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Guldberg was the son of a poor merchant from Jutland. With the support of patrons, he was educated as a theologian; later he became a historian and, in 1761, a professor. Like many other middle class academics of his age, he was a mixture of patriotic pragmatist and orthodox royalist.
In 1764 he was connected to the queen Juliana Maria of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel as the house teacher of her son, Hereditary Prince Frederick, and in 1771 he became the latter's cabinet secretary. In his new position, his national and conservative views influenced the prince, and the appointment launched Guldberg's future political career. Being a conservative and devoted monarchist, he made common cause with the opposition against the rule of Johann Friedrich Struensee, regarding him a revolutionary and usurper. He was a leader of the conspiracy against Struensee in 1771.
After the fall of Struensee in 1772, Guldberg became the leader of the new government. Not formally designated a cabinet minister until shortly before his own fall, he is regarded as the de facto prime minister for most of this period, but he remained hidden behind the Hereditary Prince as Regent. As years passed, he advanced to first secretary (1776) and in 1777 was ennobled as Høegh-Guldberg. Like Struensee, he mostly governed through direct cabinet orders, relying upon his influence on the royal guardians of the insane Christian VII.
The 'Guldberg Rule' was marked by peace and rest, and initially by good economic conditions. As a neutral state, Denmark enjoyed an upturn in trade during the American Revolutionary War. In domestic politics he successfully followed nationalist policies, making him popular among many commoners. The Act of Citizenship of 1776 that excluded foreigners from public posts of the monarchy was especially popular.
Guildberg also supported gifted Danish poets and authors, including Jörgen Zoega. Being an outspoken Danish nationalist, doubtless he also used this as a propaganda asset. A severe weakening of his rule was linked to his financial mismanagement and growing corruption. He showed no understanding of the plight of the peasants, and he abolished most of the reforms of Struensee. Though a provincial himself, Guldberg totally favoured the capital at the expense of the provinces. The deaths and removals of some of his government colleagues (HC Schimmelmann, Andreas Peter Bernstorff) enlarged his field of activity, but also made him more vulnerable to critics.
An economic downturn after the end of the American War of Independence undermined his popularity, but more importantly, he, like his royal employers Juliana Maria and the Hereditary Prince, had fallen badly out with the Crown Prince (afterwards Frederick VI) whose growing opposition he seems to have ignored. In April 1784, just as he had been appointed a minister, he was forced to resign following the Crown Prince's coup d'état. He was then reduced to the rank of an amtmand (prefect) until 1802.
Ove Høegh-Guldberg has a number of direct descendants, including his namesake, the Australian biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg.
- Dansk Biografisk Leksikon, vol. 7, 1981.
- Politikens Danmarkshistorie, vol. 9, by Sven Cedergreen Bech, 1965.
- Politikens Danmarkshistorie, vol. 10, by Jens Vibæk, 1964.
- Psalme-Bog eller en Samling af gamle og nye Psalmer also named Guldbergs Psalme-Bog (Guldberg's hymnal), Copenhagen, 1778.