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Constitution Day

Jan Matejko, The Constitution of May 3, 1791

This year marks the 225th anniversary of adoption of the Constitution of May 3 – the first written constitution in modern Europe and the second in the world, after America’s.

The Constitution was adopted on 3 May 1791. Its authors are considered to be King Stanisław II August Poniatowski, Grand Marshal of Lithuania Ignacy Potocki and priest Hugo Kołłątaj, clergyman and philosopher.

The enacted constitution drew inspiration from the European Enlightenment and the American Constitution of 1787. Creators of the Polish Constitution recognised that the government must serve the good of the whole nation. The document consisted of 11 articles. The first one defined the Roman Catholic religion as the dominant, at the same time providing for freedom of religion and practices of the followers of other religions. Article V of the Constitution divided power into legislative, executive and judicial. The bicameral Sejm adopted laws, the executive power remained in the hands of the king and the Guardians of the Laws, and the judicial power was in the hands of independent courts.

The Constitution of May 3 abolished Liberum veto, which allowed ceasing the adoption of a bill by opposition of at least one deputy – since then all decisions were to be taken by a majority of votes. The king had no legislative sanction. In order to become applicable law royal decisions had to be signed by the competent ministers, who in turn were responsible to the Sejm.
A new form of parliament, Ready Sejm, to which deputies were elected for two years and could be called to the session at any moment, was created. The Constitutional Sejm was to convene every 25 years in order to revise the Constitution and introduce changes to it. The national army was created, and the government care of the Constitution included peasants. The privilege of the Law on the Cities, adopted earlier in April 1791, considered to be integral to the Constitution – gave the townspeople the right to own estates, hold officer’s positions and positions in the state administration, and the right to acquire nobility.

The Constitution of May 3 was a reflection of the Polish spirit which enabled the Polish people to survive 123 years of partitions, and then long years of communist repression. May 3 was a public holiday until 1939. By the end of World War II and in the times of the Polish People’s Republic celebration of the Constitution Day was prohibited, but every year this anniversary became the pretext for mass anticommunist demonstrations. Currently, the Constitution of May 3 is treated by Poles as one of the most crucial events in the history of Poland.

MFA Press Office