In order to understand the revolutionary nature of the 3rd of May Constitution, it is necessary to explore the events that proceeded its creation. In the 1750’s the Polish Commonwealth was the most chaotic and backward state in Europe. Forty years later it was the most progressive, its King the toast of French Revolutionaries, and its constitution held up as an example by liberals at Westminster and Washington. This transformation was amazing and few people could have suspected the possibility.
The downfall of Poland began with the reign of the King Augustus III, the elector of Saxony, when Poland became an almost anarchic state. The proverb for this era reads “With the King from Saxony, you can eat, drink, and loosen your belt (“Za Krola Sasa, jedz, pij i popuszczaj pasa”). It reflects the situation perfectly. The Polish magnates took over the power into their hands and the King lost almost all of his influence. Of course, they looked after their own interests and not for the good of the nation. Money was lavishly spent on banquets, drinking-bouts and other amusements. There was an overall disgust with any sort of education. And, the overall standards of living of the Polish peasants were miserable. Another factor that added to the disorganization was the existence of the liberum veto, a custom that gave power to any deputy to impose his veto and adjourn the Diet. Disorder, bigotry, and sheer ignorance combined to create an attitude which praised anarchy and substituted drink for thought The inequality and corruption in the Polish nation was pitiful, and the country appeared to be quite moribund.
In the year of 1763, King Augustus died and left the country with the dilemma of electing a new King. The original candidate for the King was Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, the last descendant of the Jagiellonian dynasty, but he had grown up without ambition, and preferred books to politics. With Russia’s great influence of force and bribes, on September 6th, 1764, a new king was elected, Stanislaw Antoni Poniatowski, an ex-lover of Empress Catherine of Russia, and he took the name Stanislaw II August . With this election a new era began. Winds of change were already whistling through the Convocation Seym, sitting under the Marshalcy of Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski. The Seym was confederated, which meant that it could pass legislation by majority vote. After hearing a visionary speech from Chancellor Andrzej Zamoyski decrying the dismal political, social and economic landscape, the Seym passed a number of measures. Majority voting was made necessary for seymiks, which was a small but important step into abolishing the veto altogether. Fiscal and military commissions were established. A national customs tariff was established and a project for municipal reform was commissioned from the Chancellor. Moreover, in the following year Chancellor Zamoyski proposed a project for constitutional reform.
The move evoked immediate respoonse from St. Petersburg and Berlin. Both governments were displeased with the reforms and demanded that the Confederated Seym was dissolved and the proposal withdrawn. Alarmed at the renewal taking place in Poland, the Empress Catherine of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia ignited a conflict among the Polish Seym members and the king, regarding religious minorities civil rights. Their plan succeeded and created a muddle among the conservative and progressive groups, and the king. In October of 1767, Russian troops assembled in the capital. The king was left with little room for action and decided to bow under the Russian demands and accepted the fice "eternal and invariable" principles, which Catherine then vowed to "protect in the name of Poland's liberties". These priniciples included: the free election of kings, the absolute rule of the veto, the right to renounce allegiance to the king, the szlachta's right exclusively to hold office and land and the landowner's power of life and death over his peasants, and they successfully blocked any possibility of reform.
However, not everyone agreed with the king's decision and many magnated were opposed to his "reasonable" actions. Copnsequently, on February 29th, 1768, the opposing magnates, such as members of the Pulaski, Potocki or Sapieha, families, formed a Confederation in a little town of Bar, in the Ukraine. Under the flag of the Confederacy of Bar, the conservative gentry, funded by the French, began a civil war in Poland and attempted to overthrow the king. They fought until 1772, and were finally defeated with Russian intervention.
This behavior left a rather unfavorable impression all over Europe of a dangerous and anarchic state of Poland. Little more was needed for the long-planned move of Russia, Prussia and Austria. On August 5th, 1772, the three eastern powers signed the First Partition treaty in St. Petersburg. It was justified on the grounds of continuing anarchy in Poland and the refusal of Poles to co-operate with the efforts of its neighbors to restore order. Altogether they occupied oer 30,000 square miles of Polish territory leaving Poland with only 74,000 square miles. Then, the three powers demanded that the Polish Seym ratify this takeover, with threats of further partitions otherwise. The weak king decided to yield to the foreign influnence and called the Seym into session on April 19, 1773. However, only 102 delegates attended, others refused being aware of the king's decision. Despite courageous protests, especially by Tadeusz Rejtan, the first Partition of Poland was ratified.
THE FIRST PARTITION OF POLAND
[May 3rd Constitution EN]
[May 3rd Constitution PL]
[Before the Constitution]