225th Anniversary of the Polish Constitution

Photo of hand-written Polish constitution 1791
Photo from Polish Heritage Club Wisconsin-Madison FB page

Poles around the world celebrate the 225th Anniversary of the Polish Constitution on May 3, 2016. The Polish constitution became the first constitution in Europe, and only the second in the world, after the young United States ratified a constitution less than four years earlier. In many ways, the Polish constitution was patterned after, and inspired by, the U.S. Constitution. It’s the joint spirit of freedom that my friend Henry Zguda always told me “See, we Poles always come back.”

Photo of Polish eagleThe Polish Constitution is Celebrated for its Spirit and Attitude of Freedom

Consider these words from the 1791 Polish Constitution, Article V – “All authority in human society takes its origin in the will of the people.” Then consider the fear of nearby ruling monarchs that the Polish spirit of independence might spread to their own citizens. Indeed, shortly after its passing, Catherine the Great of Russia conspired secretly with Prussia and Austria to divide, conquer and erase Poland from the map of Europe by 1795, for the next 123 years. The first lines of the Polish national anthem express it best: “Poland has not yet perished while we live. What foreign force has taken from us, we shall take back with the sword.”

Peasant-Prince-coverThomas Jefferson and the Pole Thaddeus Kosciuszko (1746 -1817)

The Pole Thaddeus Kosciuszko served as an engineer in the Continental Army during our Revolutionary War. Afterwards, he was so moved by the Declaration of Independence, he sought out Thomas Jefferson, introduced himself, and he and Jefferson remained lifelong friends. He returned to Poland in 1784; there he was instrumental in the framing of the Polish constitution. When Russia opposed Poland, he led an insurrection against Russia in 1794. Following imprisonment by Russia, he again returned to the United States in 1797 and settled in Philadelphia. Today, the Philadelphia home of Thaddeus Kosciuszko is part of the US National Park Service as a memorial. Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello includes interesting information on the link between Jefferson and Thaddeus Kosciuszko.

Thomas Jefferson and the Polish Philosopher Wawrzyniec Goślicki (1530-1607)

Goślicki published his principal work, De optimo senatore in Venice in 1568, which was eventually translated into English in 1598 and again in 1607. The book became a widely-read political and social classic in England known to Elizabeth I and Shakespeare. Goślicki was a Catholic bishop who preached religious tolerance. He argued that law is above the ruler, who must respect it, and that it is illegitimate to rule over a people against its will. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy in his personal library. In part, Goslicki wrote in 1568: “Sometimes a people, justly provoked and irritated, by the Tyranny and Usurpations of their Kings, take upon themselves the undoubted Right of vindicating their own liberties.”

Chicago Knows How to Celebrate Polish Constitution Day!

This Saturday, May 7, 2016, will be the 125th Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago. The event regularly draws 250,000 people. I knew there was a reason to visit Chicago.

Na Zdrowie!


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Tags: Poland, Polish History

5 Comments. Leave new

  • Lucyna Spychalski
    May 3, 2016 4:31 pm

    Katrine, as you eloquently described that the Polish Constitution was established on 5/03/1791 and Poles all over the world celebrate that event. However, most importantly you connected its meaning to your main character, Henry Zguda, in the book entitled, “An American Meets Poland.” I enjoy reading your entries. Thank you

  • cindy Loewen
    May 3, 2016 7:01 pm

    Interesting history combining the supreme Polish great minds with our very own President Jefferson and how he was influenced to write the Polish Constitution.

    • Katrina Shawver
      May 3, 2016 9:52 pm

      Thanks Cindy. Just a minor point of clarification. Thomas Jefferson was friends with Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and it was Kosciuszko who went back to his homeland and helped write the Polish constitution. Both good men, for sure.

  • Very educating about the constitutions of the USA and Poland. I remember hearing the National Anthem when in Poland and wondered why they speak of perishing!! You explained that. Most informative as usual! Thank you so much.


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