The General Sejm (Sejm walny) was the parliament of Poland for four centuries from the late 15th through the late 18th century.
The term "sejm" comes from an old Polish expression denoting a meeting of the populace. From the 14th century, irregular sejms (termed in various sources in Latin as conventio generalis, conventio magna, conventio solemnis, parlamentum, parlamentum generale, dieta or in Polish as sejm walny) were called by Polish kings. From 1374 and the Privilege of Koszyce (przywilej koszycki), the king had to receive the Sejm's permission to raise taxes. The General Sejm (in Polish, Sejm Generalny or Sejm Walny), first convoked by King John I Olbracht in 1493 at Piotrków, evolved from earlier regional and provincial meetings (sejmiks). It followed most closely the sejmik generalny (regional general sejm), which arose from the 1454 Nieszawa Statutes, granted to the szlachta (nobility) by King Casimir IV the Jagiellonian. From 1493 the General Sejm (Sejm Walny) met irregularly, on average once a year.
The first Sejm was composed of two chambers:
The number of deputies in the lower chamber grew in number and power as they pressured the king for more privileges. The spur toward action increased when landowners were drafted into military service (pospolite ruszenie). After 1569 Union of Lublin, the Kingdom of Poland was transformed into the federation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Sejms number was increased with the inclusion of the deputies from Lithuanian Sejmiks.
Sejms severely limited the king's powers. They had the final decision in legislation, taxation, budget, and treasury matters (including military funding), foreign affairs and ennoblement. In 1573 Sejm guaranteed religious tolerance in the Commonwealth territory, making it a refuge from the ongoing reformation and counter-reformation wars.
The king could not pass the laws himself without the approval of the Sejm, this being forbidden by szlachta privileges like nihil novi from 1505. According to the "Nihil Novi" constitution a law passed by the Sejm had to be agreed by the three estates (the king, the Senate and deputies from the Sejm). King Henry's Articles, signed by each king since 1573, required the king to call a general sejm (lasting six weeks) every two years, and provisions for the extraordinary sejm (Polish: sejm ekstraordynaryjny, nadzwyczajny) were also set down in this act. Extraordinary sejms could be called in times of national emergency and last shorter, for example, a sejm deciding whether to call pospolite ruszenie should not last longer than two weeks.
The Marshal (or Speaker) of the Sejm concluded the debates, but he was required to ask the members whether his understanding of the chamber's views was correct and unanimously accepted. If anyone declared his opposition (Latin contradictio), the debate would be reopened and would continue until the opponents of the measure abandoned their opposition.
Until the end of the 16th century, unanimity, was not required and majority voting predominated. Later, with the rise of the magnates' power, the unanimity principle was reinforced with the szlachta privilege of liberum veto (from the Latin: I freely forbid). The pro-majority voting party almost disappeared in the 17th century, and majority voting was preserved only at the confederated sejms (sejm rokoszowy, konny, konfederacyjny). To increase the chance of unanimity agreement voting was delayed until an agreement has been reached (often through lengthy discussions). It was enough if no formal exception was taken by anyone – even if some opposition did exist, it would not necessarily be upheld. If, however, the deputies could not attain even such passive unanimity, or if the chamber's negotiations with the king proved futile, then after six weeks (the upper time limit of its sittings) had elapsed, the deliberations as a whole were declared null and void. Rarely, a deputy from a local sejmik could object to the agreement and be granted an exception from this law, allowing it to pass. From the mid-17th century onwards, any objection to a Sejm resolution from either a deputy or a senator automatically caused other, previously approved resolutions to be rejected. This was because all resolutions passed by a given Sejm formed a whole and were published as constitutions of the Sejm e.g. Anno Domini 1667.
In the 16th century no single person or small group dared to hold up proceedings, but from second half of 17th century the liberum veto was used to paralyze the Sejm and brought the Commonwealth to the brink of collapse. The liberum veto was finally abolished by the Constitution of 3rd May in 1791.
The early statutes passed by the Sejm were called "constitution" (Polish konstytucja or konstytucja sejmowa) and should not be confused with modern meaning of this word. The konstytucja passed by the Sejm had denoted all the legislation, of whatever character, that had been passed at a Sejm. Only with the May 3rd Constitution in 1791 did konstytucja assume its modern sense of a fundamental document of governance.
The final version of approved acts (which from the late 15th century until the early 16th century were divided into perpetual and temporary constitutions ('constitutiones perpetuae' and 'constitutiones temporales') were drawn up at the sealing sessions, held after the close of the Sejm debate. These sessions were attended by the chancellor, the Speaker of the Sejm and members from the Sejm and the Senate. From the end of the 16th century, the constitutions they signed were printed, stamped with the royal seal, and sent to the chancelleries of the municipal councils of all voivodships of the Crown and also to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. After 1543 the resolutions were written in Polish rather than Latin. Those resolutions were presented soon after the Sejm to local meetings, known as sejmiki relacyjne. In accordance with the act of 1613, immediately after the close of Sejm debates, the constitutions it had passed were published by entering them in the registers where the Sejm had met. Copies still had to be sent to municipal councils (urzędy grodzkie) throughout the country, where they were added to the municipal registers (księgi grodzkie).
It is estimated that between 1493 and 1793 sejms were held 240 times, and total debate time was 44 years.
Interestingly, the expression 'Polish parliament' (in Swedish: Polsk riksdag) occurs in modern Swedish and Norwegian to denote organizational anarchy and disorder. This is suggested to have originated from comparisons to the veto right in the Polish Sejm during Commonwealth times, which was likely an unthinkable liberty in the authoritarian systems of neighbouring countries, including the Swedish Absolute Monarchy.