The background situation from which the Constitution arose:
The resurrected Poland – (by Franciszek Smuglewicz 1791)
These dreadful events disturbed those Poles who during these times attempted to create a new and improved Poland. They began a belated, yet genuine, effort at reform, and the next twenty years were to see a complete transformation. Fearing future exploitation from its neighbors, Poland mobilized its strenghts. Economic reforms such as building of factories, giving peasants new rights and formation of a new standing army, began. The Police department enforced new legislations, reorganised the administration of towns, and made its mark on everything from roads to prisons. A Permanent Council, which consisted of five departments, now ruled the country. Furthermore, the school system in the entire country was put under the direction of the National Commission of Education, the first such cabinet level department in the world. The most knowledgeable people in the country became the part of the Commissioner. With their influence they opened new schools in both the cities and the countryside, prepared a series of textbooks, introduced a uniform level of teaching, certified all teachers and provided scholarships for the needy students. Poland was ready for a major change.
In 1776, the king commissioned Andrzej Zamoyski to produce a new legal code for the Commonwealth. In nearly two years, a small group of collaborators along with Zamoyski, produced two toms of law, a proto-constitution. The Code affirmed royal power, made all officials answerable to the Seym, placed the clergy and their finances under state supervision and deprived the landless szlachta of many of their legal immunities. The document stirred up a great deal of controversy and it was held back by the reformers until the Seym of 1780, but it was nonetheless an important step.
Meanwhile, the attention of Prussia and Russia was focused on the war with the Turks and it gave Poland a chance to formulate the long-demanded constitution. The Polish Seym seized the opportunity and in 1778 began the "Great Seym" sessions, with double the normal representatives present. The 4-year Seym began to meet on October 6, 1788 meeting at normal 6 week sessions, with an extremely patriotic atmosphere. Stanislaw Malachowski was elected the chairman of the Great Seym, and two opposing factions arose within the Seym: the patriots, who wanted reform and end of the Russian dominance, and the "hetmani" who were opposed to internal change and wanted to remain under the Russian rule. In January 1789, the Seym abolished the Permenant Council and in March it imposed a tax of 10% on Szlachta and 20% on the clergy, the first ever direct taxation of this sort.
The constitution was carefully drafted during the next three years. The King invited Ignacy Potocki, Hugo Kollataj, Stanislaw Staszic and Stanislaw Malachowski to join him in drawing up the constitution. When the basic document was ready, a wider group of reformers were also invited to discuss it before the final version was fixed. A day was chosen when many deputies and senators would still be on their way back to the capital after Easter recess, unsuspecting of any important business. On May 3rd, 1791, 182 deputies were present in the chamber, 100 of them in secret. The king and the leaders made the supporters of the reform arrive early in the capital, to surprise the antagonists and to make it impossible for them to prevent passing the bill by force. The royal guards were positioned near the Royal Castle where the Seym gathered and half of Warsaw surrounded the royal castle expectantly. The proposed Constitution was read out and passed overwhelmingly; only 72 deputies opposed it. After 6 hours of heated discussion, the king swore the Constitution and then everybody passed to St. John's church for thanksgiving prayers and singing Te Deum laudamus. These events were accompanied by an enormous enthusiasm of the gathered crowds. On May 5, the Seym completed the formalities legalising the Constitution unanimously. It passed also the Declaration of the Gathered Estates (i.e. of the Seym) confirming the Bill on Government.
The Constitution of May 3 was composed of 11 articles. It centralized exectuive power into the hands of the King and five ministers appointed by him. It acknowldged Roman Catholicism as the predominant religion, but guranteed freedom to all religions. City dwellers were given the same rights as the nobleman: the right to own land, the right to judge's ruling before they could be jailed, the right to hold office in the civil service and to hold rank in the military, the right to representation in the Seym, and the right to vote on matters pertaining to cities. Serfdom was abolished and peasants were given legal and civil rights. The army was to increase to 100,000 men and permanent taxes of 10% on the nobility and 20% on the church were established. The Seym was to be composed of 2 houses, the House of Representatives and Senate, under the King's direction. Amendments to the constitution could be added every 25 years.
The whole country celebrated the ratification of the consitution and the events in Poland were hailed all over the world. The Constitution was translated and published in French and in English. Thomas Paine called the Constitution a great breakthrough. Edmund Burke declared that "so far as it had gone, it probably is the most pure and defacated public good which ever has been conferred on mankind". The Polish nation, regarded as incapable and weak, was able to carry out a revolution without a single drop of blood. The world was amazed and Poland celebrated with pride and glory.
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