How Europe destroyed the first European constitutional democracy and wiped its memory from history
Updated: May 3, 2021
On 3rd May 1791, the first written Constitution to be adopted in Europe by a major European country, was passed in Warsaw by the Polish - Lithuanian commonwealth national Sejm (Parliament).
The constitution was a milestone in the history of law and the rise of democracy. It was the first to follow the 1788 ratification of the United States Constitution. It enfranchised the bourgeoisie, established the separation of the three branches of government, and eliminated the abuses of the powerful members of the nobility, the "magnates". Even though the constitution did not emancipate the serfs, it did place the Commonwealth's peasantry under the protection of the national law—a first step toward enfranchising the country's largest and most oppressed social class, and on 1794 with Tadeusz Kosciuszko's Proclamation of Polaniec, all peasents were freed from serfdom.
A painting depicting the 3 may constitution being proclaimed in Warsaw.
Origins of Polish democratic constitutionalism can be traced back to the 13th century, at which time the government by consensus and representation was already well established in the young Polish state. The emergence of parliamentary bodies, the "Sejm" and "Sejmiki", soon followed.
The first democratically elected head of state in history was Henryk Walezy in 1573, who was the first elected king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth following the union of Poland and Lithuania in 1569. The next head of state in history to be voted into office in a popular elections would be George Washington, and that event would take place 216 years after the first Polish- Lithuanian election. In fact, there was even a higher voters tunrout at the Polish-lithuanian elections, where only nobles could vote (around 40,000 people) than at the first US elctions, where only white male land owenrs - the US version of nobility - were allowed to vote.
A painting depicting the first royal Polish-lithuanian elections.
By 17th century, Polish emerging legal and governmental tradition was characterized by the development of parliamentarism and a system of checks and balances on the power of the state. The state and the elected king were also limited due to decentralization and the power of the "Sejm" or parliament. The idea was that the state was was a "contractual state", represented by the importance of written documents such as "Henrician Articles" and the "Pacta Conventa"; and that the concepts of individual liberties and the protection of those liberties were owed by the elected monarch to his subjects.
The Polish - Lithuanian Commonwealth's despotic backwards neighbors, namely Russia, Prussia and Austria, felt increasignly threatened by the commonwealth's representational institutions, democratic elections and by the adoption of the 3 may constitution. All three conspired together to partition and destroy the commonwealth, and erase its memory, its history, culture and democratic traditions from history.
From 1792 they attacked and invaded the commonwealth until it was completely partitioned among them and was officially destroyed in 1795.
A caricature depicting the leaders of Austria, Prussia and Russia dividing Poland up.
Prussia, Russia and Austria also made a secret pact among themselves, where they all agreed to do all they can to erase and remove the name and memory of the commonwealth, its constituition and other achievements from history and the public's general knowledge. One can argue today that they succeed in that, because barring the people who live in Poland and Lithuania, very few people outside those countris are aware of the commonwealth's remarkable history or in fact about the very existence of the commonwealth. Bibliography: Norman Davies, "God's playground". Adam Zamoyski, "The Polish way".