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The Great Seym (Four-Year Seym)



The Great Seym was assembled for the purpose of preventing Poland from losing its independence. Its speakers were Stanislaw Malachowski and Kazimierz Nestor Sapieha. Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the Polish king, had as his adherents the powerful patriotic party with Ignacy and Stanislaw Potocki, Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, Stanislaw Malachowski, the Italian Scipione Piattoli, and Hugo Kollataj, who was the ideological leader of that group. That group, inspired by the king and in accordance with his proposals, worked out a Constitution Bill, which was passed on 3 May 1791. The passing of the Constitution had many features of a coup d’etat: Only about one-third of the deputies were present because of the Easter recess, and these were largely bound by an earlier oath to keep the secret. The part of the city adjacent to the Royal Castle, where the debates were held, was full of troops, Varsovians were in the streets, many burghers watched the debates.

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The adoption of the Constitution was preceded by legislative measures concerned with an improvement in the local administration, abolition of the Permanent Council, increase in the number of troops, imposition of taxes on estates, and adoption of the Provincial Diets Act of 24 March 1791 (which excluded the landless gentry from participation in the provincial diets). Burghers in the royal towns (those owned by the magnates were not covered by the Act) were assured personal inviolability, the right of purchasing estates, access to many offices and ranks in the army, and participation in the Seym (with the decisive vote in matters concerned with towns and trade). Stanislaw August was to be succeeded by the Saxon dynasty. The Seym, which would pass decisions by  majority vote, was to be the principal legislative body, while the executive power was the placed in the hands of a body called the Guardians of the Law, consisting of the king, the primate, and five ministers. Responsibility of the members of the government to the Seym was adopted as a principle. The Guardians of the Law took over supervision of all the offices and agencies through the intermediary of the major commissions (those for the army, fiscal affairs, the police, i.e. public administration, and national education). While the federal (Polish-Lithuanian) character of the state was preserved the dualism of offices, the fiscal affairs and the army was abolished. In the social structure the most important decision was the rejection of the principle that the state would not interfere with the situation of the peasants: Article 4 of the Constitution stated the ‘the agrarian people … are granted the protection of the law and of the national government’. Settlers arriving in Poland were guaranteed personal freedom.


Edited by: Mariola Dziedzic, Von Steuben High School, Chicago, IL
Researched by: Violetta Dziedzic, Von Steuben High School, Chicago, IL
Written by: Gabriela Bosak, Von Steuben High School, Chicago, IL
13 October 1998

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