Vilnius and Warsaw are marking the 230th anniversary of the May 3 Constitution of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. What do we know about the document lauded as the first written constitution in Europe?
LRT English breaks it down in four questions together with Dr Eligijus Raila, a historian and associate professor at Vilnius University.
What is the May 3 Constitution and why does it matter?
The Constitution of May 3, 1791 was adopted by the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, a joint nation founded in the 16th century, bringing the countries towards parliamentarism and constitutional monarchy. Critically, it also introduced equality between nobility and townsfolk.
“The document was the culmination of all the political, social, and agrarian reforms of the 18th century,” said Raila. It was also partly enabled by external factors – the Russian Empire under Catherine II had diverted its attention to its wars with the Ottomon Empire, leaving King Augustus enough room for manoeuvre.
For the first time in the Commonwealth, groups of people that had previously been on the sidelines of political life were recognised.
“Attention was paid to the peasants [who were under serfdom], even if their status wasn’t entirely determined. But, according to the constitution, the state took them into its protection,” said Raila. “What to do with the peasants would have needed to be decided in the future.”
The adopted constitution was also supplemented by an additional act in October the same year, which defined the responsibilities of both Poland and Lithuania.
Together with the constitution, it enshrined the sovereignty and statehood of the two countries, according to Raila.
Contrary to the belief in Lithuania in the 20th century, the act also recognised Lithuania’s sovereignty as a nation, “even if what that nation is and what it contains wasn’t fully stated”, said Raila.
It also laid the foundations for a “modern, anti-caste understanding” of the state, he added.
The documents set out the constitutional values as we understand them today, according to Raila, ensuring “the rule of law, democratic governance principles and human rights”.
However, it was in force for less than 15 months and came to an end with the partitions by Prussia, Imperial Russia, and the Habsburg Empire, ending the existence of sovereign Poland and Lithuania until 1918.
But “it was not the end, as it’s often entrenched in Lithuania’s historical understanding”, said Raila, since the Constitution ensured national and ethnic authenticity of Lithuania would grow in the future.
It could also be seen in the broader context of the French Revolution and the budding nationalism in Europe, with Lithuania and Poland fitting as part of the process. However, it was only the partitions that put an end to that process and pushed the two countries onto a different historical path, according to Raila.
Did the Constitution surrender Lithuania’s sovereignty to Poland?
While the act is celebrated in Poland, some historians in Lithuania say it reduced the independence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and tipped the balance of power in favour of Warsaw.
“The constitution has always been seen as part of Poland’s history,” said Raila. However, it also maintained the principles of Lithuania’s sovereignty and self-rule, a fact “which had been ignored in Lithuania for a long time”.
The commitment to have equal representation in the war and budget commissions shows that “Lithuania and Poland had begun a new perspective of common life” which some even called “confederation”, according to Raila.
Was it really Europe’s first written constitution?
The Constitution of May 3 was the first written constitution in Europe as we understand it today, according to Raila, and only second in the world coming several years after the one adopted in the United States in 1789.
“The laws in other European countries simply had continuity and did not have to be written [in such a way], meaning they could function in different forms,” said Raila.
However, it isn't wrong to call it Europe’s first, he added.
“Looking at it from a perspective, we could say that we, 200 years ago, took part in forming [the vision] of today’s European Union,” said Raila. “It may sound over the top, but it is still logical and grounded.”
Why is the Constitution seeing a revival now?
During the national revival in Lithuania that began under the Russian rule in the late 19th century, the Constitution was not lauded as a national achievement.
“Leaders of our national awakening were from peasant backgrounds,” said Raila. Because the Constitution made little reference to serfs and peasents, it was not seen as important to the national narrative, according to Raila.
In 1920, Lithuania and Poland also fought a bitter war, leaving Vilnius at the hands of Warsaw and little room for the Constitution to build historical bridges. It was even called the “tombstone” of Lithuania’s statehood due to the subsequent incorporation into the Russian Empire, as well as the perceived dominance of Poland.
Later, during the Soviet occupation, the document was dismissed as an attempt to save the landed elite due to its failure to fully address the issues of the peasants.
“The Soviet narrative thus took over this caste lens, because class was the main driving force” in Soviet historiography, said Raila, leading to stereotypes that continue to have an effect in Lithuania today.
Since independence in 1990, relations between Vilnius and Warsaw have been complicated. Although they name one another strategic partners and are NATO allies, minority issues and the question of Polish-language rights kept rocking the boat.
With the improvement of Lithuanian–Polish relations in recent years due to the – at times controversial – attention given by the government of Saulius Skvernelis and, later, President Gitanas Nausėda, the May 3 Constitution is enjoying renewed attention by the two countries.
Notably, the Lithuanian parliament has designated 2021 as the Year of the Constitution of May 3 and Mutual Pledge of the Commonwealth of the Two Nations.
The Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014 has also had a rallying effect in the Lithuanian–Polish relations. Now, the Constitution is seen by both countries as shared historical heritage in face of the common threat posed by Russia, and not an example of Polish domination of Lithuania.
“We are at such a [geopgraphic] point in Europe that geopolitics has changed little,” said Raila. “The large threats have remained the same.”
A Polish historian said relations between Russia and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth were a game of chess, where each move by Warsaw and Vilnius would be followed by a check from the Russian Empire. “The last of the three partitions was the checkmate,” said Raila.
Since the 20th century, “we have started a new game of chess”, he added.
Reaad more: Dreaming of Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth