Poland’s Constitution:
A Priceless Heritage of Humanitarianism
The Polish May 3 Constitution

The annual commemoration of Poland's May 3, 1791 Constitution, which signified the spiritual and moral renovation of the Polish nation after a period of stagnation caused by foreign influences under the Saxon kings, has become a proud and integral part of the civic and patriotic activities in many cities in this country and throughout the world.

To the Poles and their descendants, May 3rd is a national holiday for it bestows upon the Pole a priceless heritage of humanitarianism, tolerance and a democratic precept conceived at a time when most of Europe lived under the existence of unconditional power and tyranny exemplified by Prussia and Russia.

Poland's parliamentary system actually began at the turn of the 15th Century, but a series of defensive wars, internal stresses, outside influences, widespread permissiveness and excessive concern for the rights of dissent brought Poland to the brink of disaster and anarchy in the 18th Century. Urgently needed reforms became imperative.
The May 3rd, 1791 Constitution was the first liberal constitution in Europe and the second in the world, after the Constitution of the United States.

Following the American pattern it established three independent branches of government — executive, legislative and judiciary. Throughout the constitution runs philosophy of humanitarianism and tolerance including: perfect and entire liberty to all people; rule by majority; secret ballot at all elections; and religious freedom and liberty.
But, most importantly, the constitution abolished the one vote veto powers of individuals who would undermine proposals, for their own dubious reasons.

The constitution curtailed the executive power of the King and State council. It forbid them to contract public debts, to declare war, to conclude definitely any treaty, or any diplomatic act. It only allowed the Executive branch to carry on negotiations with foreign courts, always with reference to the Diet (Parliament).

In terms of democratic precepts, the May 3rd Constitution is a landmark event in the history of Central and Eastern Europe.
Among the authors of the Constitution were:

  • Ignacy Potocki, member of one of the most prominent families in the Royal Republic. He prepared the original draft of the Constitution.
  • Stanislaus Kostka Potocki, brother of Ignacy, statesman, famed orator, member of the Permanent Council of the Diet.
    The last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, patron of arts and sciences who, although lacking qualities of bold leadership, was one of the most enlightened monarchs in the annals of Europe.
  • Speaker of the Diet, Stanislaw Malachowski, known in the intellectual communities throughout Europe as "Polish Aristrides" for his erudition and abiding sense of justice.
  • Rev. Hugo Kollataj, founder of the Commission on Education which was, in fact, the first Ministry of Education in Europe.
    Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, adjutant of Kosciuszko, poet, writer and patriot who later visited the United States and was guest of Washington and Jefferson.
  • Most Rev. Adam Stanislaw Krasinski, Bishop of Podola and close ally of the Pulaski family.
    The Polish constitution was deemed too dangerous by the tyranny of absolutism still rampant in Europe. Thus Russia, Prussia and Austria decided to wipe out "the Polish cancer of freedom" from the face of the earth.
    In 1795 partitioned Poland ceased to exist as a state and in terms of national life. She lost the entire 19th century, being reborn in 1918 at the conclusion of World War I.

Between 1918 and 1939, the people of Poland were once again free to govern themselves and looked forward to a bright future.

That bright future, however, ended very abruptly with the beginning of World War II on September 1, 1939. Invaded by Nazi Germany from the west and communist Russia from the east seventeen days later, Poland could not withstand the strength of their combined forces. But Poland continued to fight on the Allied side with the hopes of regaining her newfound freedom. The end of the war, however, found Poland betrayed and under the communist yoke. The Polish government was based on principles far different from those of the Constitution of 1791 as were the other countries in Eastern and Central Europe dominated by the Soviet Union.

The spirit of the Constitution did not die and in 1980, the flame of democracy arose again under the banner of Solidarity. The Solidarity honored the memory of the “Bill on Government” and after the totalitarian system was overthrown in the parliamentary elections of June 1989, the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, at the request of the Senate on April 6, 1990, reestablished the May 3 Constitution Day

Making Fellow Americans Aware of May 3rd
by Robert Strybe

Most cities could not even consider celebrating the Third of May, Polish Constitution day, with the huge parade for which Chicago’s Polonia has long been known. However, in communities big and small, various projects can be launched to make this important Polish occasion better known to the general community. Whatever is chosen, wide publicity is a key element. Every available opportunity to enhance public awareness of the Constitution of Mary 3rd, 1791 and its anniversary celebrations in all available media.

Why is it important?: People of Polish ancestry are proud of the May 3rd Constitution, Europe's first written constitution, because it was a document far ahead of its times. It created a constitutional monarchy with three distinct branches of government and extended rights to all social classes. But such progressive reforms frightened Poland’s autocratcially ruled neighbors—Russia, Prussia and Austria—who saw to it that the Constitution would never be put into practice by carving Poland up between them. For 123 years of foreign occupation (1792-1918) and again from 1939 to 1989, the Third of May Constitution kept the Polish spirit alive as a symbol of freedom, generated healthy pride among people of Polish ancestry everywhere and inspired them to fight to regain their lost independence.

Enhancing the public awareness: One way to help make the general community aware of this event is to place an ad (full page if possible) in your local daily newspaper, community weekly or non-Polonian publication. This could be anything from be a brief explanation of the May 3rd holiday or simply the statement: “May 3rd is Polish Constitution Day”. Graphic symbols might include the Polish eagle or the crossed flags of the US and Poland. Nowadays, the Internet is a good medium to reach people with that message. The Internet or a billboard along a heavily traveled street is another possibility.

Essay contest: This competition should be announced well in advance so the winner or winners can be announced at the Third of May celebration. It can be held on a local, county, state, regional or national level, and be organized by schools, organizations, parishes or other institutions. Topics can range from the rather stereotypical “What Poland's May 3rd Constitution means to me” to essays focusing on some historical event connected with that document or leading personalities of the day. Attractive prizes, (Polish cultural goods, a free trip to Poland, etc.) will generate interest in the contest and publicize Polish Constitution Day.
Poster Contest: This can be held instead of or in addition to the essay contest (above). Its subject can be a Polish historical or cultural personality, a Polish historic scene, landmark, landscape, symbol or patriotic theme.


Polish Constitution Day Mass: A Mass on or around May 3, which is also the feast of Our Lady Queen of Poland, can be held in a church or outdoors (msza polowa - field mass) and attended by local dignitaries, veterans’ groups and other uniformed units (scouts, police, firemen, etc.), color guard, folk-costumed youth, representatives of local Polish organizations and other ethnic groups. The liturgy could include the blessing of banners, a sermon intertwining Polish religious and patriotic themes and the singing of Poland’s religious anthem, “Boze cos Polske”, and its national anthem, “Jeszcze Polska nie zginela”, balancing them out with “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

Proclamation: Polonian groups in areas having a sizable Polish population often strive to get a high-ranking public official (governor, county executive or mayor) to issue a proclamation marking Polish Constitution Day. This is a good way to call public attention to this occasion, because a public proclamation by a major official also attracts media coverage.

Flag-Raising Ceremony: A relatively simple and easy way of marking Polish Constitution day is to hold a flag-raising ceremony. The flagpoles in front of the state house, city hall or other major public building are a good place to hold such an observance. The presence of public officials, uniformed units and a color guard, a gun salute and the playing of the Polish and U.S, national anthems will enhance the occasion. If a Polish Constitution Day proclamation has been issued (see preceding entry), this is the ideal place to have it read out.

Parade: In some cities, the May 3rd holiday has been marked with parades. The best-known is held in Chicago, comprises 170 or more units and attracts 300,000 or more spectators and comprised different units. Floats sport Polish emblems and the logos of Polonian organizations. Marchers representing different Pol-Am organizations, folk-costumed Polish dancers, marching bands, uniformed formations and mounted units all add splendor to the event.

Exhibition: An exhibition of documents, art reproductions and artifacts connected with the Third of May Constitution as well as other traditional Polish emblems, symbols, uniforms, historical mementos, folkcrafts, etc. is a fitting way to commemorate this occasion
Cultural Program: The personalities, events or general atmosphere of the May 3rd Constitution or the epoch in which it emerged can be highlighted by a play, narration, historical slide show or multi-media presentation incorporating all of the above. The appropriate music would include patriotic songs such as Oginski’s Polonaise “Pozegnanie Ojczyzny”, the “Krakowiak Kosynierow”, “Warszawianka”, “Mazurek Trzeciego Maja” or excerpts from Boguslawski’s opera “Krakowiacy i Gorale.” A local college or university might be a good venue for a scholarly symposium, panel discussion or lecture devoted to the May 3rd Constitution.

Constitution Day Fest: May 3rd could provide the occasion for a family-oriented Polish festival or picnic so popular across Polonia with music, dancing, ethnic foods, Polish craft items, souvenirs, sporting contests, games of skill and chance and other amusements.
Constitution Day Marathon: A marathon race to mark the anniversary of the May 3rd Constitution is likely to win considerable popularity, especially in areas where such events are not normally held. This could be yet another way to shine the spotlight on an anniversary that is still hardly a household word in mainstream America.

Constitution Day Banquet: One way to keep in the spirit of the occasion would be to serve the kind of foods the framers of the May 3rd Constitution as well as Kosciuszko and Pulaski enjoyed. This might include boiled beef in horseradish sauce, Hussar-style beef roast, game dishes, mushrooms and yeast-raised cakes flavored with poppyseeds, fruit, nuts or white cheese. Hungarian Tokay and Polish mead (honey wine) would round out the menu. Sample menus of the period are found in “Polish Holiday Cookery” (Hippocrene, New York 2003).

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