The Component of Respublica Romanorum in the Constitutional Heritage of Nobiliary Polish-Lithuanian Republic (16th through 18th Centuries)

Kazimierz Baran


When in the 16th century in many European states, the monarchal power began to drift toward absolutism, the Polish-Lithuanian state evolved in its constitutionalism along the Republican lines. Its monarch could be brought to accountability for the violation of the law. Likewise, he was freely elected by the nobles and held his position for life. The nation of nobles that, by the standards of the time, made up a remarkable section of the entire population of the country was protected against the monarch’s attempts against their liberties by a series of remarkable privileges. And indeed, a noble’s property was prevented from being unreasonably confiscated. Likewise, an individual of nobiliary status could not be arbitrarily imprisoned. The representatives of nobles, while sitting in the benches of the Seym, had a considerable share in exercising the state power, particularly in the area of the law-creating process and when the imposing of tax liabilities was debated. In addition, the clauses of the Henrician Articles (1573), which were a kind of Fundamental Law of the Nobiliary Republic, guaranteed the mass of the nobles’religious toleration within the Christian denominations. The spirit of this toleration in practice also applied to the non-Christians (Jews and Muslim Tartars who inhabited the Republic).

The republican slogans that were responsible for forming a specific frame of mind of the nobles assumed a new dimension when the culture of Latinitas type began to be promoted. The latter started to develop on the occasion of the acceptance by the authorities of the Nobiliary Republic of the principles of the Council of Trent, which happened in the 1570s. The Republic remained within the Catholic Camp. From that time on, the young nobles used to be educated in numerous Jesuit colleges and had not only a fluent command of Latin but also a profound knowledge of the history and culture of antiquity. Hence, they looked at their state, the Respublica Polonorum as a successor of the late Respublica Romanorum with the virtues of the latter. These virtues, when filtered through the system of Christian values –pushed to the foreground the concern for the welfare of the motherland, support for the democratic ethos and egalitarian spirit within the nobiliary milieu, and also the willingness to defend the Christian world against the invasion of the barbarians (the concept of Antemurale).

The republican spirit survived the era of constitutional deterioration in the country that started in the mid-17th century. With the era of reforms which began in the 1760s, the constitutional improvement reached its climax in the Constitution of 3rd May 1791. Like in the British system, king was located at the position of the monarch who could do no wrong since all his executive acts required the endorsement made by the right minister. The separation of powers was emphasized. The ministers could be brought both to their political responsibility to parliament if they lost the support of the majority in the houses and also to constitutional responsibility for their contra legem acts.

Słowa kluczowe: history of Poland-Lithuania, nobiliary Republic, the culture of Latinitas

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