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Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 1789-1792, after removal of protectorate of Russian Empire
The "Great" or Four-Year Sejm of 1788–1792 adopts the May 3rd Constitution at Warsaw's Royal Castle.

The Great Sejm, also known as the Four-Year Sejm (Polish: respectively, Sejm Wielki or Sejm Czteroletni; Belarusian: Вялікі Сойм or Чатырохгадовы Сойм; Lithuanian: Didysis seimas or Ketverių metų seimas) was a Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that was held in Warsaw, beginning in 1788. Its goal became to restore sovereignty to, and reform of, the Commonwealth, politically and economically. Its greatest achievement was the adoption in 1791 of the May 3rd Constitution. The reforms instituted by the Great Sejm were annulled by the Targowica Confederation and the intervention of the Russian Empire.

History

The intention of Catherine II of Russia, who treated the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a vassal state, was for the Sejm to raise a 100,000 strong military force to aid Russian Empire in their recent war with the Ottoman Empire. Because of that, the Sejm was a confederated sejm– immune to liberum veto.

However, as Russia became distracted with the wars (against the Ottomans and a later one against the Swedes), the Sejm became dominated by reform-minded politicians. In 1790, Poland signed an alliance with Prussia, obliging the members to come to mutual aid in case either country was invaded by the Russian Empire.[1]

Since the beginning of its deliberations in Warsaw, the Sejm was accompanied by increasing publicity and interest of the general population, one of the most famous being the "black procession" of burghers demanding more equality with the nobility (szlachta). The Sejm was significantly affected by the events in France– French revolution, where demands for the similar reforms toppled the absolute monarchy of Louis XVI. Thus, the pro-reform movement faced significant opposition from much of Polish magnates and wealthy nobility, which reaped the most benefits from the current status quo, and from the representatives of Poland's neighbours (Austria, Prussia and Russia) which preferred to have a weak Poland on their borders.

Nonetheless the pro-reform movement grew in strength, and the Patriotic Party formed around the king (Stanisław August Poniatowski), drawing support from more liberal minded magnates and, from 1790, from the Familia party of the Czartoryski's. The most radical among the reform advocates were the Polish Jacobins.

The Sejm abolished the Permanent Council and from 1790 was dominated by the pro-reform king and his political supporters. Many commissions were formed to take care of finances, economy and military. The army was increased to 100,000 (although financial problems soon forced a decrease to 65,000).

The largest achievement of the Sejm was the declaration of the May 3rd Constitution. It was designed to redress long-standing political defects of the federative Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and its Golden Liberty. The Constitution introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility and placed the peasants under the protection of the government,[1] thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. The Constitution abolished pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto, which at one time had placed the sejm at the mercy of any deputy who might choose, or be bribed by an interest or foreign power, to undo all the legislation that had been passed by that sejm. The May 3rd Constitution sought to supplant the existing anarchy fostered by some of the country's reactionary magnates, with a more egalitarian and democratic constitutional monarchy[2].

The adoption of the constitution was a partial coup d'etat. The advocates of the Constitution, faced with the threat of violence from the Sejm's anti-reform Muscovite Party (also known as the "Hetmans' party," so named from the fact that it was led by the hetmans, the top military commanders), with many contrary-minded deputies still away on Easter recess, managed to set debate on the Government Act forward by two days from the original May 5. The ensuing debate and adoption of the Government Act was far from standard: many pro-reform deputies arrived early and in secret, and the royal guards were positioned about the Royal Castle where the Sejm was gathered, to prevent Muscovite adherents from disrupting the proceedings. The Constitution ("Government Act") bill was read out and passed overwhelmingly, to the enthusiasm of the crowds gathered outside.

The Sejm was disbanded on May 29, 1792. The reforms of the Great Sejm were brought down by the Targowica Confederation and the intervention of the Russian Empire. The Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, remained in force only 14 months and 3 weeks.

Members

Important participants in the Great Sejm included:

Patriotic Party
Muscovite Party:
Others

References

  1. ^ Piotr Stefan Wandycz, The Price of Freedom: A History of East Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present, Routledge (UK), 2001, ISBN 0-415-25491-4, Google Print, p.128
  2. ^ George Sanford, Democratic Government in Poland: Constitutional Politics Since 1989, Palgrave, 2002, ISBN 0-333-77475-2, Google print p.11
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