During the reign of the last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski (Stanisław II Augustus), daring attempts at internal reform were carried out in order to avert disaster for the Rzeczpospolita (Commonwealth). A promising opportunity arose with the Sejm that deliberated between 1788 and 1792, as it was a “confederated Sejm”, meaning that unanimity was replaced with majority voting. The highlight achievement of this ‘Four-Year Sejm’ (also called the ‘Great Sejm’) was the enactment of the Government Statute [Polish: Ustawa Rządowa], popularly known as the Constitution of the 3rd of May. The Constitution was drafted by Ignacy Potocki, King Stanisław August, and Father Hugo Kołłątaj, and was passed on May 3, 1791 via an extraordinary and simplified procedure that was tantamount to a coup d’état.
Composed of a preamble and eleven chapters, the Government Statute introduced a tripartite division of powers in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that consisted of a bicameral legislature (i.e., the Sejm and Senate), an executive branch (the king), and a judiciary branch. The principle of unanimity known as liberum veto was abolished in favour of resolutions being passed by majority vote. The executive power rested with a royal council (‘the Guard of the Laws’, referred to as ‘the Guardianship’ in the following English version), presided over by the king and composed of five ministers proposed by the monarch and reporting to the Sejm – namely, the Primate, the heir to the throne, the Marshal of the Sejm, and two secretaries. The long-standing institution of elective monarchy was replaced with hereditary succession of the throne in the Saxon House of Wettin. The Constitution enshrined freedom of religion, though it recognised the Roman Catholicism as the ruling religion. The privileged position of the gentry was guaranteed, whilst the rights of the bourgeoisie were confirmed as previously granted by the ‘Law on the Cities’ (burghers from royal cities enjoyed broad opportunities to enter the gentry, and were allowed to own land and hold offices).
The attempts to carry out the reforms envisioned by the Government Statute were thwarted already in mid-1792 by the Confederation of Targowica and the entry of the Russian army into the Rzeczpospolita.
The Constitution of the 3rd of May, Poland’s first modern constitution (indeed, the world’s second such, preceded only by the US Constitution), expressed the political and civic awareness of the Rzeczpospolita’s citizens that their country was facing a dire crisis. Throughout the period when Poland was partitioned (1795-1918), the Constitution of the 3rd of May symbolised the nation’s pursuit of independence. The authors of Poland’s twentieth-century constitutions drew inspiration from it, as well.