Why the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s Legacy of Liberty is Worthy of Our Appreciation Today

When the union between Norway and Sweden dissolved peacefully in 1905, Norway went shopping for a king. Its Parliament offered the crown to Prince Carl of Denmark, who said he would accept only if the Norwegian people approved. By a popular vote margin of 79 percent to 21 percent, they did. Parliament then formally elected him King of Norway.

Carl took the name of Haakon VII and ruled for 52 years, until his death in 1957. He was quite a good man, exercising minimal authority and maximum respect for the freedoms and property of Norwegians. He never capitulated to Nazi occupation during World War II.

It sounds strange to hear the word “election” in the same breath as “king.” That’s not usually the way a king gets a throne. Haakon’s example, however, was not history’s first. An earlier case involves a fascinating country known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Its story is largely forgotten outside of Eastern Europe but it deserves to be much better known everywhere.

The Commonwealth spanned 206 years, from 1569 to 1795, as a political union with a single monarch of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Between 11 and 14 million people resided within its borders at its zenith, making it one of Europe’s largest and most populous nations. In terms of political and economic liberty, it was an enlightened country—ahead of its time, in fact.

As far back as the 9th Century, Poland’s kings came to power by vote. The electorate, to be sure, consisted not of the masses but of a much smaller nobility. That is nonetheless remarkable in an age when most rulers around the world ascended to the top by killing and pillaging, or by being lucky enough to be a relative of the previous ruler who killed and pillaged.

During the two centuries of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, kings were not only elected, but they were also required to agree to the extraordinary Henrician Articles (King Henry’s Articles). The document’s pro-liberty provisions included these:

  • Election was the only route to the throne, and no children of the elected monarch could inherit the position.
  • The King could not raise taxes or tariffs, declare war or impose a military draft, without the approval of Parliament, known then as it is today as the Sejm. He couldn’t even get married unless the Sejm signed on (in those days, royal marriages were a foreign policy matter).
  • In other ways as well, the King could not rule without endorsement of the Sejm, which he was required to convene at least once every two years for a minimum of six weeks.
  • The King was compelled to enforce the religious freedom guarantees that made the Commonwealth one of the most tolerant enclaves on the European continent, if not the world. Daniel H. Cole of the Indiana University School of Law, in a 1998 article, cited a religious exile living in Poland who wrote of the Commonwealth’s virtues in 1561, “You could live here in accordance with your ideas and preferences, in great, even the greatest freedoms, including writing and publishing. No one is a censor here.”
  • The nobles jealously guarded not only their own positions, but the freedoms of the people more broadly. Under the Henrician Articles, each king had to take an oath that embodied these words: “If anything has been done by us against laws, liberties, privileges or customs, we declare all the inhabitants of the Kingdom are freed from obedience to us.”

My good friend Marcin Chmielowski is vice president of the Warsaw-based Freedom and Entrepreneurship Foundation. He tells me that “If the king broke his word, the nobility had the legal right to form a rokosz that would undertake open rebellion to restore their rights.”

(Chmielowski, by the way, is also screenwriter/director of a fantastic new documentary film that premieres this month. It’s called “Human Action” and it tells the remarkable story of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. Here at FEE.org, we will review the film and provide a link when it is ready).

In her book, Queen Liberty: The Concept of Freedom in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, Anna Grzeskowiak-Krwawicz explains that “freedom was not just an idea but a real value cherished for more than 200 years, enshrined in the laws of the Republic.” The people of the Commonwealth were more than a little aware of freedom’s importance:

It seems uncontroversial to conclude that freedom was in Polish writings and speeches not just a precious commodity, but indeed the most precious one of all, verging upon the sacrum. This is confirmed by the turn of the phrase “faith and freedom” that was popular in the 17th and especially 18th centuries, equating liberty with the supreme spiritual value. Without freedom, all other values were worthless. Without freedom, one could not enjoy wealth, success, or even family life…As early as in 1573, an anonymous author wrote with pride: “No nation in the world hath greater freedoms and liberties than we.”

Notably, Commonwealth citizens apparently understood and appreciated the connection between their liberties and their personal character. Grzeskowiak-Krwawicz argues the following:

Polish deliberations of freedom devoted a great deal of space to the issue of the character of the people who enjoyed freedom, and how that character should be cultivated. In line with a tradition stretching back to Livy, Sallust and above all Cicero, they saw virtue as the foundation upon which the republic rested. Only virtue, instilled in citizens, could restrain them from taking egotistic actions leading to anarchy, the degeneration of the state, and finally the loss of freedom.

Slavery was formally abolished in Poland in the 15th Century and in the Lithuanian portion of the Commonwealth a century later, though a less oppressive form of serfdom persisted in pockets for a while longer. With an overall climate more friendly to freedom than was common in the world back then, it should not surprise anyone to learn that the Commonwealth produced a remarkable fountain of literary, scientific, artistic and economic achievements.

One of the most interesting—and at the same time very controversial—features of the Commonwealth was the liberum veto. Rooted in the ancient principle that “whatever concerns all should be approved by all,” it sought consensus through unanimity. Especially in the Commonwealth’s final century, it meant that legislation could not pass into law unless approved by every member of Parliament. Any one member could shout Nie pozwalam! (“I do not allow!”) and thereby kill a bill, end the session, and even nullify everything that had been already passed in that session.

The liberum veto seems extreme and unworkable today, and ultimately it was in its time as well. Early on, the threat of it tended to push parliamentarians toward consensus so that bills could pass. Later, it essentially closed up much of government. Foreign powers offered bribes to Commonwealth legislators to exercise the veto, purely for the purpose of incapacitating the government. (If the American Congress operated with a liberum veto, I must admit there would be endless occasions when I would be sorely tempted to bribe a member to shut it down.)

In the early 1790s, amid political rancor and paralysis attributable at least in part to the liberum veto, neighboring Russia, Prussia and Austria seized the opportunity to carve up the Commonwealth. In a series of three partitions, the country was first dominated and ultimately, in 1795, wiped from the map altogether. Neither Poland nor Lithuania would emerge as sovereign countries again until the conclusion of World War I.

Poles and Lithuanians, even as subject peoples of hostile neighbors, never lost their love of liberty or sense of national identity. In the 1980s, they were on the front lines in the worldwide struggle against the totalitarian Soviet Union. The happy fact that they won that battle when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 is, perhaps more than is generally realized, traceable to the legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

For additional information, see:

The Factors that Caused the Death of a Christian Commonwealth, by Marcin Chmielowski

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: Light and Flame, by Richard Butterwick

Queen Liberty: The Concept of Freedom in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, by Anna Grzeskowiak-Krwawicz

What if the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Never Fell? (video):Lawrence W. Reed

Source: FEE

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