The Constitution of May the 3rd

The Constitution of May the 3rd is the second in the world and the first one in Europe. Nowadays – one of the most important symbols of Poland’s independence.
However, the Government Act is not only a symbol, it is a document that is a valuable historical source, an important legal text, and also a historical event that is so groundbreaking that all of Europe once proclaimed it a revolution.

Genesis of the Constitution of May the 3rd

So called Basic Law (Ustawa Zasadnicza), adopted on May 3, 1791, was above all a very innovative attempt to save the independence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was not a fully sovereign state since the end of the 17th century, it was under Russia’s protectorate (which was to guarantee its freedom and security). In the Russian country divided into supporters and opponents of the protectorate, the first partition of Poland became a breakthrough, which exposed Poland’s weakness and caused a kind of breakthrough in thinking about state reforms. A favorable situation for the introduction of reforms appeared when Russia, which was keeping a real protectorate over the Commonwealth, was embroiled in wars with Turkey and Sweden. Austria supported Russia against Turkey, and Prussia took an openly reluctant attitude towards Russia. There was a real chance to regain sovereignty.

Provisions of the Constitution of May the 3rd

In the first place, the Sejm took full power in the state and began an attempt to reform the system. To avoid breaking the meeting, it was transformed into a confederation headed by King Stanisław August Poniatowski himself. During the deliberations of the Great Sejm, the most important representatives of the reform camp met in secret: Stanisław Małachowski, Hugo Kołłątaj, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Ignacy Potocki and Tadeusz Matuszewicz. Over time, their number reached 60 people having the support of the king. During the meetings, the shape of the reform was discussed, including the analysis of the American constitution and the work of the French National Assembly. King Stanisław August Poniatowski, together with Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłataj are considered the main authors of the final version of the Basic Law, so First Polish Constitution.

To finally adopt the drafted constitution, the reformers had to use a trick. On the morning of May the 3rd, 1791, after the opening of the Sejm sessions, properly selected diplomatic messages were read indicating that Poland was threatened by another partition, it was said that only far-reaching changes could save the cuuntry sovereignty. This effectively convinced the parliament members to vote and pass the Government Act. The king swore the constitution: “I swore to God, I won’t regret it.”

The adoption of the constitution was very solemn. An enthusiastic crowd gathered in front of the Royal Castle. In the evening, to the nearby cathedral of St. John deputies went through, headed by Marshal Stanisław Małachowski to swear the first Polish constitution in the presence of the king.

The Constitution of May 3 consists of a solemn preamble and 11 articles introducing in Poland the system of hereditary constitutional monarchy, which most European countries only had in the nineteenth century, retained the state social structure, spread legal protection over peasants and the bourgeoisie and gave opportunities for social advancement. Moreover, it abolished liberum veto. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; it also introduced the Montesquieu 3 divisions of power: legislative, executive and judicial.

Ustawa Zasadnicza
Pierwsza strona druku Ustawy Rządowej z dani 3 maja 1791 roku. (źródło:,MTE5NjI3Mw/5/#info:metadata)