When on 3 May 1791 the Four-Year Sejm also called the Great Sejm adopted The Government Act of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth later known as the Constitution of 3 May, the Polish-Lithuanian state became the Europe’s first and the world’s second, after the United States, that passed the founding law. For its time, it was a progressive and bold legal act which initiated a number of reforms. Edmund Burke – an Irish philosopher and one of the leading politicians of modern conservatism called 3 May Constitution “the purest public good ever given to humanity.”
This year Poland celebrates the 230th anniversary of adopting the Constitution of 3 May by the last King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Stanisław August Poniatowski. The Constitution sought to implement a more effective constitutional monarchy, introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility, and placed the peasants under the government’s protection, mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. It banned pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the Liberum Veto.
The 3 May Constitution also introduced the principle of the tripartite separation of power, and reformed the existing political system ensuring more equal treatment of all nationalities within the Commonwealth. The Constitution also expressed the nation’s patriotic will to defend Poland’s independence following its first partition by Austria, Prussia and Russia in 1772.
The Commonwealth’s neighbors reacted with hostility to the adoption of the Constitution. King Frederick William II broke Prussia’s alliance with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He joined with Catherine, the Empress of Russia, and the Targowica Confederation of anti-reform Polish magnates to defeat the Commonwealth in the Polish-Russian War of 1792.
Thus, the ambitious reform plans which had meant to be implemented based on the new constitution were shattered. As a legal act, the Constitution of 3 May formally ceased to be in force in November 1793 by virtue of the resolution by the Sejm that was summoned under the dictate of Russia and Prussia in Grodno. On the same year, the two states partitioned Poland for the second time.
The Polish-Lithuanian state disappeared from Europe’s map for over 120 years after the 3rd Partition in 1795 conducted by Austria, Prussia and Russia. This act, violating all principles of international law, was erased only after the World War I, when Poland and Lithuania regained independence as two sovereign states.
When Poland regained its independence, the anniversary of adopting the 3 May Constitution was celebrated as a national holiday, since 1919. From 1939, under German and Soviet occupation as well as under the rule of communist authorities in Poland, the 3 May Day holiday was banned, but most Poles continued to observe it. In the sovereign Republic of Poland, May 3 has been restored as a National Holiday since 1990.