The story is cruelly ironic. Shortly after the idea of republicanism had reached its full maturity in the First Republic of Polandthere was a break, and our homeland disappeared from the world map.
LOOK: “80 years of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: We are the custodians of this memory”, by Piotr Gliński*
The Government Law of May 3, 1791 was promulgated “at a time that returned us to ourselves”, as we can read in the Preamble that precedes the Constitution. In the turbulent time of the partitions, our ancestors were faced with the question of their own identity. The answer they gave has not lost its relevance in two hundred and thirty years. Even now, in the 21st century, it defines who we are.
After all, we are neither east of the West nor west of the East. Poland is right in the heart of Europe. We are neither in the imaginary Eastern Europe of the French philosophers nor in the Mitteleuropa of the German ministers. We have our own identity that has been developing for a thousand years. The authors of the May 3rd Constitution, our founding fathers, knew this by combining the original political thought of the Enlightenment with traditions firmly rooted in our political culture going back several hundred years.
Democracy is a system made up of free people. Its history in Poland dates back to the 15th century. Just as England had the Great Charter of Liberties (1215) and Habeas Corpus (1679), in Poland there was the principle of Neminem captivabimus (1433). These laws recognized liberties that, at that time, were not known anywhere else. Poland is not a “young democracy”, but one of the oldest democracies in modern Europe, an older sister, not a daughter, of other European democracies. The First Republic of Poland revived the republican traditions born in ancient Rome.
On May 3, 1791, Poland became the cradle of constitutionalism in continental Europe. At the end of the 18th century it was an island of freedom, surrounded by a sea of absolutism. Its agitated waves reached their apogee during the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, which exacted a bloody toll. Both totalitarianism and absolutism have always been alien to our political culture.
If with the Baptism of Poland we became a nation, on May 3, 1791 we did so in the modern sense of this word. The Constitution approved that day is not only a legal act, a historical document, but also the proof of our identity. This identity is based on three foundations: law, freedom and Christianity. We want to subordinate our collective life today and tomorrow to these same values.
The Constitution of May 3 is the primary source of both the subsequent act of independence and the idea from which “Solidarity” was born. The Pole is above all a free man. Even at the time when our ancestors lost their outer freedom, deep in their hearts they retained their inner freedom. This was the case during the partitions. This also happened later, when the ominous shadow of the iron curtain hung over our homeland. The awareness of their own Polish and, therefore, European identity meant that the model of homo sovieticus continued to be alien to the vast majority of Poles.
In the history of Poland, the year 1791 was an annus mirabilis, a miraculous year that started a “legal revolution”, possible only in our homeland. A revolution that arose from the Sejm, not from a bloody political coup, civil war or regicide. We can be proud of our history. It is not just a story from a distant past, but a moral obligation that unites us forever.
In addition to reinforcing the foundations of the state and the law, the Constitution of May 3 protected individual liberty. He made a clear distinction between freedom and arbitrariness or anarchy, the symbol of which became the liberum veto in the last century of the existence of the First Polish Republic. Only a strong state can guarantee the freedom of its citizens. Therefore, there is no freedom without responsibility for the state itself.
The Government Law of May 3 divided public power into legislative, executive and judicial. The principle of tripartite power, postulated by Charles Montesquieu and John Locke, was complemented by the authors of the Constitution with the principle of the sovereignty of the people, which establishes that “all authority in human society has its origin in the will of the people.” . The authority that does not serve the people loses its legitimacy. This applies to both the legislative and executive powers as well as the judiciary. This is an important lesson that history teaches us.
Although it is true that the Constitution of May 3 did not abolish serfdom, it paved the way for the emancipation of the people. One of its articles already grants chłopi (peasants without the right to property) the treatment of włościanie (peasants with the right to property), leaving aside the concept of “serfdom”. At the same time, it guarantees that anyone, “as soon as he steps on Polish soil, is completely free to use his own industry as and where he wants.” It was a defining moment in our history. Until now, the nation was synonymous with nobility. At the end of the 18th century, Polish identity was redefined. Anyone who loved Poland and was willing to live for it, regardless of social or ethnic background, could become a Pole. Therefore, Polish patriotism has nothing in common with German nationalism, which took its most monstrous form in the Third Reich.
The Constitution of May 3 also confirmed the religious freedom that citizens of the First Republic of Poland could enjoy. By the end of the 16th century, Poland had already become an oasis of religious freedom in Europe. Democracy is so valuable because it is the only system in which a person is a citizen and not a serf. Let us remember that the idea of the dignity of the person and of his freedom is born from the Christian roots of our civilization. We cannot forget the values that the Gospel transmits to us. Otherwise, words like “democracy” and “constitution” will lose their meaning, becoming empty slogans that will find false advocates. This is also what the Polish founding fathers teach us.
It was not long before our history lost its continuity and Poland ceased to exist. One of the slogans that circulated in Warsaw on the eve of the glorious revolution of May 3 was: “if nobility is the ennoblement of a nation, let us make the whole nation noble”. In fact, this motto expressed the bold dream of universal suffrage, for which societies around the world would fight in the 19th and 20th centuries. Poland was in the vanguard of freedom. However, this Polish dream was abruptly interrupted by the absolutist powers that were growing in strength in the east and west.
On February 24 of last year, he reminded us that freedom is not obtained forever. “The price of freedom is your eternal vigilance,” said Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers. What is at stake in the war that is taking place beyond the eastern border of our homeland is not only our freedom, but also our identity. The question of whether we will still be Poles when the next two hundred and thirty or even a thousand years pass.
The fate of the Constitution of May 3 teaches us yet another lesson. Only a nation state, and not a supranational federation, can be a reliable guarantor of the freedom of its citizens. When Poland disappeared from the map, we lost our freedom and we only got it back with independence. What would Europe be without the nations that make it up? Europe will only exist if its nations survive. Only as a community of nation states in solidarity and respectful of peculiarities, the European Union will retain the necessary political and moral strength to confront Russian imperialism and its “red tsars”. And other challenges await us. The balance of power in the world could change before our eyes. Especially in such turbulent times, we must consciously and responsibly shape our own future.
This is precisely the legacy of the May 3 Constitution that we must never forget.
Text published jointly with the Polish monthly magazine “Wszystko co najważniejsze” as part of a historical project with the Institute of National Memory and the Polish National Foundation.
* Mateusz Morawiecki is the Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland. He was a member of the team that negotiated the terms of Poland’s accession to the European Union. He graduated in History from the University of Wrocław, graduated in Business Administration from the Wrocław Polytechnic University and Central Connecticut State University.
I am Jack Morton and I work in 24 News Recorder. I mostly cover world news and I have also authored 24 news recorder. I find this work highly interesting and it allows me to keep up with current events happening around the world.