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2004 | 111 | 3 | 141-159
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Veto - Liberty - Power in Polish Political Thought during the Eighteenth Century

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The 18th century was a period when the liberum veto was not only universally applied in practice, but also obtained a complete legal and doctrinal superstructure. The principle was treated not only as an outcome of the necessity to attain universal consent while making political decisions, but as the right of individual protest against collective decisions. For the supporters of the liberum veto principle it was tantamount to an extreme expression of political liberty and a guarantee of equal participation in governance by all the gentry citizens. Both the adherents and the opponents of the veto emphasised that it signified enormous power potentially wielded by every participant of political life. Nevertheless, it remained a negative 'liberty to negate', whose intention was predominantly to protect the existing state of things against any sort of changes threatening liberty. The liberum veto was treated as a sui generis right of rights - a guarantee of all other gentry rights and privileges. Not only the opponents but also the apologists of the veto were well aware of the dangers stemming from it. This is the reason why even the most fervent praise was accompanied by complaints against its abuse. The opponents drew attention to the fact that in practice it remained a tool in the hands of magnates. It was also noted that it was not so much extreme individual liberty as the despotism of an individual breaking up a parliamentary session. Starting with 'Glos wolny' (The Free Voice) it was stressed that the veto destroys fundamental institutions ensuring liberty - the Seym and dietines, and thus leads to the downfall of the free Commonwealth. The most complete arguments against ius vetandi were presented and analysed by S. Konarski, who contrasted the liberum veto - conceived as the unlimited power of an individual - with the liberty of the whole community and the individual citizen. Successive authors tended to echo Konarski's thought rather than add new reflections. From the 1770s, no one any longer defended the liberum veto and political discussions once again turned to the problem of the threat posed by the tyranny of the majority and certain fundamental rights for the republic, whose change required the universal consent of all citizens.
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  • A. Grzeskowiak-Krwawicz, Instytut Badan Literackich PAN, ul. Nowy Swiat 72, 00-330 Warszawa, Poland
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