Skip to comments.3 May 1791
Posted on 05/02/2005 10:39:52 AM PDT by lizol
3 May 1791
Letter from Poland By Peter Gentle
As the political elite of Europe collectively scratch their heads and wonder how to inspire a disinterested electorate about the wonders of the European Constitution, its a good time to look back to Europes first ever written constitution, created in Poland on 3 May 1791.
The public happiness of the community lies in the private happiness of individual subjects All citizens are born equal and have equal rights".
Those words sound familiar, dont they? Well, they should. They are taken from Thomas Jeffersons Declaration of Independence, written in 1776. But, if he had written those lines today then his lawyers would probably receive notice that he was going to be sued for infringement of copyright.
These words were actually written by a Polish bishop two hundred years before Jeffersons Declaration of Independence.
British historians like to point to Westminster as the Mother of Parliaments. But the oldest democracy in European history took root in 15th and 16th century Poland. The Polish equivalent of the English Habeas Corpus was proclaimed in 1430. All the monarchs powers were transferred to the Polish parliament in 1505 long before the Glorious Revolution in England, one hundred and fifty years later.
Poland elected its own kings in those days the electorate being made up of the landed gentry. Poland at that time was a multiethnic state and the most democratic in the world bar none.
Much of this progress was based on the philosophical work of the Bishop to Poznan in Poland, Wawrzyniec Goslicki. It was he who penned the words about equality of man that would later so inspire Thomas Jefferson.
Goslicki was the radical catholic philosopher who wrote those lines in his 1568 tract, De Optimo Senatore. When this was translated into English as The Accomplished Senator in 1588, Queen Elizabeth of England had a red haired, flaming fit and immediately had it banned.
This is not surprising. A document that proclaims, All men are equal would not be to her taste at all. The Common Man for her was useful for fighting wars and exploring far off countries and bringing her back things like potatoes and tobacco. But they were not equal to Her at all.
Other parts of Goslickis treatise got her even more outraged. For instance, he says: "Kings are created not for themselves but for the good of their subjects".
Blimey! This was radical stuff, and if Goslicki had been an Englishman then he would - if Queen Elizabeth had been in a good mood that day - have found himself doing a bout of solitary in the Tower of London. If she had been in a bad mood then his head would have been propped up on a spike outside the Tower.
But Queen Elizabeth was not alone in her dislike of this sort of talk about equality and the duties of the monarch to her subjects. Eventually, the Polish bishop, like Galileo, was excommunicated by Rome for his sins.
Meanwhile, back in Poland, the forces that were driving these democratic reforms were unstoppable. By the late 1700s, the growing middle classes and the peasantry wanted some of the action, too. This process culminated in the drawing up of what would become the Polish May 3rd Constitution of 1791.
Jan Matejkos famous painting tells the story of this revolutionary event. Supporters of the constitution, particularly the emerging middle classes who stood to gain from the document as it officially recognised their rights to owning property, crowded the chamber of the parliament and the public galleries. And much of the sprit of bishop Goslickis words, about equality and all that stuff, would be enshrined in the Constitution.
When it was formerly passed thorough parliament it became after the American Constitution of 1787 - only the second ever to be proclaimed in the world, and the first in Europe.
Unfortunately, this was the swan song of multiethnic, Polish democracy. A few years later, the three competing Imperial powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria carved up the state and Poland stopped existing for over one hundred years.
Poland has had three constitutions since then, the last being ratified in 1997.
EU The primary function of a constitution is to lay out the limits of power the state has over the individual. But the European Union constitution doesnt appear to do that at all. Its about 250 pages long and is full of eurospeak, with words in it like subsiduarity, which normal people dont understand at all, and most care about even less.
And thats the problem for the Euro political elites today. France will be holding a referendum about the document on May 29, and if opinion polls are to be believed, then the French are all set to vote a resounding Non, merci!
This would be a disaster for the French. The document is the product of the work of that old French aristocrat and former President himself, Valerie Giscard d'Estaing. The constitution, and the old EU in general, is very much a French project. Since Poland and the others joined last year, however, much of western Europe feels that it is loosing control of that project. Political leaders cant seem to make people in those countries care about that.
You get the feeling that if the French do vote against the constitution then there will be a lot of British and Polish politicians who will be mightily relieved.
I bet Jacque Chirac and the others just wish they had a document to lay before the voters of Europe like the relatively simple, and inspiring Polish May 3rd Constitution of 1791.
Even the French voter might have even said: Oui, monsieur!
You know, partner, I was reading a massive biography of Charles de Gaulle over the weekend (728 pages; finished it in two days)--I wasn't aware de Gaulle was in Poland during the war against the Soviet invasion of circa 1920.
Also, de Gaulle was scheduled to visit Poland in 1970, but he died while playing cards after supper, and never made it.
He had made a visit to Poland during the 1960s, and with some sort of weird gift of prophecy, it appears he foresaw (a) some sort of nationalistic uprising against Communism, (b) a clamp-down so as to "stabilize" the situation, allowing the forces of freedom to slowly grow and flourish, and (c) true independence and liberty.
Eerily prophetic, because "Solidarity" was (a), the Polish general with the big eyeglasses was (b), and 1991 was (c).
Anyone can say all the negative things he wishes about de Gaulle, but apparently de Gaulle had a soft spot of affection for Poland and the Poles.
I knew that; I knew exactly what you meant.
I know I am a "minority opinion" on Free Republic about Charles de Gaulle, but I rate him along with Winston Churchill and Alexander Solzhenitsyn as the three Giants of the 20th Century.
I figured that was the case, some sort of affinity between the Poles and the French.....sort of like the natural affinity between the Americans and the Chinese, which seems odd on its face, but does exist.
Natural affinity between the Americans and the Chinese ?
Yeah, sure, that's why the loss of China in 1949 dealt such a blow to the American psyche.
Although it is true Americans have traditionally "loved" the Chinese more than the Chinese ever "loved" us.
It goes back to the 1790s, but blossomed circa 1840-1940, when Europe and Japan were always picking on China, and the United States tried, unsuccessfully, to do something about it.
By 1900, there were more than 100,000 Americans in China, trying to do business with the Chinese, or trying to convert them to Christianity (or trying to do both)--and every schoolhouse, every church, every town hall in America, frequently featured "lectures" and "slide shows" about China, from Americans who had been there.
In 1900, Americans knew more about China, than they did about Canada.
But, as I mentioned, while the Americans may have "loved" the Chinese very much, the Chinese never really returned that affection.
One supposes the biggest "public-relations blunder" the Americans made, in regards to the Chinese, was something similar with what the Russians did to the Ukrainians.
The Americans looked upon the Chinese as their "little brothers," just as the Russians looked upon the Ukrainians as their "little brothers."
Uh, problem here.
Just as a Ukrainian, aware that his history and culture is 1000 years older than the Russian, a Chinese, aware that his history and culture was 3000 years older than the American, would hardly view himself as a "little brother."
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.