the Constitution.

After the fall of the Republic, the May 3 Constitution became a symbol of great achievements and proof that a strong, efficient, and modern state could be created. Its legend stimulated the struggle for its revival throughout the partition period.

Thanks to the adoption of the May 3 Constitution, Poles regained self-esteem and respect for their political heritage. During the partition period (1795-1918), these were important factors in strengthening the will to fight to regain statehood.

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