Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Historical trivia of the day 

There is one other bond that the American and the Polish people share, and that's their history of constitutionalism. As Carl L. Bucki writes:
"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal." These words, so close to the hearts of all true patriots of freedom, begin the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence. But we must not attribute their origin solely to Thomas Jefferson, for these words are identical to those of Wawrzyniec Goslicki, a Polish philosopher whose writings were to be found in Mr. Jefferson's library. How could it be that a Pole might supply the words of inspiration for the founding of the United States of America? One should not be surprised. Intellectually and philosophically, America and Poland have shared a common devotion to the cause of liberty and freedom.
While America's is the world's oldest written constitution, dating back to 1787, Poland's short-lived Constitution of the 3rd of May is the world's second oldest (and Europe's oldest), as we celebrate today its 214th anniversary.

Both the American and the Polish constitutions were quite similar in spirit, born out of the same Enlightenment milieu, standing like two beacons of progress and reform amongst the contemporary sea of autocracy. The May Constitution granted political equality between the nobility and bourgeoisie and placed the peasantry under the state's protection, in the first move to abolish serfdom then dominant throughout the Eastern Europe. The Constitution also enshrined a separation of power between the three branches of government (including a bi-cameral legislature), and it abolished outdated political practices which over the centuries had reduced Poland from Europe's greatest power to an anarchy-ridden playground of its greedy neighbors. Unlike the American Constitution, it did not create a republic with an extensive franchise, but it was still a document far ahead of its times. Edmund Burke called it "the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time."

So far ahead of its times, in fact, that the autocratic rulers of Russia, Prussia and Austria could not allow it to stand as temptation for their own subjects and a spur for the revival of Poland. Poland was invaded by Russia, the Constitution abolished, and the country partitioned between its neighbors in 1793 and 1795, ceasing to exist for the next 123 years.

Today, May 3 is celebrated in Poland as national holiday.


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