Robert Howard Lord.

The second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history online

. (page 4 of 59)
Online LibraryRobert Howard LordThe second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history → online text (page 4 of 59)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

converting the Grundherr into the Gutsherr and the free peasant
into the serf in Eastern Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, and
Russia. Into the causes and history of this vast transformation
in the agrarian life of Eastern Europe, it is impossible to enter
here. This economic change coincided in time with the rise of the
szlachta to political power and their conquest of the right of legis-
lation through the Diet. The result was a series of ' constitu-
tions ' (the most important of them between 1496 and 1573),
which bound the peasant to the soil, increased his obligations in
rent and labor, deprived him of the protection of the law, and even
subjected his religion to the dictates of his master. Whether or
not the lord was legally vested with the jus vitae et necis, it was
assumed that he possessed it, and there are not lacking examples
of its being exercised. The peasant thus sank into the most abject
kind of bondage; the landowner was lord of his land, his property,
his life, and his conscience. 1

The degradation of the Polish peasantry is not surprising in
view of what was occurring elsewhere in Eastern Europe; but the
abasement of the towns before the szlachta is less easy to under-
stand, and in fact an entirely adequate explanation has not yet
been offered. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the
Polish cities were at the height of their prosperity. Politically,
they were by no means negligible factors. Even earlier than the
szlachta, they had learned to assert their rights by means of Con-
federations; their approval was frequently sought by the Crown
for important political acts; and all through the fifteenth century
their representatives often appeared at those loosely organized
and little known national assemblies out of which the Diet
developed. 2 But when that body was finally organized through

1 Cf . Lehtonen, Die polnischen Provinzen Russlands unter Kalharina II, pp. 38 ff.

2 The history of the Polish Diet in the fifteenth century is still in very urgent
need of further investigation. Much interesting information as to the participation
of the cities is to be found in Prochaska, " Geneza i rozwoj parlamentaryzmu za


the Statute Nihil Novi, the cities found themselves virtually
excluded. Cracow alone, by special privilege, enjoyed a clear
legal right to representation in the Diet; but the exercise of that
right encountered such opposition from the szlachta, the deputies
of the capital were subjected to such humiliations when they
ventured to show themselves, that by the end of the sixteenth
century they had ceased to appear. It is true that the cities never
quite lost their rank as one of the constitutional estates of the
realm. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries four
or five towns continued to participate in elections to the throne,
in extraordinary Diets, and in Confederations. The right of the
towns to be represented at ordinary Diets was never formally
abolished or renounced ; but for practical purposes, from the be-
ginning of the sixteenth century on, the cities had lost their place
in the national assembly and in the political life of the nation. 1

This elimination of the bourgeois element from the Diet was
a phenomenon not entirely peculiar to Poland. In Hungary,
Bohemia, and Moravia — lands whose constitutional develop-
ment closely resembled that of Poland, and might, perhaps, have
paralleled it completely, but for the fortunate advent of the House
of Hapsburg — the role of the city deputies at the Diets was
gradually reduced to little more than the right to be present; in
Bohemia that right was restricted to Prague alone, and in
Hungary and Moravia in the later years of the old regime all the
cities together had only a single vote. But nowhere else did the
city estate fall so completely as in Poland, so suddenly, or, what
is strangest, with so little apparent effort at self-defence. 2

The explanation most commonly advanced for this surrender
by the cities is the fact that the Polish towns in the Middle Ages

pierwszych Jagiellon6w," Rozpr. Akad. Umiej. w Krakoivie, Wyd. Hist.-Fil., Serya,
ii, T. xiii; also Piekosinski, " Wiece, sejmiki, sejmy, przywileje ziemskic w Polsce
wiek6w Srednich, ibid., T. xiv.

1 Cf. Rembowski, Koiifederacya i rokosz, pp. 2745.; also his articles in the
Biblioteka Warszawska, 1892, iv, and 1893, iii. On the significance of the Statute
of 1505 as virtually excluding the townsmen from the Diet, see the article by
Balzer, in the Kwartalnik Historyczny, xx.

2 The comparison of the role of the cities in the Diets of these four states is
made by Kadlec, " Ustavnf dejiny Polska podle novych badani," Casopis Musea
Krdl. Ces. 1908.


were peopled chiefly by Germans, living according to German
law, separated from the rest of the nation by language, customs,
and interests, and neither willing nor able to take an effective and
continuous part in the political life of the kingdom. It is true
that in the sixteenth century the towns were rapidly being Polo-
nized, but this transformation came too late; the cities then
found that their cooperation was not wanted, and that the doors
of the Diet were closed against them. They were the less able to
defend their political interests, because, despite the external
appearance of prosperity, economic decline was setting in. The
primary cause was the shifting of the world's trade-centers at the
close of the fifteenth century and the ruin of the Black Sea traffic
at the hands of the Turks. The Polish towns thus lost that
transit-trade on which their prosperity in the Middle Ages had
chiefly rested, and henceforth they went steadily down hill. This
decline was accelerated by the encroachments of the szlachta, who,
as soon as they had come into power, rained blow after blow upon
the sinking bourgeoisie!) The latter were excluded from offices in
the state and from the higher places in the Church; they were
forbidden to own land outside their walls; their municipal liber-
ties were virtually destroyed in the seigniorial towns, and in the
royal cities greatly restricted. [Above all, their trade was nearly
ruined by the selfish and short-sighted legislation passed by
assemblies of country squires, bent only on assuring their own
fortunes and ignorant of the first principles of a sound national
economy? As typical of this legislation one may cite the law of
1565, which forbade native merchants to export or import any
goods whatsoever, or the enactment of 1643 that native mer-
chants were to sell at a profit of no more than seven per cent;
foreigners, of five per cent; Jews, of three per cent. 1 The pros-
perity of the cities might possibly have survived the activity of
the Polish Solons; but the terrible devastations suffered during
the wars against Swedes, Turks, and Muscovites dealt it the final
blow. By the eighteenth century the once brilliant and busy
towns presented a perfect picture of desolation: the houses de-
serted or falling in ruins, the streets grown up to grass, and

1 Kutrzeba, op. cit., pp. 171 f.


business confined to the wretched operations of Jewish money-
lenders and petty traders. Poland was thus left destitute of the
element most important for a sound political life — a strong,
prosperous, and progressive middle class.

Though supported by great wealth and by the prestige nat-
urally attaching to the Church among an ardently Catholic
people, the Polish clergy also failed to oppose an effective barrier
to the omnipotence of the szlachta. It is true that the bishops
acquired and maintained a place in the Senate, and that in the
fifteenth century the lower clergy were occasionally represented
at the Diets. 1 But in Poland, as in England, the clergy preferred
to tax themselves and to regulate their relations with the Crown
in their separate assemblies; as an estate they soon dropped out
of the Diet; and then they too became the object of the attacks
of the szlachta. Failing in their direct onslaughts, especially in
their attempt to oust the bishops from the Senate, the gentry
nevertheless succeeded in their essential aim. By securing a
monopoly of the higher positions in the Church for members of
their own class, they removed the main cause of antagonism, and
turned the hierarchy into an aristocratic body, one with them-
selves in birth, manners, ideas, and interests. With that the
victory of the szlachta over all opposing elements was complete.
They were the State. The struggles of the Standestaat period had
led in Poland to a result radically different from that attained in
most other states, and to one for which there is nowhere else an
exact analogy. The result was the omnipotence of a single caste
carried to a point unparalleled in any other European country.

Even this development need not have proved so disastrous, if
the szlachta, after gaining the supreme power, had only properly
organized it. An efficient aristocratic government, awake to
national needs and able to concentrate the power and resources
of the country for great national tasks, might have provided
a tolerable substitute for absolute monarchy. But it was the

1 This representation of the clerical estate in the fifteenth century is one of the
most obscure points in Polish constitutional history. Some data may be found in
Pawinski, Sejmiki ziemskie, pp. 94 f., and in Prochaska, Geneza i rozwoj parla-
mentaryzmu, etc., pp. 39 f.


supreme misfortune of Poland that the szlachta, after appropriating
the sovereignty, seemed bent, not on using it for great national
aims, but rather on dividing it equally among all the members of
their class, taken as individuals. The authority lost by the Crown
passed, not to the Diet, but to the local assemblies (Dietines), and,
in the last analysis, to each country gentleman. The supreme
power was atomized until it simply vanished, leaving anarchy.

The explanation of this unhappy phenomenon is chiefly to be
sought in the geographic and historical conditions under which
the szlachta had worked their way to power. The Republic
embraced an enormous area; it was larger than any of the other
states which at that time experimented in popular government.
In the German territories, Bohemia, Sweden, or Aragon, for
example, all nobles might, without too much difficulty, attend the
central parliament; but in Poland, as in Hungary, this proved
impossible, and hence the need for the election of representatives,
for local assemblies, for local self-government. The mere size of
Poland rendered decentralization indispensable.

The particularist spirit had also been fostered by the historic
evolution of Poland. After a short period of unity under the
Piasts, in the twelfth century the realm had been divided into
numerous principalities, which soon possessed no connecting
links whatsoever. This period of disintegration, which lasted
nearly two hundred years, left very deep and abiding traces.
It was then that the various Polish ' lands ' — the principalities
of that age, the palatinates of the next — took permanent shape
and acquired their marked individuality, their separatist in-
stincts, traditions and prejudices. The reunion of the country
effected by Wladyslaw Lokietek at the beginning of the four-
teenth century, was only a hasty and mechanical process, each
' land ' retaining its own hierarchy of officials, its own assemblies
of dignitaries and magnates, its own law, its own separate life and
self-consciousness. Though some progress towards real unity was
made under Lokietek and his successor, the speedy extinction of
the dynasty and the subsequent weakening of the royal power,
which had always been the chief bond of union in Poland, largely
arrested this salutary process.


It was at this moment, when the integration of the country was
still so incomplete, that the szlachta made their entry into political
life. Naturally they acted through the agencies with which they
were most familiar, namely, the local organizations, and in accord-
ance with those ideas of local independence to which they were
accustomed. So it happened that they entrenched themselves
first of all, not in a central parliament, but in the local assemblies

— the Dietines. About the beginning of the fifteenth century the
old provincial councils of dignitaries and magnates were trans-
formed (except for judicial purposes) into assemblies of the whole
community of the szlachta of each ' land.' These Sejmiki or
Dietines originally concerned themselves only with modest local
affairs; but as the szlachta extorted one privilege after another
from the Crown, it was through the Dietines as their chief organs
that they exercised their new functions. For purposes of taxation,
and, after the Statutes of Nieszawa, for calling the pospolite
ruszenie and for legislation (at least legislation affecting the rights
and privileges of the szlachta) , the King was obliged to consult all
the Dietines separately. That procedure was slow and awkward ;
what was needed was a concentration of the local machinery in a
general parliament.

The nucleus of such a body existed in the Wiec, the assembly of
the chief magnates and dignitaries of the entire kingdom, which,
as a royal council, under the first Jagellonians already exerted
great influence over the decisions of the Crown in matters of
general policy. Throughout the fifteenth century szlachta and
townsmen and, to some extent, the lower clergy not infrequently
attended the meetings of the Wiec; but it is still uncertain what
form their representation took, and what part they had in the
deliberations of the assembly. At any rate, an organic connection
between the Dietines and the Wiec (or Diet, as it came to be
called), was definitely established only at the close of the century.
The Dietines slowly formed the habit of sending deputies to the
central body; and in 1493, f° r the first time — as far as we know

— deputies from all the Dietines in the kingdom assembled in the
general Diet at Piotrkow. That was the Polish Model Parlia-
ment. The Diet took shape as a bicameral body: the deputies


from the Dietines formed the Chamber of Nuncios, from which
the city representatives soon disappeared; and the upper house
was formed by the Senate, (i. e., the old royal council or Wiec,
made up of the archbishops, bishops, palatines, castellans, and
the great officers of the Crown), which through the Statute
Nihil Novi was placed on a footing of equality with the Chamber
of Nuncios with respect to legislative rights.

The success of Polish parliamentarism now depended on the
question of what the relation would be between the newly formed
Diet and the older provincial assemblies. The predominance of
the former would mean the continuation of the unification of the
realm and perhaps the development of a strong central govern-
ment; the predominance of the Dietines, on the other hand,
would involve decentralization, disunion, impotence. At the
outset, the decentralizing tendency prevailed. The deputies of
the Dietines represented only their respective ' lands ' ; they were
bound by instructions, usually precise and imperative, from their
electors; the Diet resembled a congress of ambassadors. Under
Sigismund II a determined effort was made by the Protestant
szlachta to end this state of things and to give the Diet the
character of a real parliament by eliminating imperative man-
dates, establishing the majority rule in voting, and subordinating
the Dietines to the Diet. But this effort failed, chiefly owing to
the opposition, and later the weakness, of the King himself. 1

In the next generation the tide set strongly in the opposite
direction. The doctrinaire theories of the age about the ' free-
dom ' and ' equality ' of the szlachta, the heightened sense of their
own importance produced by the events of 1572 in the minds of
the gentry, their natural preference for deciding all matters
directly in their local assemblies, rather than through deputies to
the Diet, who might be insidiously influenced by the King or the
magnates — all these things combined to assure to the Dietines a
preponderance such as they had never before enjoyed. Re-
stricted under the later Jagellonians to a very narrow sphere of

1 See Bobrzynski, Dzieje Polski, ii, pp. 75 ff., who regarded the proposals of the
Protestant party as the most promising reform program ever brought forward in


activity, these assemblies now extended their encroachments so
far and assumed such a plenitude of power and independence,
that in the seventeenth century the Republic came to resemble a
loose federation of fifty or sixty sovereign states. Not only did
the various palatinates develop to the utmost their judicial and
administrative autonomy, but decentralization was also carried
to dangerous lengths in the financial and military system, on
which the strength and security of the Republic primarily de-
pended. The Dietines granted or refused taxes, either through
their deputies to the Diet or directly, when the question was
referred to them, as frequently happened; they themselves
assessed and collected the taxes, turning over to the treasurers of
the Crown only so much as they saw fit; and they raised and
maintained military forces, which they tended to regard as their
own provincial armies.

This excessive decentralization was, indeed, partially overcome
during the eighteenth century. The unity of the army was
restored; and the Diet of 1717, by establishing permanent taxes
levied according to a fixed scale by officials of the central govern-
ment, put an end to the financial powers of the Dietines, except
for the raising of local rates. But by this time it was hard to
undo the effects of one hundred years of disorganization and
chaos, to curb the deeply rooted particularist spirit, to bring the
state back to the path towards unity, on which it had started in
the sixteenth century. And above all, even in the mid eighteenth
century nothing had been done to remedy the worst evil produced
by the long preponderance of the Dietines, namely, the impotence
of the Diet.

That impotence was due chiefly to the system of the imperative
mandate. Since 1572 the instructions given by the Dietines to
their deputies had grown more and more lengthy, detailed, and
strict. The deputies might be ordered to put through a project
at all costs, or not to allow one to pass under any consideration.
Then the custom had grown up of holding so-called ' Dietines of
relation ' (Sejmiki relacyjne) at the close of each Diet, for the pur-
pose of hearing the reports of the returned deputies. These
Dietines of relation not only kept the nuncios in wholesome awe


of disobeying their instructions, but also, while they could not
de jure alter or nullify what the Diet had done, de facto they not
infrequently did so.

The result of this system was to hamper the action of the Diet
to the utmost. Whatever was to come up in the central parlia-
ment was discussed and virtually decided in advance by the
Dietines, and the latter decided these matters, — questions, it
might be, of the most general nature, affecting the whole Republic
— on the basis of local interests, local knowledge, local prejudices;
decided them prematurely, categorically, in final instance, without
regard for what the assembly of the whole nation, after a more
comprehensive survey of the situation and more mature delibera-
tion, might be inclined to favor. 1 The fate of every question thus
depended not so much upon the debates in the Diet, as upon the
referendum taken in fifty or sixty tumultuous gatherings of — for
the most part — ignorant and narrow-minded country squires.

The logical development of the system of imperative mandates
and the crowning anomaly of the Polish constitution was the
famous Liberum Veto: the right of any member of the Diet to
interpose a veto, which had the threefold effect of defeating the
particular proposition that had aroused opposition, dissolving
the Diet, and nullifying all the decisions previously taken by the

The Liberum Veto was a late constitutional development. In
the sixteenth century Diets a determined minority was generally
able to check the action of the majority, but if the dissenters were
very few, little attention was paid to them. In the seventeenth
century, however, with the strong tendency of that age to
' liberty,' and its antipathy to ' tyranny ' of any sort, the con-
ception of the rights of the minority developed, until in 1652 for
the first time a single deputy, Sicinski, by his veto ' exploded ' the
Diet. After that the use of the Liberum Veto, although it rested
on no written law and was in itself a defiance of common sense,
became an established constitutional practice, and a chronic evil.
The Dietines often expressly ordered its application, taking
pleasure in this means of showing their importance. The mass of

1 Cf. the vigorous passage on this subject in Pawinski, Rzqdy sejmikowe, i, p. 409.


the szlachta regarded it as a useful safeguard against injustice or
tyranny — in fact as the ' palladium of liberty/ the ' jewel of the
constitution.' Of the fifty-five Diets held between 1652 and 1764,
forty-eight were ' exploded,' almost one-third of them by the veto
of a single deputy. During the thirty years' reign of Augustus III
not a single Diet lived out its normal time. As the Diet met only
once in two years, and then for six weeks only (provided it
escaped being ' exploded '), and as each Diet was generally brought
to a violent and premature end with nothing accomplished, the
result was that the national parliament had virtually ceased to
function. And yet, after the collapse of the royal power, the Diet
was the one institution that might have given the country a
government !

One means of getting around the Liberum Veto existed, but, as
has frequently been pointed out, it was a remedy worse than the
disease. This was the ' Confederation,' i. e., a voluntary armed
association of individuals formed for the purpose of putting
through its specified projects in the face of any opposition whatso-
ever. Confederations — a characteristic mediaeval constitutional
device — were much in vogue in Poland in the late fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries; they then disappeared for a time, but re-
curred frequently in the period after 1572, — one symptom more
of the reversion in type that marked Polish constitutionalism in
that age. Confederations were of three kinds: (1) those formed
during interregna, in order to prevent disorders and hold the realm
together; (2) those formed during the life- time of a king for the
purpose of assisting him in some great emergency; and (3) those
formed in opposition to the kings — of which there are only too
many examples. Associations of the first two kinds were useful;
indeed, a Confederation formed ' at the King's side,' might be
merely a technical device for putting through a project in spite of
the opposition of a minority, since in a Diet held ' under the seal
of a Confederation ' the majority ruled. But a Confederation was
under any circumstances a hazardous expedient, for it always
brought with it the danger of civil war. Nothing reveals in a
more glaring light the defects of Polish constitutionalism. Noth-
ing could be more detrimental to stability, legality, and order


than a system under which the ordinary authorities might at any
moment be violently replaced by a set of ambitious private
persons, who usurped control of the administration, the courts,
the treasury, and the army, called a Diet, put through what
legislation they pleased, and dispersed only when their aims were
attained. The right of confederation, as Moltke declared, was
revolution legally organized. 1 It gave rise to the epigram that
the government of Poland was anarchy tempered by civil war.

Were there any truth in the old Liberal maxim that those
states were happiest that were governed least, the Polish Republic
must have approached the acme of perfection. The activity of
its government had been reduced to the vanishing-point. " No
people," said Burke, " have ever taken greater precautions to
secure the possession of a sober and well-regulated freedom, than
the Poles have to preserve themselves in their present anarchy." 2
In order that the King might not make himself a' tyrant,' he had

Online LibraryRobert Howard LordThe second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history → online text (page 4 of 59)