The Constitution of May 3, 1791

From Everyday a Holiday: Casimir Pulaski Day

The Constitution of May 3, 1791

Government Act
Registered, 5 May 1791

In the name of God, One in the Holy Trinity.

Stanisław August, by the grace of God and the will of the people King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ruthenia, Prussia, Mazowsze, Żmudź [Samogitia], Kiev, Wołyń [Volhynia], Podole, Podlasie, Livonia, Smolensk, Severia and Chernihiv, together with the confederated estates in dual number representing the Polish people.

Recognizing that the destiny of us all depends solely upon the establishment and perfection of a national constitution, having by long experience learned the inveterate faults of our government, and desiring to take advantage of the season in which Europe finds itself and of this dying moment that has restored us to ourselves, free of the ignominious dictates of foreign coercion, holding dearer than life, than personal happiness the political existence, external independence and internal liberty of the people whose destiny is entrusted to our hands, and desiring to merit the blessing and gratitude of contemporary and future generations, despite obstacles that may cause passions in us, we do for the general welfare, for the establishment of liberty, for the preservation of our country and its borders, with the utmost constancy of spirit ordain this Constitution and declare it to be entirely sacred and inviolable until the people, at the time by law prescribed, by their clear will recognize a need to alter any of its articles. To which Constitution the further statutes of the present Sejm shall apply in everything.

I. The Dominant Religion
The dominant national religion is and shall be the sacred Roman Catholic faith with all its laws. Passage from the dominant religion to any other confession is forbidden under penalties of apostasy. Inasmuch as that same holy faith bids us love our neighbors, we owe to all persons, of whatever persuasion, peace in their faith and the protection of the government, and therefore we guarantee freedom to all rites and religions in the Polish lands, in accordance with the laws of the land.

II. The Landed Nobility
Reverencing the memory of our ancestors as the founders of a free government, we most solemnly assure to the noble estate all liberties, freedoms, prerogatives, and precedence in private and public life, and more particularly we confirm, assure and recognize as inviolable the rights, statutes and privileges justly and lawfully granted to that estate by Kazimierz the Great, Louis the Hungarian, Władysław Jagiełło and his brother Witold, Grand Duke of Lithuania, and no less those by Władysław the Jagiellonian and Kazimierz the Jagiellonian, by Jan Albert, the brothers Alexander and Zygmunt the First, and by Zygmunt August, the last of the Jagiellonian line. We acknowledge the dignity of the noble estate in Poland as equal to any degree of nobility used anywhere. We recognize all the nobility to be equal among themselves, not only in seeking for offices and for the discharge of services to the country that bring honor, fame or profit, but also in the equal enjoyment of the privileges and prerogatives to which the noble estate is entitled, and above all we desire to and do preserve sacred and intact the rights to personal security, to personal liberty, and to property, landed and movable, even as they have been the title of all from time immemorial, affirming most solemnly that we shall permit no change or exception in law against anyone’s property, and that the supreme national authority and the government instituted by it shall lay no claims to any citizen’s property in part or in whole under pretext of jurium regalium [royal rights] or any other pretext whatever. Wherefore we do respect, assure and confirm the personal security of, and all property by rights belonging to, anyone, as the true bond of society, as the pupil [źrenica] of civil liberty, and we desire that they remain respected, ensured and inviolate for all time to come. We recognize the nobility as the foremost defenders of liberty and of this Constitution, and we charge unto the virtue, citizenship and honor of every nobleman the reverence of its sanctity and the safeguarding of its durability, as the sole bulwark of the country and of our liberties.

III. The Cities and Their Citizens
We desire to maintain in its entirety, and declare to be part of this Constitution, the law passed at the present sejm under the title, Our Free Royal Cities in the States of the Commonwealth, as a law that provides new, genuine and effective force to the free Polish nobility for the security of their liberties and the integrity of our common country.

IV. The Peasants
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, and we determine that henceforth whatever liberties, assignments or agreements squires authentically agree to with peasants of their estates, whether those liberties, assignments and agreements be done with groups or with individual inhabitants of a village, shall constitute a mutual obligation, in accordance with the true sense of the conditions and provisions contained in such assignments and agreements, subject to the protection of the national government. Such agreements and the obligations proceeding therefrom, freely accepted by a landowner, shall so bind not only him but also his successors or purchasers of the right, that they shall never arbitrarily alter them. Likewise peasants, of whatever estate, shall not withdraw from agreements freely entered into, or from assignments accepted, or from duties therewith connected, except in such manner and with such conditions as stipulated in the provisions of said agreements, which, whether adopted in perpetuity or for a limited time, shall be strictly binding upon them. Having thus guaranteed squires in all profits due them from the peasants, and desiring as effectively as possible to encourage the multiplication of the people, we declare complete freedom to all persons, both those newly arriving and those who, having removed from the country, now desire to return to their native land, insofar as every person newly arrived from any part, or returning, to the states of the Commonwealth, as soon as he set foot upon Polish soil is completely free to use his industry as and where he will, is free to make agreements for settlement, wages or rents as and to such time as he agree, is free to settle in city or countryside, and is free to reside in Poland or to return to whichever country he wish, having previously acquitted such obligations as he had freely taken upon himself.

V. The Government, or Designation of Public Authorities
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, a supreme executive authority in a King and Guardianship, and a judicial authority in jurisdictions to that end instituted or to be instituted.

VI. The Sejm, or Legislative Authority
The Sejm, or the assembled estates, shall be divided into two chambers: a Chamber of Deputies, and a Chamber of Senators presided over by the King.

The Chamber of Deputies, as the image and repository of national sovereignty, shall be the temple of legislation. Therefore all bills shall be decided first in the Chamber of Deputies: primo, as to general laws, that is, constitutional, civil, criminal, or for the institution of perpetual taxes, in which matters proposals submitted by the throne to the provinces [województwa], districts [ziemie] and counties [powiaty] for discussion, and by instructions coming to the Chamber, shall be taken for decision first; secundo, as to resolutions of the Sejm, that is, temporary levies, degree of coin, contraction of public debt, ennoblements and other incidental rewards, disposition of public expenditures ordinary and extraordinary, war, peace, final ratification of treaties of alliance and trade, any diplomatic acts and agreements involving the law of nations, the quitting of executive magistracies, and like matters corresponding to the chief national needs, in which matters proposals from the throne shall come directly to the Chamber of Deputies and shall have priority of procedure.

The duty of the Chamber of Senators, comprising bishops, province chiefs [wojewodowie], castellans and ministers, presided over by the King, who is entitled to cast a votum [vote] of his own, and secondly to resolve paritas [parity: an equal division of votes] in person or by sending his judgment to that Chamber, is: primo, to adopt, or to retain for further deliberation by the nation, by the majority vote provided in law, every law which, having formally passed the Chamber of Deputies, shall immediately be sent to the Senate. Adoption shall confer the force and sanctity of law. Retention shall only suspend a law until the next ordinary Sejm, at which, if it be agreed to once again, the law suspended by the Senate shall be adopted; secundo, to decide every resolution of the Sejm in the above-enumerated matters, which the Chamber of Deputies shall immediately send to the Senate, together with the Chamber of Deputies by majority vote, and the conjoint majority, provided by law, of both Chambers shall be the judgment and will of the estates.

We stipulate that senators and ministers shall not have a votum decisivum [decisive vote] in the Sejm in matters concerning their conduct of office, either in the Guardianship or in commission, and at such time shall have a seat in the Senate only to give explication upon demand of the Sejm.

A legislative and ordinary Sejm shall be ever ready. It shall begin every two years and last as provided in a law on Sejms. A ready Sejm, convoked in exigencies, shall decide only about the matter in which it be convoked, or about an exigency befallen after it be convoked. No law shall be abrogated at the ordinary Sejm at which it has been enacted. A Sejm shall comprise the number of persons provided by lower law, both in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Chamber of Senators.

We solemnly confirm the law on regional sejms [sejmiki], enacted at the present Sejm, as a most essential foundation of civil liberty.

Inasmuch as legislation cannot be conducted by all, and the nation to that end employs as agents its freely elected representatives, or Deputies, we determine that Deputies elected at regional sejms shall, in legislation and in general needs of the nation, be considered under this Constitution as representatives of the entire nation, being the repository of the general confidence.

Everything, everywhere, shall be decided by majority vote; therefore we abolish forever the liberum veto [“free veto”], confederations of any kind, and confederate sejms, as being opposed to the spirit of this Constitution, subversive of government, and destructive of society.

Preventing on one hand abrupt and frequent changes of the national constitution, and on the other recognizing the need to perfect it after experiencing its effects upon the public weal, we fix a season and time for revision and amendment of the Constitution every twenty-five years. We desire that such a constitutional sejm be extraordinary in accordance with the provisions of a separate law.

VII. The King, the Executive Authority
No government, be it the most perfect, can stand without strong executive authority. The happiness of peoples depends upon just laws, the effect of the laws–upon their execution. Experience teaches that neglect of this part of government has filled Poland with misfortunes. Therefore, having reserved unto the free Polish people the authority to make laws for itself and the power to keep watch upon all executive authority, as well as to elect officials to magistracies, we confer the authority of supreme execution of the laws to the King in his council, which council shall be called the Guardianship of the Laws.

The executive authority is strictly bound to observe the laws and to carry them out. It shall act of itself where the laws permit, and where they need supervision, execution, or even forceful aid. Obedience is owed to it always by all magistracies; we leave in its hand the power to press magistracies that be disobedient or remiss in their duties.

The executive authority shall not enact or interpret laws, impose taxes or levies by any name, contract public debts, alter the distribution of treasury revenues established by the Sejm, wage war, or definitive[ly] conclude peace or treaties or any diplomatic act. It shall be free to conduct only interim negotiations with foreign states, and to take temporary and timely measures requisite for the security and peace of the country, of which it shall inform the next assembly of the Sejm.

We desire and determine that the throne of Poland shall be forever elective by families. Experience of disastrous interregnums periodically overturning the government, the obligation to safeguard every inhabitant of the Polish land, the sealing forever of avenue to the influences of foreign powers, the memory of the former grandeur and happiness of our country under continuously reigning families, the need to turn foreigners away from ambition for the throne, and to turn powerful Poles toward the single-minded cultivation of national liberty, have indicated to our prudence that the throne of Poland be passed on by right of succession. We determine, therefore, that following the life that Divine beneficence shall grant to us, the present-day Elector of Saxony shall reign in Poland. The dynasty of the future kings of Poland shall begin with the person of Frederick Augustus, present-day Elector of Saxony, to whose male successors de lumbis [from the loins] we reserve the throne of Poland. The eldest son of the reigning king shall succeed his father to the throne. Should the present-day Elector of Saxony have no male issue, then the consort, with the consent of the assembled estates, selected by the Elector for his daughter shall begin the male line of succession to the throne of Poland. Wherefore we declare Maria Augusta Nepomucena, daughter of the Elector, to be infanta of Poland, reserving to the people the right, which shall be subject to no prescription, to elect another house to the throne after the extinction of the first.

Every King, on ascending the throne, shall execute an oath to God and to the Nation, that he will preserve this Constitution and the pacta conventa [“agreed-to agreements”] that shall be drawn up with the present-day Elector of Saxony, as destined to the throne, and which shall bind him even as those of the past.

The person of the king is sacred and secure from everything. Doing nothing of himself, he shall be answerable for nothing to the nation. He shall not be autocrat but father and chief to the nation, and as such this law and Constitution deems and declares him to be. The incomes as they shall be provided for in the pacta conventa, and the prerogatives proper to the throne as stipulated by this Constitution to the future Elect, shall not be touched.

All public acts, tribunals, courts of law, magistracies, coin and stamps shall go under the King’s name. The King, to whom shall be left every power of beneficence, shall have ius agratiandi [the right to pardon] those sentenced to death, except in crlminibus status [in crimes of state]. To the King shall belong the supreme disposition of the country’s armed forces in wartime and the appointment of army commanders, howbeit with their free change by the will of the nation; it shall be his duty to commission officers and appoint officials pursuant to the provisions of lower law, to appoint bishops and senators pursuant to the provisions of that law, and ministers, as the prime officials of the executive authority.

The Guardians, or royal council, added to the King for supervision of the integrity and execution of the laws, shall comprise: primo the Primate, as chief of the Polish clergy and as president of the Educational Commission, who may substitute for himself among the Guardians the first bishop ex ordine [in rank], neither of whom shall sign decisions; secundo five ministers, to wit, a minister of police, a minister of the seal, a minister belli [of war], a minister of the treasury, and a minister of the seal for foreign affairs; tertio two secretaries, of whom one shall keep the protocol of the Guardians, the other the protocol of foreign affairs; both without a decisive votum.

The Successor the Throne, having emerged from minority and executed an oath to uphold the Constitution, may be present at all sessions of the Guardians, but without a vote [voice?: the Polish głos may mean either].

The Marshal of the Sejm, elected for two years, shall be of the number serving among the Guardians, without entering into their decisions, solely in order to convoke a ready Sejm in the event that he recognize in the cases requiring the mandatory convocation of a ready Sejm, a true need, and the King demur at convoking it, when said Marshal shall issue to the Deputies and Senators circular letters convoking them to a ready Sejm and stating the causes of its convocation. The only cases requiring the mandatory convocation of a Sejm are the following: primo, in an exigency involving the law of nations, more particularly in the event of war hard by the borders; secundo, in the event of internal disorder that threatens revolution in the country or collision between magistracies; tertio, in evident danger of famine; quarto, in the country’s bereavement by death of the King, or in his dangerous illness. All decisions in the council of Guardians shall be discussed by the above-mentioned body of persons. The royal decision shall prevail after all opinions have been heard, that there be a single will in the execution of law. Therefore every decision from the Guardians shall issue under the King’s name and with the signature of his hand, but it shall also be signed by one of the ministers seated among the Guardians, and thus signed, it shall oblige obedience, and shall be carried out by the commissions or by any executive magistracies, but particularly in such matters as are not explicitly excluded by this law. In the event that none of the seated ministers wish to sign the decision, the King shall abandon the decision, but should he persist in it, the Marshal of the Sejm shall request convocation of the ready Sejm, and if the King delay convocation, the Marshal shall convoke it.

Even as to appointment of all ministers, so also is it the King’s right to summon one of them from every department of administration to his council of Guardians. This summoning of a minister to sit among the Guardians shall be for two years, with the King’s free reconfirmation of it. Ministers summoned to the council of Guardians shall not sit in commissions [i.e., ministries].

In the event that a two-thirds majority of secret votes of the two conjoint Chambers of a Sejm demand change of a minister either in the Guardians or in an office, the King shall immediately appoint another in his place.

Desiring that the Guardians of the National Laws be bound to strict accountability to the nation for any and all their misdeeds, we determine that, when ministers be charged with breach of law by a deputation designated to examine their deeds, they shall answer in their own persons and property. In any such impeachments, the assembled estates shall by simple majority vote of the conjoint Chambers send the inculpated ministers to sejm courts for their just punishment equalling the crime or, their innocence being demonstrated, their release from proceedings and punishment. For the orderly carrying out of executive authority, we institute separate Commissions, having connection with the council of Guardians and bound in obedience to it. Commissioners shall be elected to them by the Sejm to carry on their offices for a time set by law. These Commissions are: primo of Education, secundo of Police, tertio of the Armed Forces, quarto of the Treasury.

The provincial [wojewódzkie] commissions of order instituted at this Sejm, also subject to the supervision of the Guardians, shall receive orders through the above-mentioned intermediary Commissions, respective[ly] as to the objects of the authority and obligations of each of them.

VIII. The Judicial Authority
The judicial authority shall not be carried out either by the legislative authority or by the King, but by magistracies instituted and elected to that end. And it shall be so bound to places, that every man find justice close by, that the criminal see everywhere over him the formidable hand of the national government.

We institute, therefore: primo Courts of first instance for every province [województwo], district [ziemia] and county [powiat], to which judges shall be elected at regional sejms. The courts of first instance shall be ever ready and vigilant to render justice to those in need of it. From these courts, appeal shall go to chief tribunals that shall be for each Region [prowincyja], comprising also persons elected at regional sejms. And these courts, both of first and of last instance, shall be landed proprietors’ courts [sądy ziemiańskie] for the nobility and for all landowners in causis juris et facti [in matters of law and fact] with anyone.

Secundo We secure judicial jurisdictions to all cities, pursuant to the law of the present Sejm on the free royal cities.

Tertio We shall have separate referendary courts for each Region [prowincyja] in matters of free peasants under former laws subject to this court.

Quarto We preserve chancery [zadworne], assessorial, relational and Kurlandian courts.

Quinto The executive Commissions shall have courts in matters pertinent to their administration.

Sexto In addition to courts in civil and criminal matters for all the estates, there shall be a supreme court, called a Sejm Court, to which persons shall be elected at the opening of every Sejm. To this court shall be subject crimes against the nation and the King, or crimina status [crimes of state].

We command that a new code of civil and criminal laws be drawn up by persons designated by the Sejm.

IX. Regency
The council of Guardians shall be also a Regency, headed by the Queen, or in her absence by the Primate. A Regency may have place in only three cases: primo, during the King’s minority; secundo, during an infirmity causing permanent mental alienaton; tertio, in the event that the King be taken in war. Minority shall last only until 18 years of age; and infirmity respecting permanent mental alienation shall not be declared except by a ready Sejm, by majority vote of three parts against the fourth of the conjoint Chambers. In these three cases, the Primate of the Polish Crown shall immediately convoke the Sejm, and if the Primate be slow in this obligation, the Marshal of the Sejm shall issue circular letters to the Deputies and Senators. The ready Sejm shall arrange the order of seating of the ministers in the Regency and shall empower the Queen to take the place of the King in his duties. And when the King in the first case emerge from minority, in the second come to complete health, in the third return from captivity, the Regency shall tender him account of its deeds and answer to the nation for the time of its office, even as is prescribed of the council of Guardians at every ordinary Sejm, in their own persons and property.

X. The Education of Royal Sons
Royal sons, whom the Constitution destines for succession to the throne, are the first sons of the nation, wherefore attention to their good education is a concern of the nation, without prejudice, however, to parental rights. Under the government of the King, the King himself, together with the Guardianship and with a supervisor of the education of the King’s sons designated by the estates, shall see to their education. Under the government of a Regency, the Regency, together with the afore-mentioned supervisor, shall have the education of the Kings’s sons entrusted to them. In either case, the supervisor designated by the estates shall inform every ordinary Sejm about the education and conduct of the royal sons. It shall be a duty of the Educational Commission to submit a scheme of instruction and education of the royal sons for confirmation by the Sejm, so that in their education uniform rules continually and early instill in the minds of future Successors to the Throne religion and love of virtue, country, liberty and the national constitution.

XI. The National Armed Force
The nation bears a duty to its own defense from attack and for the safeguarding of its integrity. Therefore all citizens are defenders of the national integrity and liberties. The military are nought but a defensive force drawn and ordered from the general force of the nation. The nation owes reward and esteem to its military because they dedicate themselves solely to the nation’s defense. It is the military’s duty to protect the nation’s borders and general peace, in a word, to be its strongest shield. That the military fulfill this charge unfailingly, they shall remain always in obedience to the executive authority, as prescribed by law, and shall execute an oath of fidelity to the nation and to the King and to the defense of the national Constitution. Thus the nation’s military may be used for the general defense of the country, for the safeguarding of fortresses and borders, or in aid of law, if any not be obedient to its execution.

[Signers:]
Stanisław Nałęcz Małachowski, Great Crown Referendary, Marshal of the Sejm and of the confederation of the Crown Regions [prowincye koronne]. Kazimierz, Prince Sapieha, General of Lithuanian artillery, Marshal of the confederation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Józef Korwin Kossakowski, Bishop of Livonia and Kurland, chief coadjutor of the Wilno Bishopric, as deputy. Antoni, Prince Jabłonowski, Castellan of Kraków, deputy from the senate of Lesser Poland [Małopolska]. Symeon Kazimierz Szydłowski, Castellan of Żarnów, deputy from the senate of the Lesser Poland Region [prowincya] mp [manu propria, Latin: “(signed) by his own hand”]. Franciszek Antoni Kwilecki of Kwilec, Castellan of Kalisz, deputy for the constitution from the senate of the Greater Poland [Wielkopolska] Region [prowincya]. Kazimierz Konstanty Plater, Castellan of Trakai [generalu trockiego], deputy for the constitution from the senate of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania mp. Walerian Stroynowski, chamberlain of Busko, Deputy from Wołyń [Volhynia], deputy for the constitution from Lesser Poland. Stanisław Kostka Potocki, Deputy from Lublin, deputy for the constitution from the Lesser Poland Region [prowincya] mp. Jan Nepomucen Zboiński, Deputy from the Dobrzyń district, deputy for the constitution from the Greater Poland Region [prowincya] mp. Tomasz Nowowieski, master of the hunt and Deputy from the Wyszogród district, deputy for the constitution from the Greater Poland Region [prowincya]. Józef Radzicki, chamberlain and Deputy from the Zakroczym district, deputy for the constitution from the Greater Poland Region [prowincya] mp. Józef Zabiełło, Deputy from the Duchy of Samogitia, deputy for the constitution. Jacek Puttkamer, Deputy from the province of Minsk, deputy for the constitution from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Region [prowincya].