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The Constitution of 3 May 1791 is undoubtedly one of the most important symbols of Polish independence. This Governance Act was not only a symbol, important law text or even a historical event – it was a breakthrough. In the spirit of understanding its importance, the first Sejm (the lower house of the Polish bicameral parliament) that gathered after regaining independence 1919 made the day of 3rd may a national holiday. It was restored as such in 1990.

Why the celebration of 3rd of May as the Constitution Day is so important? What was the role of Constitution in the XVIIIth century Poland?

Reign of the Saxons

The first half of the XVIIIth century was the time when Saxon kings from the House of Wettin ruled in Poland. It was also a time of chaos and tragic disorganisation of the state. Wealthy noble families cared more about their personal interest – many of them used to work for foreign forces in exchange for political and economic income.

Despite the political chaos, the culture of feasts and banquets was thriving. Among most popular alcohols were beer, wine and gorzałka (old polish name for vodka) – produced in Poland since the XVIth century. Gorzałka was popular not only among the commoners – we can estimate that around 20 litres of it per year was consumed by the court and the nobles. Also Women used to keep various flavoured vodkas in their households strictly for medical purposes. We have many descriptions of XVIIIth century fests in Poland – most of them describe various and complex rituals connected to toasting. There was even a famous phrase “Za króla Sasa jedz, pij i popuszczaj pasa” with can be translated as “ During the reign of a Saxon King, eat, drink and enjoy!” – it seems that the general social mood was not very encouraging towards any reforms.

Reign of Stanislaw August Poniatowski

The last king of Poland wanted a general reform of the country. He was an abstinent and he felt displeased towards irresponsible behaviours of the nobility. Interesting fact is that during his reign vodka started to be made out of potatoes – they have been brought to the country during the times of Jan III Sobieski but they slowly gained their popularity during the Saxon times.

Despite the fact that he was elected as a king thanks to the support of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, king Poniatowski had one main goal – he wanted to improve the general situation in Poland through reforms. Nowadays he is a very controversial figure – some scholars accuse him of political helplessness, but there is no denying that he tried to conduct general reforms. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was in crisis and in a deep need of such actions. The Great Sejm that took place in 1788-1792 was defined by a social reformative movement and the increased political activity of the nobility. Together with the prominent figures of Polish Age of Enlightenment, they deputies wanted to free Poland from the Russian influences and conduct general reform of the state. This reform was fully expressed in the act of Constitution adopted on the 3rd of May 1791.

Article by Przemysław Grochowski and Agnieszka Honkowicz tour guides in the Polish Vodka Museum.