The Curious Evolution of the Liberum Veto: Republican Theory and Practice in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1639-1705
McKenna, Catherine J.M.
Historians of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth have traditionally presented the liberum veto, a parliamentary practice that allowed any member of parliament to object to any measure and thereby suspend deliberations, as a result of Polish citizens' (the szlachta's) peculiar political culture, particularly their attachment to the principles of consensus and unanimity. This assumption led scholars to focus on theoretical justifications for the abuse of the veto that began during the second half of the seventeenth century and by the middle of the eighteenth century had paralyzed the Polish parliament (the Sejm) entirely. Until now, no one has considered the advent and persistence of the veto in the context of the long struggle between the two central political ideologies of the early modern period, republicanism and absolutism. By examining the writings of republican citizens who used and defended the veto during the heated battle over constitutional reform waged in the Commonwealth during the 1660s and early 1670s, we see that the veto was initially embraced as a tool to defend republican liberty against the illegal designs of a king bent on monarchical reforms. This tactic proved disastrous for the citizens who first used the veto to suspend parliaments as their opponents quickly embraced the practice for their own selfish ends. The result was partisan gridlock as well as a theoretical impasse between those who advocated a well-regulated (but unfree) monarchy and those who advocated a free (but chaotic) republic. Not until Stanislaw Dunin Karwicki wrote his De ordinanda republica in 1704 or 1705 were republican writers able to propose a constitution that guaranteed both efficient execution of laws and security without sacrificing the positive freedoms Poles understood to be the proper end of any constitution. Although Karwicki's reforms were never put into practice, they shed invaluable light on the struggle that defined seventeenth-century politics across Europe and that in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth led to the creation and curious evolution of the liberum veto.
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