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Political Constitution and Prosperity for Sweden, to 1740

Since late in the 1200s, a Council consisting of wealthy and influential persons had existed in association with the authority of the king, and with the death of Charles XII in late 1718 the Council exercised authority concerning who would be his successor. Charles had never married, and his closest surviving sibling was his younger sister, Ulrica Leonora. The Council selected her as queen on condition that she renounce all claims to absolute power, and she agreed. The following year she abdicated in favor of her husband, Frederik of Hesse. He became Frederik I, King of Sweden, and she was queen, a transition accomplished in agreement with the Council that they would leave the creation of a new constitution to others. A peaceful political revolution had taken place, influenced by the development of constitutionalism elsewhere in Europe.

Sweden made peace with Augustus, recognizing him as King of Poland. Sweden made peace with Hanover, agreeing to give up the Dutchy of Bremen and Verden. In 1720 Sweden settled with Fredrick William of Brandenburg-Prussia. Sweden recognized its loss in Pomerania. It made peace with Denmark. And, in 1721, it made peace with Russia, recognizing Russia's hold on territory it had conquered, including Ingria, Estonia, Livonia, Vyborg (Viipuri), Kexholm (Piorzersk) and part of Karelia. Sweden was no longer the dominant power over the Baltic Sea. That now belonged to Russia.

The Constitution and Prosperity

The writers of Sweden's new constitution were influenced by what had taken place among the Dutch and English, including the writings of John Locke. It was Sweden's first full and precisely written constitution, and it gave the Swedish people what they, and historians later, would call an "Age of Liberty." Basically the Constitution provided for parliamentary rule. Parliament was to meet at least every third year, and parliament alone was to control state finances and legislation. When parliament was not in session the sixteen-member Council ruled with the king, who had two votes on most issues – the duty of the Council and king being to run the government and to implement the decisions of parliament.

Parliament consisted of four "estates" – one estate being that of nobles, another estate represented towns, another the clergy, and the fourth estate represented farmers. The estate of the nobles was largest, having around 1,000 representatives in parliament. Representatives from the towns numbered between 80 and 90. The clergy had 50 members, and the farmers around 150 – one from each rural district. To pass into law, a proposal needed the approval of at least three of the four estates. Special committees handled various issues and were allowed to intervene in the administration of the judiciary. Members of the farmer estate were excluded from the committee on foreign affairs but included on the issue of taxation.

Sweden was more rural than Great Britain or the Dutch Netherlands. It had less of a middle-class. Ninety percent of the Swedish population still lived by farming and raising cattle. But Sweden's rural population, with their small farms, was uncommonly independent compared to much of the rest of Europe. Serfdom did not exist in Sweden as it did extensively in Russia, Poland, the Balkans and to a lesser extent in Denmark, Spain and France.

The loss of overseas provinces reduced the king's revenues by more than half, and the nobility had lost their reward of lands abroad. But with peace, hard work, good harvests and loans from the English and the French, the Swedes began to recover their old standard of living. They had a baby boom. Trade returned. The Swedes welcomed the imported goods of which they had long been deprived. And prosperity and inflation made the tax burden lighter.

The government encouraged new opportunities for the poor, with exemption from taxes and other privileges for colonizing territory in the country's colder far north. The move of settlers there came into conflict with Samis (Lapps) of the area, the Samis trying to hold on to pastures for their reindeer and their fishing. Sweden's government supported the settlers, forcing the Samis to withdraw from contested areas.

Parliament, meanwhile, had done away with the distinction between high and low aristocracy. It left the nobility exempted from land taxes and with the exclusive right to hold high office in civil service. But these laws were impractical and failing as commoners with talent were appointed to high office and as a farmer here and there was gaining in wealth and acquiring his own tax-exempt farming estate.

Sweden's industrial sector remained small, but in 1731 new factories were founded with support from the state, especially in textiles, which, in urban areas such as Norrköping and Stockholm, began employing between 13,000 and 14,000 people. By the middle of the century there would be 360 ironworks in the country, producing 47,000 tons of wrought-iron goods annually.

In foreign policy, the government allowed foreign vessels to bring into Sweden only goods originating in their own country, the Swedes aiming to advance their own merchant marine. This annoyed the British. Nevertheless, Sweden was able to maintain a new alliance with Britain, as it did with France and Brandenburg-Prussia.

Nostalgia for Glory

All of these successes did not totally obliterate the glorification of Sweden's imperialist past. The connection between impoverishment and war was not firmly established. The old idea that wars should pay for themselves in the form of reward to the victors and that victory was the natural condition for Swedes was still alive. A political party had developed called the Hats (Hattar in Swedish). It consisted largely of aristocrats and people nostalgic for what they believed were glories connected with militarism. The Hats were for improving the nation's armed forces. They had cultural links with and received money from the French. They favored revenge against Russia and the acquisition of lost territories. Allied with them was Sweden's numerically small but wealthy bourgeoisie, the Hats favoring industrial development and economic investments. Many towns chose to be represented by members of the Hat party, and the Hats favored more control over the labor guilds.

Opposing the Hats were the Caps, who represented the interests of small farmers. Small farmers tended to be for peace and tended to side with the English, from whom they received money. The Caps had been dominant before 1738 and didn't want to provoke Russia. In 1738, the Caps lost to the Hats, who gained a majority in Parliament. The Hats forced Sweden's elder statesman, Arvid Horn, to resign from his post as Lord President of the Council.

In 1740, the War of Austrian Succession erupted. In Vienna, Maria Theresa's succession to the realms of the House of Habsburg was questioned, and this gave opportunity to Prussia and France to challenge Habsburg power. The Hats sided with the French for the sake of revenge against Russia. Sweden's involvement in the war lasted to August 1743. It was to be known among other names as the Hats' War in Finland. Sweden's war plan was first to capture Vyborg, now just across the border with Russia (Sweden still possessed Finland) and then to advance farther towards Saint Petersburg. In 1742 the Russians routed the Swedes at Lappeenranta and captured that frontier fortress. Nothing else was done on either side for six months more. Sweden's forces became demoralized and rumor of a hostile attack made them retire panic-stricken to Helsinki. The Russians occupied all of Finland. Sweden's navy was disabled by an epidemic and little more than a floating hospital. The war ended with the Treaty of Åbo in August 1743, with Sweden ceding to Russia a small area at the Finnish-Russian border, including the frontier fortress at Lappeenranta. The chauvinism of the Hats had gained Sweden nothing.


The Age of Liberty, Sweden 1719-1772, by Michael Roberts, 2003

Charles of Sweden, by R M Hatton, 1968

The Sword Does not Jest: the Heroic Life of King Charles XII of Sweden, by Frans G Bengtsson, 1960

Russsia in the Age of Peter the Great, by Lindsey Hughes, 2000

The Romanovs, by Virginia Cowles, 1971

Swedish History, by Jörgen Weibull, Svenska Institutet, 1997


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