The ancient Roman historian Sallust pronounced, “It is better to live in perilous liberty than in tranquil servitude.” But on May 3, 1791, a path beyond the Sallustian dilemma of perilous liberty or tranquil servitude was offered to old Poland, otherwise known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Their parliament, called sejm, acclaimed the world’s second modern constitution (after the American). It presented “orderly freedom,” whereby all inhabitants of the Commonwealth, and of all faiths, enjoyed the protection of law and government. But this achievement was hard-won and short-lived.
Like colonial Pennsylvania, the Polish-Lithuanian polity called itself a Commonwealth (the Polish word Rzeczpospolita also being an early translation of the Latin res publica) when the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania first linked themselves in 1385. The union evolved over time, and other communities joined as well. They included the burghers and knights who revolted against the Teutonic Order in Prussia and the townspeople and nobles of Livonia (now in Latvia and Estonia) threatened by Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Muscovy. The elites of Rus´ (now mostly in Belarus and Ukraine) also gladly participated. Despite its size, the Commonwealth’s purpose was not the taxes and standing army with which to pursue territory and glory, but the liberty of its citizens.
It is true that, as in several ancient republics, the large minority of free citizens exploited the unfree majority: in this case, enserfed peasants. Most citizens were nobles. There were several hundred thousand of them, mostly poor. Nevertheless, burghers of self-governing towns also considered themselves citizens, while Jews enjoyed communal autonomy, for all the prejudice they encountered. Much peril came from within—from nobles’ anarchic licence, magnates’ ambitions, and royal machinations. Still, the Commonwealth balanced between monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, which could degenerate into tyranny, oligarchy, and mob rule: an idea that went back to Aristotle. The young Commonwealth was even distinguished by agreement among its equal citizens to differ peacefully in matters of faith, whereas much of Europe was bloodied by wars of religion.
The delicate balance was maintained until the mid-seventeenth century. Then the Commonwealth was deluged by civil wars and foreign invasions. Some blows were self-inflicted, starting with a massive revolt among the free-spirited Cossacks of the Ukrainian steppes. At its root was the nobility’s refusal to admit enough senior Cossacks into the community of citizens. The Commonwealth survived these wars, but never fully recovered. Its losses of lands and people were aggravated by famines, plagues and global cooling. The political community turned inwards. Encouraged by the clergy, Catholic nobles blamed Protestant “heretics” and Orthodox “schismatics” for provoking Divine wrath. Civic equality became an ever more limited toleration of dissenters in religion, sliding into harassment and discrimination. The urban economy crashed, the burdens of serfdom grew heavier, magnates manipulated poorer nobles, educational standards declined, and traumatized citizens prayed to God and His Mother to protect their “golden freedom.”
Most harmful of all was the liberum veto. For fear of royal corruption, the custom of parliamentary consensus hardened into the requirement of unanimity. Things got to the stage when a single member could bring the proceedings of the sejm to a premature end, causing the loss of all the measures agreed until that point. By the end of the seventeenth century, more parliaments were being ruptured thus, than successfully concluding; by the middle of the eighteenth century, the legislature was paralyzed. Similarly afflicted by the liberum veto were some sejmiki. These local assemblies elected judges, so many law courts could not function either.
Peril also came from abroad. Foreign courts could exploit the liberum veto to block the fiscal and military reforms the Commonwealth needed. Royal elections provided opportunities to intervene. The Great Northern War (1700-1721) ended with the exhausted Commonwealth dominated by the Russian Empire, newly proclaimed by Peter the Great. The new order was cemented when the Russian army overturned the result of the royal election of 1733. From this nadir, the Commonwealth began to recover. Much would get worse before it got better, especially in the swamp of factional politics. But peace brought back prosperity, and the rays of the Enlightenment, carefully filtered through the Catholic teaching orders, helped educate a generation of virtuous, but critical patriots. The Commonwealth’s own republican values provided the foundation for its finest minds to propose the reform of its institutions and the extension of liberty beyond the nobility.
But the Commonwealth’s geopolitical vulnerability and fiscal-military weakness impeded the work of reform. Empress Catherine the Great tightened the screws of Russian hegemony, exploiting divisions and provoking chaos. When it suited her, she partitioned Polish-Lithuanian territory with the rulers of Prussia and Austria. However, she misjudged the former lover she had placed on the throne in 1764. King Stanisław August Poniatowski turned out to be a reformer. Much misunderstood and often derided, he doggedly pursued his vision: trust and cooperation between a patriotic monarch heading an effectual executive, and the ‘nation’ represented in the sejm. By the end of the 1780s, while Russia was distracted by wars with the Ottoman Empire and Sweden, the political community was ready for fundamental changes. Thus, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was able to establish and celebrate the monumental constitution of 1791. The liberum veto and royal elections were abolished, but republican values were refreshed rather than abandoned.
But the prospect of a strengthened Commonwealth that offered personal freedom to immigrating peasants and political rights to burghers horrified the empress. Asked by a few aristocratic malcontents to restore “Polish liberty,” Catherine sent in her armies. A counter-revolution, an insurrection, and two partitions later, the Commonwealth disappeared from the map of Europe. Afterwards, the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Austrian or Habsburg Monarchy secretly resolved “to abolish everything which could recall the existence of the Kingdom of Poland.” Poland and Lithuania would return in much altered independent republics to suffer yet worse woes in the twentieth century. But the revitalized Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth vanished.
From The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795 by Richard Butterwick. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.
Richard Butterwick is professor of Polish-Lithuanian history at University College London. He is the author of Poland’s Last King and English Culture and The Polish Revolution and the Catholic Church, 1788-1792.