Poland's May Days 1791

The first modern constitution in Europe? On the occasion of its bicentenary, Robert Frost looks at the background to a landmark in Polish history which, though it triggered the final disaster of partition by the country's greedy neighbours, was a work of enlightened reform, not revolution. 

In early May 1791, Warsaw was in a state of intense nervous excitement. Since 1788, with Russia distracted by the Turkish War, the Diet of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been debating reforms which might enable Poland to regain its position as one of Europe's leading states. Agreement had as yet proved impossible due to divisions between conservatives, who wished to preserve the Commonwealth's unique political system and reformers, who disagreed amongst themselves over the best means of transforming it. Now, however, it was rumoured that the reform camp had reached a compromise and that some move was imminent.

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