On May 3, 1791, the Great Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth overwhelmingly adopted the May 3 Constitution, often described as Europe’s first modern written national constitution, and the world’s second, after the United States Constitution.
During the second half of the 18th century, the once mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth started facing many internal problems as King Stanisław August Poniatowski, hand-picked by Empress Catherine II of Russia, spent his reign torn between his desire to implement reforms and his perceived necessity of remaining in subordinate relationship with his Russian sponsors.
Fighting to preserve Poland’s independence, an association of nobles known as the Bar Confederation rebelled against Russia and the Polish liege before being brought under control in 1772. This led to the First Partition of Poland, which saw the Commonwealth lose about 30% of its territory and half of its population to the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy.
The Great Sejm
Still the largest state on the continent, the Commonwealth found itself in an increasingly perilous situation. By 1790, it was forced into an alliance with its enemy, Prussia, which gave the federation false hope that it might have at last found an ally that would shield it while the Great Sejm, held in Warsaw between 1788 and 1792, enacted a series of political and economic reforms aimed at strengthening the country.
Reflecting the ideas of the Enlightenment, such as Rousseau’s concept of the social contract and Montesquieu’s advocacy of a balance of powers among three branches of government, these reforms were incorporated into a new constitution, drafted by the king himself and overwhelmingly adopted by the Great Sejm on May 3, 1791.
Often described as Europe’s first modern written national constitution, and the world’s second, after the United States’, the Constitution of May 3 ensured more freedom and political equality in the country, established a constitutional monarchy, strengthened the bourgeoisie and abolished many of the nobility’s privileges as well as many of the old laws of serfdom.
Once again angered by what was seen as radical republican Jacobin-style reforms, Catherine the Great, invited by the Targowica Confederation, an alliance of pro-Russian Polish nobles who wished to restore the privileges they had lost under the constitution, invaded Poland in 1792, triggering the so-called War in Defence of the Constitution.
The War in Defence of the Constitution
Abandoned by their Prussian allies, the Polish pro-Constitution forces, commanded by Prince Józef Poniatowski and a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, Tadeusz Kościuszko, were badly outnumbered. And despite Polish victories at the battles of Zieleńce and of Dubienka, the Russian army kept advancing, forcing the Polish forces to retreat towards the Vistula.
With the outcome of the war still undecided and despite the fact that Poniatowski and Kościuszko had reasonable chances of defending the Vistula river line, Stanisław August, giving in to the Russian Empress’ demand, signed a ceasefire and joined the Targowica Confederation.
In January 1793, a second partitioning treaty was signed, which ceded all of Poland’s eastern provinces to Russia as well as a large portion of Greater Poland to Prussia. Ratified by a coerced Sejm in a short-lived attempt to prevent the complete annexation of Poland, the treaty amputated the country of about 307,000 square kilometres, reducing the Commonwealth to one-third of its original size, and annulled all the enactments of the Great Sejm, including the Constitution of May 3.
The king’s capitulation was a hard blow for Kościuszko, who had not lost a single battle in the campaign, and in March 1794, he led a general uprising and marched on Warsaw in a desperate attempt to prevent the third and final partition of Poland, which ended the existence of an independent Polish and Lithuanian state for the next 123 years.
An important national holiday, not only in Poland
May 3 was first declared a holiday in 1791, and celebrated ror the first time a year later, in 1792. Banned during the partitions of Poland it was celebrated in the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807, and unofficially in Congress Poland by various pro-independence activists, more openly during the times of insurrections, such as the November Uprising and the January Uprising.
It was again made an official Polish holiday in April 1919 under the Second Polish Republic before being banned once more during World War II by the Nazi and Soviet occupiers. Reestablished after the fall of communism, May 3 Constitution Day is now one of Poland’s most important public holidays.
Known as Polish Constitution Day in the United States, the holiday also a focal point of Polish-American pride in the Chicago area since 1892, when the first Polish Constitution Day Parade was held.
Today regarded as the biggest Polish celebration parade abroad, outside of Poland itself, the holiday is an unavoidable gathering for Polish communities and institutions, as well as local businesses which support and promote Polish heritage in Chicago.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.