On this day in 1791, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe—adopted the first written national constitution in Europe, and only the second in the world, after the U.S. Constitution just two years earlier.
Like its counterpart across the Atlantic, Poland’s constitution—titled the Governance Act and known simply as the Constitution of 9 May 1791—was influenced by the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement that, among other things, pioneered concepts like civil liberty, individual rights, religious and political tolerance, and so on.
Remarkably, despite the vast geographic distance between the two countries, Poland’s constitutional structure was markedly similar to that of America: There were three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—with checks and balances, a bicameral legislature, and a cabinet of ministers. The constitution declared that “all power in civil society [should be] derived from the will of the people” and defined the role of government as ensuring “the integrity of the states, civil liberty, and social order shall always remain in equilibrium. While Roman Catholicism was recognized as the “dominant faith”, freedom of religion was guaranteed—a remarkable proposition in a continent where people regularly killed each other for being the wrong Christian or simply holding the wrong doctrine.
The people of Poland-Lithuania were defined not as “subjects” of a king, but “citizens” with popular sovereignty—which included townspeople and peasants, who in most of Europe had no such recognition. The right to acquire property, hold public office, and join the nobility—whose powers and immunities were restricted—was extended to millions more people, including Jews (who almost everywhere else were denied anything akin to legal recognition, let alone political rights).
The new constitution even introduced a version habeas corpus—the core legal right that prevents abuse of power—known as Neminem captivabimus, summarized as “We shall not arrest anyone without a court verdict”.
To be clear, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 had its limits, and its radicalism should not be overstated. The monarchy was still retained, with the king serving as head of the executive branch. Religious minorities such as Jews, as well the peasants who made up the vast majority of the population, still had few powers. While constrained, the nobility was not abolished as in the U.S. and later France, and in fact still retained many privileges.
But even in these areas, the Commonwealth went farther than almost any other country in the world at the time. The monarchy was not absolute: The king’s powers were constrained by the constitution and essentially shared with a council of ministers, who could overrule his decrees, forcing him to go to parliament. While peasants and Jews had few rights, they now had official protection from abuse—a step closer to recognizing their political rights, well beyond what was normal at the time. Eligible middle-class people could even join the ranks of nobility, a seemingly paradoxical form of progress that, again, was unusual for the time; nobles certainly couldn’t ride roughshod over commonfolk as they did elsewhere in Europe (which isn’t to say there weren’t abuses—this is still feudal Europe after all).
In any event, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 was a relatively bold and momentous step in the right direction, as evidenced by its rarity at the time—and sadly, by its short existence. In fewer than two years, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would be extinguished by the absolute monarchies of neighboring Prussia and Russia, which felt threatened by the constitution and the dangerous “revolutionary” ideas it introduced and could spread. Poland would cease to exist for well over another century, with its experiment never being fully tested—but also never dying off entirely, as the then-ongoing French Revolution and subsequent political reverberations would prove.