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The Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791 as a Cause of the Warsaw Uprising of 1794

By May 5, 2021November 12th, 2022No Comments8 min read

By Frank J. Dmuchowski

Poles today celebrate as a national holiday the signing of the Polish Constitution on May 3rd, 1791. This celebration extends to all Polonians throughout the world. The May 3rd Constitution, as it is known, is generally recognized as the first constitution in Europe and was second only to the United States Constitution which came into force in 1789. Unlike the American Constitution which came into being with little effective internal or external interference, Poland’s Constitution had to be defended almost immediately in Polish blood.

(It is important to note that while I use the word Poland that more accurately I should use the phrasing “Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth”.)

The Warsaw Uprising of 1794 is one such example. There are many other examples from that period where Poles of all social classes defended the nation primarily against ongoing Russian domination. Russia at that time was led by the anti-Polish German who is generally known as Tsarina Catherine.

So why did Poles of all social classes come to the defense of the May 3rd Constitution. Perhaps, because it allowed for social classes beyond the nobility to begin feeling in a meaningful way that they were now becoming a part of the Polish Nation (Naród) not simply individuals existing with the Polish-Lithuanian State (Państwo).

Of course, the Polish constitution like America’s has been subject to various interpretations and modifications over time. This process still continues today in both countries.

Importance of Articles 3, 4, and 5 in the” Government Act” Section of the Polish Constitution

The May 3rd Constitution is divided into two major parts. The first part is referred to as the “Government Act” and broadly deals with the rights and responsibilities of the Polish government in a general sense. It covers everything from Article 1 the National Religion to Article 11 on the National Armed Forces. The second part of the Polish Constitution is called “Our Free Royal Cities in the States of the Commonwealth”. It elaborates of article 3 on the rights of individuals living in the cities.

For us, today Articles 3, 4, and 5, in particular, represented the true beginning of Poland as a nation of all its citizens not simply a “nation of the nobility”. This concept is embedded in articles 3, 4, and 5 of the May 3rd Constitution are in summary form:

Article 3 (Citizens of Cities) The citizens of cities had their legal rights recognized. These rights were extensively laid out in the second part of the Constitution.

Article 4 (Peasants) The constitution provided a specific recognition of the rights of the peasants. A portion of article 4 reads:” Both from justice, humanity and Christian duty, as from our own self-interest properly understood, we accept under the protection of the law and of the national government the agricultural folk, from under whose hand flows the most copious source of the country’s wealth, and who constitute the most numerous populace in the nation and hence the greatest strength of the country”. This was a critical first step in the ultimate emancipation of the peasant class.

Article 5 (Ultimate Source of Authority of the Government of Poland) says in part: “All authority in human society takes its origin in the will of the people. Therefore, that the integrity of the states, civil liberty, and social order remain always in equilibrium, the government of the Polish nation ought to, and by the will of this law forever shall, comprise three authorities, to wit: a legislative authority in the assembled estates, supreme executive authority in a King and Guardianship, and judicial authority in jurisdictions to that end instituted or to be instituted.”

Prelude to the Warsaw Uprising

Articles 3, 4, and 5 are powerful statements of human rights inside of a significant document. They are the core in the establishment of the Polish nation (naród) as they bring together the nobility, the city dwellers, and the peasants as one nation. These articles help to explain why Poles of all social classes were willing to fight and in too many cases die for the nation to be what is today “Poland”.

Between May 3rd, 1791 and March 24 1794, when Tadeusz Kosciuszko became Commander-in-chief of the Polish-Lithuanian armed forces that Poles from all classes, from the Peasants to the City-Dwellers, to the Szlachta in general, and ultimately to the Magnates (upper class of the szlachta) had time to reflect on the implications of the May 3rd Constitution on their lives.
As you might imagine the May 3rd constitution did not sit well with some members of the Polish magnate class of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. These magnates whose political and wealth and interests lay with Russia created a military intervention in January of 1792. It was called the “Confederation of Targowica”. This Confederation invited in the Russians and resulted in much Polish blood being shed. (It is important to note that not all magnates supported this military confederation. The Polish Constitution came into existence because there was a number of enlightened magnates such as some of the Poniatowski family, and the some of the Potocki family and other magnate families including lesser nobility who owed their livelihood to the Russian collaborating magnates)
The result of the Confederation of Targowica was the Second Partition of Poland and her occupation by Prussian and Russian Troops. Poles avoided major confrontation until they had a large enough army. However Polish national identity was being shaped by the peasants and the city dwellers as a consequence of the May 3rd Constitution of 1791.
On March 24, 1794, in Kraków Poland in the Market Square Tadeusz Kosciuszko took the oath as Commander-in-chief (Naczelnik) of the Polish-Lithuanian armed forces.
Warsaw Uprising of 1794 Involved the Polish Army and Warsaw Citizens Militia
The news of Kosciuszko’s appointment and his leadership during the Polish victory at Racławice on April 7th spread like wildfire throughout occupied Poland. The Battle of Racławice is noted for the significant participation of 2000 “Polish Peasants” armed primarily with scythes and pikes. After this battle, Kosciuszko elevated the courageous peasant Wojciech Bartosz to the rank of nobility into his own clan and with the new last name of Głowacki and also gave him freedom and a tract of land and an officer’s commission The Battle of Racławice and the participation of the Polish Peasants there can be attributed to Articles 4 and 5 of the May 3rd Constitution. Kosciuszko cemented the relationship of the peasants to the Polish nation when he issued the “Manifesto of Połaniec” on May 7, 1794, freeing the peasantry as a whole from servitude, halving their dues, and promising the help of insurrectionary authorities against the wrath of landowners.” (Norman Davies God’s Playground Volume 1)

There occurred many minor uprisings throughout Poland. However, in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, there occurred the most significant uprising. On the night of April 17th, approximately 1000 regular Polish military and 2500 citizen militia battle began to overthrow the Russian garrison. Non-military citizens of Warsaw would have provided material and moral support to the combatants.
The Polish army in Warsaw was led by General Stanisław Mokronowski and the militia was led by the Polish shoemaker and city councilor Jan Kiliński who over a period of several days routed the Russians. Polish losses were 500 soldiers killed and 700 Polish civilians killed. The Russian losses were at least 2000 soldiers killed and 2000 captured.

Part of the aftermath of this 2-day battle was the capture of many Russian documents detailing Polish collaborators. “On 9 May four prominent supporters of the Targowica Confederation, including Józef Ankwicz, Bishop Józef Kossakowski, hetman Piotr Ożarowski and hetman Józef Zabiełło, were sentenced to death by the Insurrectionary Court and were hanged in Warsaw.

A few weeks later, on 28 June, an angry mob stormed the prisons and hanged other supporters of the Targowica Confederation such as Bishop Ignacy Jakub Massalski, prince Antoni Stanisław Czetwertyński-Światopełk, ambassador Karol Boscamp-Lasopolski, and others. According to historian Norman Davie, the Primate of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the King’s brother Cardinal Michael Poniatowski committed suicide. Even in death Archbishop Podoski who fled to France in exile, had is body disinterred and flung into the sea. All of the above suggests there was no mercy shown to those who collaborated with or were suspected of collaborating with the Russians. Similar activities took place in Wilno.

When Kosciuszko fine arrived in Warsaw he put an end to the vengeance in late June

The National Militia of Warsaw grew to over 20,000 men at arms and constituted a large part of the Polish Army fighting against Russia.

Clearly what is significant is the involvement of the “citizens” of Warsaw and this was certainly one of the consequences of the May 3rd, 1791 Constitution’s Articles 3 and 5.
This story could have focused almost entirely on the well-known Battle of Racławice but I chose to highlight the lesser-known but important 1794 Warsaw Uprising to emphasize the participation of Polish city dwellers which sometimes does not receive the prominence it deserves during this critical period of Polish history.
The May 3rd Polish Constitution deserves to be remembered and celebrated by all of us for the significant contribution it made in the creation and the unification of the Polish nation (naród) and also in the rebuilding of the Polish state (państwo) which today we know as the Republic of Poland.

In closing what is perhaps the most important sentence of the Polish Constitution and is a true statement of human rights that applies still today in 2018 comes from the first line of article 5.

“All authority in human society takes its origin in the will of the people. “
“Wszelka władza współczesnosci ludzkiej początek swój bierze z woli narodu”