The final, seventh painting depicts the adoption of the Constitution of May 3, 1791.
Dealt with here is a particularly difficult time in Polish history. The Rzeczpospolita, weakened by exhausting internal disputes imposed on it by wars, in the 18th century found itself under the de facto domination of the Russian Empire. The attempt to shrug that domination off by the Bar Confederation (1768-1772) ended with the first partition. The might of three neighboring empires – Russia, Prussia, and Austria – won out over law and justice. The shock of the partition, however, worked to revitalize the political nation of the truncated Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As far as it was possible under the control of the Russian ambassador who tried to maintain the inertia of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that benefitted Russia, King Stanisław August Poniatowski and the reformers supporting him undertook efforts to repair the system. With the establishment of the National Education Commission (at the same infamous Sejm that approved the first partition), a new stage begins – not one of fighting, but of working to rebuild the country’s ability to be independent. The ceiling of real changes that the “political nation” of the Commonwealth could carry out was achieved in the legislation of the Four Year Sejm (also known as the Great Sejm, 1788-1792), with its most important act: the Constitution of May 3, 1791.
A certain conflict of interests between the three partitioning powers made itself known in the 1780s and opened the possibility for reform. In preparing for a new war with Turkey in 1787, Catherine wanted to ensure peace with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. King Stanisław Poniatowski, the patron of Enlightenment reforms in the country, decided to seize this opportunity. He hurried to the Empress proposing that the Rzeczpospolita enter into a military alliance with her against Turkey. This would be a chance to increase the army and, at the same time, obtain consent to carry out the deliberations of the Sejm, which would have to deal with this and the new taxes, and in such a way that would exclude its break up by the liberum veto, i.e., failure to achieve unanimity. Of course, Catherine was not interested in strengthening Poland. However, she agreed to a Confederate Sejm (that is, one with majority voting), as long as the Polish elite did not attempt to organize a new armed confederation – like 20 years before in Bar. In the autumn of 1788, when the elections to the Sejm were being held, Russia was waging war not only against Turkey, but also against Sweden – and thus could not, for the time being, deal with Warsaw. At first, the king wished to contain the reforms within a frame which he believed would be acceptable to the empress. Nonetheless, some of the Sejm’s deputies quickly exceeded that frame in a bid to finally shrug off the hated “care” of Russia. This group, just two weeks after the opening of the Sejm, pushed through a resolution to increase the number of troops to 100,000. The die was cast. The Rzeczpospolita began to openly look for a way to regain independence. In July 1789, the revolution in France further complicated the stage for international politics. In Warsaw, work reforming the system began – indeed, work on a new “government act”, in the meaning of “constitution”. Great interest was aroused by the first written constitution in the world, adopted just two years earlier by the United States. Virtually at once it was discussed in the Sejm as a model, immediately having been translated and published in Poland.
The alliance of the king with the reformist-minded part of the opposition, led by Ignacy Potocki, led the Sejm to practical results. Potocki persuaded the king and most of the Sejm to accept the offer of alliance from Prussia in March 1790. This emboldened deputies of the Sejm to pass new rules for the system – despite Catherine. In March 1791, the Sejm passed a new law on provincial Sejms, laying order to their deliberations and removing the electoral rights of the “gołota”, or nobility without property, hitherto used in the political intrigues of the magnates. Immediately afterwards, in April, the law on cities was passed. It gave the citizens of cities the majority of rights that only nobles had enjoyed until then (including personal and property inviolability, the possibility of promotions in the military and judicial hierarchy, the right to acquire land) and the right to send plenipotentiaries to the Sejm. The idea was clear: bring the burgher estate closer to the nobility, thus strengthening the “political nation”.
On May 3, 1791, the basic law was finally passed: prepared by the king, together with Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj – this was Europe’s first constitution, officially called the “Government Act”. Its main intention is expressed in the preamble, with its justification of the need to reform the system: “…holding dearer than life, than personal happiness, the political existence, external independence, and internal liberty of the people whose destiny is entrusted to our hands, desiring as well to merit the blessing and gratitude of contemporary and future generations, despite obstacles that may cause passion in us, do for the general welfare, for the establishment of liberty, for the preservation of our country and its borders, with the utmost constancy of spirit ordain the present Constitution”. This was the most important thing in the Constitution for the envoys who passed it: to save the Homeland and to regain its external independence. The reform strengthening the government and changing the definition of the nation was to serve this purpose.
Legislative power remained in the hands of the Sejm in accordance with the Constitution, but its decisions were now to be made by a majority of votes. The executive power was to be exercised by the king together with the government whose composition was to be determined by the Sejm. In order to avoid foreign interference in subsequent elections, the principle of heredity of the throne was introduced: after Poniatowski’s death, the throne was to be taken over by the representatives of the Saxon Wettin dynasty, from which Polish kings had previously been elected. The law on cities was incorporated into the Constitution. The peasants were mentioned only in that they were considered part of the nation and were taken under the protection of “law and government”.
Citizens “free of the ignominious dictates of foreign coercion”, as the preamble of the May 3rd Constitution declared, were proud of the breakthrough. The Commonwealth was to be a well-governed state, opening up the prospect of further, gradual social and political changes towards a modern, now not only noble nation.
Although the passing of the Constitution itself was a kind of parliamentary coup d’état (a significant portion of the deputies and senators opposed to the Constitution were at that time on Easter holidays; all the supporters of change were present), it was universally ratified by the provincial Sejms throughout the country. It was also well-publicized abroad. It met with recognition on the part of moderate circles in revolutionary France, with the enthusiasm of such Whigs as Edmund Burke in England – and of course with fury in St. Petersburg and the greatest fears in Berlin. The Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ewald Friedrich von Hertzberg, reacted to Poland’s new Constitution with this bleak vision: “The Poles have struck at the Prussian monarchy by adopting a constitution better than the English. […] How will we be able to defend our country [Prussia] against such a large and well-ruled nation?”
Catherine II knew how to respond to these fears. From the moment the Constitution was passed, she had determined to break the independence regained by the Polish political nation. As a pretext for a military invasion, she used the dissatisfaction with systemic changes that a group of several Polish magnates expressed together with their clients, and who conspired together in St. Petersburg to form a “confederation” (meaning a mutiny), later called Targowica. The nearly 100,000-strong Russian army, seasoned in battles with Turkey, struck Poland. Of course, Prussia did not fulfill its allied commitments to Poland. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth succumbed to the war. The Constitution had lasted but a year.
The first written constitution in Europe and the second in the world, after the American one (ratified in June 1788), was and has remained a fitting reason for Poles to be proud. For it testified that the Commonwealth was full of strength, ready to live and develop in accordance with the rhythm of modernity. The allegations formulated against Poland by the propaganda of the partitioning powers, using the opinions of mercenary French philosophers such as Voltaire or Diderot – who then formed European opinion as do today’s great media – proved untrue. From a country described as the embodiment of backwardness, located in this vile propaganda somewhere in the black hole of the European Enlightenment, Poland suddenly found itself at the forefront of changes that were introducing a new political and social order related to a portion of the ideals of the Enlightenment. The Constitution became the symbol of the revival of Poland’s political life, of the civil spirit of the Rzeczpospolita. This awakening was not destroyed by the subsequent partitions.
This is why the memory of May 3 was still important in Poland’s Second Republic. And why it became even more important when in 1939 the neighboring empires again partitioned Poland, citing the need to bring civilization (Hitler) or progress (Stalin) to its territories. And this is something that must be remembered whenever someone tries to brand Polishness as a deviation from European patterns, as an “abnormality”. Poland is trying to build normality and modernity, and is demonstrating great ability –- but, unfortunately, it is often interfered with by aggressive, neighboring empires. The Constitution of May 3 is in this historical context a symbol – just as are the previous six events commemorated in the painting series by the Lukians – a symbol of the worthy place that free Poland belongs to in Europe, as well as in the wider community of the modern West.
The World’s Fair in New York continued until October 1940. In the stark light of double aggression, German on September 1, 1939 and 17 days later the invasion of the Soviet Union, this lesson of Polish history as presented in the Polish pavilion took on an expression all the more compelling. When in October 1940 the last guests visited the exhibition, hundreds of thousands of Poles had been murdered as a result of the occupation policy of the Soviets and Germans. The Katyń massacre had already happened (in October bonuses for NKVD officers were paid out for the “exemplary” murder of over 25,000 Polish internees and prisoners), the Germans had already carried out hundreds of mass executions, including a series of mass murders on representatives of Poland’s elites – in Palmiry, in Piaśnica, and in dozens of other places. Since August the transports of the first Polish prisoners had been underway to the concentration camp in Auschwitz established by the Germans. Polish pilots had already played a vital role in the Battle for Britain. The battle for Poland and the battle for Europe, the battle of Christianity against barbarism, the battle of freedom against despotism – were still being waged. Poland was again at the heart of this fight. And on the right side.
Not all creators of the painting series from the Polish pavilion survived these battles. Jan Gotard was shot by the Germans in 1943. Professor Tadeusz Pruszkowski, the initiator of the Brotherhood of St. Luke and the patron of the entire “New York” series, gave help to Jewish painters during the occupation. As the Polish Biographical Dictionary states, “this was probably the cause of his death. On the night of June 30/July 1, 1942, he was taken out of his flat at 11 Lwowska street together with several other people from the building, driven to the ghetto, and shot”.
This could be the subject of another, tragic painting of Polish history…
The series of paintings by the Lukians shown at the World’s Fair, which closed in 1940, remained overseas for over 80 years. The commissioner of the Polish exhibition, Stefan de Ropp, treated the paintings as the equivalent of the honorarium he should have received from the Polish government for maintaining the exhibition. Employed after the war at the Jesuit Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, he handed the Lukians’ paintings over to his employers in order to win a tax deduction… The paintings from the Polish exhibition, financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Second Polish Republic, remained until this year in the library of the Jesuit college, far from Poland, far from the public. They are now coming back home to us when another, eighth painting, or rather the subject for it, is suggested by the ongoing struggle between freedom and despotism being waged on the border between the old – now reviving – Rzeczpospolita and imperial Moscow.
The only lasting trace of the Polish presence at the New York World’s Fair is the magnificent equestrian statue of Władysław Jagiełło. New York’s mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, liked it so much that he wanted to keep it in his city, and in a prestigious place. Thus, in July 1945 the monument was placed in the middle of Manhattan, in Central Park, where it stands to this day – a wonderful image of the proud history of Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the idea of federation, freedom, and the will for independence.
tłum. Ph.E. Steele