Poland: Europe's Forgotten Democratic Ancestor

Honoring an unsung constitutional legacy.

It may not be apparent to everyone today, but written constitutions are a relatively modern phenomenon. The two earliest examples date only from the late eighteenth century, and come from two countries, decidedly different at first glance: America and Poland.

The first one was a federation of newly independent colonies that would become the most powerful country in the modern world; the other one was then a major European power and the largest state on the continent, stretching from the shores of the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south.

The constitutions of these two countries not only shared many notable similarities in their development and their final form, but they were also ratified almost at the same time: the first on September 17, 1787, the other on May 3, 1791.

Like its American contemporary, the origins of Poland’s constitution can be traced to several important and innovative developments in Polish history. Like their English counterparts, who drafted the Magna Carta—serving as the foundation of a historical process that led to the development of constitutional law—Poles also sought to restrict the powers of the crown and protect the rights of the individual.

Although regarded as one of the most powerful Christian powers in the European continent since adopting Christianity in 966, Poland effectively safeguarded the rights of religious minorities, embedding religious tolerance when King Bolesław the Pious put Polish Jews under royal protection by issuing the Statute of Kalisz in 1264, assuring their right to settle and live without fear of persecution. This unique precedent was codified later in the 1573 Warsaw Confederation, and became the first document in European history to legally mandate religious tolerance.

With such forward-looking ideas, Poland became the only place in Europe where refugees of various religious and political groups could settle and practice their beliefs without fear of official retribution. Sixteenth-century Poland was universally admired as the first state in Europe that exemplified religious tolerance, with mosques being built alongside churches and synagogues.

Moreover, other progressive laws defining the role of the monarch and extending rights to the citizens of Poland would follow, as the 1374 Privilege of Koszyce reduced taxes to a single remit that the landed gentry were expected to pay to the crown. Its other important provisions included the right of compensation from the crown for losses in war or captivity, and a restriction on appointing foreigners to official posts.

Further privileges granted by the crown between 1425 and 1447 established the legal principle of “Neminem captivabimus nisi iure victum,” which prevented the gentry from being arrested without a guilty conviction. This gave Polish citizens an unprecedented right to due process that would not exist in any other European jurisdiction for another three centuries.

In the Privileges of Nieszawa and Cerkwica in 1454, King Casimir IV agreed to laws that restricted the crown in setting new taxes, promulgating new laws and drafting nobles for military service without the consent of the local assemblies.

Poland’s strong parliamentary tradition originated in the fourteenth century. The history of Sejm is crucial in understanding the development of Poland’s constitutional path.

The act of Nihil novi, signed by King Alexander Jagiellon during the Sejm session in Radom on May 3, 1505, stipulated that “nothing new” could be legislated without the agreement of the nobles, officially transferring legislative power from the crown to the Sejm, which was composed of the landed gentry. This date is generally accepted as the beginning of Poland’s first republic, also known because of the Nihil novi act as “the Republic of Nobles.”

Another Polish innovation was a parliamentary procedure called liberum veto, which allowed any Sejm deputy—in most cases bribed by magnates or foreign powers—to nullify all the legislation enacted by that Sejm.

Due to that fact, many Polish philosophers, intellectuals and politicians sensed the danger of this dangerous political development to the future of the commonwealth. One of the most prominent voices in the debate was Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki.