Desktop version

Home arrow History

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Criticism of government in Norway c. 1770–1814

Knut Dorum

This chapter examines the question whether or not it is reasonable to assume that discontent with the government and the political system centred in Copenhagen prevailed among Norwegian elites during the period c. 1770-1814. In Norwegian historiography, there has been a widespread opinion that neither the elites nor the peasants in Norway after 1536 and prior to the Napoleonic Wars (1807-1814), with few exceptions, directed criticism towards the king personally and the regime. With respect to the extent to which an opposition emerged, it was mainly confined to some of the circles of merchant-landowners in the south-east of Norway, and their mistrust and dissatisfaction concerned mostly the economic policy being conducted from the king and his government favouring Denmark and the capital of Copenhagen.

The status of research until recently can be summarized as follows: The Norwegians were known as exemplary in their loyalty to the king, and this became a perception that the government exploited through its rhetoric in promoting state patriotism. Prior to 1814, there did not exist any noticeable wish to supersede the absolute monarchy with a constitution based on the sovereignty of the people, the principle of the separation of the executive, legislative and judiciary powers, and the principles of liberty and equality. On the contrary, the Norwegians accepted and coped with absolutism, and they regarded the prevailing political system as just, natural, and well-functioning. In contrast to this widespread view, this chapter seeks to substantiate a thesis claiming that the relatively radical Norwegian Constitution of 1814 must be regarded as a consequence of a long-growing crisis of legitimacy among the elites for the absolute monarchical system in Denmark-Norway.

The status of research

Inspired by the comprehensive research done by his colleague Sverre Steen, the influential Norwegian historian Jens Arup Seip formulated the expression that ‘the Norwegians obtained their freedom as a gift,’ thus referring to the revolution in 1814, which ended up with the introduction of a constitutional monarchy based on the new liberal political ideas.1 According to Steen and Seip, the Norwegians had not expressed any desire to be liberated. On the contrary, they had been persuaded by the Danish Prince Christian Frederick, who had initiated an uprising to prevent Sweden from conquering Norway. The Swedish regent Carl Johan had been a crucial general in the great alliance against France, and after waging war against Denmark in the southern provinces of the country, he had finally forced the Danish king to capitulate in the late autumn of 1813. This had not been possible without Russian and British guarantees dating back to 1812 and 1813, prescribing that Norway should be the reward for the military efforts Sweden made in the united struggle against Napoleon. In accordance with the enforced Peace Treaty of Kiel on 14 January 1814, Denmark was obliged to give up Norway to the Swedish king. Against this background, the motivation for Prince Christian Frederick was to bring Norway into the fold with Denmark and keep the realm undivided. In other words, the uprising of 1814 did not begin as a revolution from below, but as drastic actions taken to ensure the reunification of Denmark and Norway.

The impression of a revolution from above also finds support in analyses made by Knut Mykland. He delivered arguments and found evidence in sources that he claimed indicated that King Frederick VI strongly endorsed the campaign Prince Christian Frederick had launched. Mykland considered the role of the king what he called ‘a royal double game.’ Officially, the king had to make the impression that he would fulfil the peace treaty, but in the strictest secret, he sought to aid the uprising.2 Until recently, this perspective referring to a revolution from above has been underpinned by analyses made by historians such as Stale Dyrvik and Oystein Sorensen. According to Dyrvik, there were no indications of national separatism in Norway, and Sorensen has claimed that the Norwegians found the absolute monarchy convenient and reasonable as long as it tended to be liberal and enlightened.3

By the late 1980s and in the 1990s, Káre Lunden raised objections against this established perspective by stressing that there were several spokesmen for Norwegian nationalism who did not hesitate displaying separatist tendencies and communicating antagonism towards Denmark, the Danes and also the government in Copenhagen.4 Both the Danish historian Rasmus Glenthoj and the Norwegian historian Bard Frydenlund have examined Norwegian separatism in the period 1807-1814.5 Glenthoj interprets some of the activities of the Royal Norwegian Society for Development in that direction. After being founded in 1809, it became a nationwide organization consisting of many local units. Frydenlund has found similar examples of separatism in his studies of social networks created by rich merchants expressing severe discontent with the Danish government and forming contacts not only with the Swedish government and its agent, but also with politically influential British merchant circles. While it is hard to find evidence of negative attitudes towards the Danish hegemony and willingness to approach Sweden in the Royal Norwegian Society for Development, it is an established fact that strong connections were formed between Norwegian commercial magnates and agents of the Swedish government by the 1790s onwards. On the other hand, we do not know many details from their meetings about agendas and what plans they might have put forward. Nevertheless, it is likely that negotiations were going on regarding the eventuality of a unification of Sweden and Norway in order to settle terms for a new government and a constitution for Norway.

Recently, some studies have revealed only a few examples of narratives and statements in Norwegian and Danish journals and literature bearing witness to the fact that criticism of government and king really was uttered, often in hidden ways. Ellen Krefting, Aina Noding and Mona Ringvej have shown that the journals had the potential of being channels of false panegyric and sarcasm and irony in a disguised form. Krefting has also shed light on the genre ‘secret stories,’ which were printed matter not intended to be published for a large market but addressed to exclusive milieus.6 In this manner, she has illustrated this phenomenon by analysing the authorship of Peter Frederik Suhm.7 She suggests that the norms attached to this genre differed from other genres by containing a far greater tolerance for hidden and coded criticism.

A quite different perspective has been upheld by Oystein Rian, who has asserted that the absolutist regime of Denmark-Norway usually went far in controlling rhe book market and in performing censorship of the spoken and printed word. The state shaped the content in literature and printed matter as the employer of authors writing the nation’s history as filled with just, wise, brave, and morally superior kings and by giving licence only to a few loyal printers and publishers, mostly concentrated in Copenhagen.8 According to Rian, there was no room for any development of a free and critical bourgeois public sphere in Denmark-Norway in the 1700s.

In this chapter, I will argue that the revolution of 1814 - the introduction of a constitutional monarchy in Norway - was based on a growing civil society that was becoming more and more critical to the regime. This view opposes the well-established harmonious perspective, but corresponds with recent studies and new findings. My analysis is based on other scholars’ case-studies as well as my own investigations. However, it is impossible to quantify in figures and tables the members of the elite or the commoners who nourished reformist ideas and to measure the dissatisfaction they felt with absolutism and the government. Furthermore, we need to distinguish between discontent with the policy the government conducted, on the one hand, and the endorsement of and sympathy with political ideas of which the ultimate consequence was the abolishment of absolutism, on the other. It is also important to note that in attempting to capture the exact meaning and content of some of the critical remarks, one will have to allow a certain amount of uncertainty in the interpretation. It might be necessary to begin with the terms of absolutism.

312 Knut Derum

The terms of absolutism 1660-1814

In 1660, absolutism was introduced in Denmark-Norway, and this revolution from above - where King Frederick III had played a significant role -made it clear that the realm had evolved into a pure absolute monarchy. In Norway, this system of government prevailed until 1814, while in Denmark it endured until 1848. The Royal Law of 1665 prescribed that all legislative, executive, judicial, and fiscal power should be vested in the king, and this meant the abolition of all political representative institutions and assemblies, such as the Counsel of the Realm and meetings of the estates. He was not obliged to consult or ensure the consent of anyone before issuing decrees and provisions. It gave the king unrestricted and absolute power, his main task being to keep the kingdom undivided and maintain the Christian religion in accordance with the Lutheran Augsburg Confession. The legislation and ideology of this absolutist state did not accept any opposition or criticism, and the subjects were instructed to be humble, obedient, and subservient to the almighty God and their king.

As early as in the 1630s, the Danish kingdom imposed crucial restrictions with regard to the use of petitions. The regime signalled that collective protests ought not to happen, and that petitions should spring from individual needs and be addressed from a single person to the king, and furthermore, every petition had to be approved by a royal official or judge -the sorenskriver. In 1648, King Frederick III decreed strong prohibitions against popular gatherings and meetings which could lead to riots. This legislation reflects the enlarged position the state had achieved in relation to its subjects.9 As 0ystein Rian has pointed out, the Law Codes of the 1680s paid much attention to Lésé Majesté, or the crime of violating, defaming, and insulting the king and his family. Such a crime qualified for death penalty. Still alive, the convicts should have their right hand cut off and soon face death through decapitation. It was important to humiliate the convicts as much as possible. Their bodies were cut up in pieces, and then displayed on wheels that were hanging on high supporting poles - with the convicts’ heads placed on top. The legislators sought also to punish severely anyone who would insult or harm state tenants.10

Institutionalized state surveillance of pre-publication had been established during the Reformation in Church Ordinances in 1537 and 1539. Consequently, books had to be approved by the University of Copenhagen prior to publication. The government attempted to stop the import of books as well as books printed in Denmark-Norway touching upon issues of religious belief and questions related to the government of the realm. The inspection of imported books was intensified during the Pietist-inspired government of Christian IV 1730-1746.11 When Johann F. Struensee introduced the freedom of the press in 1770, which endured until 1772-1773, he did not end censorship and prosecutions of violators of the norms regulating improper and insulting opinions and expressions. The ordinance

Criticism of government in Norway c. 1770-1814 313 of 9 October 1770 made it clear that the absolute monarchy and its legal basis were above all criticism. Recently, Jesper Jacobsen has proved that although the state censorship in 1746-1773 was often conducted smoothly and pragmatically, and adapted to the business interests in an increasingly profitable book market, questioning the authority of the absolute monarchy, the government or the Church was not tolerated. Undoubtedly, these prohibitions were enforced efficiently.12

Even though a certain freedom of the press was allowed in the period 1784-1799, the state authorities seldom accepted criticism of the king, the royal family and the cabinet, the system of government, the Constitution, the state’s religion, and so on. Harald Jorgensen has documented that the government demonstrated an eagerness to prosecute and punish authors who challenged and threatened the authority of the king and the state both prior to and after the press decree of 1799.13 The 1799 decree brought about a reduction of the freedom of speech by prescribing exile for authors who criticized the government and the Constitution and by passing death sentences for persons planning to change the system of government, initiating revolts against the king, and disobeying royal ordinances. A sort of pre-publication censorship tended to re-emerge as the printers were compelled to send the copy of virtually all printed matter to the police for inspection before publication. Moreover, all the printers had to apply to the central administration for the right to conduct their business, which could easily result in a withdrawal of the right to publish if the printer appeared to be hostile to the government and the regime.

Sune Christian Pedersen has established that the Danish government in the first half of the 18th century scrutinized the mail going out of the kingdom, and the practice of secret letter-opening took the form of postal espionage by clever hands leaving no detectable marks. After systematic letter-opening had decreased by the 1760s, a new wave for postal espionage occurred around 1800. Being drawn into the Napoleonic wars in 1807, the Danish government imposed a form of pre-censorship of letters before they could be handed in at the post office.14 How effective was the censorship and surveillance as long as the state officials together with burghers and other elites were socialising in clubs and societies encouraging each other to speak plainly, expressing their devotion to the French Revolution and venerating the ideas of freedom, liberty, and brotherhood? Pedersen regards the postal espionage as a symptom of a regime facing a crisis of legitimacy as several of the letters expressed discontent and mistrust not only with the policy being conducted by the king and government, but also uttered criticism undermining the absolute political system.

The hidden transcripts and civil society

Jorgen Muhrmann-Lund has recently made a scoop in the police archives in Copenhagen, discovering a very exciting map of documents.15 In 1764, two

Norwegian students in Copenhagen were captured by the police and interrogated for having initiated a rising in Norway. Their intentions were said to be the liberation of Norway from Denmark, and the establishment of an independent Norwegian state, where the Norwegians were to have their own king anointed among one of the descendants of the old Norwegian royal dynasty from the Middle Ages. As many as 20 students had supported the rising. The police authorities came to the conclusion that they would not charge and punish the students, rather release them. The incident was characterized as ‘childish chat and jokes.’ In this way, the police authorities deliberately downplayed and minimized the incident. Above all, this event reveals a kind of separatism and discontent with the Danish regime. On the other hand, it is hard to determine how representative this incident was concerning separatist tendencies in Norway.

In the period c. 1760-1814, Norway experienced a media revolution and the formation of a proto-version of civil society in the form of clubs and societies. Around 1800, various journals in Norway numbered 30-35, though many of them did not exist for more than a year or two. In 1763, Christiania saw its first newspaper, followed by Bergen in 1765, Trondheim in 1767, Arendal in 1769, Stavanger in 1770, and Kristiansand in 1780. In the 1780s and 1790s and the years prior to 1814, clubs and societies blossomed in many Norwegian urban areas. They served as arenas where distribution of political ideas and news, and not least debates, could take place without direct control from the authorities. It is worth mentioning that state officials participated in these arenas and arose as prominent exponents of the new revolutionary ideas. ‘Freedom, liberty, and brotherhood’ appeared to be crucial slogans when prominent men drank a toast for the king, the fatherland, and fellow citizens.

The period of the freedom of the press in 1770-1773 contributed to the establishment of a civil society. The ideas and principles of the Enlightenment reached Denmark and Norway and were prone to challenge the tenets of the old regime. Various patriotic societies came to be exponents of values such as ‘the common will’ and ‘the common good,’ and these organizations were based on democratic principles. The revolutionary concepts of liberty and equality were put into practice, making the members equal with regard to the right to speak and to vote. Every vote had the same value regardless of social rank and status. The regulations imposed in Det Aggershuusiske patriotisme Sælskab in 1779 made it clear that no members should have privileges, and that everyone should be treated equally. This patriotic society was to be based upon the principles of liberty and equality. It was stated, ‘A complete liberty and equality among men should prevail’.16 In Norway as in many other European countries, patriotism paved the way for the dissemination of the ideas of the Enlightenment. The so-called dramatic societies became arenas of political performance where men were trained to give speeches and act in front of an audience, finding inspiration and ideals in the French Revolution.17

The freedom years of 1770-1773 unleashed several critical remarks from the Norwegian elites that affected Denmark, the capital, and rhe government. An accusation that was prevalent among Norwegian merchants was that the government favoured the capital of Denmark - Copenhagen - in terms of trade privileges at the expense of Norway, which justified the nicknaming of this metropolis as ‘the bloodsucker.’ Also the great landowners in Denmark, who greedily took advantage of the Danish grain monopoly and Norwegian dependence on imports, came under attack. In many respects, this policy inflicted damage on trade, prices, and the provision of food to the Norwegian population. Furthermore, both state officials and burghers intensified their claim that Norway ought to be granted its own university, without which the country would be doomed to remain poor and under foreign domination.18

Those years also brought about more heavy criticism. In 1771, the Norwegian Even Hammer stated in Philonorvagi velmeente Tanker til veltwnkende Medborgere that he wished a king who was not insane, a royal court without patronage, legislation without severe errors, and impartial courts of justice.19 Studies of the Dane Peter Frederik Suhm, who became strongly integrated into the elites of the town of Trondheim and a prominent figure in the 1750s and 1760s, have revealed ideas of astonishing boldness. In Suhmiana - known as a draft in 1772, but only printed in 1799 - Suhm proposed a constitutional reform that included a national assembly. In Euphron, existing as a draft as early as in 1774, he outlined principles for the rule of good king, and he warned against tyranny, followed by agitation for the freedom of the press and the freedom of religion.20

As late as in 1797, the count Woldemar Friedrich Schmettow expressed deep concerns about the current trend where authors and agitators praised the French Revolution and propagated the French principles of equality and liberty, thus questioning religion and the Constitution of the realm. They encouraged people to be critical to religion and to wish the imposition of another constitution different from absolutism. He assured his readers that this trend primarily concerned Denmark, not Norway.21 However, the year 1773 marked the end of the period of freedom, and statements such as those by Even Hammer happened to wane after harsher censorship was introduced. However, the period of 1784-1799 led to a renewal of much of the freedom the citizens had enjoyed back in the early 1770s. Nevertheless, publicists had learned their lessons and turned out to be more careful.

Altogether, the conclusion must be that there are relative few cases of statements questioning the system of government or criticizing the king and his cabinet, or confronting more generally the regime with denunciation and accusations together with claims of reforms. Men and women criticizing the king or government could risk trials resulting in a death sentence, or they might be imprisoned for life, or be sent into exile. The trials against the authors Andreas Heiberg, Malthe Conrad Bruun, and Peter Collett bore witness to the fact that the government was willing to prosecute and punish critical voices. Having been sentenced to exile, Heiberg in 1799 and Bruun in 1800 encountered total social ruination, while Collett in 1797 had to face much the same fate after being dismissed from his position as a state official. When observing the near absence of criticism in Norwegian and Danish sources, one has assumed that there was no fertile ground for criticism of the king, government, regime, etc. Most prominently, this point has been made by 0ystein Rian.22 Another approach, of which I will present examples, is investigating other types of sources, mostly correspondence between state officials and private letters, which contains thoughts and opinions indicating opposition and criticism. It is worth mentioning that the 1799 decree not only attempted to prohibit insults and defamations directed at the royal family, religion, and the Constitution, but also explicit allegories and ironic comments.

In Denmark and Norway in c. 1750-1814, discontent, negative utterances, and criticism are to be found in what James C. Scott has described as ‘hidden transcripts.’ This communication refers to subordinate groups creating a secret discourse that represents critique of those in power and authority, but spoken behind these masters’ backs. By using codes, allegories, and disguised words and opinions, they are able to ventilate and disseminate frustration, anger, disapproval, etc. Scott touches upon the defence strategies of powerless peasants, serfs, untouchables, slaves, labourers, and prisoners encountering authoritarian systems.25 However, one might also use the phrase ‘hidden transcripts’ in connection with discontent, disapproval, and criticism among the elites and persons filling top positions in the state apparatus. Coded criticism is not merely the weapon of the weak. Actually, the strongest opposition to absolutism emerged among those who exerted power and authority in Norway c. 1770-1814 - the burghers and the state officials.

In 1799, a rich merchant, in the loading place Drobak, complained to his wife: ‘May Norway be liberated from the Danish and the tyranny of the few.’24 In 1808, a vicar in the south-east of Norway stated: ‘With immense frustration and anger the state officials in Norway consider the distress and sufferings one might have avoided if wise men in the government had acted differently.’25 In 1811, a vicar informed the bailiff in Salten in Nordland, in the far north of Norway: ‘There are many of us who are not satisfied with the government, and we are looking forward to the day when many of our people have a say’. The bailiff answered, ‘We must communicate in codes and by using euphemisms.’26 An anonymous letter from a peasant living in a village near Christiania from the same year might illustrate the dissemination of new ideas: ‘One-man rule is not the best. Many heads are better than one head.’27 These statements reveal mistrust of and discontent with the government of Denmark-Norway, but we cannot exclude the possibility that the critical remarks also pointed at the king himself.

Evidently, in the period c. 1770-1814, one can trace increasing tendencies towards a greater discrepancy between prevailing political ideas among the

Norwegian elites and the established legitimation of the autocratic system centred in Copenhagen. The belief in a constitutional unlimited monarchy began to lose ground, and the pervasive influence from the ideological force of the Enlightenment spawned a new way of thinking. Also, the king himself began to praise the freedom that his subjects should enjoy, in particular the freedom of the press. While Jens Arup Seip documented the widespread idea among political thinkers serving the regime that the king and the government should rule in accordance with the general will, or the will of the people, and protect the freedom of speech, Eirik Holmoyvik has shed light on other elements indicating that the absolute monarchy was about to become more moderate.28 Holmoyvik has pointed out that the Danish-Norwegian monarchy adopted the principle of the separation of the executive, legislative, and judiciary powers and went far in accepting that the courts should judge without interference from the king.29

According to a little known study produced by Erik Vea in the 1950s, the more liberal 1790s saw a new wave of more blunt and outspoken criticism. Clergymen, such as Hans Strom; Jens Zetlitz; Frederik Julius Bech; Paul Quist; Ole Romer Sandberg and Peter Hount; and two radical publicists, the poor school teacher Bernt Borretzen and the merchant Matthias Conrad Peterson, came to promote ideas about freedom, liberty, and civil rights. Furthermore, they tended to castigate the system of estates and the existence of an aristocracy. Implicitly, this sort of criticism could undermine absolutism or at least reflect perceptions that seemed incompatible with the ideology sustaining the autocratic regime.30 The 1790s represented also a period where several newspapers and journals dared to hail the French Revolution. It is important to note that the main newspaper in the town of Christiansand - Christianssand Adresse Kontors Efterretninger - in 1795 chose to print the entire French declaration of human rights. The editor of Trondhjemske Tidender in the city of Trondheim from 1795, Matthias Conrad Petterson, became known for his bold and outspoken homages to the French Revolution.31

It is also interesting that the discourse surrounding the reform of odels-retten (the legal right of pre-emption and redemption of family land) c. 1750-1814 contributed to entrenching the notion of the family right as a crucial part of the Norwegian past and a foundation of the Norwegians’ unique national character. According to its advocates, Odelsretten, by virtue of stemming from an ancient constitution dating back to the Iron Ages, had made the Norwegians free and honourable self-owners and created a society with legal protection against feudal lords, based on social equality. Also in Demark in the same period, the past was mobilized in similar ways in the heated debate over reforms urging to break down the manorial system based on labour dues and serfdom. For the Danish reformers, the ancient Nordic constitution had ensured popular liberty, self-rule, and private ownership, which the monarchy to a certain extent was in a position to reinstate at the expense of the powerful landlords.32

Yet, direct criticism of the king and the royal household, the government, and the political system did not arise in the public sphere, with some few exceptions, but in hidden and disguised ways in private communication. More severe was the anti-aristocratic movement in Denmark-Norway, which implicitly inflicted harm on the foundations of absolutism. Actually, since the 1670s, the absolute kings had enlarged the patrimonial and hierarchical system through the system of various ranks, the policy of establishing several new baronies and counties and by legally underpinning the manorial system, for instance, the tenants’ adscription to the manor.

The year 1814 in retrospect

In 1814, Norway underwent a political upheaval as the Swedish regent succeeded by military means in compelling the Danish king to cede the country, and also because of the revolt Christian Frederick initiated to prevent what was regarded as an illegitimate conquest. From late January, Christian Frederick was running a nationwide campaign in Norway that involved the entire administrative apparatus and many of the country’s prominent men. Ironically, this campaign came to launch a revolutionary rhetoric stressing the fight for a liberated and independent nation that had many similarities with the language and terms being utilized in America in 1776 onwards and in France in 1789 onwards.33 More convincingly than earlier researchers, Trond Bjerkas has shed light on this revolutionary rhetoric, which, in particular, occurred in addresses that the elected representatives, in the spring of 1814, brought to the Constitutional Assembly on behalf on their constituencies. Bjerkas sees the combination of ‘nation’ and ‘independence’ in the addresses, which were often formulated by state officials, as signifying an early evolvement from patriotism to nationalism and containing revolutionary characteristics. Another interesting observation made by Bjerkas is that several of the addresses balanced between underlining the importance of popular sovereignty manifested in the commission that the representatives had been delegated in their roles as legislators, and propagandizing this function as being derived from the king as an act of mercy. Thus, the state officials sought to build a bridge to rhe old regime while ar the same rime pointing at the new revolutionary political ideas coming into existence.34

On 16 February 1814, Christian Frederick summoned 21 prominent men to the ironworks at Eidsvoll to lend legitimacy to him, as the hereditary Prince, aspiring to ascend to the Norwegian throne as an absolute monarch. He intended to declare himself King of Norway based on his rights as heir to the throne. The outcome of the ‘Meeting of Notables’ turned out to be rather different from what he had expected. As many as 19 out of 21 men advised him to accept the principle of popular sovereignty and to restrict his ambitions to proclaiming himself the regent of Norway. It was maintained that the Danish King Frederick VI had relinquished the sovereignty of Norway through the Treaty of Kiel on 14 January 1814 to the

Norwegian people. As part of the cession of Norway to the Swedish king, he absolved the inhabitants of Norway of their oath of allegiance to him and the royal household. As Ola Mestad has pointed out, this argument sprang from the main principle in the Constitution on which the absolutism in the 1660s had been founded. That meant that sovereignty ultimately rested with the people, who had transferred it to the king - the sovereign. If he wanted to give up sovereignty, he could only return it to the people. Apparently, this transformation of government for the benefit of Prince Christian Frederick was not justified with reference to the Rousseauan principles of popular sovereignty, but by the established concepts of sovereignty embodied in Danish absolutism.

However, the notable assembly also convinced the Prince to organize elections to a constituent assembly based on comprehensive suffrage, valid for major parts of the male population above 25 years of age. The constituent assembly was given the mission to produce a new constitution, which was to be anchored in liberal political principles such as Rousseau’s understanding of popular sovereignty, the separation of the three powers modelled by Montesquieu, and the transatlantic perception of civil rights.35

Just a few weeks before, the ‘Meeting of Notables’ addresses were written and endorsed by burghers in the largest cities in Norway. According to the vicar Claus Pavel’s diaries, an address from the town of Christiania had been promoted by the bishop in February of 1814, and his mandate was to serve the interests of the nation, which seems to be the introduction of sovereignty in terms of a free constitution and a national assembly elected by the people. Pavel tells us also that several anonymous addresses that profoundly condemned absolutism had reached the Prince.36 More importantly, in February Pavel received the news that 3000 men - among whom all estates and orders in the towns of the county of Akershus were represented - had signed an address proclaiming that they wanted Prince Christian Frederick as the new king, but ‘on certain terms.’37 On behalf of himself, Pavel wrote enthusiastically: ‘What I dreamed of as a young man in the revolutionary days was that I one day could attend and speak in a national assembly, which I now dare to hope will come true.’ At the same time, Pavel emphasised that he was still convinced of absolutism in the hands of Prince Christian Frederick due to the fact that the Prince would have the ability to rule according to the general will.38 Also, prominent men such as Ludvig Stoud Platou and Jacob Aall confirmed that the number of adherents of absolutism was dwindling, and that the majority of burghers and state officials in Christiania in the winter of 1814 would welcome a constitution based on popular sovereignty and a socially representative national assembly.39

Furthermore, the address from the town of Trondheim, which became known in early February, proposed that the Prince should take the initiative to summon a congress that should be in charge of giving Norway a constitution. It was claimed that the existing constitution of the kingdom of Denmark, with its various flaws, had caused misery for the inhabitants of Norway. Not surprisingly, the men behind the address got cold feet, and it was not signed and publicised. However, the bailiff informed Prince Christian Frederick about its content.40

The address produced in Bergen in December 1813 reached the Prince directly without complications. Here the burghers of the town declared that they expressed their wish to install Christian Frederick as the new Norwegian king, but on strict terms. As an independent country, Norway should form an alliance with Great Britain, and it was further set as a requirement that a reunification of Norway and Denmark should not take place until King Frederick had died, and Christian Frederick had ascended to the throne of Denmark.41 Rightly, Magne Njâstad has designated these two addresses as manifestations of a political system in dissolution.42

These addresses provided the background of 1814. Furthermore, as many as 27 drafts or proposals for a Norwegian constitution in the spring of 1814 produced by various elite persons (16-17) and peasants (10) assert that absolutism had no longer legitimacy, or that it had lost much of its legitimacy. Only four of them, in addition two comments to the constitution under preparation, advocated absolutism, and none of them took it for granted that the new constitution should be anchored in total absolutism. All of the drafts tended to operate with some degree of political representation. Also four of the peasant proposals demanded that absolutism should be abolished, and a fifth proposal stated that the nation ought to be summoned in order to partake in decision-making on crucial issues together with the king.43 A closer view at the Constitution of 1814 leads us to ideological forces that paved the way for a particular kind of Norwegian radicalism.

The radicalism of 1814

How do we explain that Norway in 1814 embarked on a political revolution that brought about a constitution moving, in terms of radicalism, beyond many of its contemporary constitutions in the North-Atlantic world? Few other constitutions in the period c. 1776-1814 could match the Norwegian Constitution regarding democratic enfranchisement by letting 40-50% of the male population above the age of 25 vote in the elections to the National Assembly. This socially broad suffrage was demonstrated by the fact that most of the peasants - both self-owners and tenants - were entitled to vote and be elected, in addition to the elites consisting of state officials, burghers, and the middle and upper strata of the inhabitants in urban areas. In embracing the idea of civic equality, however, the legislators - the representatives in the Constitutional Assembly - had not intended a social levelling. Not surprisingly, the principles that men belonging to the upper estates - the state officials and the burghers - were unquestionable political citizens did not only prevail but appeared to be taken even further in the

Criticism of government in Norway c. 1770-1814 321 years after 1814.44 Consequently, this elite did not need to qualify themselves in any way, neither with regard to income nor properties and assets. The only exception applied to men of the new urban middle class, who had to document ownership of estates of a certain value.

The idea that a state or a nation should still have its basis in three of four estates - state officials, burghers and peasants (not the nobility) -harmonized with the ideal of economic independence. Only a man that could earn his living without being subjected to a lord or an employer was capable of being independent and able to withstand bribes, threats, manipulation, etc. and thus of being competent to vote and to make political decisions. One assumed that economic independence would also result in proper judgment, a solid integrity, imperviousness to manipulation, refinement, good carriage, and academic skills and knowledge. The references to the people as the source and basis of political rule tended to be socially restricted. Due to their social inferiority, it was out of the question that labourers, cottars, artisans, and fishermen could achieve political rights. Women were obviously ruled out for various reasons. The justification ranged from their generally inferior position in society, via the absence of legal and economic rights, to the perception that they were not biologically fit to enter politics.45

Nevertheless, the principle of the sovereignty of the people embedded in the Constitution of 1814 came to determine profoundly the division of power between the National Assembly and the king, the character of which Eirik Hohnoyvik has defined as a kind of Norwegian radicalism.46 Firstly, in the spring of 1814 the first Constitutional Assembly-as the representatives of the people - had formally obtained the sole and undivided licence to create and ratify the Constitution, thereby implying that the king did not have any say. The doctrine maintained that the Constitution was an instrument of delegation of the indivisible and inalienable sovereignty of the people to the three powers of the state. This meant that the people’s representatives - without interference from the king and the government - should be in charge of carrying out any constitutional alterations. Secondly, this mandate was transferred to the regular National Assembly - Stortinget - which first gathered in the autumn of 1814. The Constitution had settled that alterations of any paragraph and of any amendments to the compilation of paragraphs could only be conducted by the representatives of the people embodied in the National Assembly. The royal power of veto in the enactment of ordinary laws should not render real legislative power away from the National Assembly to the king. Actually, the representatives had the opportunity to overrule a royal refusal of sanction after passing the law three times in separate sessions. This procedure granted the existence of one single legislative power representing the people. According to Holmoyvik, the Norwegian Constitution ensured ‘the predominance of the representative legislative assembly and thus popular rule’.47 Thus, Norway turned out to acquire the most radicaltype of constitution in the North Atlantic context, by its resemblance to the American Constitution of 1787 and the French Constitution of 1791.

Political culture in transformation

The fact that the Norwegian Constitution of 1814 broke completely with absolutism calls for a retrospective approach. This political revolution substantiates that a civil society since the 1760s and 1770s had developed a new political culture containing norms, thoughts, and perceptions with the strength to undermine the system of government and the regime itself. The relatively few examples of discontent with absolutism and the longing for reforms and a new constitution must not misguide us. Not only private communication through letters but also correspondence between state officials of public character lend weight to the assertion that we are dealing with more widespread sentiments and opinions among the Norwegian elites. Paradoxically, the legs and the arms of the state - the state officials -ended up abolishing the absolute monarchy in Norway in 1814. The introduction of a rather radical constitution in terms of popular rule cannot be ignored or disavowed as a short-term and rapid transformation.

However, we must take into account that the year 1814 also brought about abrupt changes. As a matter of fact, the final constitution appeared to be far more radical than the 27 drafts or proposals being created by both the elites and commoners. The majority of the drafts did not provide explicit evidence of the principle of popular sovereignty and did not demonstrate more advanced reflections on the principle of the separation of powers. Quite a few exhibited the wish to set forth guarantees for political representation anchored in the dominance of the elites.

Nevertheless, after several decades absolutism had lost ground. Most of the drafts took it for granted that a sort of popular sovereignty had to be laid down in the Constitution, and that the political rule in some way or another had to be divided between the king and representatives of the people. Altogether the majority of addresses, drafts, and the final Constitution itself signal the strong desire for putting an end to absolutism. Furthermore, many of the sources from c. 1790 to 1814 express the rejection of the old society in which privileges, estates, and politics of patronage formed the component parts. Moreover, the Norwegian revolutionaries introduced guarantees for an entirely new way of life where the citizens could enjoy the freedom of speech and of the press, the freedom to enterprise, in addition to an emphasis on the idea of the Rechtstaat, as the embodiment of a just, impartial and morally competent state treating its citizens as equals and with humanity.

Undoubtedly, many of the patterns associated with the old regime remained in the Norwegian Constitution of 1814. Only fragments of freedom of religion were implemented, and the initial ambitions for the freedom of the press were lowered under the pressure of authoritarian ideas

Criticism of government in Norway c. 1770-1814 323 and due to the fear of popular revolts. The decree of 1799 survived - despite the revolution - for many years to come, although in a reduced form until it was nullified in 1842. Apparently, the decisive days in April and May of 1814 during the making of the Constitution gave way to moderation. Nevertheless, the Norwegian Constitution emerged as a radical ideal for liberals in several European countries for many decades after 1814.


  • 1 Steen 1951; Seip 1974.
  • 2 Mykland 1964; Mykland 1978.
  • 3 Dyrvik 2005, p. 38; Sorensen 2001, p. 23.
  • 4 Lunden 1992.
  • 5 Frydenlund 2013; Glenthoj 2012.
  • 6 Krefting, Noding & Ringvej 2014.
  • 7 Krefting 2017.
  • 8 Rian 2014
  • 9 Dorum 2006, pp. 409-412.
  • 10 Rian 2014.
  • 11 Rian 2014, p. 144; Horstboll 2011.
  • 12 Jacobsen 2017.
  • 13 Jorgensen 1944/1978.
  • 14 Pedersen 2008.
  • 15 Jorgen Mührmann-Lund has been so kind as to let me use his material and refer to his unpublished study of the 1764 student riot in Copenhagen.
  • 16 Love for det Aggershuusiske patriotiske Srelskab: vedtagne i et overordent-lig Mode den 29de November 1779. Christiania: Trykt nos Samuel Conrad Schwach 1780.
  • 17 Andersen 2014.
  • 18 Lunden 1992, pp. 123-124.
  • 19 Even Hammer, Philonorvagi velmeente Tanker til veltcenkende Medborgere, Udgivne i Trykke-Frihedens forste aar, Kobenhavn 1771.
  • 20 Moller 1973, pp. 123-158; Christensen 2014, pp. 393-412.
  • 21 En norsk officers [W.F. Schmettow] Tanker over en Dansk Mands patriotiske Tanker om staaende Heere, politisk Ligevcegt og statsrevolutioner, i en Skrivelse til sin Ven i Danmark i 1793. Kobenhavn 1794.
  • 22 Rian 2014.
  • 23 Scott 1990.
  • 24 Frogn kommunearkiv, eldre korrespondanse. Letter from the merchant Niels Carlsen to his wife Martha, 12 Aug., 1799.
  • 25 Ullensaker kommunearkiv, eldre korrespondanse. Letter from the vicar of Ullensaker to the bailiff of 0vre Romerike, 14 Dec., 1808.
  • 26 Statsarkivet i Trondheim, Salten fogderi, journalsaker. Letter from the vicar Arnoldus Schytte in the parish of Bodo, 27 Sept., 1811. Answer from Johan Ernst Berg, 5 Oct., 1811.
  • 27 Äs kommunearkiv, Äs formannskap, anonymous letter form a peasant, 3July, 1811.
  • 28 Seip 1958.
  • 29 Holmoyvik 2012.
  • 30 Vea 1956.
  • 31 Thoresen 1967, pp. 76 and 98.
  • 32 Evju 2019.
  • 33 Kramer 2011.
  • 34 Bjerkas 2014.
  • 35 Mestad 2014.
  • 36 Claus Pavels Dagboger, udgivne i uddrag, Bergen: C. Flors forlag 1864, the year of 1814, p. 150.
  • 37 Claus Pavels Dagboger, p. 147.
  • 38 Claus Pavels Dagboger, pp. 144-145.
  • 39 Jacob Aall, Erindringer som Bidrag til Norges Historie, andel del, Christiania: Cappelen 1844, p. 398; Carl N. Stoud, Ludvig Stoud Platous Opteg-nelser for Aaret 1814, Christiania: Maling, p. 17.
  • 40 See Njastad 2014, pp. 178-179.
  • 41 See Njastad 2014, pp. 178-179.
  • 42 Njastad 2014, p. 179.
  • 43 See also Holmoyvik 2012.
  • 44 Seip 1958, Dorum 2016.
  • 45 Dorum 2016.
  • 46 Holmoyvik 2012.
  • 47 Holmoyvik 2012, p. 8.


Bjerkas, T., (2014): ‘Revohisjonter tale. Nye perspektiver pit eidsvollsadressene’, Historisk tidsskrift, 93 (1): 95-124.

Christensen, D.C., (2014): ‘P.E Suhm som kritiker af den dansknorsk enevtelde 1771-1774’, in Tjonneland, E. (ed), Kritikk for 1814. 1700-tallets politiske og litteratre offentlighet, Oslo: Dreyers forlag: 393-412.

Evju, H., (2019): Ancient Constitutions and Modern Monarchy. Historical Writing and Enlightened Reform in Denmark-Norway 1730-1814, in Studies in the History of Political Thought, Leiden/Bostom Brill.

Frydenlund, B., (2013): ‘For unionspartiet. Omstridte forbindelser og norske moter om helstatens fremtid 1809-1814’, in Frydenlund, B. and Storsveen, O.A. (eds), Veivalg for Norden 1809-1813, Oslo: Fagbokforlaget: 23-42.

Glenthoj. R., (2012): Skilsmissem dansk og norsk identitet for og efter 1814, Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag.

Holmoyvik, E., (2012): Maktfordeling og 1814, Oslo: Fagboklaget.

Jacobsen, J., (2017): Uanstcendige, utilladelige og unyttige skrifter. En undersogelse af censuren i praksis 1746-1773, Ph.D. thesis, Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen.

Kramer, L., (2011): Nationalism in Europe & America: Politics, Cultures, and Identities Since 1775, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Krefting, E., Noding, A. and Ringvej, M., (2014): En pokkers skrivesyge. 1700-tallets dansk-norske tidsskrifter mellom sensur og ytringsfrihet, Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press.

Krefting, E., (2017): ‘Enevelde, offentlighet og Peter Frederik Suhms hemme-ligheter’, in Bjerkas, T. and Dorum, K. (eds), Eneveldet for undergangen. Politisk kultur i Norge 1660-1814, Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press.

Lunden, K., (1992): Norsk grdlysning. Norsk nasjonalisme 1770—1814 pd allmenn bakgrunn, Oslo: Samlaget.

Mestad, O., (2014): ‘Suvereniteten tilbakegitt til det norske folk ved Kieltraktaten. Det oversedde natur- og statsrettsgrunnlaget for norsk sjolvstende og grunnlov i 1814’, Historisk tidsskrift, 93 (1): 35-65.

Mykland, K., (1961-1962): 'Medens der endnu er tid’. Historisk tidsskrift, 41: 1-41.

Moller, J., (1973): ‘P.F. Suhms regeringsregler 1774. Statens grundstotter -mennskerettserklaeringer - sprog - og indfodsret’, Historisk tidsskrift (Danish), 2(6): 123-158.

Njästad, M., (2014): ‘Stiftsstedene - de regionale politiske sentra’, in Bull, I. and Maliks, J. (eds), Riket og regionene. Grunnlovens regionale forutsetninger og kon-sekvenser, Trondheim: Akademika forlag: 175-202.

Pedersen, S.C., (2008): Brudte segl. Spionage og censur i enevaddens Danmark, Copenhagen: Skrifter fra Post &c Tele Museum 7.

Rian, 0., (2014): Sensuren i Danmark-Norge. Vilkärene for offentlige ytringer 1536-1814, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Scott, J.C., (1990): Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts, London: Yale University Press.

Seip, J. Arup., (1958): Teorien om det opinionsstyrte eneveldet, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Seip, J. Arup., (1974): Utsikt over Norges historic. Tidsrommet 1814-ca. 1860, Oslo: Gyldendal.

Steen, S., (1951): 1814, in Det frie Norge, vol. 1. Oslo: Cappelen.

Storli, A. Andersen., A., (2014): 'Teatret og riksforsamlingen i 1814’, in Langeland, N.R. (ed), Politisk kompetanse. Grunnlovas borgar 1814-2014 (Perspektiver pa Grunnloven 1814-2014, vol. 1). Oslo: Pax: 280-303.

Sorensen, 0., (2001): Kämpen om Norges sjel, in Norsk idehistorie, vol. 3, Oslo: Aschehoug.

Thoresen, Harald B., (1967): Den norske presse og den franske revolusjon, 1789-1799, MA thesis, University of Bergen.

Vea, E., (1956): Likhetsideen i Norge i 1790-arene, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Part VI

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics