The Historical Journal


Recasting Utopia: Montesquieu, Rousseau and the Polish constitution of 3 May 1791*

Jerzy Lukowskia1

a1 University of Birmingham


Between the sixteenth and eighteengh centuries, the nobility of the Polish–Lithuanian commonwealth had developed an ideology of extreme individualism and libertarianism, within a correspondingly weak and decentralized state structure. The first partition of 1772 starkly revealed the weaknesses of the Polish polity, but any hopes of major political overhaul were frustrated by the dead hand of Russian ambassadorial policing. The war of 1787–92 with Turkey proved a temporary distraction for Russia, which the Polish parliament of 1788–92 showed itself only partly capable of exploiting. Factional conflicts and a wary conservatism hampered reforms: the ideas of Montesquieu and Rousseau, which closely complemented so many aspects of traditional Polish noble ideology, seemed to offer the most acceptable way forward, culminating in the constitution of 3 May 1791, a compromise between enlightened idealism and political pragmatism.


* This paper developed out of originally read to the 41st conference of the International Commission for the History of Representative and Praliamentary Institutions in Warsaw on 10 Sept.1991. I should like to express my appreciation of the discussions at the European History (1500–1800) Seminar of London University, to the Modern European History Seminar of Cambridge University and to the University of Birmingham's Modern History Seminar, which have all contributed to this version. I am particularly grateful for their comments to Professor D. E. D. Beales and to Professor Q. R. D. Skinner.