Golden Liberty

The Republic at the Zenith of Its Power. Golden Liberty. The Royal Election of 1573, by Jan Matejko

Golden Liberty (Latin: Aurea Libertas; Polish: Złota Wolność, Lithuanian: Auksinė laisvė), sometimes referred to as Golden Freedoms, Nobles' Democracy or Nobles' Commonwealth (Polish: Rzeczpospolita Szlachecka or Złota wolność szlachecka, Latin: aureă lībertās) was a unique political system in the Kingdom of Poland and, after the Union of Lublin (1569), in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Under that system, all nobles (szlachta), regardless of rank or economic status, were considered to have equal legal status and enjoyed extensive legal rights and privileges. The nobility controlled the legislature (the Sejm — the Polish parliament) and the Commonwealth's elected king.


This political system, unique in Europe, stemmed from the consolidation of power by the szlachta (noble class) over other social classes and over the monarchical political system. In time, the szlachta accumulated enough privileges (established by the Nihil novi Act (1505), King Henry's Articles (1573), and various Pacta conventa) that no monarch could hope to break the szlachta's grip on power.

The political doctrine of the Commonwealth of the Two Nations was: "our state is a republic under the presidency of the King". Chancellor Jan Zamoyski summed up this doctrine when he said that "Rex regnat et non gubernat" ("The King reigns but [literally 'and'] does not govern"). The Commonwealth had a parliament, the Sejm, as well as a Senat and an elected king. The king was obliged to respect citizens' rights specified in King Henry's Articles as well as in pacta conventa negotiated at the time of his election.

The monarch's power was limited, in favor of the sizable noble class. Each new king had to subscribe to King Henry's Articles, which were the basis of Poland's political system (and included almost unprecedented guarantees of religious tolerance). Over time, King Henry's Articles were merged with the pacta conventa, specific pledges agreed to by the king-elect. From that point, the king was effectively a partner with the noble class and was constantly supervised by a group of senators. This doctrine had ancient republican thought at its roots, which was then reapplied with varying success to the political reality of an elective monarchy.[1]

The foundation of the Commonwealth's political system, the "Golden Liberty" (Polish: Złota Wolność, a term used from 1573), included:

The Commonwealth's political system is difficult to fit into a simple category, but it can be tentatively described as a mixture of:


The "Golden Liberty" was a unique and controversial feature of Poland's political system. It was an exception, characterized by a strong aristocracy and a feeble king, in an age when absolutism was developing in the stronger countries of Europe ― an exception, however, characterized by a striking similarity to certain modern values.[4] At a time when most European countries were headed toward centralization, absolute monarchy and religious and dynastic warfare, the Commonwealth experimented with decentralization,[3] confederation and federation, democracy, religious tolerance and even pacifism. Since the Sejm usually vetoed a monarch's plans for war, this constitutes a notable argument for the democratic peace theory.[5] This system was a precursor of the modern concepts of broader democracy[6] and constitutional monarchy[7][8][9] as well as federation.[3] The szlachta citizens of the Commonwealth praised the right of resistance, the social contract, the liberty of the individual, the principle of government by consent, the value of self-reliance ― all widespread concepts found in the modern, liberal democracies.[4] Just as liberal democrats of the 19th and 20th century, the Polish noblemen were concerned about the power of the state.[10] The Polish noblemen were strongly opposed to the very concept of the authoritarian state.[11]

Perhaps the closest parallels to Poland's 'Noble Democracy' can be found outside Europe altogether ― in America ― among the slave-owning aristocracy of The South, where slave-owning democrats and founding fathers of the USA such as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington had many values in common with the reformist noblemen of the Commonwealth.[12]

Others however criticize the Golden Liberty, pointing out it was limited only to the nobility, excluding peasants or townsfolk[13] and gave no legal system to grant freedom and liberty to the majority of the population, failing them by failing to protect them from the excesses of the nobility, resulting in the slow development of cities and the second serfdom among the peasants.[14] The Commonwealth was called Noble's Paradise, sometimes ― the Jewish Paradise, but also Purgatory for the Townsfolk (Burghers) and Hell for the Peasants.[15] And even among the nobility (szlachta), the Golden Liberty became abused and twisted by the most powerful of them (magnates).[13][16] However, one should note that this “the Jewish Paradise, but also Purgatory for the Townsfolk and Hell for the Peasants” was retrospectively coined in the 20th century by Jewish-German novelist Alfred Döblin, not by the people of that time, and it should be evaluated whether this really reflects the fact of the age. In fact it is also true that a number of Russian peasants fled from their far more brutal lords to settle in liberal Poland,[17] which might stand out as example of counterevidence to the "Hell for the Peasants" claim. But it might be seen as hell for non prosperous native Polish peasants stuck in its gutter for centuries.

In its extreme the Golden Liberty has been criticized as being responsible for "civil wars and invasions, national weakness, irresolution, and poverty of spirit".[18] Failing to evolve into the "modern" system of an absolutist and national monarchy, the Commonwealth suffered a gradual decline down to the brink of anarchy, through liberum veto[16] and other abuses of the system. With the majority of the szlachta believing that they lived in the perfect state, too few questioned the Golden Liberty and the Sarmatism philosophy, until it was too late.[19] With the szlachta refusing to pay taxes for a larger and modern army, and magnates bribed by foreign powers paralyzing the Commonwealth political system,[20][21] the Commonwealth was unable to keep up with its increasingly militarized and efficient (through bureaucratization) neighbors,[22] becoming a tempting target for foreign aggression. It was eventually partitioned and annexed by stronger absolutist neighboring countries in the late-18th-century partitions of Poland.[9][23]

Similar systems

Golden Liberty created a state that was unusual for its time, although somewhat similar political systems existed in other contemporary states, like the Republic of Venice.[24] (interestingly both states were styled the "Most Serene Republic."[25])

A similar fate was averted by Italy; first due to a secular inability of the kings of France and Spain, and the Papacy, to come to terms on how to divide the country, then through the reaction against Habsburg domination which, as late as 1861, finally aligned most of the country's states in support of a national monarchy under King Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy, hitherto king of Sardinia.

Notably, neither the Republic of Venice nor Italy had a liberum veto among their institutions.


The rights and privileges of the Polish(-Lithuanian) nobility became proverbial. A popular Polish saying avers:

Szlachcic na zagrodzie równy wojewodzie


"The noble on his estate is equal to the voivode"

In Poland to these days it means that there is no man that a freeman (a better, philosophical meaning of szlachcic) would think of as a superior.

See also


  1. Filonik, Jakub (2015). "The Polish Nobility's "Golden Freedom": On the Ancient Roots of a Political Idea". The European Legacy. doi:10.1080/10848770.2015.1071124.
    1. Norman Davies, God's Playground. A History of Poland, Vol. 1: The Origins to 1795, Vol. 2: 1795 to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-925339-0 / ISBN 0-19-925340-4
  2. 1 2 3 Aleksander Gella, Development of Class Structure in Eastern Europe: Poland and Her Southern Neighbors, SUNY Press, 1998, ISBN 0-88706-833-2, Google Print, p13
  3. 1 2 Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland in Two Volumes, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-19-925339-0, p.262
  4. Frost, Robert I. The Northern Wars: War, State and Society in northeastern Europe, 1558–1721. Harlow, England; New York: Longman's. 2000. Especially pp9–11, 114, 181, 323.
  5. Maciej Janowski, Polish Liberal Thought, Central European University Press, 2001, ISBN 963-9241-18-0, Google Print: p3, p12
  6. Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics 1763–1848, Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-19-820654-2, Google print p84
  7. Rett R. Ludwikowski, Constitution-Making in the Region of Former Soviet Dominance, Duke University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-8223-1802-4, Google Print, p34
  8. 1 2 George Sanford, Democratic Government in Poland: Constitutional Politics Since 1989, Palgrave, 2002, ISBN 0-333-77475-2, Google print p. 11 — constitutional monarchy, p.3 — anarchy
  9. Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland in Two Volumes, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-19-925339-0, Google Print, p.283
  10. Jerzy Szacki, Liberalism After Communism, Central European University, 1995, ISBN 1-85866-016-5, Press Google Print, p. 46
  11. Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland in Two Volumes, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-19-925339-0, p.282
  12. 1 2 Helmut Georg Koenigsberger, Monarchies, States Generals and Parliaments, Cambridge University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-521-80330-6, Google Print, p.336
  13. The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom: A Hypothesis, discussion and full online text of Evsey Domar (1970) "The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom: A Hypothesis," Economic History Review 30:1 (March), pp18–32
  14. Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland in Two Volumes, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-19-925339-0, Google Print, p.160
  15. 1 2 Jerzy Lukowski, Hubert Zawadzki, A Concise History of Poland, Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-521-85332-X, Google Print, p.88
  16. Nicholas Valentine Riasanovsky (2000). A History of Russia. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512179-1. Googleブック
  17. Philip Pajakowski, in Michał Bobrzyński (1849-1935), Peter Brock, John D. Stanley, Piotr Wróbel (ed.), Nation And History: Polish Historians from the Enlightenment to the Second World War, University of Toronto Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8020-9036-2, Google Print, p.150
  18. Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland in Two Volumes, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-19-925339-0, p.279]
  19. William Bullitt, The Great Globe Itself: A Preface to World Affairs, Transaction Publishers, 2005, ISBN 1-4128-0490-6, Google Print, pp42–43
  20. John Adams, The Political Writings of John Adams, Regnery Gateway, 2001, ISBN 0-89526-292-4, Google Print, p.242
  21. Brian M. Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy and Autocracy in Early Modern Europe, Princeton University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-691-02475-8, Google Print, p.144
  22. Martin Van Gelderen, Quentin Skinner, Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-521-80756-5 Google Print: p54
  23. Joanna Olkiewicz, Najaśniejsza Republika Wenecka (Most Serene Republic of Venice), Książka i Wiedza, 1972, Warszawa
  24. Joseph Conrad, Notes on Life and Letters: Notes on Life and Letters, Cambridge University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-521-56163-9, Google Print, p422 (notes)

External links

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