The First Constitutions

Wawrzyniec Goślicki
Charles Henry Lee
Stanisław August Poniatowski

  • Thomas Jefferson | Louis Littlepage
  • Philip Mazzei | James Madison
  • David Humphreys | Joe Barlow

The clear similarities between Poland and America’s constitutions and political cultures are yet another historical phenomenon that is rooted in the history of the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth. The 1789 US constitution was the first modern ‘supreme law’ in world history. This was soon followed by the Polish-Lithuanian parliament’s constitution of May 3rd 1791. Whilst the 1791 constitution was considerably less progressive than its American counterpart, it transformed Poland-Lithuania into a parliamentary monarchy with clear divisions between the state’s executive, legislative, and judiciary powers.

The American constitution was strongly influenced by British political philosophy, which was often inspired by political ideas that developed in other European countries, including Poland. For example, Wawrzyniec Goślicki‘s ( 1530-1607) 1568 book De optimo senatore was translated into English on three separate occasions before the American Revolution. This work played a particularly important role in shaping British political thinking. The book was very popular in England. For instance, it attracted the considerable interest of Queen Elizabeth I. William Shakespeare even used a depiction of an incompetent senator from the book as a model for Polonius in his masterpiece Hamlet. At its heart, Goślicki’s book promotes the idea that checks and balances must exist in order to ensure that the rule of law applies to everyone, including a country’s rulers. Of course, Goślicki never wrote that “all men are created equal”. However, he believed that “sometimes a people, justly provoked and irritated, by the Tyranny and Usurpations of their Kings, take upon themselves the undoubted Right of vindicating their own liberties”. The book more than likely influenced the language of the US constitution. Indeed, President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) had the book in his library and was familiar with its content. Wawrzyniec Goślicki was a Roman Catholic bishop of Kamianets-Podilskyi, Chełm and Przemyśl, which are all cities located in the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth. Goślicki played a key role in achieving in 1596 the union of Brest between Rome and parts of the Ruthenian Orthodox Church. This subsequently led to the establishment of the Greek Catholic Church.

US Constitution, Source: Shutterstock

Most of the founding fathers of the May 3rd constitution were born in the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth. This includes Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, who migrated to the US and became an American citizen after Poland lost its independence. King Stanisław August Poniatowski (reign 1764-1795) also contributed to the preparation and ratification of the constitution. He was born in Polesia, a region located mostly in modern Belarus. His mother belonged to the Czartoryskis, a very powerful Polish magnate family of Lithuanian-Ruthenian background. The Czartoryskis were descended from the Jagiellonian dynasty, which in the Middle Ages ruled the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and then the Polish-Lithuanian Union. Before being elected king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania, Stanisław represented various regions of the Eastern lands in the Polish-Lithuanian parliament and occupied several posts in the local government. In 1765, King Stanisław August Poniatowski made Charles Henry Lee (1732-1782), an Anglo-American military officer, his aide-de-camp. In the following years, Lee served as a general of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). During the conflict, he was second-in-command to George Washington. He often argued with his commander and was eventually found guilty of disrespect and suspended from the army. General Lee was born in England, but he served for six years in North America in the British Army during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Lee immersed himself in Native American culture. He lived among the Iroquois, a powerful tribal confederacy that controlled the eastern regions of the Great Lakes. Their society followed a matriarchal system. Women held the positions of power in political, social and economic life. In 1988, the US Congress passed a resolution that recognized the role that the Iroquois Confederacy played in inspiring the American constitution.

He even married an Indian woman who was the daughter of a prominent chief. The woman bore him fraternal twins. He was accepted into the clan and given the name Ounewateriku, or ‘Boiling Water’, which most probably referred to his volatile personality. As a member of the clan, he was entitled to a seat in the council of the confederacy. Lee eventually learned to speak fluent one of Iroquois languages. Interestingly, it is worth remembering that the Prussian king Frederick the Great (1740-1786) justified his territorial expansion at the expense of Poland by comparing the Poles to Iroquois.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Source: Shutterstock

According to Philipp Papas, the author of Lee’s biography, his “political radicalism took shape in Eastern Europe, and the longer he remained there, the more radical his views became. He believed that Eastern Europe’s political and social strife were indicative of the despotic and corrupt absolutist regimes that dominated the region. He was particularly troubled by the number of peasants who were relegated to serfdom. Lee witnessed Poland’s serfs doing backbreaking labor and routinely being mistreated”. Lee empathized with Poland’s peasants, describing their plight as “a greater horror of slavery than ever”. In 1774 General Lee published a pamphlet arguing that the crisis that had unfolded between Britain and the Americans since the end of the French and Indian War was not simply a dispute between a motherland and her colony. Instead, it was supposedly part of the ongoing universal struggle for human freedom against tyranny. Lee postulated the establishment of a democratic system based on mass political participation, freedom of conscience and universal education. American revolutionaries shared Lee’s commitment to independence though few shared his radical outlook.

Hiawatha Belt, Flag of Iroquois Confederacy, Source: Shutterstock

In 1769 King Stanislaw August Poniatowski granted Lee a commission as a major general in the Polish army. Lee took part in the Russo-Turkish War and also fought against the Bar Confederacy in the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth. The confederates were Polish nobles who fought in alliance with the Turks and Tatars against Russian domination and the Polish king. Lee’s interest in irregular, militia and guerilla tactics, which had begun to take shape during his first time in North America (1754-1760), was fully developed during the war in the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth. He ironically commented that the Bar Confederacy’s “method of carrying on war is about as gentle as… in America”. Consequently, Lee vigorously promoted ‘hit and run’ tactics during the American Revolution. In his opinion, the American militia army should avoid competing with the professional British forces in pitched battles. Instead, they should rely on guerilla warfare in order to wear down their enemy.

Throughout the 1770s and 1780s, Stanisław August Poniatowski followed closely the debates surrounding the legal rights of the American colonists and wider events taking place in the area. He also expressed sympathy for the American fight against the British Empire. The king continued to welcome Americans into his service. In 1786 the king gave Louis Littlepage (1762–1802) from Virginia the rank of chamberlain and made him his ‘first confidential secretary’. In 1794 Littlepage joined the Kościuszko Uprising and participated in the defence of Vilnius against the Russians. In 1788 Stanisław August Poniatowski nominated Philip Mazzei (1730-1816), an Italian physician, to the post of his official representative in Paris. Mazzei was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson. During the American Revolution, he helped to purchase arms for the American side.

The Polish political system became a key topic of debate for the American founding fathers during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. For example, Alexander Hamilton, referring to the election of the Polish king, proposed that the US president be elected for life. James Madison rejected the idea, expressing his concern that in the future foreign governments could interfere in the election of the president, as was the case with the election of the king of Poland. During this period Alexander Hamilton, James Madison (1751-1836), and John Jay, under the collective pseudonym “Publius”, published The Federalist Papers, a collection of articles and essays written to promote the ratification of the constitution. In the book Poland is mentioned several times, usually as an example of the problems that arise from a confederate form of government. Madison described Poland’s government as “a mixture of aristocracy and monarchy in their worst forms [..] unfit for self-government” and “at the mercy of its powerful neighbors”.

“The worst forms” mentioned by Madison included the liberum veto (Latin for ‘free veto’). This allowed any parliamentary representative to force an immediate end to the session and to nullify any legislation that had already been passed. It was perhaps the most striking example of the structural weaknesses of the Polish-Lithuanian political system in the 18th century. Those from the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth were greatly overrepresented among those deputies who used the liberum veto. This overrepresentation was caused by the fact that these deputies were often clients of powerful magnate families that controlled the Eastern lands’ political system.

Jan Matejko, The Constitution of 3 May 1791. Source: Wikipedia

The May 3rd constitution aimed to deal with these fundamental deficiencies in Polish political life. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other leading figures of the American Revolution admired this document and the wider work of King Stanisław August Poniatowski. Jefferson even sent him a copy of his book Notes on the State of Virginia. Washington wrote to his aide-de-camp David Humphreys (1752-1818) that “Poland, by the public papers, appears to have made large and unexpected strides towards liberty, which, if true, reflects great honor on the present King, who seems to have been the principal promoter of the business”. Humphreys was a poet who wrote the first sonnet known to have been written in America. This occurred just around the time that the US declared its independence. Humphreys wrote a poem that said:

New laurels brings to thee, great Stanislaus!
Thy glorious name shall stand unrivaled on the rolls of fame. . . 
Thy voice pronounced to free the rights of man. . . 
Thy Godlike voice, that op’d the feudal graves, 
Call’d to new life innumerable Slaves. . . 
Thy generous Nobles made those Vassals free,
Hail blessed example! Happy Poland hail! . . . 

In 1791 Joe Barlow (1754-1812), another prominent American poet, sent to Louis Littlepage a letter addressed to Stanisław August Poniatowski. The letter congratulated the monarch on his successful ratification of the constitution. In 1792 Barlow presented the king with his poem The Conspiracy of Kings. The piece talks of the Polish ruler in a very positive light:

There Stanislaus unfolds his prudent plan, 
Tears the strong bandage from the eyes of man, 
Points the progressive march, and shapes the way, 
That leads a realm from darkness into day.

The 3rd May constitution was in force for less than 19 months. The magnates, mostly from the Eastern lands, revolted and asked Russia for military intervention. The country subsequently attacked Poland in 1792. The ‘War in Defense of the Constitution’ lasted two months and was waged mainly in the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth. The war ended with a Polish defeat and the country lost its independence three years later. In the words of the principal authors of the 1791 constitution, the document effectively became “the last will and testament of the expiring Homeland”.