Constitution of May 3, 1791

Constitution of May 3, 1791
Alexandra Lisiecki

5740Holy Mass, festivals, patriotic assemblies, colorful parades, banquets, flag-raisings, wreath-layings, exhibitions at schools and public libraries, concerts, lectures and symposia were just some of the ways that I observed Poland’s  national holiday of the May 3rd Constitution Day while being a master’s student of the Jagiellonian University of Krakow.  But what exactly is this holiday? And why should a fifth generation Polish-American, such as myself, even bother to honor an event that happened over two hundred years ago in what seems for most to be a far-off and distant land? The answer is simple – PRIDE.

Poland has an immensely glorious past. Once a multi-national Commonwealth stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Poland was one of the most powerful countries in Europe in its heyday. May 3rd Constitution Day has traditionally been considered to be one of the most significant patriotic Polish celebrations of the year. This day commemorates the signing the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, which is recognized universally as Europe’s first and the world’s second “modern codified national constitution.” Interestingly enough, it shares some common features with the Constitution of the United States and Poland’s reforming King Stanisław August Poniatowski said that the Polish Constitution was “founded principally on those of England and the United States and …. adapted as much as possible to the local and particular circumstances of the country.”

Although not soon enough to prevent the Partitions, the Constitution of May 3, 1791 was designed specifically in order for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to remedy its long-standing political defects brought on by the centuries of the nobleman’s proverbial “Golden Freedom.”  Some of its other features were:  establishment a constitutional monarchy and restoration of a hereditary throne (so neighboring countries could not buy royal elections); recognition of religious freedom and property rights; and the extension of civic rights and the franchise of the nobility (szlachta) to the townspeople, and the placement of the peasants under government protection. Most importantly, the Constitution banned the very controversial liberum veto by which ONE deputy could block legislation passed by the Sejm (i.e. Polish parliament).


Unfortunately the Constitution came too late. It was in effect for only a year, before being overthrown during the Russo-Polish War of 1792 by Russian armies allied with the Targowica Confederation. However, it was still highly regarded and Edmund Burke described it “the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time… Stanislaus II has earned a place among the greatest kings and statesmen in history.” It was declared a holiday on May 5, 1791, but was banned three times i.e. during the partitions of Poland,  during World War II by Nazi and Soviet occupiers, as well as, after 1946 by the Communist People’s Republic of Poland (where it was renamed, The Day of the Democratic Party). Constitution Day was officially restored in 1990 after the fall of Communism. The Catholic Church celebrates the May Third anniversary as a Feast Day of Our Lady Queen of Poland.

On May 2, 2010, the J. Dabrowski Polish Language School and Polish Mission organized the annual Detroit May 3rd Constitution Day commemoration on the beautiful campus of Orchard Lake Schools. The event was hosted by the very enigmatic director of the “Polish Mission” Marcin Chumiecki. The celebration was commenced with the angelic singing of the Polish and American national anthems by Krystyna Wallag. Present as always, were members of the Polish Scouting Organization (Zwiazek Harcerstwa Polskiego), as well as, representatives of the numerous Michigan Polish organizations such as; Friends of Polish Art and Polish American Congress. An insightfully written and beautifully presented patriotic speech was delivered by Wladyslaw Bankowski. It moved the hearts of all there present. This was followed by a heartrending poem Katyn recited by Paulina Kowalczyk. A moment of silence was then observed for the victims of the April 10th tragedy of in Smolensk. Next, an endearing performance titled Konstytucja 3 Maja was presented by the children of J. Dabrowski Polish Language School; followed by two stirring performances by the Polanie Dance Ensemble of the Polonez and Kujawiak dances. The biggest “crowd pleaser” was undeniably the violin performance of Tomasz Mikulski, with his unforgettable presentation of Witaj Majowa Jutrzenko, Polonez 1791, Bartoszu, and Poloniz Oginskiego. The guest of honor was Andrzej “Rocky” Raczkowski, runner of U.S. Congress in Michigan’s 9th District, who took time out of his very busy schedule in order to deliver an inspiring speech reiterating the importance of the May 3rd Constitution and the significance of Katyn. His presence was greatly appreciated by all those in attendance. The celebration concluded with a Kawiarenka where all were able to enjoy refreshments. Afterward many attended the Polish Mass in the Shrine Chapel which was accompanied by the lovely singing of the Filaret choir.