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7.3.5 Sweden History: Toward Democracy


This article is from the Nordic countries FAQ, by Antti Lahelma and Johan Olofsson, with numerous contributions by others.

7.3.5 Sweden History: Toward Democracy

The so called Age of Freedom. Political power shifts from the king to the
estates. (With the new constitution the incorporation of Scania and other
conquered provinces is completed.)

A two-party system develops, and Arvid Horn, born in Finland and one of king
Karl XII's best militaries and administrators, became the most well-known
prime minister, totally out-shining the king Fredrik I who actually came on
the throne as the consort of the abdicated queen. During the period
1720-1738 Arvid Horn pilots Sweden between Russian and French conflicts, but
resigns finally accused for weakness and exaggerated fear for wars. His
party gets the nickname the "Nightcaps" opposed by the pride "Hats."

In the country the parish meetings are now established as deciding
authority, electing priests, organizing common work and poor relief, and
stating moral and juridical sentences (the latter without formal right). In
1742 the estates confirm the democratic forms for decisions at the village
meeting. The reason is unclear. The institution had worked well for many
hundreds of years. Maybe the lords in the new more feudal southern provinces
made problems, maybe the increase of crofters and impecunious caused

Year 1766 the censure of printed matters is abolished. The campaign is led
by the priest Anders Chydenius from Finland. The liberty of Press was
declared as constitution, including documents of the state administration
with few exceptions made publicly available, the "Offentlighetsprincipen".

"The War of the Hats". The French-minded "Hat party" advocating aggressive
foreign politics became a majority in the Riksdag and declares war on
Russia. The war goes miserably and Finland is occupied by Russia. In the
peace treaty of Turku, Russia however agrees to gaining only fairly minor
territories in eastern Finland because the Swedish estates agree to having
Russian-approved prince-bishop Adolf Fredrik of Lübeck to enter the Swedish

Gustav III performs a coup 1772 and restores absolute monarchy; the
beginning of the "Gustavian era". Gustav's rule is authoritarian and freedom
of speech is limited, but in the spirit of "enlightened autocracy" he pushes
through many important reforms that the estates had been unable to decide on
during the Age of Freedom. Swedish economy strengthens, laws are made more
humane, new towns and roads are built, the navy is reformed and arts are

Gustav's war against Russia. Sweden attacks Russia hoping to reconquer
eastern parts of Finland and Ingria ("Ingermanland"). The troops are poorly
motivated, the war goes badly, a rebellion known as Anjala-alliance rises
among the Finnish officers and Gustav has to stop the Russian campaign.
Meanwhile, Denmark attacks Sweden, but finds England and Prussia opposing
all military actions in the Danish straits, and is forced to accept a truce.
In June 1789 the war in the eastern front is continued, but with no
significant advance on land and several defeats on sea. However, on July 9th
1790 in Svensksund on the Finnish coast, the Swedish navy achieves a
glorious victory in the largest naval battle ever fought on the Baltic sea.
After this, Russia accepts a peace offered by Sweden but the peace involves
no ceding of territories.

Year 1792 Gustav attends a masked ball in Stockholm's opera despite the
several warnings about conspirators planning an assassination. Around
midnight, he is mortally wounded by a certain J.J.Anckarström, and dies a
couple of weeks later. Duke Charles becomes a regent while the young crown
prince Gustav Adolf is under age.


Russia had agreed in the treaty of Tilsit to pressure Sweden to join the
Napoleonic anti-British trade blockade, but Sweden refuses to listen to the
Russian ultimatums and scare-tactics and remains opposed to Napoleon.
Eventually, when all diplomatic means have failed, Russia attacks Finland
1808. Despite brief victories, the war goes badly for Sweden and by the
spring of 1809 the Finnish troops had surrendered, the main army had
retreated to Sweden and in the peace treaty of Fredrikshamn September 1809
the whole of Finland was joined to Russia. With the loss of Finland it is
made evident that the strength of the Swedish army was far more depending on
soldiers from Finland than her 20% share of the population would suggest.

For the defense of Sweden's territories an extra conscription for an extra
army was made among males below the age of 26 years. Unfortunately their
training was far too brief, and then at the fronts in the south and the west
they were left with deficient support, why many died from hunger and
freezing. Because of the disastrous war Gustav IV Adolf loses power and a
new constitution is written that puts an end to Gustavian autocracy.

The constitution was signed June 6th 1809 by duke Charles, again regent
after the king had been dethroned. Duke Charles is elected king, and the
Danish prince Christian August, who led the Norwegian government and army,
was elected to crown prince of Sweden - obviously with a Nordic union
planned, but the Danish king Frederik VI opposed this idea, unless he
himself was elected.

May 1810 the Swedish crown prince dies unexpectedly; his big brother accepts
to succeed him, but suddenly a French Marshall Jean Baptiste Bernadotte
announces his candidacy, and in solely ten days the state council, the king
and the estates change their minds. The election is unanimous.

In return for its anti-Napoleonic stance, Sweden receives Norway in the
treaty of Vienna, and the two countries are united in a personal union, with
Sweden occupying a leading position.

During this period Sweden develops from a poor agrarian country, to a less
poor agrarian country - and then industrialism begins. The old villages are
divided, each farm get its fields collected; the democratic village meeting
loses its function when each farm has its own fences. New methods and crops
(potatoes!) are introduced by farmers now independent of the conservative
neighbors' opinion. The life expectancy rise - as does the number of
crofters and vagrants.

In the beginning of the 19th century the vodka consumption is the highest
ever, estimated to 24 liters 100% pure alcohol per inhabitant. Paradoxally
the slightly improved living conditions, as indicated by longer life
expectancy, lead to a new kind of misery with a growing number of peasants
without property. The crofters, farm-hands etc form a rural proletariat
which grows fast while becoming relatively all more impoverished. As a
reaction Social-purity ideas grow, leading among other things to reforms of
the mandatory schools, of the political representation and of the municipal
responsibilities for poor. 1860 it becomes prohibited for ordinary citizens
to make their own vodka.

In 1831 the newspaper Aftonbladet is founded, important because of it's
struggle to increase the freedom of the press. The king, Karl XIV Johan, at
the time had the right to retract permissions to publish newspapers. When
Aftonbladet criticized the king, he retracted the publish rights - but the
paper immediately reappeared as "The Second Aftonbladet", "The Third
Aftonbladet" and all the way to the "28th Aftonbladet".

About one million Swedes moved to America during this period, but the
emigration slowed after 1900 because of improved conditions of living and
increased industrialization. Norway, industrialized before Sweden, was an
enticements on poor Swedes who couldn't afford the fare to America.

Women get equal rights in society

From 1845 daughters inherit as much land as their male siblings. (Until then
the sons had got twice as much.)

In 1858 unmarried women get right to dispose own incomes and possessions and
also to run enterprises, and come of age at 25 years (including right to
vote at the parish meeting in case they earn enough).

Unmarried women get right to state employment in the 1860:ies. Higher
education for women is organized in some towns.

In 1874 married women get right to dispose their income.

As late as 1921 married women get total right to dispose their own
possessions and act on their own judicial responsibility, and also rights to
vote in parliamentary elections. Finally 1923 also the right to higher
positions in the state administrations.

The Scandinavian democratic traditions develop in the working class -
initially in the free Churches, the temperance movement (IOGT was
established 1879) and the workers unions which all grow to strong democratic
forces. Education extension was an important part of their work. Debates and
proclamations are made, from the 1870:ies public parades are organized to
express the will of the people.

The Social Democratic party is founded 1889.

20th century
Sweden manages to stay out of both World Wars, achieves a high standard of
living and becomes an urbanized welfare state.

The parishes are merged to municipalities and then merged again to even
bigger municipalities, and then again.

Until 1917 the governments are mostly Conservative, 1917-1926 Social
Democrats form the Cabinet, sometimes in coalition with Liberals. 1932 the
Social Democrats return to the Cabinet, and except for a few months the
summer 1936 they remain at power until 1976.

The union with Norway is ceased without violence, and almost without

The workers unions organize several massive strikes, frightening the upper
class. The proposal to equal votes for men was made by a conservative
cabinet which feared a revolution as the alternative.


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