Age of Liberty
Part of a series on the
|History of Sweden|
In Swedish history, the Age of Liberty (Swedish: Frihetstiden) is a half-century-long period of parliamentary governance and increasing civil rights, beginning with Charles XII's death in 1718 and ending with Gustav III's self-coup in 1772. The shift of power from monarch to parliament was a direct effect of the Great Northern War, which was disastrous for Sweden.
Suffrage under the parliamentary government of the Age of Liberty was not universal. Although the taxed peasantry was represented in the Parliament, its influence was disproportionately small, while commoners without taxed property had no suffrage at all.
The Great Northern War
Charles XI of Sweden had carefully provided against the contingency of his successor's minority; and the five regents appointed by him, if not great statesmen, were at least practical politicians who had been trained in his austere school. At home the "Reduction" was cautiously pursued, while abroad the successful conclusion of the great peace congress at Ryswick was justly regarded as a signal triumph of Sweden's peaceful diplomacy. The young king was full of promise, and had he been permitted gradually to gain experience and develop his considerable talents under the guidance of his guardians, as his father had wanted, all might have been well for Sweden. Unfortunately, the sudden, noiseless revolution of 6 November 1697 which made Charles XII of Sweden absolute master of his country's fate in his fifteenth year, and the league of Denmark, Saxony and Russia, formed two years later to partition Sweden, led Sweden into a sea of troubles in which she was finally submerged.
From the very beginning of the Great Northern War, Sweden suffered from the inability of Charles XII to view the situation from anything but a purely personal point of view. (This view is not shared by all historians, some holding that the young king did what was best under the circumstances.) Great determination to avenge himself on enemies overpowered every other consideration. Again and again during these eighteen years of warfare it was in his power to dictate an advantageous peace. After the dissipation of the first coalition against him by the Treaty of Travendal on 18 August 1700 and the victory at the Battle of Narva on 20 November 1700 the Swedish Chancellor, Bengt Oxenstierna, rightly regarded the universal bidding for the favour of Sweden by France and the maritime powers, then on the eve of the War of the Spanish Succession, as a golden opportunity for "ending this present lean war and making His Majesty the arbiter of Europe". But Charles, intent on dethroning Augustus II of Poland, held haughtily aloof. Subsequently in 1701 he rejected a personal appeal from William III of England to conclude peace on his own terms. Five years later on September 24, 1706, he did indeed conclude the Polish War by the Treaty of Altranstädt, but this treaty brought no advantage to Sweden, not even compensation for the expenses of six years of warfare.
Moreover, two of Sweden's Baltic provinces, Estonia and Ingria, had been seized by the Tsar, and a third, Livonia, had been ruined. Yet even now Charles, by a stroke of the pen, could have recovered nearly everything he had lost. In 1707 Peter was ready to retrocede everything except Saint Petersburg and the line of the Neva, and again Charles preferred risking the whole to saving the greater part of his Baltic possessions. When at last, after the catastrophe of the Poltava in June 1709 and the flight into Turkey, he condescended to use diplomatic methods, it was solely to prolong, not to terminate, the war. Even now he could have made honorable terms with his numerous enemies. The resources of Sweden were still very far from being exhausted, and during 1710–1711 Magnus Stenbock upheld her military supremacy in the north. But all the efforts of the Swedish government were wrecked by the determination of Charles XII to surrender nothing. Thus he rejected advantageous offers of mediation and alliance made to him, during 1712, by the maritime powers and by Prussia; and in 1714 he scorned the friendly overtures of Louis XIV of France and the emperor, so that when peace was finally concluded between France and the Empire, at the Congress of Baden, Swedish affairs were, by common consent, left out of consideration. When on September 14, 1714 he suddenly returned to his dominions, Stralsund and Wismar were all that remained to him of his continental possessions while, by the end of 1715, Sweden, now fast approaching the last stage of exhaustion, was at open war with Great Britain, Hanover, Russia, Prussia, Saxony and Denmark, who had formed a coalition to partition her continental territory between them. Nevertheless, at this the eleventh hour of her opportunities, Sweden might still have saved something from the wreck of her empire if Charles had behaved like a reasonable being; but he would consent only to play off Russia against Britain, and his sudden death before Fredriksten, at Fredrikshald on 11 December 1718 left Sweden practically at the end of her resources and at the mercy of her enemies. At the beginning of 1719, pacific overtures were made to Britain, Hanover, Prussia and Denmark. By the Treaties of Stockholm on February 20, 1719 and February 1, 1720 Hanover obtained the Duchies of Bremen and Verden for herself and Southern Swedish Pomerania with Stettin for her confederate Brandenburg-Prussia. Northern Swedish Pomerania with Rügen which had come under Danish rule during the war, was retained by Sweden.
By the Treaty of Frederiksborg or Copenhagen on 3 July 1720 peace was also signed between Denmark and Sweden, Denmark retroceding Rügen, Further Pomerania as far as the Peene, and Wismar to Sweden, in exchange for an indemnity of 600,000 Riksdaler, while Sweden relinquished her exemption from the Sound tolls and her protectorate over Holstein-Gottorp. The prospect of coercing Russia by means of the British fleet had alone induced Sweden to consent to such sacrifices; but when the last demands of Britain and her allies had been complied with, Sweden was left to come to terms as best she could with the tsar. Negotiations were reopened with Russia at Nystad, in May 1720, but peace was not concluded till August 30, 1721 and then only under the direst pressure. By the Treaty of Nystad Sweden ceded to Russia Ingria and Estonia, Livonia, the Finnish province of Kexholm and Viborg Castle. Finland west of Viborg and north of Käkisalmi was restored to Sweden. She also received an indemnity of two million Riksdaler and a solemn undertaking of non-interference in her domestic affairs. It was not the least of Sweden's misfortunes after the Great Northern War that the new constitution, which was to compensate her for all her past sacrifices, should contain within it the elements of many of her future calamities.
The Age of Liberty
Early in 1720 Charles XII's sister, Ulrika Eleonora, who had been elected queen of Sweden immediately after his death, was permitted to abdicate in favour of her husband Frederick the prince of Hesse, who was elected king 1720 under the title of Frederick I of Sweden; and Sweden was, at the same time, converted into the most limited of monarchies. All power was vested in the people as represented by the Riksdag, consisting, as before, of four distinct estates, nobles, priests, burgesses and peasants, sitting and deliberating apart. The conflicting interests and mutual jealousies of these four independent assemblies made the work of legislation exceptionally difficult. No measure could now become law until it had obtained the assent of at least three of the four estates.
Each estate was ruled by its talman, or speaker, who was now elected at the beginning of each Diet, but the archbishop was, ex officio, the talman of the clergy. The lantmarskalk, or speaker of the House of Nobles, presided when the estates met in congress and also, by virtue of his office, in the secret committee. This famous body, which consisted of 50 nobles, 25 priests, 25 burgesses, and, very exceptionally, 25 peasants, possessed during the session of the Riksdag not only the supreme executive but also the supreme judicial and legislative functions. It prepared all bills for the Riksdag, created and deposed all ministries, controlled the foreign policy of the nation, and claimed and often exercised the right of superseding the ordinary courts of justice. During the parliamentary recess, however, the executive remained in the hands of the Privy Council, which was responsible to the Riksdag alone.
Hats and Caps
The policy of the Hats party was a return to the traditional alliance between France and Sweden. When Sweden descended to a position of a second-rate power the alliance with the French became too costly a luxury. Horn had clearly perceived this and his cautious neutrality was, therefore, the soundest statesmanship. But the politicians who had ousted Horn thought differently. To them, prosperity without glory was a worthless possession. They aimed at restoring Sweden to her former position as a great power. France, naturally, hailed with satisfaction the rise of a faction which was content to be her armour bearer in the north and the golden streams which flowed from Versailles to Stockholm during the next two generations were the political life-blood of the Hat party.
The first blunder of the Hats was the hasty and ill-advised war with Russia. The European complications consequent upon the almost simultaneous deaths of Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor and Empress Anne of Russia seemed to favour the Hats' adventurous schemes. Despite the frantic protests of the Caps, a project for the invasion of Russian Finland was rushed through the premature Riksdag of 1740. On July 20, 1741 war was formally declared against Russia; a month later the Diet was dissolved and the lantmarskalk set off to Finland to take command of the army. The first blow was not struck till six months after the declaration of war; and it was struck by the enemy, who routed the Swedes at Lappeenranta and captured that frontier fortress. Nothing else was done on either side for six months more; and then the Swedish generals made a "tacit truce" with the Russians through the mediation of the French ambassador at Saint Petersburg. By the time that the "tacit truce" had come to an end the Swedish forces were so demoralized that the mere rumour of a hostile attack made them retire panic-stricken to Helsinki; and before the end of the year all Finland was in the hands of the Russians. The fleet, disabled by an epidemic, was, throughout the war, little more than a floating hospital.
To face the Riksdag with such a war as this upon their consciences was a trial from which the Hats naturally shrank; but to do them justice, they showed themselves better parliamentary than military strategists. A motion for an inquiry into the conduct of the war was skillfully evaded by obtaining precedence for the succession question. Queen Ulrike Eleonora of Sweden had lately died childless and King Frederick was old; and negotiations were thus opened with the new Russian empress, Elizabeth of Russia, who agreed to restore the greater part of Finland if her cousin, Adolph Frederick of Holstein, were elected successor to the Swedish crown. The Hats eagerly caught at the opportunity of recovering the lost lands and their own prestige along with it. By the Treaty of Åbo 7 May 1743 the terms of the empress were accepted and only that small part of Finland which lay beyond the Kymi River was retained by Russia. In March 1751 the old King Frederick died. His slender prerogatives had gradually dwindled down to vanishing point.
It will be obvious that there was no room in this republican constitution for a constitutional monarch in the modern sense of the word.
The crowned puppet who possessed two casting votes in the Privy Council, of which he was the nominal president, and who was allowed to create peers once in his life, at his coronation, was rather a state decoration than a sovereignty. At first this cumbrous and complicated instrument of government worked tolerably well under the firm but cautious control of the Chancery President, Count Arvid Horn.
In his anxiety to avoid embroiling his country abroad, Horn reversed the traditional policy of Sweden by keeping France at a distance and drawing near to the Kingdom of Great Britain, for whose liberal institutions he professed the highest admiration.
Thus a twenty years' war was succeeded by a twenty years' peace, during which the nation recovered so rapidly from its wounds that it began to forget them. A new race of politicians was springing up.
Since 1719, when the influence of the few great territorial families had been merged in a multitude of needy gentlemen, the first estate had become the nursery and afterwards the stronghold of an opposition at once noble and democratic which found its natural leaders in such men as Count Carl Gyllenborg and Count Carl Gustaf Tessin.
These men and their followers were never weary of ridiculing the timid caution of the aged statesman who sacrificed everything to perpetuate an inglorious peace and derisively nicknamed his adherents "Night-caps" (a term subsequently softened into "Caps"), themselves adopting the sobriquet "Hats" from the three-cornered hat worn by officers and gentlemen, which was considered happily to hit off the manly self-assertion of the opposition.
These epithets instantly caught the public fancy and had already become party badges when the estates met in 1738. This Riksdag was to mark another turning-point in Swedish history.
In the War of the Polish Succession between 1733–1738 Sweden supported Stanislaus Leszczyński against August III of Poland. The Hats carried everything before them, and the aged Horn was finally compelled to retire from a scene where, for three and thirty years, he had played a leading part.
The Pomeranian War
King Adolf Frederick of Sweden (1751–71) would have given even less trouble than his predecessor but for the ambitious promptings of his masterful consort Louisa Ulrika of Prussia, Frederick the Great's sister, and the tyranny of the estates, who seemed bent upon driving the meekest of princes into rebellion. An attempted monarchical revolution, planned by the queen and a few devoted young nobles in 1756, was easily and remorselessly crushed; and, though the unhappy king did not, as he anticipated, share the fate of Charles Stuart, he was humiliated as never monarch was humiliated before.
The same years which beheld this great domestic triumph of the Hats saw also the utter collapse of their foreign "system". At the instigation of France they plunged recklessly into the Seven Years' War; and the result was ruinous. The French subsidies, which might have sufficed for a six weeks demonstration (it was generally assumed that the king of Prussia would give little trouble to a European coalition), proved quite inadequate; and, after five unsuccessful campaigns, the unhappy Hats were glad to make peace and ignominiously withdraw from a little war which had cost the country 40,000 men. When the Riksdag met in 1760, the indignation against the Hat leaders was so violent that an impeachment seemed inevitable; but once more the superiority of their parliamentary tactics prevailed, and when, after a session of twenty months, the Riksdag was brought to a close by the mutual consent of both the exhausted factions, the Hat government was bolstered up for another four years. But the day of reckoning could not be postponed for ever; and when the estates met in 1765 it brought the Caps into power at last. Their leader, Ture Rudbeck, was elected marshal of the Diet over Frederick Axel von Fersen, the Hat candidate, by a large majority; and, out of the hundred seats in the secret committee, the Hats succeeded in getting only ten.
The Caps struck at once at the weak point of their opponents by ordering a budget report to be made; and it was speedily found that the whole financial system of the Hats had been based upon reckless improvidence and the wilful misrepresentation, and that the only fruit of their long rule was an enormous addition to the national debt and a depreciation of the note circulation to one third of its face value. This revelation led to an all-round retrenchment, carried into effect with a drastic thoroughness which has earned for this parliament the name of the "Reduction Riksdag". The Caps succeeded in reducing the national debt, half of which was transferred from the pockets of the rich to the empty exchequer, and establishing some sort of equilibrium between revenue and expenditure. They also introduced a few useful reforms, the most remarkable of which was the liberty of the press in 1766. But their most important political act was to throw their lot definitely in with Russia, so as to counterpoise the influence of France.
Although no longer a great power, she still had many of the responsibilities of a great power; and if the Swedish alliance had considerably depreciated in value, it was still a marketable commodity. Sweden's particular geographical position made her virtually invulnerable for six months out of the twelve, her Pomeranian possessions afforded her an easy ingress into the very heart of the moribund empire, while her Finnish frontier was not many leagues from the Russian capital.
A watchful neutrality, not venturing much beyond defensive alliances and commercial treaties with the maritime powers, was therefore Sweden's safest policy, and this the older Caps had always followed out. But when the Hats became the armourbearers of France in the north, a protector strong enough to counteract French influence became the cardinal exigency of their opponents, the younger Caps, who now flung themselves into the arms of Russia, overlooking the fact that even a pacific union with Russia was more to be feared than a martial alliance with France. For France was too distant to be dangerous. She sought an ally in Sweden and it was her endeavour to make that ally as strong as possible. But it was as a future prey, not as a possible ally, that Russia regarded her ancient rival in the north. In the treaty which partitioned Poland there was a secret clause which engaged the contracting powers to uphold the existing Swedish constitution as the swiftest means of subverting Swedish independence; and an alliance with the credulous Caps, "the Patriots" as they were called at Saint Petersburg, guaranteeing their constitution, was the corollary to this secret understanding. Thus, while the French alliance of the warlike Hats had destroyed the prestige of Sweden, the Russian alliance of the peaceful Caps threatened to destroy her very existence.
Fortunately, the domination of the Caps was not for long. The general distress occasioned by their drastic reforms had found expression in swarms of pamphlets which bit and stung the Cap government, under the protection of the new press laws. The senate retaliated by an order in council, which the king refused to sign declaring that all complaints against the measures of the last Riksdag should be punished with fine and imprisonment. The king, at the suggestion of the crown prince thereupon urged the senate to summon an extraordinary Riksdag as the speediest method of relieving the national distress, and, on their refusing to comply with his wishes, abdicated. From December 15 to 21, 1768 Sweden was without a regular government. Then the Cap senate gave way and the estates were convoked for April 19, 1769.
On the eve of the contest there was a general assembly of the Hats at the French embassy, where the Comte de Modêne furnished them with 6,000,000 livres, but not till they had signed in his presence an undertaking to reform the constitution in a monarchical sense. Still more energetic on the other side, the Russian minister, Andrei Osterman, became the treasurer as well as the counsellor of the Caps, and scattered the largesse of the Russian empress with a lavish hand; and so lost to all feeling of patriotism were the Caps that they openly threatened all who ventured to vote against them with the Muscovite vengeance, and fixed Norrköping, instead of Stockholm, as the place of meeting for the Riksdag as being more accessible to the Russian fleet. But it soon became evident that the Caps were playing a losing game; and, when the Riksdag met at Norrköping on the April 19, they found themselves in a minority in all four estates. In the contest for speaker of the Riksdag (Lantmarskalk) the leaders of the two parties were again pitted against each other, when the verdict of the last Diet was exactly reversed, von Fersen defeating Rudbeck by 234, though Russia spent no less a sum than 90,000 Riksdaler to secure the election of the latter.
The Caps had short shrift, and the joint note which the Russian, Prussian and Danish ministers presented to the estates protesting, in menacing terms, against any "reprisals" on the part of the triumphant faction, only hastened the fall of the government. The Cap senate resigned en masse to escape impeachment, and an exclusively Hat ministry took its place. On June 1 the "Reaction Riksdag", as it was generally called, removed to the capital; and it was now that the French ambassador and the crown prince Gustav called upon the new Privy Councillors to redeem their promise as to a reform of the constitution which they had made before the elections. Be it when, at the end of the session, they half-heartedly brought the matter forward, the Riksdag suddenly seemed to be stricken with paralysis. Impediments multiplied at every step; the cry was raised: "The constitution is in danger" and January 30, 1770 the Reaction Riksdag, after a barren ten months session, rose amidst chaotic confusion without accomplishing anything.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Roberts, Michael (2003). The Age of Liberty: Sweden 1719-1772. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-52707-1.
- Wolff, Charlotta (2007). "Aristocratic republicanism and the hate of sovereignty in 18th-century Sweden". Scandinavian Journal of History 32 (4): 358–375. doi:10.1080/03468750701659392.