Saturday was the 125th annual Polish Constitution Day parade held in Chicago, commemorating the May 3rd Polish Constitution of 1791. Since 1891, the event has been a focal point of Polish-American life in Chicago and draws thousands into a yearly sea of red and white.
This year, the parade was held along State Street, in between Lake and Van Buren Streets. Below are some images from the parade.
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.
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.
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.
Friday’s horrific terrorist attacks on Paris were a global tragedy. They reminded us that no one is safe anywhere, not even while unwinding on a Friday night after the work week. It really hit home, no matter where you live.
At the same time, the solidarity displayed around the world has been amazing and will hopefully lead to the defeat of the evildoers. As Poles and Polish Americans, especially, we share a bond with the French people that not everyone does.
The United States, Poland and France together pioneered the concept of constitutional liberty and democracy in the late 18th century. Effected in 1789, the U.S. Constitution was the first of its kind, espousing the principles of individual freedom in an age when monarchical rule was the norm.
Two years later, on May 3rd, 1791, the Polish Constitution was signed, granting greater political equality and popular sovereignty across the land. Sadly, the partitions of Poland a few years later caused many to forget that Poland codified the second democratic constitution in the world.
A few months after the Poles, the French adopted their own constitution. Although it was also short-lived (Napoleon enacted imperial rule a few years later), the French Constitution of 1791 legalized the French Revolution’s principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Thus, the U.S., Poland and France are sisters in freedom. Together, they set the standard for liberty and democracy that has been adopted around the world in succeeding centuries. During World War II, all three countries joined forces, bravely combating the totalitarian evil of Nazism. Although Poland and France were defeated, their resistance movements were the largest in the war, relentlessly fighting the Nazis until the Americans landed in Normandy.
For this reason, Americans, Poles, and the French must support each other in this time of need. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us and on the values we collectively fathered over two centuries ago. As individuals, we can only do so much, but a good place to start is with a prayer for the victims of this catastrophe.