Democracy of one million citizens in XVIc. Poland
Poland’s indigenous democratic process created the democracy, which had one million free citizens by the beginning of the seventeenth century. This happened within the multinational Polish Nobles Republic, which was rooted in the old Slavic tradition. The height of early military successes of Slavic Tribal Military Democracies happened already by the year 740 AD. It caused the Kingdom of the Franks to build its “Maginot Line” of that period, named “Limes Sorabicus” and “Limes Saxonia” build east of the Rhine River, from the Danish Mark in the north to the Mark of Avaria (now Bavaria) in the south. (Iwo C. Pogonowski: Hippocrene Books Inc, New York, 2000, 3rd edition 2008, page 3.)
Polish Noble Nation of one million people represented a milestone on the world history of representative government by its shear numbers by comparison with the number of free citizens in Athens of antiquity or even with the eighteenth century North America. The main issue of the American Revolution was “no taxation without representation.” That very issue was settled in Poland exactly four hundred years earlier, when regional legislatures obtained taxing authority, reduced taxes and secured the nomination of local people for the territorial administration. The royal succession was then made possible only with the consent of the masses of Polish nobility as represented by the regional legislatures. (ibid., page 39.)
The noble nation of Poland represented a unique phenomenon in the world history of the evolution of the representative government. The Act of Nieszawa of 1454 was called “the Magna Carta” of the masses of Poland’s nobility, in which, after 1569, each grown up male citizen had the right to offer his candidacy in the general elections for the head of state. Polish general elections were called “viritim” and the elected king who was to serve as the head of state and the chief of the executive branch of government. Already since 1501 the national parliament became the supreme power in the Kingdom of Poland, united with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Professor I. Norman Davies of Oxford University summarized the governing principles of the sixteenth century Polish Republic, which were modern even by the standards of the 20th century. They are quoted on the page 77 in my book mentioned above; they were:
general elections of the head of state by all citizens
social contract between government and the citizens
the principle of government by consent
individual civil rights
freedom of religion
the value of self reliance
the prevention of authoritarian power of the state
The Union Act by the Parliament called the Seym of Lublin (1560) formally made Poland and Lithuania one country, which was to elect one head of state and chief executive with the title of the king crowned in Kraków. The Union of Lublin was called “The Republic of Good Will… Free Men with Free, Equals with Equal.” The Toleration Act of Warsaw of 1573 made Poland a “haven of the heretics.” It was based on the belief that honest government and mutual consent were fundamental for successful political action. The Seym continued to be the main forum for the political dialogue in the Polish Republic (ibid., page 82).
Unique in Europe, Polish indigenous democratic process was based on the fact that during the reign of the Piasts (c. 940-1370), the first Polish dynasty created a unique in Europe national defense system caused by the devastation of the Mongol invasion. While in western Europe the defense system was based on and alliance between the monarch and the fortified towns, in Poland the towns were full of German and other immigrants who often rebelled against the King of Poland, who had to depend on a then unique alliance of the throne with landowners. This fact led to creation in Poland of a “noble nation of free citizens,” of about 10% of the population while in the West nobility represented less than 1% of royal subjects.
Noble Nation of Poland was in over 90% Slavic origin and was composed approximately in 45% of ethnic Poles, 25% Ruthenians, 15% Bialorussians, 10% of Lithuanians and 5% Baltic Germans. The Noble Nation of Poland pioneered civil right in Europe while the Madna Carta Libertatum was forgotten for several centuries.
The 1396 marriage of Polish Queen Jadwiga d’Anjou, granddaughter of the sister of King Casimir the Great, with Władysław Jagiełło the Grand Duke Lithuania, grandson of prince Gedymin, who first defeated Mongol Army on the Dnieper River, marked the beginning of the great civilizing role of Poland between the Baltic and the Black Sea. This role included pioneering in Europe legalization of civil rights and liberties of the very numerous Polish-Lithuanian political nation of free citizens. Polish language became the language of civility, elegance and diplomacy in central and estern Europe. For several hundred years Polish language was used by the rulers of Kremlin in Moskow.
Polish language served for centuries as the main source of information about Latin western Europe, on the territory of the Eastern Orthodoxy domain of the Greek language. Unfortunately, the rulers of Moscow serving the Mongols, learned the brutal methods of Mongol absolute rule, and abandoned their Slavic traditions, starting with the brutal destruction of the Novgorod Republic in 1480ties.
In contrast one should mention the famous preamble to the union of Poland and Lithuania at Horodło of 1413 in which text were spelled out the noble ideals of the then developing Polish democratic process based on the ideals of charity and love. The Noble Republic created the largest area of freedom on the European continent for several centuries. Thus for example at the University of Cracow was created the best in Europe, school of astronomy, a student of which, Nicolaus Copernicus (Mikołaj Kopernik) gave the world the beginnings of modern astronomy. At that time in Germany Martin Luter burned Copernicus in effigy and called him “damned Polak-stronomer.”
Copernicus was an important leader of Renaissance in Poland, the son of Mikołaj Kopernik Sr., prominent copper merchant registered in Cracow in 1450ties, who served as a diplomat representing chancellor of Poland Cardinal Zbigniew Oleśnicki during negotiation with Prussian Estaes leading eventually to the unification of Prussia with Poland. He moved from Krakow to Toruń, where the future astronomer was born.
Mikołaj Koprenik Jr. also led Polish monetary reform in 1526 and introduced Polish zloty while combating German forgeries of Polish coins. In Copernicus’ treaty on Polish monetary reform of 1526 Copernicus spelled out for the first time in history the economic law that “bed money chases good money out of ciculation”in his Latin book published under the title Monetae Cudende Ratio also in 1526, when Thomas Gresham (c. 1519-1579) was seven years old.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) warned that democracies live under constant threat of falling under the rule of oligarchy. The seeds of the destruction of Polish Nobes Republic were sown already in 1589, when Slavic traditional law of succession was changed and inheritance could pass to the oldest son. Eventually this law became a basis for creation on latifundia of the magnates, some of whom in the seventeenth century had huge estates and private armies. Eventual fall the Nobles Republic of Poland was primarily caused by the politics of latifundia of the magnates in a very similar way as it happened to the Roman Republic of antiquity. An American historian in a conversation with me said that in this aspect the history of Poland is like the history of Rome “written in smaller letters.”
Poland’s Lechitic roots are even today reflected in Turkish word “Lechistan” for Poland. Thus,
Polish indigenous democratic process was based on regional legislatures, similar to the old Slavic meetings meeting called by Western Slavic Lechitic tribes as “vietse,” in Russian “vieche.” During these meetings ordinary people were debating, exchanged views and by means of elections authorized their representatives to speak for them in national parliament and then report back how well they performed their tasks as well to learn about the security of the commonwealth and new form abroad. Polish national culture was built by the “Noble Nation of Poland,” by the regional legislatures which formed Polish national culture “from below” in contradistinction to the West, where national cultures were build “from above” by the royal court and the towns. Had such indigenous democratic process happen in the West, it would most likely be described as an important and classical phenomenon in the history of the development of representative government.
Unfortunately partitions of Poland provided Hohezollerns the means to unify the 350 small German states with the capital in Berlin in the second part of the XIX c. and create autocratic state, which together with Russia changed the way Polish history has been written. Russia and Prussia inserted into world memory their predatory version of history and suppressed the true history of Poland.