Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On this day in history, the world's second constitution

The Constitution of May 3 is widely considered the second oldest constitution in the world. It was an act of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, a country that existed from about 1569 - 1795, before being split up into the Kingdom of Prussia, the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria and the Russian Empire. The Constitution was aimed to right the ship of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth as the magnates of this nation had come to have enormous power over both the government and the people. Basically, a massive amount of class warfare had been going on between the nobles (szlachta) of the commonwealth and the commoners. This class warfare threatened to tear the commonwealth apart so the the parliament, called the Sejm put into place a constitution to level the playing field between the local folk and the big wig Szlachta. However, outside players were having none of this compromise as it limited their influence in the commonwealth.

Catherine the Great of the Russian Empire invaded the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Prussians didn't like the new powers of the Polish-Lithuanian king because it might have led to a demand on Prussian lands that were once in the hands of the Poles. Other powers didn't like it because it was a threat to the notion of absolute monarchy and these threats could've caused some political instability. All in all, the Constitution was regarded contemporaneously as a nuisance. The Russian invasion and the discontent of its neighbors leaked into the second partition of Poland. This led to Polish and Lithuanian lands falling into the hands of the Russians and Germans. The bourgeoisie of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were beaten back and the old magnates returned to their former glory under the Prussians and Russians. Poland would lose independence until the 20th century on account of this constitution. While this might be sad for most Poles, the constitution retained power long after it was abandoned as a symbol for what is right and good about the Polish culture. It became a beacon in the history of democracy and has inspired countless other democratic movements. It now stands as both a Polish and Lithuanian holiday marking the democratic spirit of both peoples.

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