World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Great Sejm

Article Id: WHEBN0001180262
Reproduction Date:

Title: Great Sejm  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: History of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (1764–95), Sejm, General sejm, Constitution of May 3, 1791, Royal Castle, Warsaw
Collection: 1780S in Lithuania, 1780S in Poland, 1788 in Poland, 1788 in the Polish–lithuanian Commonwealth, 1789 in the Polish–lithuanian Commonwealth, 1790 in the Polish–lithuanian Commonwealth, 1790S in Lithuania, 1790S in Poland, 1791 in the Polish–lithuanian Commonwealth, 1792 in Poland, 1792 in the Polish–lithuanian Commonwealth, 18Th Century in Lithuania, 18Th Century in Poland, Great Sejm, History of Belarus (1569–1795), History of Lithuania (1569–1795), History of Poland (1569–1795), Sejm
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Great Sejm

Great, or Four-Year, Sejm (1788–92) and Senate adopt Constitution of May 3, 1791, at Warsaw's Royal Castle.

The Great Sejm, also known as the Four-Year Sejm (Polish: respectively, Sejm Wielki or Sejm Czteroletni; Lithuanian: Didysis seimas or Ketverių metų seimas) was a Sejm (parliament) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that was held in Warsaw between 1788 and 1792. Its principal aim became to restore sovereignty to, and reform, the Commonwealth politically and economically.

The Sejm's great achievement was the adoption of the Constitution of May 3, 1791, often described as Europe's first modern written national constitution, and the world's second, after the United States Constitution. The Polish Constitution was designed to redress long-standing political defects of the federative Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and its system of Golden Liberties. The Constitution introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility and placed the peasants under the protection of the government, thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. The Constitution abolished pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto, which at one time had placed a sejm at the mercy of any deputy who might choose, or be bribed by an interest or foreign power, to undo all the legislation that had been passed by that sejm. The May 3rd Constitution sought to supplant the existing anarchy fostered by some of the country's reactionary magnates, with a more egalitarian and democratic constitutional monarchy.

The reforms instituted by the Great Sejm and the Constitution of May 3, 1791, were undone by the Targowica Confederation and the intervention of the Russian Empire at the invitation of the Targowica Confederates.


  • Origins 1
  • Proceedings 2
    • 1789–90 2.1
    • 1791–92 2.2
  • Aftermath 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6


Stanisław Małachowski, Marshal of the Great Sejm

The reforms of the Great Sejm responded to the increasingly perilous situation of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth,[1] only a century earlier a major European power and indeed the largest state on the continent.[2] By the 18th century the Commonwealth's state machinery became increasingly dysfunctional; the government was near collapse, giving rise to the term "Polish anarchy", and the country was managed by provincial assemblies and magnates.[3] Many historians hold that a major cause of the Commonwealth's downfall was the peculiar parliamentary institution of the liberum veto ("free veto"), which since 1652 had in principle permitted any Sejm deputy to nullify all the legislation that had been adopted by that Sejm.[4] By the early 18th century, the magnates of Poland and Lithuania controlled the state – or rather, they managed to ensure that no reforms would be carried out that might weaken their privileged status (the "Golden Freedoms").[5] The matters were not helped by the inefficient monarchs elected to the Commonwealth throne around the start of the 18th century,[6] nor by neighboring countries, which were content with the deteriorated state of the Commonwealth's affairs and abhorred the thought of a resurgent and democratic power on their borders.[7]

The Enlightenment European cultural movement had gained great influence in certain Commonwealth circles during the reign of its last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski (1764–95), which roughly coincided with the Enlightenment in Poland. In 1772, the First Partition of Poland, the earliest of the three successive 18th-century partitions of Commonwealth territory that eventually removed Poland from the map of Europe, shocked the inhabitants of the Commonwealth, and made it clear to progressive minds that the Commonwealth must either reform or perish.[8] In the last three decades preceding the Great Sejm, there was a rising interest among progressive thinkers in constitutional reform.[9] Even before the First Partition, a Polish noble, Michał Wielhorski, an envoy of the Bar Confederation, had been sent to ask the French philosophes Gabriel Bonnot de Mably and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to offer suggestions on a new constitution for a new Poland.[10][11][12][13] Mably had submitted his recommendations (The Government and Laws of Poland) in 1770–1771; Rousseau had finished his Considerations on the Government of Poland in 1772, when the First Partition was already underway.[14] Notable works advocating the need to reform and presenting specific solutions were published in the Commonwealth itself by Polish-Lithuanian thinkers such as:

Also seen as crucial to giving the upcoming reforms their moral and political support were Ignacy Krasicki's satires of the Great Sejm era.[16]



Great Sejm official diary

A major opportunity for reform seemed to present itself during the sejm of 1788–92, which opened on October 6, 1788 with 181 deputies, and from 1790 – in the words of the May 3 Constitution's preamble – met "in dual number", when 171 newly elected Sejm deputies joined the earlier-established Sejm.[15][17][18] On its second day the Sejm transformed itself into a confederated sejm to make it immune to the threat of the liberum veto.[15][19][20] Russian tsarina Catherine the Great had issued the approval for the sejm confederation a while ago, at a point she was considering that the successful conclusion of this Sejm may be necessary if Russia would need Polish aid in the fight against the Ottoman Empire.[21] Stanisław Małachowski, a statesman respected both by most factions, was elected as the Marshal of the Sejm.[15]

Many supporters of the reforms were gathered in the Warsaw.[22][24] While King Poniatowski also supported some reforms, he was initially not allied with this faction, represented by Potocki, who preferred a republican form of a government.[25]

Events in the world appeared to play into the reformers' hands.[17] Poland's neighbors were too occupied with wars to intervene forcibly in Poland, with Russia and Austria engaged in hostilities with the Ottoman Empire (the Russo-Turkish War and the Austro-Turkish War); the Russians also found themselves fighting Sweden (the Russo-Swedish War).[17][26][27][28] At first, King Poniatowski and some reformers hoped to gain Russian support for the reforms; they attempted to draw Poland into the Austro-Russian alliance, seeing a war with the Ottomans as an opportunity to strengthen the Commonwealth.[29] Due to internal Russian politics, this plan was not implemented.[30] Spurned by Russia, Poland turned to another potential ally, the Triple Alliance, represented on the Polish diplomatic scene primarily by the Kingdom of Prussia.[31] This line of reasoning gained support from Polish politicians such as Ignacy Potocki and Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski.[32] With the new Polish-Prussian alliance seeming to provide security against Russian intervention, King Poniatowski drew closer to leaders of the reform-minded Patriotic Party.[17][33][34] This alliance was also helped as the 1790 elections were more supportive of the royal faction then Potocki's;[25] and the conservative faction gained enough new seats to threaten the reformers if they were to stay divided.[34] With the mediation of Scipione Piattoli, Potocki and Poniatowski begun to reach a consensus on a more constitutional monarchy approach, and started to draft a constitutional document.[25]

Overall, the first two years of the Sejm passed with few major reforms, and it was the second half of the Sejm duration that brought major changes.[20]


Royal Castle Senate Chamber, where May 3 Constitution was adopted

The elections of autumn 1790 resulted in a new group of deputies joining those already elected.[20] A second Marshal of the Sejm was elected (Kazimierz Nestor Sapieha).[15] As Małachowski was seen as associated with the reformers, Sapieha was initially seen as a conservative, although he would later switch sides and join the reformers.[15][35] The doubled number of deputies exceeded the capacity of the parliament chambers, and not all of the deputies could secure a seat; public interest also grew and the entire building and the observation galleries were often overcrowded.[34]

While the Sejm comprised representatives only of the Black Procession, demonstrating their desire to be part of the political process.[34] Taking a cue from similar events in France, and with the fear that if burghers' demands were not met, their peaceful protests could turn violent, the Sejm on April 18, 1791 adopted a law addressing the status of the cities and the rights of the burghers (the Free Royal Cities Act).[36] Together with the legislation on the voting rights (the Act on Sejmiks of March 24, 1791), it became incorporated into the final constitution.[37][38]

The new Constitution had been drafted by the king, with contributions from others, including Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj.[16][17] The king is credited with authoring the general provisions, and Kołłątaj, with giving the work its final shape.[16][20] Poniatowski aimed for a constitutional monarchy similar to the one in England, with strong central government based upon a strong monarch.[20] Potocki wanted to make the parliament (Sejm) the most powerful of the state's institutions, and Kołłątaj, for a "gentle" social revolution, enfranchising other classes in addition to the till-then dominant nobility, but doing so without a violent overthrow of the old order.[20]

Reforms were opposed by conservative elements, including the Hetmans' Party.[15][39] The reform's advocates, threatened with violence from their opponents, managed to move debate on the new constitution forward by two days from the original May 5, while many opposed deputies were still away on Easter recess.[40] The ensuing debate and adoption of the Constitution of 3 May took place in a quasi-coup d'état: recall notices were not sent to known opponents of reform, while many pro-reform deputies arrived early and in secret, and the royal guard were positioned about the Royal Castle, where the Sejm was gathered, to prevent Russian supporters from disrupting the proceedings.[40] On May 3 the Sejm met with only 182 members present, about a half of its "dual" number (or a third, if one was to count all individuals eligible to take part in the proceedings, including the Senate and the king[a]).[38][40] The bill was read out and adopted overwhelmingly, to the enthusiasm of the crowds gathered outside.[41]

The work of the Great Sejm did not end with the passing of the Constitution. The Sejm continued to debate and pass legislation building on and clarifying that document. Among the most notable acts passed after the 3 May was the Deklaracja Stanów Zgromadzonych (Declaration of the Assembled Estates) of May 5, 1791, confirming the Government Act adopted two days earlier, and the Zaręczenie Wzajemne Obojga Narodów (Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations, i.e., of the Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) of October 22, 1791, affirming the unity and indivisibility of Poland and the Grand Duchy within a single state, and their equal representation in state-governing bodies.[42][43] The Mutual Declaration strengthened the Polish-Lithuanian union, while keeping many federal aspects of the state intact.[44][45]

The Sejm was disbanded on May 29, 1792. On that day, soon after learning that the Russian army had invaded Poland, the Sejm gave the commander-in-chief position to the king, and voted to end the session.[46]


Soon afterwards, the Friends of the Constitution, regarded as the first Polish political party, and including many participants of the Great Sejm, was formed to defend the reforms already enacted and to promote further ones.[16][47] The response to the new Constitution was less enthusiastic in the provinces, where the Hetmans' Party exerted stronger influence.[41] The Great Sejm's reforms were brought down by the Targowica Confederation and the intervention of the Russian Empire. On 23 November 1793 the Grodno Sejm annulled all the enactments of the Great Sejm, including the Constitution of May 3, 1791.[48]

See also


a ^ A website dedicated to the genealogy of the Great Sejm participants, maintained by Marek Jerzy Minakowski, lists 484 participants. Those include the king, members of the Senate, and deputies elected in 1788 and 1790.


  1. ^  
  2. ^ Piotr Stefan Wandycz (2001). The price of freedom: a history of East Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the present. Psychology Press. p. 66.  
  3. ^ Norman Davies (January 20, 1998). Europe: a history. HarperCollins. p. 659.  
  4. ^ Francis Ludwig Carsten (January 1, 1961). The new Cambridge modern history: The ascendancy of France, 1648–88. Cambridge University Press. pp. 561–562.  
  5. ^ Norman Davies (March 30, 2005). God's Playground: The origins to 1795. Columbia University Press. p. 274.  
  6. ^  
  7. ^ John P. LeDonne (1997). The Russian empire and the world, 1700–1917: the geopolitics of expansion and containment. Oxford University Press. pp. 41–42.  
  8. ^ Jerzy Lukowski; Hubert Zawadzki (2001). A concise history of Poland. Cambridge University Press. pp. 96–99.  
  9. ^  
  10. ^ David Lay Williams (August 1, 2007). Rousseau's Platonic Enlightenment. Penn State Press. p. 202.  
  11. ^ Matthew P. Romaniello; Charles Lipp (March 1, 2011). Contested spaces of nobility in early modern Europe. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 238.  
  12. ^ Jerzy Lukowski (August 3, 2010). Disorderly liberty: the political culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 123–124.  
  13. ^ a b  
  14. ^  
  15. ^ a b c d e f g  
  16. ^ a b c d  
  17. ^ a b c d e  
  18. ^ Janusz Justyński (1991). The Origin of human rights: the constitution of 3 May 1791, the French declaration of rights, the Bill of Rights : proceedings at the seminar held at the Nicolaus Copernicus University, May 3–5, 1991. Wydawn. Adam Marszałek. p. 171.  
  19. ^ Antoni Jan Ostrowski (1873). ]The Life of Tomasz Ostrowski ... [Żywot Tomasza Ostrowskiego, ministra rzeczypospolitej póżniej,prezesa senatu xięstwa warszawskiego i królestwa polskiego: obejmujacy rys wypadḱow krajowych od 1765 roku do 1817 (in Polish). Nakł. K. Ostrowskiego. p. 73. Retrieved July 4, 2011. 
  20. ^ a b c d e f Juliusz Bardach, Bogusław Leśnodorski and Michał Pietrzak, Historia państwa i prawa polskiego (History of the Polish State and Law), Warsaw, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, pp. 304–5.
  21. ^ Jerzy Michalski, Stanisław August Poniatowski, Polski Słownik Biograficzny, T.41, 2011, p. 623
  22. ^ a b J. K. Fedorowicz; Maria Bogucka; Henryk Samsonowicz (1982). A Republic of nobles: studies in Polish history to 1864. CUP Archive. pp. 252–253.  
  23. ^ Edward Henry Lewinski Corwin (1917). The political history of Poland. Polish Book Importing Co. pp. 342–343. Retrieved 18 August 2011. 
  24. ^ a b c (Polish) Stronnictwo Patriotyczne, Encyklopedia WIEM
  25. ^ a b c Zofia Zielińska, Potocki Ignacy, Polski Słownik Biograficzny, Tom XXVIII, Zakład Narodowy Imenia Ossolińskich I Wydawnictwo Polskieh Akademii Nauk, 1983, ISBN 0-900661-24-0, p. 8–7
  26. ^  
  27. ^ Robert Bideleux; Ian Jeffries (January 28, 1998). A history of eastern Europe: crisis and change. Psychology Press. p. 160.  
  28. ^ Jerzy Lukowski (August 3, 2010). Disorderly liberty: the political culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 226.  
  29. ^ Jerzy Łojek (1986). Geneza i obalenie Konstytucji 3 maja. Wydawn. Lubelskie. p. 24.  
  30. ^ Jerzy Łojek (1986). Geneza i obalenie Konstytucji 3 maja. Wydawn. Lubelskie. pp. 26–31.  
  31. ^ Jerzy Łojek (1986). Geneza i obalenie Konstytucji 3 maja. Wydawn. Lubelskie. pp. 31–32.  
  32. ^ Krzysztof Bauer (1991). Uchwalenie i obrona Konstytucji 3 Maja. Wydawnictwa Szkolne i Pedagogiczne. p. 55.  
  33. ^  
  34. ^ a b c d  
  35. ^  
  36. ^  
  37. ^  
  38. ^ a b  
  39. ^ Marceli Handelsman (1907). ]Constitution of May 3 [Konstytucja trzeciego Maja r. 1791 (in Polish). Druk. Narodowa. pp. 50–52. Retrieved August 18, 2011. 
  40. ^ a b c  
  41. ^ a b  
  42. ^ Joseph Kasparek-Obst (June 1, 1980). The constitutions of Poland and of the United States: kinships and genealogy. American Institute of Polish Culture. p. 40.  
  43. ^ Poland; Jerzy Kowecki (1991). ]Constitution of May 3 [Konstytucja 3 Maja 1791 (in Polish). Państwowe Wydawn. Nauk. pp. 105–107. Retrieved July 6, 2011. 
  44. ^ Maria Konopka-Wichrowska (August 13, 2003). "My, Litwa" [We, Lithuania] (in Polish). Podkowiański Magazyn Kulturalny. Retrieved September 12, 2011. Ostatnim było Zaręczenie Wzajemne Obojga Narodów przy Konstytucji 3 Maja, stanowiące część nowych paktów konwentów – zdaniem historyka prawa Bogusława Leśnodorskiego: "zacieśniające unię, ale utrzymujące nadal federacyjny charakter Rzeczypospolitej Obojga Narodów" 
  45. ^ Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, p.309
  46. ^ (Polish) Zbigniew Anusik, Rzeczpospolita wobec wojny wschodniej (1787–1792) i wojny szwedzko-rosyjskiej (1788–1790), in: Polska wobec wielkich konfliktów w Europie nowożytnej, z dziejów dyplomacji i stosunków międzynarodowych w XV-XVII wieku, Kraków 2009, p. 171–179.
  47. ^ Jerzy Kowecki (ed.), Konstytucja 3 Maja 1791 (Warsaw: PWN, 4th edn 1991), p.51
  48. ^ Volumina Legum, t. X, Poznań 1952, p. 326.
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.