Poland has had numerous previous constitutional acts during its long history. Historically, the most significant is probably the May Constitution adopted on 3rd May of 1791, claimed to be the first modern constitution of Europe.
Many articles were written explicitly to rectify the wrongs of previous governments. In response to communist-era collective farming, Article 23 established the family farm as the basis of the agricultural economy. Article 74 requires public officials to pursue ecologically sound public policy. Articles 39 and 40 prohibit the practices of forced medical experimentation, forbidding torture and corporal punishment, while Articles 50 and 59 acknowledge the inviolability of the home, the right to form trade unions, and to strike.
The preamble emphasizes freedom of religion or disbelief: "We, the Polish Nation - all citizens of the Republic, Both those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty, As well as those not sharing such faith but respecting those universal values as arising from other sources...". Article 25 provides further protection, that public officials "shall be impartial in matters of personal conviction, whether religious or philosophical, or in relation to outlooks on life, and shall ensure their freedom of expression within public life."
Other aspects include the affirmation of the political equality of man and woman in Article 32, and the affirmation of freedom of ethnic minorities to advance and develop their culture, in Article 35.
The first major privilege was granted in Košice by Louis Andegavin on September 17, 1374. In order to guarantee the Polish throne for his daughter Jadwiga, he agreed to abolish all but one tax the szlachta was supposed to pay. The Koszyce Privilege also forbade the king to grant official posts and major Polish castles to foreign knights, and obliged him to pay indemnities to nobles injured or taken captive during a war outside Polish borders.
The privileges granted by Ladislaus II at Brześć Kujawski (April 25, 1425), Jedlnia (March 4, 1430) and Kraków (January 9, 1433) introduced or confirmed the rule known as Neminem captivabimus nisi iure victum which prevented a noble from being arrested unless found guilty. On May 2, 1447 the same king issued the Wilno Privilege which gave the Lithuanian boyars the same rights as those possessed by the Polish szlachta.
In September and October of 1454 Casimir IV granted the Cerkwica and Nieszawa Privileges which forbade the king to set new taxes, laws or draft nobles for war unless he had the consent of local diets (sejmiki). These privileges were demanded by the szlachta as a compensation for their participation in the Thirteen Years' War. As a compensation for the unsuccessful incursion on Moldavia which had decimated the szlachta, John Albert granted the Piotrków Privilege on April 26, 1496 which prohibited serfs from leaving their owners' land, and banned city dwellers from buying land.
In the spring of 1505 king Alexander signed a bill adopted by the Diet of Radom known as Nihil novi nisi commune consensu ("Nothing new without a common agreement"). The Nihil novi act transferred legislative power from the king to the Diet (Sejm), or Polish parliament. This date marked the beginning of the First Rzeczpospolita, the period of a szlachta-run "republic".
Until the death of Sigismund Augustus, the last king of the Jagiellonian dynasty, monarchs could only be elected from within the royal family. However, starting from 1573, practically any Polish noble or foreigner of royal blood could become a Polish-Lithuanian monarch. Every newly elected king was supposed to sign two documents - the Pacta conventa ("agreed pacts") - a confirmation of the king's pre-election promises, and Henrican articles (artykuły henrykowskie, named after the first freely elected king, Henry of Valois). The latter document served as a virtual Polish constitution and contained the basic laws of the Commonwealth:
In the 18th century, the introduction of Cardinal Laws in 1768 was an important step towards codifying the existing Polish law.
The Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791 (Konstytucja Trzeciego Maja) is claimed to be Europe's first modern codified national constitution. It was instituted by the Government Act (Polish: Ustawa rządowa) adopted on that date by the Sejm (parliament) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was designed to redress long-standing political defects of the federative Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and its Golden Liberty. The Constitution introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility (szlachta) and placed the peasants under the protection of the government, thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. The Constitution abolished pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto, which at one time had placed the sejm at the mercy of any deputy who might choose, or be bribed by an interest or foreign power, to undo all the legislation that had been passed by that sejm. The May 3rd Constitution sought to supplant the existing anarchy fostered by some of the country's reactionary magnates, with a more egalitarian and democratic constitutional monarchy. The adoption of the May 3rd Constitution provoked the active hostility of the Polish Commonwealth's neighbors. In the War in Defense of the Constitution, Poland was betrayed by its Prussian ally Frederick William II and defeated by the Imperial Russia of Catherine the Great, allied with the Targowica Confederation, a cabal of Polish magnates who opposed reforms that might weaken their influence. Despite the defeat, and the subsequent Second Partition of Poland, the May 3rd Constitution influenced later democratic movements in the world. It remained, after the demise of the Polish Republic in 1795, over the next 123 years of Polish partitions, a beacon in the struggle to restore Polish sovereignty. In the words of two of its co-authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, it was "the last will and testament of the expiring Fatherland."