Commemorating the 1791 Ratification of Poland’s Constitution

At a May 2 event commemorating the 231st anniversary of the 1791 ratification of Poland’s Constitution at the Polish Center of Wisconsin, Don Pienkos (Professor Emeritus of Political Science, UW-Milwaukee) gave remarks on the historical significance of Europe’s first modern constitution. Pienkos has graciously shared his talk with CREECA in text form below.

The program for “The 1791 Constitution Celebrated Through Words, Music and Imagery” is available here.

The posters that Pienkos mentions in his remarks are available for viewing here.

Tonight we celebrate  an event that took place 231 years ago tomorrow, an event of great significance for Poland and for the cause of representative self government. It is the anniversary of the vote in Poland’s parliament that approved a new Constitution for the country. This Constitution, Europe’s first modern Constitution, is strikingly similar to our own Constitution that was ratified in 1789, just two years before.

Poland’s Constitution was indeed both remarkable – and critical to Poland’s very survival. It provided for a properly functioning parliament, an independent  judiciary, and a strong executive. It created a permanent standing army to defend the country.  At the same time the ‘May Third Constitution’ reaffirmed Poland’s tradition of religious toleration, respect for individual rights and the rule of law while declaring – for the very first time – that the country’s vast peasant population was part of the nation and under the government’s protection.

When the news of the Constitution came out, it won praise from freedom-loving people everywhere

The Constitution reflected a concerted effort by patriotic Poles, including its reform-minded King, Stanislaus Poniatowski, to do away with the profound defects in its government that had left a once great country “in a perpetual state of near anarchy.” In doing so, they aimed at regaining Poland’s full independence in its dealings with the three giant powers on its borders – imperial Russia to the east, Habsburg Austria to the south, and German Prussia to the west.

Indeed, less than twenty years before in 1772, those three superpowers, led by Empress Catherine II of Russia, had seized 30 percent of the country – a shocking act of aggression that our history books far too politely call “the first partition of Poland”.

But the new Constitution would last just 14 months.  Some nobles, who in one historian’s words, held “views that epitomized the worst vices of the old Poland,” opposed its passage. Here, Catherine II took full advantage of their complaints by sending in a massive 100,000 man army to restore the old disorder.

Despite the heroic efforts by Poland’s vastly outnumbered forces, Russia and its Prussian ally prevailed in the war that followed. In 1793 they seized three-fifths of the country. Catherine then ordered a counterfeit Parliament to nullify the Constitution.

But only months later, Gen. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who had served with distinction in our own War for Independence, led an insurrection to save Poland. But his last ditch effort was crushed. The three partitioners then divided up what little remained of the country. Poland would not regain its independence for 123 years – in 1918.

However, the memory of the Constitution did not die. As Mark Brzezinski, our new U.S. Ambassador to Poland, wrote in his book,The Struggle for Constitutionalism in Poland, its ideals inspired future generations of patriots. He cites one observer who declared, “The miracle of the Constitution did not save the Polish state. But it did save the Polish nation.” Indeed, after 1918 and again after 1989, the May Third Constitution has been celebrated as a great national day in independent Poland. 

In closing let me note that In every country, there are moments that help define what its people stand for and aspire to be.  For example, in our own America we have the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863. In England there are Winston Churchill’s stirring words to rally the nation following the calamity of Dunkirk in 1940.  In Poland there is the amazing election of June 4, 1989 that led to the collapse of communist rule and paved the way for the end of the Cold War. And there is the Constitution of May Third 1791.

Now let me turn briefly to the Posters displayed tonite. The work of the Polish Center, they vividly tell the story of the Constitution and in various art forms.

The first shows what Poland looked like before and after the first partition of 1772.  Poland’s king and the Empress of Russia, who were once young lovers, are pictured as they were in 1791 when they were much older.

The painting in the second panel is based on an eye witness drawing and shows the parliament at the moment of the vote to approve the Constitution. One of its authors is also shown.

The third panel offers a modern depiction of this event. It was in the Polish pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, an event blighted by the invasion of Poland and the start of World War II.

The fourth panel portrays the joyous procession that followed the passage of the Constitution as conceived by the great Painter Jan Matejko. The king is at the left. Two of its authors are shown as well.

The final panel includes a fragment of Jan Styka’s painting of Kosciuszko’s victory over a large Russian army at Raclawice in April 1794. Together, nobles, townspeople, and peasants won that day – a high point in the fight for Poland.  The monumental Raclawice Panorama is on permanent display today, inshrined in the city of Wroclaw. 

Thank You! And Enjoy the rest of the Program!