3rd May Constitution

by Andrzej Kanthak, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to South Africa and Dainius Junevičius, Ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania to  South Africa

3 May 2021

Europe’s oldest constitution sees Poland and Lithuania commemorating 230th anniversary of their Commonwealth constitution adoption on 3 May 2021.

For 226 years (1569 - 1795), both Poland and Lithuania formed a common state known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In sixteenth and early seventeenth century the Commonwealth experienced its Golden Age, at the time it was the largest state in Europe.

Since the end of the 17th century, the political and economic power of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth began its fast and deep decline. The Commonwealth, surrounded by enemies, was unable to respond to the aggression of its neighbours. The destruction of the country and its economy was also related to political turmoil and the degradation of the political and social institution of the Commonwealth.

A century later, the Commonwealth was in a profound internal political crisis. The executive power was unable to respond to the foreign neighbouring countries which strengthened their spheres of influence. In the middle of the 18th century the formal ruler of the Commonwealth was The King of Poland who was also the Great Prince of Lithuania. However, the most influential figure on the political scene and de facto ruler, was the Ambassador of the Tsar of Russia in Warsaw.

The deplorable situation of the Commonwealth consolidated a movement demanding reforms. This movement was part of the splendid century of enlightenment and of its philosophical and scientific achievements. The reformers were influenced by the French encyclopaedists and by the American Revolution.

The First Partition of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772 gave the partitioning occupants: Russia, Prussia and Austria control over 30% of the Commonwealth territory and half of its population.

The loss was a profound shock but also produced a new, strong impulse for the reformist movement. The following twenty years the Commonwealth witnessed a far-reaching transformation and reforms in education, infrastructure, industry and in parts of the political system. The political reforms were blocked by the three neighbouring powers which were interested in maintaining the Commonwealth in a state of anarchy.

On the 3rd of May 1791 the revived Parliament adopted the historical Commonwealth Constitution, considered Europe’s first constitution and world’s second (after the USA). It represented a new, bold, moral idea based on enlightenment values.

Article V of the Constitution reads: All authority in human society takes its origin in the will of the people.

In other words, it means that instead of advancing the interests of the few, the government must put the nation first. How relevant and weighty is this statement today.

The new constitution of the Commonwealth was not by any means a radical document. It combined monarchic republic with a transparent division of executive, legislative and judiciary powers.

The monarch was supposed to rule with the assistance of a government composed of five ministers. The constitution introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility and provided government’s protection over peasants. It was a political compromise but also a very modern solution which changed the political system of the Commonwealth to give a strong chance for its political and economic reconstruction.

The Commonwealth neighbours, especially Russia, reacted with fierce hostility to the adoption of the Constitution. The Second and Third Partitions (1793 and 1795) ultimately ended Poland and Lithuanian’s sovereign existence until the end of World War I in 1918.

Over the 123 years of occupation the Constitution of 3 May helped to keep alive Polish and Lithuanian aspirations for restoration of their sovereignty. The memory of the Constitution and reform movements remained an inspiration for few generations and for heroic fighters for independence like Marshall Joseph Piłsudski, who in 1918, in the aftermath of the war and revolution, when the three partitioning powers were fatally weakened, helped to make Poland’s independence possible.

In essence, the Constitution of 3 May opened a new historical perspective for the states of Lithuania and Poland. In Lithuania, this perspective developed during the 19th century, at first, timidly later with greater alacrity. With the proclamation of the restoration of an independent State of Lithuania on 16th February 1918, it was finally translated into reality.

Today both Poland and Lithuania as sovereign states enjoy good neighbourhood and membership in the European Union.