Finding Hope in the Tragedy of Poland’s May 3rd Constitution

May 3rd Constitution

Today, May 3, 2018 marks the 226th anniversary of the second-oldest constitution in the world—the Polish Constitution of 1791. Its emphasis on achieving more equal rights and protections under the law for all Poles preceded that of any other major country, except for the United States.

>>Click to read the Polish Constitution of 1791

The constitution, among other things, granted townspeople the same rights as nobles, gave legal protection to peasants and provided for a national army to protect this First Polish Republic.

Tragically, this historic document was short-lived. For decades, Russia had taken advantage of Poland’s internal weaknesses, essentially turning the Polish government into its puppet state. The Polish King, Stanisław August Poniatowski, had even been a lover of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, and owed his power to her. For the Russians, then, this new constitution was seen as a revolt that needed to be squashed.

As a result, the Russian army, in concert with the treacherous Targowica Confederation, a group of Poles loyal to the Russian Empress, descended upon Poland in the Russo-Polish War of 1792-1793. Despite a victory at  Zieleńce on June 18th, 1792, the Poles were numerically outmatched and defeated. The Polish king, who had briefly asserted himself, recoiled. Between June and October 1793, Russia forced the Poles to rescind the constitution.

tadeusz kosciuszko
Polish revolutionary, Tadeusz Kościuszko, fought valiantly  to defend Poland and the principles of the May 3rd constitution, but he was numerically and technologically outmatched by the Russians and Prussians.

After this monumental defeat, Poland’s last stand came with the bold insurrection led by Tadeusz Kościuszko against the Russians in 1794. The uprising had some early successes, such as the famed Battle of Racławice, where an army of Polish serfs armed with scythes defeated a technologically and numerically superior Russian force. Ultimately though, the Russians, together with the Prussians, brought the full strength of their empires to bear upon Poland and destroyed her. The consequence was the third partition of 1795 and the end of an independent Poland until 1918.

The May 3rd Polish constitution, then, was like a flickering candle flame in the dark and windy night of the partitions. Although that spark of enlightenment was quickly extinguished, it burned a permanent imprint on the Polish national consciousness and continues to be a source of inspiration and pride for Poles today.

For it was those democratic ideals that gave Poland something to fight and die for in the coming centuries. It was that affirmation of Poland’s unique identity and existence that kept its glorious past in the hearts and minds of its citizens, no matter where life took them. Finally, it was that memory of what Poland could accomplish that instilled hope and faith in Poland’s future survival.

Happy Polish Constitution Day. Long live Poland!

>>Click to check out images from last year’s May 3rd Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago

A Tale of Two Countries: Live From the Polish Constitution Day Parade

polacy
Poles and Americans march together at the 124th annual Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago.

Many people don’t think of Poland when it comes to important historical events. And yet, today, May 3, 2015 marks the 224th anniversary of the second-oldest constitution in the world—the Polish Constitution of 1791. Its emphasis on achieving more equal rights and protections under the law for all Poles preceded that of any other country, except for the United States. It’s here that we begin to see that Poland and the U.S. share a special connection, rooted in both countries’ forward-thinking (for the time) beliefs that people aren’t necessarily just subjects of some king, but citizens of a free nation.

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This special connection between Poland and the United States has persisted throughout the centuries and comes to light especially strong every May 3rd during the Polish Constitution Day parade in Chicago. For the past 124 years, Poles, Polish Americans and even Americans with no Polish background have marched together  in a sign of multi-ethnic unity and national pride.

polish sickle

I have heard some Poles say that this unity and pride displayed in Chicago during the May 3rd festivities  surpasses that found even in Poland. How can that be? How can Poles thousands of miles away be just as, if not more, patriotic than those in native Poland?

Truth is, the farther you are from home, the more you have to hang onto that patriotism if you want it to survive. It’s why every time I go to Poland, I like wearing American shirts, whereas here I hardly ever do. In Poland, it’s taken for granted that you are a Pole; in America it’s taken for granted that you are American.  People like to emphasize their uniqueness because we all want to be different and stand out. In Chicago, the Polish-American community sticks tightly together, and when it’s time to come out in force, they don’t disappoint.

Sweet Ride
Sweet Ride

That’s part of it—the other part is that there really is a special connection between the U.S. and Poland. We are cut from the same tree—the liberty tree. The Polish constitution  was miles ahead of the rest of Europe. Even as early as the 16th century, Poland was already experimenting with more equal forms of government in the “Noble’s Democracy.” Poles and Americans think alike, and we therefore support each other, especially on May 3rd, which symbolizes the best of what we have in common.

I really felt wonderful walking through the streets of the Windy City fully decked out in my Polish gear. It instilled pride knowing that America’s third largest city was Polish for a day. A sea of red and white flooded Dearborn Street, and I never had to walk long to bump into another proud Pole.

Trzeciego Maja

One particular moment during the parade epitomized the Poles’ unmatched persistence. As the parade floats were crossing under a set of train tracks, some were too high and couldn’t fit. A few floats actually bumped into the tracks and were partially ruined. When it came to a float containing a large cutout of a Jesus figure, the Poles were not going to allow it to slam into the tracks. Slightly bending the figure, the people on the float managed to fit Jesus through the rail tracks as the crowd thunderously applauded and cheered. It was a funny little moment, but it symbolized how the Poles always find a way. Soon after the Polish constitution was ratified in 1791, Poland was conquered and partitioned by outside powers. Many swore then that Poland would rise again, and the constitution would not have been drafted for nothing. And so it happened…the Poles somehow found a way.

Jesus made it under the tracks!!!
Jesus made it under the tracks!!!