Filled with the joy of spring, on Monday we celebrated an important Polish holiday dating back to the eighteenth century. It marks the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution of 3 May 1791 — Europe’s first and the world’s second modern act of this type and a truly momentous piece of legislation. Its adoption by the Great Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in Warsaw was a historic breakthrough.
The legacy of the Constitution — its idea of a political system as well as its liberating and democratic message — makes an important contribution to European heritage. The 230th anniversary of the enactment of the Constitution should be an inspiration for the whole of Europe today.
Great constitutional acts often result from political or cultural crises that require careful reflection on the course of events. It takes great skill to reform wisely rather than destroy everything based on utopian ideas divorced from the realities of history. A new order cannot be decreed arbitrarily on paper; it must be derived from authentic human experiences, desires and aspirations.
Enemies of freedom decided that the Constitution of 3 May posed a threat to their interests
The world’s oldest, extant written constitution, adopted in the United States of America in 1787, is a good example of a successful combination of visionary outlook and realism as a response to the challenges of history. The creators of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s Constitution of 3 May likewise grounded their plans for reform in a specific political and social context. The Act they drafted proved to be a well-chosen cure for the ailments of their Republic too. Its aim was to strengthen the rights and freedoms of citizens as well as the governability and the stability of the state. It was designed to make the state strong enough to be independent and to successfully resist hostile activities of neighbouring powers seeking to dominate it.
The Constitution of 3 May shows that Central and Eastern Europe, the Republic of the Polish Eagle and Lithuanian Pahonia, home to many nations and cultures, birthed solutions which were modern, visionary and pioneering. Ignorance of this history should be an indictment of the people who don’t know anything about it, and not an excuse for those people today to sneer at countries they don’t like.
This anniversary is a good time to recount our long traditions of democracy and parliamentarianism
This week’s anniversary is a good opportunity to recount our long and glorious political traditions of democracy and parliamentarianism that represent an important part of our identity. The republican traditions, inspired by the achievements of ancient Rome and Greece, were present in Poland as early as the fourteenth century. Granted in 1430, neminem captivabimus (“we shall not arrest anyone without a court verdict”), the privilege of the Polish nobility, preceded by far the English Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. And the 1505 nihil novi sine communi consensu act (“nothing new without common consent”) prohibited the monarch from passing any laws without the parliament’s approval. From 1573, Members of the nobility elected Polish kings in universal and free elections. The Warsaw Confederation of 1573 is a paragon of religious tolerance rightly extolled as such to this day. Indeed, the very founding of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569 — a common state of Poles and Lithuanians established as a voluntary, equal union — was an extraordinary phenomenon in the Europe of that time.
And so the Constitution of 3 May — changing the eighteenth-century Republic into a constitutional monarchy based on the separation of powers and guaranteeing legal protection to citizens — was a logical continuation of our traditions. It built on what worked, respecting the past in order to build for the future.
Enemies of freedom decided that the modern, liberal Constitution of 3 May posed a threat to their interests. Absolutist, imperial Russia, supported by Prussia, started a war against the Constitution and they tried their best to destroy its legacy. Nonetheless, the work accomplished by the Constitution lived on. Future generations, in our long years of suppression, carried with them the memory of our pioneering, reforming political system. This great upsurge of thought and spirit aimed at a much-needed modernisation based on the most noble and universal of values.
The 230th anniversary of the Constitution of 3 May marks an important day for Poles, Lithuanians and all the nations of Central and Eastern Europe that contributed to the achievements of the former Republic. I am convinced that today we can all draw on the ideas that founded the Constitution of 3 May and on its legacy. Its principle, All power in civil society should be derived from the will of the people, should be a source of constant inspiration for us all today. The Constitution also combined tradition with modernity and Enlightenment ideas with Christian values, namely respect for human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity. They are an axiological beacon that we must never lose sight of.
Andrzej Duda is President of the Republic of Poland
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