Michigan Polonia Marks 230 years since Europe's first Constitution: "We are not here wasting our time"

Joseph Serwach

Why Polish-Americans Still Celebrate a 1791 Constitution That Only Lasted One Year 

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Poles celebrating Constitution Day in Orchard Lake, Michigan's Archdiocesan Shrine of St. John Paul the Great.Photo by Joseph Serwach.

Poles celebrating Constitution Day in Orchard Lake, Michigan's Archdiocesan Shrine of St. John Paul the Great.Photo by Joseph Serwach.

Poles worldwide celebrate a 1791 Constitution that triggered neighboring powers to invade, wiping Poland off the map for 123 years.

Two of the constitution’s authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, called the document “the last will and testament of the expiring Fatherland.” 

Why celebrate a constitution that was in effect for just a year?

Why Poles celebrate May 3 

There are 38 million Poles in Poland, but the loss of the 1791 Constitution means another 20 million Poles are spread around the world in a diaspora known as Polonia, including 850,000 in Michigan.

More than 400 Polish-Americans gathered at the Archdiocesan Shrine of St. John Paul in Orchard Lake, Michigan Sunday to celebrate Polish Constitution Day with a Mass, music, and talks.

Attorney Richard Walawender, the honorary consul of Poland in Detroit, said Constitution Day and the accompanying Polonia Day honoring Poles around the world “cements Poland's place in the world of democracies.”

The 1791 Constitution established Poland’s “resolve to stand for freedom and democracy, but it also symbolizes the resolve that the Polish nation would stand up to foreign adversaries.”

Neighboring Russia invaded Poland in 1792. Polish revolutionary Tadeusz Kościuszko, who also led troops in the earlier American Revolution, returned to his native land to lead the Kościuszko Uprising of 1794. Peasants were assembled to join armies fighting for Polish freedom. 

As Kościuszko predicted in a letter: “A revolution in Poland would unleash a nation, which, by its topographical position, its kindred spirit, customs, and language, by the armed forces it could muster, would be the only one able to rapidly spread Republicanism through Russia, planting and flowering the tree of liberty, even in the ice of Petersburg.’’

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The Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, the first European Constitution and the world's second after the U.S. Constitution.Photo by Joseph Serwach.

Constitution Day banned, Poland wiped off the map 

By 1795, Russia, Prussia, and the Astro-Hungary empire jointly “partitioned” the nation for the third and final time, wiping it off the map until 1918 following World War I. 

Following Polish independence in 1918, the revived Second Polish Republic formally established Constitution Day as an annual holiday. But Russia and Germany wanted Polish territory back, triggering World War II with their joint invasions of Poland in September 1939.

Constitution Day was again banned after Nazi Germany, and then the Soviet Union controlled Poland (who ordered Polish communists to replace May 3 with the communist May Day holiday). Polish rebels marked the banned annual May 3 protests against foreign occupiers.

In June 1989, Poland’s first free elections expelled communist rulers, and Constitution Day was revived as a formal holiday starting in 1990.

Throughout their decades of captivity (1795–1918 and 1939–1989), Poles took Constitution Day and the honoring of past revolutionaries “underground.” The day was celebrated in free Polish communities outside Poland (including Chicago, Detroit, and Hamtramck) starting in the 19th century.

Without a free homeland, 19th century Poles turned to literature and poets who started calling Poland “the Christ of Europe,” a nation that died for Europe’s sins, which would someday rise again. 

Poles waged repeated uprisings. A 1797 song, “Poland is Not Yet Lost,” would eventually become a free Poland’s national anthem. 

Walwawender said Constitution Day “has served as an inspiration for Poland and Polonia to regain Poland’s freedom from 123 years of subjugation and again from the time of Soviet oppression. So we celebrate and thank God, committing to God, Honor, and our Fatherland.”

Former Michigan Rep. Rocky Raczkowski, R-Troy, the keynote speaker, said, “The U.S. Constitution was the first which said people do not derive their liberty or their freedom from the government but God-given human rights.”

The son of Polish immigrants, Raczkowski said his heart still bleeds red and white, the color of Poland’s flag. 

“We are not here wasting our time,” Raczkowski said. “We are here spending valuable time remembering that this document, the 3 May Constitution in Poland, as well as the U.S. Constitution, are documents that were given to us by God. They are documents that preserve freedom and liberty, and may we always have liberty, freedom, and peace for our children.’’

John Grondelski, a former associate dean of the School of Theology at Seton Hall University and an alumnus of Orchard Lake St. Mary’s College, argues Poland’s revolutionary 1791 Constitution (the first freeing peasant serfs) terrified Russia, Prussia, and the Austrian Empire the same way a free West Berlin worried Russian leaders throughout the Cold War. 

“Poland’s long burial in the 19th century taught Poles to preserve their identity, their language, and their culture even if they didn’t have a state to help them do it,” Grondelski said in a 2018 Orchard Lake talk. 

“Poland did not exist on a map. It existed in the heart and our minds,” he added. “In the heart of every Pole who would not be assimilated, who would not surrender, who knew who he was.”

Why does a constitution that lasted just one year matter 230 years later? Grondelski added: “It matters because it’s an example to the world because of what might have been had it survived, because of how its defeat shaped Poland and, by extension, Polonia.”

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