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Thursday, 03 May 2012 16:16
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The Constitution of May 3, 1791 (Konstytucja Trzeciego Maja) was adopted as a "Government Act" on that date by the Sejm of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Historian Norman Davies calls it "the first constitution of its type in Europe"; other scholars also refer to it as the world's second oldest constitution.[1][2][3][4][a].

The May 3 Constitution was designed to redress long-standing political defects of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth's system of "Golden Liberty", which had conferred disproportionate rights on the nobility, had over time increasingly corrupted the Commonwealth's politics. The Constitution's adoption had been preceded by a period of agitation for reforms and by their gradual introduction, beginning with the Convocation Sejm of 1764 and the subsequent election of Stanisław August Poniatowski as the Commonwealth's last king, and culminating in the legislation of the Great Sejm, including the May 3 Constitution.

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The painting depicts King Stanislaus Augustus together with members of the Grand Sejm and inhabitants of Warsaw entering St John's Cathedral in order to swear in the new national constitution just after it had been adopted by the Grand Sejm in the Royal Castle visible in the background.

The Constitution sought to supplant the existing anarchy fostered by some of the country's magnates with a more democratic constitutional monarchy. It introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility (szlachta) and placed the peasants under the protection of the government, thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. The Constitution abolished pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto, which at one time had put the Sejm at the mercy of any deputy who might choose, or be bribed by an interest or foreign power, to undo the legislation adopted by that Sejm.

The adoption of the May 3 Constitution met with hostile political and military responses from the Commonwealth's neighbors. In the War in Defense of the Constitution, the Commonwealth's ally Prussia, under Frederick William II, broke its alliance with the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth was effectively defeated by Catherine the Great's Imperial Russia allied with the Targowica Confederation, a coalition of Polish magnates and landless nobility who opposed reforms that might weaken their influence. King Stanisław August eventually capitulated by joining the Confederation.

The Constitution of May 3 remained in force for only 14 months and 3 weeks. Despite the King's decision to terminate the military resistance, the ensuing Second Partition of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (1793), and the 1795 demise of Poland, the May 3 Constitution remained, over the next 123 years of Polish partitions, a beacon in the struggle to restore Polish sovereignty. In the words of two of its co-authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, it was "the last will and testament of the expiring Country."[b]

Hymn of Constitution of May 3

Composed in 2007 by Marian Waśkiewicz lyrics Zofia Pietrzyk, video: Polskie Radio Wrocław, 19.04.2009

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 May 2012 16:44
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