Norway: 200 years after the introduction of capitalist rule

Last year marked the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution, a constitution marking the beginning a new state. The celebrations continued throughout the year in Norway. Although not a great victory for bourgeois democracy, as it is presented, it nevertheless prepared the way for the development of the bourgeoisie and Capitalism in Norway.

The creation of the constitution is regarded as a progressive event in Norwegian history, apart from the so called Jew paragraph which prohibited the entrance of Jews and Jesuits into the kingdom. Although the constitution represented a step forward from Danish absolutism and domination, it was a patchwork and an uneasy compromise between the old absolutist regime and the bourgeoisie which was too weak to impose its will on the nation.

Furthermore, the proposed “constitutional” king, Christian Frederik, was most likely merely maneuvering to keep Norway apart from Sweden in order for Norway to once again come under the reign of absolutist Denmark.

The union between Denmark and Norway

Kalmar Union ca. 1500.svgthe Kalmar UnionIn 1380, Denmark and Norway entered a union when Olaf Haakonsson inherited the throne of both countries. The union was extended in 1397 when Sweden entered and was then given the name of Kalmar. This was also the epoch when the Bubonic plague was sweeping through Europe.

The plague and other epidemics had a devastating effect on Norway. One third of the population died within a year of the first outbreaks in 1349. After two years the population was halved. The aristocracy and nobility lost much of their former power as big sections died or became mere farmers when their wealth dried up.

Both Denmark and Sweden fell victim to the Bubonic plague, but the consequences seemed to have had a much more devastating effect on Norway. As Denmark was the strongest state and had a population exceeding the combined population of both Sweden and Norway, the policy which was pursued was of course going to be advantageous for Denmark. This policy ultimately lead to conflicts with Sweden as their aristocracy grew stronger. Sweden revolted and the Kalmar Union saw its end in 1523. Denmark-Norway under the rule of one king in Copenhagen was then established.

As time passed, the power was more and more centralized around the king. In order to gain influence and to gain economic benefit, it was more preferable for the nobility to stay as close to the king and the court as possible. The emigration of Norwegian nobles to Denmark, together with an increase in the relative costs of maintaining the status of being noble, lead to a noticeable decrease in the size and power of the Norwegian nobility.

Defeat in the Napoleonic War

The year 1789 marks a turning point in history and the beginning of a new era. The consequences of the French revolution and proceeding Napoleonic wars was the main cause of  the break up of Denmark-Norway.

Sweden, which had its own ambitions, was forced to secede Finland to Russia which in turn culminated in the overthrow of the Swedish king, and a new king was proclaimed. This king preserved executive powers but governed “in accordance with the provision of this Instrument of Government”, a clause which set the frame for a constitutional government.

Later, a new heir had to be appointed, but the Swedish King was childless. Carl Johan, baptised Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, a marshal under Napoleon’s France, was finally chosen.

With Carl Johan at the stage, the focus shifted, and an old was dream resuscitated, the dream of gaining control of Norway. Strategically, a union with Norway would keep Sweden relatively safe from attacks because in the south, east and west there is sea, while in the north there are rough mountains and an altogether inhospitable environment.

Frederik VI fostered a deep distrust of both Russia and Sweden, and never forgave England for the humiliating surrender of Denmark-Norway’s fleet in 1807. He stubbornly rejected all advice of switching side and remained loyal to Napoleon.

The interests of Denmark and Norway were colliding. Frederik VI did not want a war with Napoleon as it could have lead to a complete occupation of Denmark-Norway by Napoleonic troops. At the same time, from a Norwegian perspective, a war with England was to be avoided as it would lead to a blockade of Norwegian ports and a decline of Norwegian commerce. Sections of the weak bourgeoisie in 1809 had already attempted to begin the unification of Norway and Sweden after the coup in Sweden.

The Danish king was fully aware of the Swedish ambitions to take Norway. The heir to the throne, Christian Frederik, was, in a desperate manner, sent as Governor-general of Norway (Head of the Norwegian Government in the absence of the Monarch) in May 1813, with the aim to proclaim himself regent and organize a Norwegian resistance if they were to lose Norway.

The road was laid open for Sweden and Carl Johan when Napoleon attacked Russia, and it was already clear that France was losing. Already in 1812, Carl Johan of Sweden had made alliances with England and requested Norway as a reward. Soon, another agreement was made with Russia in the east, where Sweden would no longer demand Finland if Russia guaranteed the transfer of Norway to Sweden.

In October 1813, when Napoleon lost his decisive battle in Leipzig, Carl Johan took the advantage by invading Holstein (at that time the southern part of Denmark) abandoned by the French troops defending it. This situation was so threatening that Frederik VI, on the night between the 14 and 15 of January 1814, finally ceded Norway to Sweden.

At the stroke of a pen

The presence of Christian Frederik was indispensable for the proclamation of the constitution as sections of the weak embryonic bourgeoisie, located in the eastern part of Norway, already in 1809 wanted to cut relationships with Denmark. The undisputed leader of this section, Herman Wedel, wanted free commerce westwards. In order to achieve this he wanted an autonomous Norway under the protection of either England or Sweden, as Norway was considered too weak to stay on its own. Both England and Sweden, after the coup in 1809, had a more liberal constitution, as the king had less powers, which appeased a section of the small bourgeoisie.

When the news of the Kiel treaty arrived, that Norway was to be handed over to Sweden, the mood shifted abruptly, as stated by Bernt A. Nissen:

“Until now the uncertainty seemed almost paralyzing. Now it was with one stroke different. As the decision was made, all thoughts were directed toward the great task which overshadowed all others: to save the independence and the country. For many it was a relief to get rid of the union with Denmark.

“And to this there was a harm against the king who had with one stroke of the pen given and sold the people as cattle in order to bring peace to Denmark.

“During the days 8-10 of february there was a market in Kristiania and people streamed in. Professor Stoud Platou writes in his memoirs ‘that a terrific politicization reigns in every societies and every stand.’ …There were rumours that the prince thought about becoming an absolute monarch, and it was reacted strongly against that from almost everywhere. If one stroke ended Danish absolutism, then there was almost no one who wanted it back on pure Norwegian ground."

Wedel was absent from Norway when the news arrived. The situation was handled well by Christian Frederik, who was able to take the initiative and organized civil servants of the old regime and other allies under the banner of an independent Norway. Christian Frederik first intended to claim the throne by inheritance and rule as an absolute monarch. He was attempting to preserve the regime, but was under the circumstances forced to make concessions. The distinguished representatives of civil servants, who had a better understanding of the mood, persuaded him to instead become, “a king by the will of the people”, in other words, a constitutional king.

A new constitution

Nationalistic feelings which before were absent were to reign in the next period. The bourgeoisie who wanted a union with Sweden was effectively silenced.

A constituent assembly was held in April consisting of 112 representatives: 57 civil servants of the old monarchy, 37 farmers, 13 merchantmen and 5 landlords. A committee of 15 persons were assigned to come up with a proposal for the constitution. The committee came up with 11 points as the basis of the constitution.

  1. Norway was to be a restricted and inherited monarchy.

  2. The people should exert their law giving powers through their representatives.

  3. The people alone are given the right to determine taxation through its representatives.

  4. The regent should have the right to declare war and peace.

  5. The regent should have the right to pardon.

  6. The legislative power should be separated from the executive and the judiciary.

  7. Freedom of press.

  8. The evangelical-Lutheran faith should be the religion of the nation and regent. Freedom of religion with exceptions of jews which were not allowed entry to the kingdom.

  9. New limitations on commerce should not happen.

  10. Personal and inherited privileges should not be given to anyone in the future.

  11. Every citizen was to protect the country in the same degree, disregarding privilege and fortune.

The bourgeoisie was very small and lacked the strength of the french bourgeoisie before and during the French revolution. The bourgeoisie was in its embryonic stage, with many of its representatives emerging from the aristocracy. Wedel, the undisputed leader of this faction, for example, was not only an Earl and a landlord but also an owner of industry. Løvenskiold, another leading bourgeois figures, also came from the aristocracy and was both a big landlord and the owner of Fossum ironworks. Peder Anker was another of this group who came from a noble family. Most of the supporters of this faction consisted of farmers, landowners, merchantmen and some owners of manufacture, almost all from the eastern and southern part of Norway. Amongst historians, this group is known as the Union Party.   

The first point of the constitution was the most controversial as it was extended with the the idea of a free, independent and indivisible kingdom, and that the regent should be titled King. The emerging bourgeoisie protested against this because they saw it as not only a declaration of independence, but also as the maintenance of the old order.

The extended version was approved with a majority of 77 votes. In the eighth sentence, forbidding Jews from entering the kingdom, we see the reactionary tendencies among the civil servants and their allies. This point was opposed by a minority lead by Wedel, although some among the union party also agreed to it, along with the priest Nicolai Wergeland.

With the union party in a minority, and the prince and royalists leaning towards the civil servants and the nationalists in a majority, the outcome was not surprising. An independent Norway was proclaimed with Christian Frederik as king. The king’s powers were much more restricted than before because even the state bureaucrats had interests that ran contrary to those of the king. Inherited privileges were abolished by law, however guilds and tenancy remained.

The veto rights of the parliament were absolute but the king’s veto rights were effectively insignificant because it could be overruled by parliament. Against opposition from the Union Party the King was granted power over foreign policy and the right to declare war and peace. The civil servants who held the majority (57) during the constituent assembly made themselves irremovable by law, creating a new caste in society. This caste was to dominate Norway from 1814 to 1884, a period called Embetsmannsstaten (“the state of the civil servants”).

An unfinished democracy was established as the government was appointed by the king. The franchise was restricted to civil servants, persons which had a certain amount of property and all persons which had legal citizenships in a town. Workers and servants were of course not given the vote. Approximately 40% of all men above the age of 25 were allowed to vote. Between 1860 and 1870 it is estimated that about 7.5% of the population had a right to vote.

Sweden asserts its claim

On May 17 Norway proclaimed its constitution and independence. The independence lasted for three short months. England refused to back away from its agreement with Sweden but was open to a union where Norway had its own constitution. Norway did not submit, and on the 26 of July the Swedish invasion commenced. The fortress of Fredriksten was surrounded on the first of August.

In war, the acts of individuals sometimes have huge importance, especially if they are the actions of leaders. Christian Frederik seems to not have been fit for war. Sverre Steen writes:

"as Christian Fredrik did not expect war, he was not prepared for it, as he would have been if he had taken it into to his accounts... Christian Fredrik's attitude regarding the war was the tipping point... After the rejection of the proposals of the commissioners he understood that war had to come, but he probably did everything to make it as short as possible, and that has cast a shadow over his memory.”

Carl Johan of Sweden sent a messenger to Fredriksten fortress, as early as August 4, to commence peace negotiations. Christian Frederik accepted the ultimatum against the will of officers and nationalists.

The Swedish king accepted the condition that Norway should have its own constitution, parliament and government as he was not interested in a prolonged war. Christian Frederik went back to Denmark where he inherited the throne in 1839, disappointing liberals in Denmark when he made it clear that he had no intentions of giving away any of his absolute powers.

Ultimately there was no way out of a union with Sweden.  A new constitution was declared on November 4 which was adapted to the union.

Norway entered the union with Sweden with its own and slightly more liberal constitution than during the union with Denmark. Important institutions such as the Central bank, army and court were kept separated, making it possible for Norway to create its first bank in 1816, which until then had not been allowed by Denmark.

The first years of the union were tough economically, with crises in commerce. But there was a boost in commerce, not only with Sweden but also with England, laying the foundations for capitalism in Norway.

The constitution of May 17 is celebrated each year as a progressive event, where Norway finally got rid of the union with Denmark and declared an independent constitutional monarchy. Indeed, in spite of the machinations of Christian Frederik, the events of 1814 represented a step forward. It removed the fetters imposed on the Norwegian economy by the Danish monarchy and prepared the way for the development of Capitalism in Norway, under the protection of the Swedish monarchy. Towards the end of the 19th century, the strengthened bourgeois class was to outgrow the limitations imposed by the union with Sweden and a new conflict emerged.