Today, May 3, 2017 marks the 226th anniversary of the second-oldest constitution in the world—the Polish Constitution of 1791. Its emphasis on achieving more equal rights and protections under the law for all Poles preceded that of any other major country, except for the United States.
The constitution, among other things, granted townspeople the same rights as nobles, gave legal protection to peasants and provided for a national army to protect this First Polish Republic.
Tragically, this historic document was short-lived. For decades, Russia had taken advantage of Poland’s internal weaknesses, essentially turning the Polish government into its puppet state. The Polish King, Stanisław August Poniatowski, had even been a lover of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, and owed his power to her. For the Russians, then, this new constitution was seen as a revolt that needed to be squashed.
As a result, the Russian army, in concert with the treacherous Targowica Confederation, a group of Poles loyal to the Russian Empress, descended upon Poland in the Russo-Polish War of 1792-1793. Despite a victory at Zieleńce on June 18th, 1792, the Poles were numerically outmatched and defeated. The Polish king, who had briefly asserted himself, recoiled. Between June and October 1793, Russia forced the Poles to rescind the constitution.
After this monumental defeat, Poland’s last stand came with the bold insurrection led by Tadeusz Kościuszko against the Russians in 1794. The uprising had some early successes, such as the famed Battle of Racławice, where an army of Polish serfs armed with scythes defeated a technologically and numerically superior Russian force. Ultimately though, the Russians, together with the Prussians, brought the full strength of their empires to bear upon Poland and destroyed her. The consequence was the third partition of 1795 and the end of an independent Poland until 1918.
The May 3rd Polish constitution, then, was like a flickering candle flame in the dark and windy night of the partitions. Although that spark of enlightenment was quickly extinguished, it burned a permanent imprint on the Polish national consciousness and continues to be a source of inspiration and pride for Poles today.
For it was those democratic ideals that gave Poland something to fight and die for in the coming centuries. It was that affirmation of Poland’s unique identity and existence that kept its glorious past in the hearts and minds of its citizens, no matter where life took them. Finally, it was that memory of what Poland could accomplish that instilled hope and faith in Poland’s future survival.
Happy Polish Constitution Day. Long live Poland!