And so, on 20 October 1791, the Lithuanian delegation achieved an agreement at the Great Sejm on the amendment to the Constitution, which was named the Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations. The document at the Great Sejm was presented by Kazimierz Nestor Sapieha (1757–1798), whereas the author of the amendment was most likely Tadas Korsakas, judge at Vilnius Land Court. Based on this Guarantee, the key mutual executive authorities that were established in accordance with the Constitution of 3 May – the Army and Treasury Commissions – had to have an equal number of members from Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, while their chairmen had to be Polish and Lithuanian in succession. Although the Guarantee mentioned “the common homeland – the Republic of Poland”, the phrase “both nations” and the name of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were broadly used as well. Hence, the principle of duality was once again embedded in the Constitution of 3 May. The authors of the Constitution’s amendment and their contemporaries acknowledged that this was a continuation of the ideas encompassed by the Union of Lublin, only adjusted to fit the needs of modern society. Having an equal number of Polish and Lithuanian members in the Commissions surpassed even the principles of the Union of Lublin because, according to Hugo Kołłątaj, Polish politician and philosopher (1750–1812), “Lithuania, neither in the number of citizens nor in its assets, amounts to even a third of the Crown”. In accordance with the legal system of the Polish‑Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations became part of the pacta conventa: a contractual pledge given by elected kings to the state’s nobility, valid since 1573. This meant that future rulers and their successors would also have to make a vow to follow the Guarantee. Thus, in the hierarchy of legal norms, the Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations surpassed even the Constitution of 3 May. It could not be amended by extraordinary Sejms that were authorised to amend the Constitution every 25 years.
This is the reason why the Constitution of 3 May was considered to be the act of Lithuania’s revival. Reforms accelerated Lithuanian society’s political and social development and provided new opportunities to Lithuanian-language culture. It is not a coincidence that the Constitution was then translated into Lithuanian. This was the first political and legal document of this kind, since up until then there were only religious and fiction texts available in the Lithuanian language. The Constitution of 3 May solemnly reads: “With the highest dignity in our hearts, we are enacting this Constitution for the establishment of freedom as well as protection of our homeland and its borders”. 27 out of 33 powiat Sejmiks from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania swore an oath to the Constitution in February 1792, whereas the six remaining Sejmiks consented to it. In this regard, the Constitution had more supporters in Lithuania than it did in Poland, where an oath was sworn by only 10 out of 45 Sejmiks (with 27 Sejmiks consenting to it).
Although the Constitution of 3 May did not even come close to radicality of the laws passed during the French Revolution, it should be considered the tipping point between the Lithuanian and Polish old nobility regime and modern times. The Constitution suffered a terrible fate: the internal reaction – the Targowica Confederation – allied with Russia and forced Stanisław August Poniatowski and the Sejm to renounce the Constitution. The Commonwealth as a whole was also defeated: in 1795, it was ultimately divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia. However, all the 19th-century Lithuanian and Polish uprisings against Russia were ideologically driven by the ideas of the Constitution of 3 May.
The Polish historian Henryk Samsonowicz has named the Constitution of 3 May one of the three most significant documents of the epoch, alongside the Constitution of the United States and France’s Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen. Today we are proud that it was Lithuania’s constitution as well.
Prof. Dr. Alfredas Bumblauskas