Anniversaries & holidays
3.05.1791

Anniversary of the 3rd May Constitution

Kopia Konstytucji 3 maja eksponowana w Sali Senatorskiej w Warszawie, Konstytucja w formie książki, otwarta jest na stronie tytułowej. Leży w szklanej gablocie, która stoi na wysokim postumencie. Na gablocie tabliczka z napisem Konstytucja 3 maja
Kopia Konstytucji 3 maja eksponowana w Sali Senatorskiej w Warszawie, fot. Adrian Grycuk, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Poland license.

The May Constitution from 1791 does not mention representatives of the Jewish communities. Nonetheless, its enactment was an important step in the discussions on the legal and social status of the Jews residing in the Polish lands.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was in a difficult position due to both serious internal problems (blocking all the efforts to repair the state, among others by the liberum veto) and external problems (attempts made by the powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria to invade the Commonwealth, realized as the First Partition of Poland in 1772). During the reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski, at least since the 1860s, the issue of the status and place of Jewish communities within the structure of a multi-religious state based on the social class model was raised. An attempt was made to estimate the number of Jews, and Jewish sejms were abolished. Journalists and political commentators were embroiled in a dispute on the "reform of the Jews".

The Four-Year Sejm (1788-1792) debated the reform of the state, one of its elements being the first European constitution regulating the principles on which the state was based and intended to strengthen the system of government and governance. The May Constitution makes no mention of the Jews. However, this does not mean that the fate of the Jews living in the First Republic of Poland was not intertwined with this unique legal act. By leaving out the Jews (the vast majority of whom lived precisely in cities and towns), the new regulations concerning the bourgeoisie in fact questioned their right to settle in cities. The omission of Jews and their legal status in the May Constitution did not stop the discussion about the necessity of changes in this area. Politicians and journalists, headed by Member of Parliament Butrymowicz, proposed a number of solutions aimed at improving the position of Jews, broader control and more rational management of this population group.

The struggle for the repair of the state, despite the lack of decisions concerning the Jewish issues in the Constitution itself, was received by the Jews with optimism. The steps taken by the Sejm pointed to a positive direction of changes, and a number of internal problems faced by the kehillot (financial problems in the form of debt, oligarchic management of communities) caught the attention of the First Republic's politicians, which gave hope for support in solving them.

The general mood of joy over the passing of the May Constitution was also shared by the Jews. Together with their Christian neighbours, they took to the streets to manifest their satisfaction and hopes that the successful attempts to repair the state brought about. The ceremonial marches testified to their enthusiasm for the reforms undertaken. From today's perspective, this credit of trust, forced on one hand by the difficult situation of the kehillot which required prompt changes, and on the other hand caused by the euphoria of the society towards a big step towards reforms, is an interesting phenomenon illustrating the attitude of Jews towards the Polish statehood. Moreover, the importance of the May Constitution was also appreciated from the time perspective, as Jews enthusiastically celebrated anniversaries of the passing of the 3rd of May Constitution. A hymn which was composed for the occasion survived to our times—it conveyed the mood of joy over the adoption of the constitution and stressed the special role of Stanisław August Poniatowski in the process.

The May Constitution did not change the legal position of Jews in the Polish Republic. However, it allowed the representatives of Jewish communities to observe positive tendencies in understanding the need for changes in the legal status of Jews in the reformed state. We can only imagine the emotions that accompanied the events that took place in 1791 in the streets of Warsaw and other larger cities of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They are probably well represented by the "Mazurka of the 3rd May", written in 1831 which aroused the mood of positive change with the verse: "Hello May, beautiful May."