The adoption by Poland of a Liberal Constitution so alarmed the despotisms of its neighboring empires that they invaded and punished Poland with the Second Partition of 1793. The actual document was seized and carried off and locked away in the Kremlin in Moscow, in a trunk tightly chained, as if it constituted a kind of weapon of mass destruction, which to autocracy and despotism perhaps it did.
Jam Matejko, Adoption of the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, 1891, Royal Castle, Warsaw.
The painting depicts King Stanislaus Augustus together with members of the Grand Sejm and inhabitants of Warsaw entering St John’s Cathedral in order to swear in the new national constitution just after it had been adopted by the Grand Sejm in the Royal Castle visible in the background.
Below is a short film celebrating the passage of the first liberal constitution in Europe by the Polish senate, May 3, 1791, the passage of which provoked treason by magnatial aristocrats (The Confederacy of Targowica) followed by intervention and partition of the country by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Tadeusz Kosciuszko led the national resistance to the partition. The final defeat of Kosciuszko’s forces was followed in 1795 by the Third and final Partition of Poland-Lithuania. The actual document wound up locked in an iron box under guard in Moscow’s Kremlin, so much terror did it strike in the hearts of despots. Poles and Lithuanians still sing the praises of the Constitution of the 3rd of May which extended the rights enjoyed by the nobility to the entire country. The Third of May is today a national holiday in both countries.