Historical Case Studies

Historical Case Studies

The Belgian Case - The Belgian National Congress

The Belgian National Congress was the first legislative and constitutional assembly of Belgium. It was convened as a result of the declaration of independence issued by the Provisional Government of Belgium on 4 October 1830, leading to the secession of Belgium from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. The 200 members of the Congress were elected on 3 November 1830 by an electorate of 30.000 voters (by census and capacity suffrage). Almost 90% of the members belonged to the moneyed bourgeoisie; the remaining 10% consisted of nobles. Many of the members were trained jurists, lawyers being the most prominent professional group. The Congress first convened on 10 November 1830. Its principal tasks were the choice of a head of state and the drawing up of a Constitution. Initially the Duke of Nemours, son of King Louis-Philippe of France, was chosen as king. He declined however since his candidature was unacceptable for the great European powers. The Congress thereupon offered the crown to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He accepted on condition that the Congress agreed to the Treaty of the Eighteen Articles which laid down the new border with Holland. The task of drawing up a Constitution was entrusted to a constitutional committee composed of 12 members, all except one of them trained jurists. The commission presented its constitutional proposal to the Congress on 23 October 1830. After several weeks of debates a revised version was composed and approved by the Congress on 7 February 1831. The Constitution became operative on 25 February 1831 when Baron Erasme Louis Surlet de Chokier, formerly president of the National Congress, swore the oath as regent awaiting the definite choice of a head of state. The Congress was finally dissolved on 21 July 1831 when Leopold I took the oath as first King of the Belgians.

The German Case - The Frankfurt Parliament and the Frankfurt Constitution

The Frankfurt Parliament was the first freely elected Parliament for all German states. Its president was the Hessian parliamentary and lawyer Heinrich von Gagern. Many members of the Frankfurt parliament believed that constitutional guarantees of fundamental individual rights could only be achieved by a national constitution – a constitution they had to draft and elaborate.

By the fall of 1847 opposition against the conservative governmental politics had risen throughout the German Confederation. People called for the abolition of censorship, an overhaul of the system of criminal justice, freedom of assembly, conscience and speech as well as academic freedom. As a result of the liberal revolutions in early 1848, a preliminary assembly of German liberals summoned the parliament. Its members were elected by direct male suffrage. The elections were hasty. There were no recognized parties that could nominate candidates or campaign for them. Finally, most members of the parliament were known for their scholarship, their ability as professionals or for their prominence as local dignitaries. All of them were educated men. The majority had attended secondary school. Over 80% had been at university and most of them had studied law.

The parliament first convened on 18 May 1848 in the Frankfurter Paulskirche, which had huge galleries which could accommodate a large number of people so that the general public could keep an eye on the parliament’s efforts. Many members of the assembly met in Frankfurt for the first time and it was only then that they organized themselves in rudimentary parties. The large circular nave of the church had no suitable rooms for conferences or committee meetings. As rudimentary parties began to be formed their meetings were held in Frankfurt’s inns and they were named after these inns. Even though separate parties began to form, people often drifted from one party to another.

Because of the staggering complexity of the tasks with which the parliament was confronted standing committees were formed. Among the most prominent were the committee on the constitution, the committee of priorities and petitions and the committee on economic matters. To establish major constitutional bodies it was lacking. the parliament set up a Provisional Central Power in June 1848. Even if this Provisional Central Power never had any real power the foundation of a governmental apparatus was laid.

The Parliament debated basic rights, the head of state, greater or smaller German solution, executive power and the Supreme Court. On December 28, 1848, the basic rights were declared as immediately applicable. It was the first time basic rights were to be enacted for all German states. After heated debates the constitution was completed and passed by parliament on 28th March 1849. The Parliament adopted a federal constitution of the German states, excluding Austria, with a hereditary emperor and parliamentary government. The crown was offered to the King of Prussia (Frederick William IV). He refused to accept the crown from a popular assembly and insisted on the Divine Right of Kings. Even if smaller states accepted the constitution, the movement had lost its impetus and German Princes as well as the Austrian Emperor were able to regain control. Nevertheless the Constitution of the German Empire (although called Frankfurt Constitution or Paulskirchenverfassung) was a role model for later constitutions.

The Italian Case - The Subalpine Parliament

Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour said that «La route parlamentaire est plus longue, mais elle est plus sûre» [Letter to the Countess of Circourt of 29th December 1860]. The Italian statesman had noted that «the statute introduces the element of choice widely and powerfully in all parts of the social structure [...] The nation is called to participate directly in all the acts that reflect the interest of the country in general, or of any faction of it» [Lo Statuto di Carlo Alberto e i partiti avanzati, in Il Risorgimento, March 10, 1948 , nr. 63]

The Subalpine Parliament of Piedmont-Sardinia and Sicily was created in 1848, after the idea of a parliamentary system was affirmed on several occasions in 1848 to '49. Cavour was more aware of the importance of the parliament than the others, resting his national and liberal politics on its authority. He placed the Parliament in the center of the system, claiming its full independence from the monarchy itself, enhancing its driving force.  

During its liberal age Italy never had come to a perfect bipartisanship as it had been exercised in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and thus missed the chance of developing a parliamentary government. However, there was no lack of transformations of the form of government and to determine it, interpretation of the provisions of the Statute that Charles Albert of Sardinia had extended to the whole Kingdom of Italy, was not enough. The Statute was flexible by its nature, but an actual establishment of new constitutional principles and practices was needed.

The transformations of the form of the Italian government and the constitutional debate on the issue of national unification were favored by an active political class. There is a lack of specific studies on the functioning of the Subalpine Parliament, especially in the years close to the national unification. From ReConFort, using innovative methodology that connects statute interpretation, practice, public opinion and the role of the protagonists, a greater awareness on the European constitutional debate is expected.

The Polish Case - The Great Sejm and its masterpiece, the Constitution of 3 May 1791

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the so-called pre-partition period was an elective monarchy. At the same time this Commonwealth was called nobleman’s Republic. Polish nobility, especially the most mature members of the Sejm, realised after the first partition of the Polish territory (1772) that fundamental political and social reforms should take place. The culminating point considering reforms used an advantageous international situation and took place during the meeting of the so-called Four Years’ Sejm (1788 – 1792) which  gained the name of the Great Sejm when 1791 the new elected deputies joined the earlier ones to proceed in dual number.
During 1791 the confederated Sejm adopted a collection of constitutional acts, among them the Government Statute - known as Constitution from the 3rd of May. The Statute was voted by a special body in the extraordinary routine – in the moment of voting the Great Sejm had double number of deputies.
The Constitution consists of 11 broad articles. The unique rule of article VI considered the obligatory review and amendment of the constitution every 25 years, also by an extraordinary Sejm. The Declaration of the Assembled Estates officially invalidated previous law which was inconsistent with the new Constitution.
The legislative was a two chamber system of the Sejm. The lower chamber gathered deputies chosen by the noblemen. The second chamber, Senat, consisted of bishops, ministers, province chiefs, and castellans.  Liberum veto was abolished.
However, the actual position of the king as a head of executive was strengthened by elimination of the rule of throne eligibility and introduction of the throne succession. The private responsibility of the king for being an authority was cancelled. Officially – the Constitution was cancelled after the lost war against Russia 1792.
The ReConFort Project objectives achievement requires the systematic analysing of official reports of the Great Sejm` legislative work, official and non-oficial constitutional drafts, the correspondence of the major protagonists as Hugo Kołłątaj, Ignacy Potocki, the King Stanislaw August, Ex-chancellor Zamojski. The next area of investigation are the public media, including the most important newspapers as Gazeta Narodowa y Obca, Pamiętnik Historyczno-Polityczno-Ekonomiczny, Gazeta Warszawska, but also the publishing activity of the protagonists. Key figures of the public dispute were: Ignacy Potocki, Franciszek Jezierski, Tadeusz Czacki, Wojciech Turski, on the opposite side the conservatives like Seweryn Rzewuski or Józef Korwin Kossakowski. Some of the publicist writings, pamphlets and articles are the irrefutable proofs for the intense transfer of political ideas  from England, France and United States of America.
The most significant collections of the archival materials are stored in Central Archives of Historical Records (AGAD) in Warsaw (here among others the collection of Great Sejm` Archives and Family Potocki Public Archives), Biblioteka Czartoryskich (the collection of the royal correspondence), Biblioteka Polskiej Akademii Nauk, Biblioteka Jagiellońska in Krakow.

The Spanish Case - The Spanish Constitution of 1812

The Cadiz Cortes began on September, 24th, 1810 on the Isla de León, that was later renamed San Fernando. From the pre-constituent phase that started with Napoleon kidnapping Kings Charles IV and Ferdinand VII at Bayonne (France) in April of 1808, it was discussed about the nature and character of the Cortes. In the end, they were considered to be “general” since they were convened nationwide, and “extraordinary” since they were a constituent assembly. The vast convention decree, the first of the assembly´s regulations, was issued on that same 24th of September, under the title: Declaración de la legítima constitución de las Cortes y de su soberanía: nuevo reconocimiento del Rey Don Fernando VII, y anulación de su renuncia a la Corona, división de Poderes, reservándose las Cortes el legislativo (…) (Declaration of the legitimate convention of the Cortes and its sovereignty: new recognition of King Ferdinand VII and annulment of his renunciation of the crown, separation of powers, reserving the Cortes the Legislative power). Simultaneously it proclaimed the principles of separation of powers and national sovereignty, since the Cortes considered themselves to be the representatives of the Spanish nation.

The Constitution of Cádiz was adopted as Constitución política de la Monarquía española, Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy –it included the principle of the Catholic Constitutional Monarchy, even though supervised by the Legislative power – however, the Cortes continued to be “extraordinary” until January 1814, due to the political and military situation in Spain, being “ordinary” only for five months. The Constitution of 1812 was valid, with several interruptions, until a new constitution was adopted in 1837 and thus was present at the major part of the reforming-rupturing process, or rupturing-reforming process with the Old Regime. Therefore, we should ask, among others, the following questions: Who were the protagonists of this first Spanish constitution? By which constitutional model and ideas was it inspired? By what programmatic principles was it propelled? What liberties were included and what means were established to protect them? Which reforms were introduced in order to displace the material bases of the Old Regime? To what degree the Spanish Constitution had been applied? What kind of power structure did it establish? Matters for analysis, among others, which the Project ReConFort attends to from a comparative point of view.