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Recasting Utopia: Montesquieu, Rousseau and the Polish Constitution of 3 May 1791

Jerzy Lukowski
The Historical Journal
Vol. 37, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), pp. 65-87
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2640052
Page Count: 23
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Recasting Utopia: Montesquieu, Rousseau and the Polish Constitution of 3 May 1791
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Abstract

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the nobility of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth had developed an ideology of extreme individualism and libertarianism, within a correspondingly weak and decentralized state structure. The first partition of 1772 starkly revealed the weaknesses of the Polish polity, but any hopes of major political overhaul were frustrated by the dead hand of Russian ambassadorial policing. The war of 1787-92 with Turkey proved a temporary distraction for Russia, which the Polish parliament of 1788-92 showed itself only partly capable of exploiting. Factional conflicts and a wary conservatism hampered reforms: the ideas of Montesquieu and Rousseau, which closely complemented so many aspects of traditional Polish noble ideology, seemed to offer the most acceptable way forward, culminating in the constitution of 3 May 1791, a compromise between enlightened idealism and political pragmatism.

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