For more than a century, Polish-Americans across our country have proudly celebrated May 3 as Polish Constitution Day. On that day in 1791, King Stanislaus II Poniatowski signed into law the Constitution of May 3, 1791 – a document much like our own United States Constitution of 1787, balancing effective government with individual rights. Unlike the American version, unfortunately, the new Polish Constitution was not destined to endure.
In 1772, Austria, Russia, and Prussia had partitioned off and absorbed parts of Poland; the Prussians’ partition included nearly all of Kashubia. Certain patriotic and educated Poles looked for a way to preserve their beloved fatherland from the greedy and powerful empires surrounding it. The establishment of republican governments in America and France gave the Poles hope that democracy could accomplish what their outnumbered army could not. Of course, the Austrians, Russians, and Prussians did not sit by idly. In May of 1792, Russian troops invaded Poland and forced the repeal of the new Constitution. By 1795, all Poland had been divided up and swallowed by its three enormous enemies. It would not reappear until after the First World War.
Still, the Constitution of May 3, 1791 kept on contributing to the cause of Polish liberty. It helped inspire patriotic Poles to rise up against their oppressors in 1830, 1846, 1848, 1863, 1866, and 1905 (obviously, we are too stubborn to know when we’ve been finished off). Here in the United States, celebrating the Constitution of May 3, 1791 gave Polish-Americans an occasion to express their solidarity with their countrymen and countrywomen still living in the Old Country. At the same time, Polish-Americans could demonstrate just how closely Polish national values match the values expressed in the United States Constitution: good Poles naturally make good Americans!
In Winona, the Constitution Day celebrations serve a further purpose. Because the majority of Winona’s Polish Americans were and are of Kashubian Polish descent, Constitution Day has served to bring the Kashubian and Polish heritages closer together. As Hieronim Derdowski famously observed, Nie ma Kaszëb bez Polonii, a bez Kaszëb Polśczi – no Kashubia without Poland, no Poland without Kashubia. “On May 3, 1891 the Kashubian Polish community celebrated the 100th anniversary of Constitution with songs, speeches (including one from Hieronim Derdowski himself), and a parade. This celebration became a community tradition which we proudly maintain to this day.