Liberum veto, which is Latin for “I freely forbid,” was a form of unanimity rule in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth used by members of parliament to defeat any measure under consideration by a single vote. Each member of the Sejm, or parliament, had a legal right to veto any bill being considered or end the current session and nullify all the acts passed. Liberum veto was granted on the assumption that all members of the Sejm were nobles of equal political consideration, but in practice it often paralyzed the government until it was abolished in 1791.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a federation of countries ruled by a common elected monarch from 1569 to 1795. The Sejm was generally convened by the king every two years. Every region elected a deputy from the local land assembly, or sejmik, as its Sejm representative.
Each representative in the Sejm had the right of liberum veto from the middle of the 16th century to the end of the 18th. It was intended to curb monarchial powers by allowing any one member to veto legislation and end a current session of the Sejm. In reality, this legal right meant that every bill introduced had to be passed unanimously.
A deputy from Kiev first used this unanimity rule to end a legislative session in 1669. It was used extensively after this first instance, making it difficult to debate and pass legislation. Members also invoked this right to veto specific bills or stop deliberations.
By the beginning of the 18th century, liberum veto made the commonwealth increasingly vulnerable to outside influence. Neighboring powers like Russia and Prussia would bribe members of the Sejm to use their veto to disrupt attempts to strengthen or reform the government. Local nobility jealous of their independence would also try to influence the Sejm via a member’s liberum veto.
As a result, the Sejm deteriorated into a chaotic state. The frequent use of the veto by Sejm members under the influence of local nobles made it impossible to centralize power. Other members would end a Sejm session on behalf of a foreign benefactor if a bill under consideration threatened the benefactor’s interests.
The commonwealth weakened as the Sejm ceased to function independently. King Stanislaw II August Poniatowski introduced constitutional reforms, including a limitation of liberum veto in 1764, but this action only resulted in civil war and a military intervention by Russia in 1767. This was followed by the First Partition of Poland in 1772, in which the commonwealth lost approximately 30 percent of its territories to Russia, Austria, and Prussia.
The loss of territory finally prompted the Sejm to adopt the Constitution of 3 May 1791, which abolished the veto. Many historians believe that liberum veto was a major factor in the commonwealth’s eventual dissolution in 1795. Others contend that the effective prohibition of the veto in 1764 is what facilitated acceptance of a modern constitution.