The Polish Constitution of 3 May was adopted 230 years ago. Thomas Jefferson, who then served as an American envoy in Paris and later became the President of the USA, stated that there were only three constitutional acts that deserved recognition: those of the United States, Poland and France. The introduction of the May Constitution was one of the most momentous events in the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and an attempt at defending its independence. Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived. In 1792, a confederation of conservatives opposing all reform appealed to Empress Catherine II to intervene. The Russian army entered Poland, and the end of the Commonwealth drew near.
3 May 1791 – Sejm Proceedings under Military Escort
Faced with the progressive limitation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s sovereignty (following the first partition in 1772) and a growing dependence on Russia, patriots started calling for reform. A chance to introduce them arrived during the Great Sejm (1788-1792). The confederated Sejm (which could not be broken off) culminated in the adoption of the Constitution of 3 May 1791.
The legislation was passed in a controversial manner, in circumstances that could be likened to staging a coup. The proceedings were held two days before the planned date, thus a number of MPs and senators (including many conservative) were not in Warsaw at the time. The army surrounded the Royal Castle, where the Sejm congregated, in order to quell any possible unrest. Military men disguised as valets guarded the members of the progressive patriotic faction. Marshal of the Sejm Stanisław Małachowski was given special protection.
The session was heated from the very beginning. Everyone was aware of the gravity of the moment. And although patriots had the advantage, their opponents did not want to surrender without a fight. Member of Parliament Jan Suchorzewski, who opposed the reforms, even proclaimed that he would sooner kill his son than let him live under the oppression that the country was about to experience.
Amidst noise and nearly theatrical scenes, the king and the Marshal of the Sejm strove to have the Constitutional act ratified. The draft for the document had been prepared in secret by a team which included King Stanisław August, Stanisław Małachowski, Ignacy Potocki, Hugo Kołłątaj and others, aided by the royal secretary Scipione Piattoli.
Changes Introduced by the May Constitution
The Constitution comprised eleven articles. It acknowledged the Roman Catholic creed as dominant, but guaranteed the freedom of practicing other religions. The nobility was to keep their privileges and prerogatives, with the exception of the infamous ‘liberum veto’, which allowed any single member of parliament to cause an immediate termination of the ongoing session. The Constitution also upheld the provisions of the Free Royal Cities Act adopted on 18 April 1791, which granted townspeople the right to send their representatives to the Sejm, guaranteed their personal freedom and allowed them to purchase land estates and hold public office, thus offering a path to social advancement to a substantial section of the society. The issue of the peasantry was also tackled. While not granting peasants any specific rights or freedoms, the Constitution was the first act to acknowledge them as a part of the civic community, alongside the nobility and townsfolk.
The Commonwealth was to be governed in accordance with the principle of the separation of power, divided into the legislative (the Sejm), the executive (the king and the ‘Guardians of the Law’) and the judiciary branch. A bicameral parliament was established; it was to convene on a biannual basis. Laws would be passed by a majority vote. It was also expected that a Constitutional Sejm would be held every twenty five years, to introduce necessary amendments to the Basic Law.
The king held executive power together with ‘Guardians of the Law’, i.e. his government. Aside from the monarch and the primate, the body was to comprise five ministers, responsible for Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs, Police, Treasury and War. The ‘Guardians’ were appointed by the king. The Constitution also abolished royal elections in favour of hereditary monarchy. After the death of Stanisław August, the throne was to pass to the House of Wettin. If the king happened to be underage, the ‘Guardians of the Law’ were to act as regents, led by the queen or, in her absence, by the primate of the country.Lastly, the Constitution introduced changes to the judicial system. Courts of first instance would be established in all voivodeships, lands and counties. The choice of judges lay with local assemblies (sejmiki). Additionally, each province was to have a Supreme Tribunal, which served as the court of appeal.
The Dutch Medal Presented to the King of Poland
The adoption of the Constitution was an event that reverberated both within the country and worldwide. Such a momentous occasion had to be commemorated in a fitting manner – and, indeed, it was, not only by publishers and artists producing propagandist prints, but also by medallist.
A unique work of the art of medal-making was created in Amsterdam in 1791. Rich in symbolic depictions, the coin was minted to honour King Stanisław August Poniatowski, and was presented to him as a gift. The donators were citizens of the United Provinces (the Netherlands), by the names of Gülcher and Mülder. A Warsaw-based banker Piotr Blank acted as an intermediary, making sure that the king received the gift.
The donators enlisted the services of an excellent Dutch medallist Johann Georg Holtzhey (1729-1808), master of the mint in Amsterdam and Utrecht.
Holtzhey designed the obverse of the medal to feature an elegant royal portrait of Stanisław August. In an interesting propagandist move, he chose to adorn the king’s head with oak leaves instead of the more typical laurel. In Ancient Roman tradition, an oak wreath was granted as a reward for extraordinary civic merit. Aside from the king’s customary titles (“Stanisław August, z Bożej łaski król Polski i wielki książę litewski” [Stanisław August, by the Grace of God King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania]), the legend around the rim of the coin included the phrase “PATRIAE PARENS” [Father of the Homeland].
The main motif on the reverse is the quartered coat of arms of the Commonwealth (with the Poniatowski family crest – Ciołek), depicted on a globe-shaped field, topped with a mural crown and a Christogram (to signify religious tolerance). Beside it, a winged genius holds a Phrygian cap (a symbol of freedom) in his right hand, and an olive branch and a caduceus in his left. The broken shackles depicted at the genius’ feet represent foreign violence.
The background features sunbeams and the eye of Providence keeping watch over the citizens’ endeavours. To the left of the coat of arms, the medallist depicted a fasces, scales and the sword of justice, to represent fair and equal judgment for everyone in the country. The surrounding inscription reads: “TERRORE LIBERA” [Free of Fear]; the one beneath the main motif is: “EX PERHONORIFICIO COMITIORUM DECRETO D.III MAY MDCCXCI” [By Honourable Decree of the Assembly on 3 May 1791].
Treason at Targowica
The May Constitution was a short-lived act. In 1792, opponents of the reforms formed a conspiracy that led to a Russian intervention. A group of magnates, among them General of Artillery of the Crown Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki, Great Crown Hetman Franciszek Branicki and Field Hetman Seweryn Rzewuski, met at Targowica in Ukraine to establish a confederation that would defend the freedoms they believed Constitution to violate.
Their actions were enthusiastically welcomed by the Russian Empire, which – having signed a peace treaty with Ottoman Turkey – sought to reinstate its weakened influence over Poland. Empress Catherine II happily assumed the role of ‘protector of freedom’ and deployed nearly 100,000 troops to Poland to “aid the common cause of restoring to the Commonwealth its rights and privileges”. This was the beginning of the Russo-Polish War of 1792, a conflict that would hasten the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
These painful events were commemorated on a medal coin, the so-called Targowica thaler, issued in 1793 at the initiative of the confederates. Unusually, the obverse did not feature the likeness of the king, only a propagandist inscription glorifying the ‘patriotic’ deeds of the confederation: ”Obywatelom, których miłość kraju powodowała, że starali się bronić wolności polskiej, zniszczonej przez spisek z dnia 3 maja 1791 r. – Rzeczpospolita powstająca” [To the citizens whom love of their country prompted to defend Polish freedom, destroyed by the conspiracy of 3 May 1791 – the Commonwealth Rising]. The message was additionally reinforced by the wording of the inscription around the rim: “Wdzięczność współobywateli przykładem dla potomności” [In gratitude to fellow citizens to set an example for posterity].
The reverse also differed from that of standard thaler coins. Instead of the coat of arms, it depicted the following inscription: “Postanowieniem Rzeczpospolitej skonfederowanej w dniu 5 grudnia 1792 r. za panowania Stanisława Augusta” [By decree of the Confederated Commonwealth on 5 December 1792, during the reign of Stanisław August].
The Grodno Sejm, the last session of parliament in the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, held in 1793 with ‘encouragement’ from the Russian army, ratified the second partition of the country and nullified the May Constitution. The final attempt at saving Poland’s independence came in 1794, in the form of an uprising led by general Tadeusz Kościuszko. The insurrection was suppressed by Russian forces; and one year later Poland ultimately disappeared from the map of Europe.
Marcin Brzezinski is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism and Political Science at the University of Warsaw. He is interested in the history of Polish aristocracy and old photography. Author and co-author of several books, including: “Adam and Jadwiga Czartoryski. Photographs and Memories” (2013), “Stanisław Kazimierz Kossakowski. I love photography” (2019). Co-creator of historical exhibitions, including: “For here we do not have an enduring city – a story about palaces on the Royal Route in Warsaw” (2010). He has been cooperating with the National Treasury (Skarbnica Narodowa) for several years. The area of his numismatic interest is primarily historical Polish coins.