Topics of coins

230th Anniversary of the Constitution of 3 May 1791 – the magnum opus of the revived Polish - Lithuanian Commonwealth

The Commonwealth was dependent on Russia from the beginning of the 18th century, but its society, which was revived thanks to the Commission of National Education, the Corps of Cadets and modernised monastic schools, found it increasingly difficult to come to terms with Russia’s brutal meddling in the country’s affairs. The outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war (1787) raised hopes that Catherine II would have to loosen the leash choking the Commonwealth. In such circumstances, the Confederate Sejm, to which the privilege of liberum veto did not apply, assembled for the term from 1788 to 1792. This Sejm went down in history as the Four Years’ Sejm or Great Sejm due to its achievements, which culminated in a modern constitution. When the Sejm rejected an unsuccessful version penned by Ignacy Potocki, who was the leader of the reform camp, he asked Stanisław August to draw up a draft constitution. The monarch’s text was discussed from January 1791 amid the utmost secrecy by the co-authors of the act, who – apart from the king and Ignacy Potocki – included Hugo Kołłątaj and the ruler’s secretary, Scipione Piattoli. The final version was first introduced to a circle of trusted individuals, and on 3 May it was presented to the Sejm. Some of the deputies, whose opposition was feared, were still not back in Warsaw from the Easter break at that time. The Constitution was adopted through a “coup d’état”, but in February 1792, it was approved by more than 90% of the Sejmiks in the nationwide 3 May referendum.

The Government Act of 3 May proclaimed the sovereignty of the nation and implemented Montesquieu’s tripartite division of power. It abolished the liberum veto and established hereditary succession to the throne, and by granting townspeople the power of co-decision it broadened the social base of the system. The Commonwealth became a modern constitutional monarchy and began to regain its prestige in Europe.

Russia’s intervention in May 1792 and the war lost by the Poles brought about the fall of the magnum opus of 3 May, and, eventually, Polish statehood. The constitution, however, proved that Poles – “free from the disgraceful orders imposed by foreign force” – were able to revive the state. It restored Polish people’s respect for themselves and for their own tradition. The memory of the achievements of 3 May drove their fight to regain an independent homeland.

The reverse of the gold coin features the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Poland (the official name of the state at the time) from the days of Stanisław August, consisting of the White Eagle under the regal crown (coat of arms of the Polish Crown), Vytis (coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania), and Ciołek (coat of arms of the House of Poniatowski). A visible ribbon with the motto: Pro fide, lege et grege, meaning: For faith, justice, and the nation. At the bottom, the cross of the highest state decoration – the Order of the White Eagle.

The reverse of the silver coin features a fragment of the painting Constitution of 3 May 1791 by Jan Matejko. In the foreground, Stanisław Małachowski, Marshal of the Four Years’ Sejm, carried by the deputies and holding the text of the Government Act of 3 May. Below, a fragment of the Preamble to the Constitution.

The obverse of the silver coin features a fragment of the title page of one of the earliest editions of the Constitution of 3 May published by Michał Gröll’s publishing house in Warsaw, and the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Poland used in 1791.

Prof. Zofia Zielińska