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Useful Notes / Norwegian Constituent Assembly

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It is then raised once more inside the ancient boundaries of Norway, the throne which was used by Håkon Adelstensfostre and Sverre, from where they ruled old Norway with wisdom. It is according to the wish of the entire people, that the wisdom and power that were over them, the great kings of our ancient past, also will lie over that prince which we, the free men of Norway, have chosen in gratefulness and acknowledgement, a wish that every real son of Norway surely shares with me. God save old Norway. (Georg Sverdrup, May 17, 1814).

The Norwegian Constituent Assembly was a elected body of 112 men who gathered at Eidsvold in eastern Norway with the purpose of making a constitution for Norway during The Napoleonic Wars in 1814. They gathered there April 10, and was finished May 17, sitting in hard debates for a little over five weeks. During this time, they managed to get 112 paragraphs in place.

Background story

The premise for this, is clearly foreign politics. Denmark had wavered slightly in support for Napoleon, and Great Britain would like to see that Denmark would be unable to support the Emperor with ships. Hence, the Royal Navy hijacked and stole the Danish fleet in a surprise attack in 1807, thus crippling Denmark considerably. What was more dramatic from a Norwegian point of view: every contact with Denmark was broken. The British instigated a Naval Blockade of Norway that same autumn, and in spite of still being in a union, Norway was on her own.


Denmark had to acknowledge this, and sent a trusted man north to rule in place of the Danish king. Christian August called in a number of Norwegians to help him. At the same time, Sweden decided to attack. A mostly Norwegian army managed to beat the Swedes back in 1809, thus bolstering a Norwegian sentiment that they actually could manage on their own, while the Swedes, embarrassed by this lack of military achievement (being beaten by a farmer milita nonetheless), ousted their own king Gustaf IV Adolf and elected another one, his uncle Charles the XIII. Problem was, the man had no children, so the Swedes had to look elsewhere for a royal heir.

While the war in Europe went on, Norway hardly managed it. The crops failed in 1809, and without imported grain, starvation was at hand. The Norwegian elite had now begun their own work for independence, and some of them pointed to the sore situation and blamed the Danes for it. Others saw an opportunity for better cooperation with the Swedes, if the Swedes wished to comply. In a way, they did. They asked Christian August to fill in as heir for the Swedish king, and Christian took the opportunity. He left Norway in 1810, held a grand party, entered Sweden and died suddenly and inexplicably, falling from his horse after a stroke. Conspiracy Theorists (Norwegian ones) blame the Danish government for this, as the king in Denmark went sour over it. He felt Christian August had betrayed him. Danish conspiracy theorists tend to blame Gustavian forces in Sweden, because he was Danish. Anyway, Sweden had to take another round of looking for a royal heir. While Sweden wavered in their support for Britain, Russia used an opportunity to invade Finland in 1809, then a part of the Swedish kingdom in spite of the fact that Sweden was an ally. At the same time, and for good reason, Sweden decided to make Norway a priority, something that suited Russia well, seeking to avoid a confrontation with Sweden.


1812 was the worst of the bad years in Norway. People died of starvation all over the place, unless they had hunting to fall back on, or lived by the coast. At the same time, Napoleon tried to invade Russia and failed splendidly, while a good lot of his soldiers froze to death. Russia decided to make up for the annexation of Finland by giving Sweden Norway. In a meeting the following summer (1813), Russia and Great Britain asked Sweden if Norway was OK with them, and Sweden said yes. The Treaty of Kiel was under way. A problem soon rose when it was clear nobody asked Norway about it. Let alone Denmark - although the British took time for some Gun Boat Diplomacy during summer 1813.

The Battle of Leipzig in November 1813 was crucial. Napoleon was stalled again, and by now, Sweden had gotten their new designated heir to the throne: Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, former general under Napoleon to find himself being in charge of the Swedish army. After the victory of Leipzig, he felt he had support enough for a northward turn, and set his army on the border of Denmark. Denmark negotiated desperately for a month to no avail, trying to convince Sweden to take parts of Norway as a "deposit" until the real peace negotiations were about to take place, thus involving all the greater European powers. Sweden, with Carl Johan as spokesman, rebuffed every Danish attempt with harsh words and more threats. Austria tried to intervene for the sake of good will, and for the Danes, but Russia, interested in keeping Finland, convinced Austria to stay out of the matter, which she did. Denmark was invaded by a force consisting of Swedish, Prussian and Russian soldiers, and gave in quickly. The Danes complied to the treaty, which was signed January 14, 1814. Norway was to be handed over to Sweden in the spring of 1814. So far so good.

Secret diplomacy

But Denmark had other plans as well. In lack of a man in charge, the Danish king sent his cousin, Christian Frederik, to Norway, to act as ruler from the spring of 1813. His job was to oversee that Norway and Denmark should not part ways, but as the summer went on, and winter approached, he found himself in a beehive. When 1814 came, Norwegian leaders already assembled to discuss their situation, and among commoners, rumors of a Swedish invasion had stirred people to action, and they called for arms. During the winter, Christian Frederik found he could have a serious uprising on his hands. How to handle this? First, he travelled around Norway for support. After that, he gathered a small group of prominent men at Eidsvold to discuss what to do. Latest arrival was Georg Sverdrup, the principal of the new Norwegian University. He had to travel at night at full speed. History tells that locals, living not that far from the Swedish border, knew what was afoot, and the man who carried Georg Sverdrup the last part of the trip, adviced him to be cautious: "We would rather died in battle than to let the Swedes have us. Whatever you do or say, remember God supports".

When arriving, Sverdrup learned that the prince vouched for totalitarian rule, and some of the men gathered there were of the same mind. Sverdrup on the other hand was not. He reminded the prince that he had forfeited his inherited rights for the Norwegian crown at the treaty of Kiel, and therefore, the crown had "fallen back to the Norwegian people". The prince would be wise to choose a popular sovereignty over totalitarianism. Christian Frederik complied to this. A constitutional assembly had to be called in. By March 25, churches all over the country held a popular oath to defend the national freedom, and men were elected: farmers, priests, officers and merchants, other officials beside. They were to gather at Eidsvold, where the proprietor Carsten Anker would see to their needs. He had a house big enough.

Carsten Anker was sent to London to vouch for the Norwegian cause at the end of March. He had a meeting with Lord Liverpool, first secretary of state, and had a long discussion on the subject. Liverpool argued that since Norway effectively had been at war with England for some time, it was not a question at all for the British to lend the country a hand. He could not understand why Norway opposed a union with Sweden. Anker argued for full independency, but Liverpool answered:

Liverpool: Mr Anker, there is nothing I would wish more than telling you the truth. If the Norwegians want Prince Christian to travel to Denmark, we will help you all we can, to make good terms with Sweden. But if you keep this Danish Prince, and will not abandon independence, we have to help Sweden conquer you."
Anker: "Is this your lordship`s ultimatum?"
Liverpool: "Yes it is, sir."
Anker: Then this is our death sentence. Norway will not become Swedish, come what may."

It so happened that the house of commons later brought the issue to debate, but the Norwegian cause fell. This made the Assembly at Eidsvold speed up their work.

The assembly and the nature of it

The assembly gathered at the appointed day, April 10, which was a sunday. The delegates assembled from all the southern parts of Norway. Because of long distances, Northern Norway was unable to send any delegates in time - a fact that part of the country still resents. Because the day of meeting was a sunday, the assembly attended mass, and then a dinner, before actually going to business monday morning. The Prince regent adressed the delegates, and they used a couple of days on stating how the meetings should progress. Twelve delegates were then called forth to form a constitutional comitee, among them Christian Magnnus Falsen and Nicolai Wergeland, both with their own drafts written in advance. The main lines of the constitution were presented soon after.

Tensions rose after a week, when two fractions seemed to form. Disagreement rose around the role of the Prince Regent, and how the Assembly should continue after the constitution was finished - or if they should dissolve itself. One party supported the Prince. They were later called "the independents", or the "Danish Party". They were led by Falsen and Georg Sverdrup. The other fraction was labeled "unionists" because the argued for a loose union with Sweden as a last resort. Hence the name "Swedish party". In reality, all of them vouched for full independence, but pragmatism and realpolitik were always on the table. The parties stood more prominently out after the debates on those issues April 19. One proposition, which fell, argued for a clause that Norway should "never again" enter a union with Denmark. This did not pass because of fear it would insult the Prince Regent. Even worse, seven delegates were actually Danish, and they pulled their weight on behalf of the Prince. But it is stated that they all saw the sake of Norway in the situation at hand. The defition of "foreign" became a problem later, when Danes actually had to be defined as such - and the delegates ended in a discussion over whether or not Danes had a right to vote (because of tight connections from the union time).

A full draft of the constitution was delivered the assembly at the end of April, and the following days saw discussions on different and separate issues: How to handle national debt, the national bank, and of course the question of Jews. This last one came to haunt the assembly, and Norwegian politics for many years. The original draft vouched for full religious freedom, but this was gradually narrowed down to state religion, and the exclusion of Jews altogether. The question was raised again a generation later, when Henrik Wergeland made a heroic effort to get the parliament change the clause.

On the case of voting rights, the assembly turned out to be surprisingly liberal for their time. In one draft, full voting for all was implemented, but pragmatism led to voting rights for everyone who possessed property. Unlike the United Kingdom, where only people with a certain amount of property had voting rights, Norway extended it to all who owned land whatsoever. This was reckoned a bold democratic manoevre at the time. Of course, only men had the right to vote, for anoher 99 years.

Because of limited time, the assembly had to work fast. On May 10, they manage to establish 33 paragraphs in a rather heroic effort to get work done. They finally managed it a week later, and assembled to officially elect the Prince regent as a Norwegian king, a position he held to the middle of August. He was elected by all of them, although with reservations by some. The final signing came the day after, and so the assembly dissolved acknowledging a job well done.

It so happened that the Prince had support because he was a soft spoken and quite handsome guy, willing to give in on important points. The people following him did so because they meant a union with Sweden could be no good. What they failed to realize, was that they came to vouch for a possible reunion with Denmark. The lesser party at the assembly decided that full independence, or a loose union with Sweden might be a better idea. Much of the assembly had to face realpolitikal choices more than once, and this had considerable impact on the lines Norwegian politics have followed ever since: Dependancy on the greater powers, dependancy on Denmark or Sweden, and how this dependancy were supposed to work. Other issues, like the rift between the farmers and the officials, were already visible, and came to haunt the internal policies for over a century or longer.

Historians have debated this issue ever since. The fallout between certain members of the assembly, from the different fractions, was so serious they never actually forgave eachother, and some were frozen out of further political discussion. The questions at hand were serious enough, concerning the question of independence, trade, foreign policies, propriety rights, voting rights, how to deal with democratic power, and then there was the issue of time. While sitting there, rumors went that Sweden assembled an army at the border, and would invade in the second half of may. Sweden also had the support of Prussian troops. News like this could make the assembly panic at times, and the constitution was made pragmatic and brief, to be finished as soon as possible.


Sweden invaded in the summer, and the Norwegians had to beat them back once again. But this time, Carl Johan was in charge, and a savvy tactician with experience from the Napoleonic army, who had beaten the French at Leipzig, was not an easy match. The Prince Regent soon had to face the facts, and by august, he packed his bags and left quietly, leaving the Norwegians to settle matters with the Swedes. As was the situation in January, central powers intervened, and through shrewd diplomacy the constitution was respected, with some amendments to please the Swedes. Carl Johan, who had been a French general, could not for the sake of shame overrule a constitution that was built on the principles from The French Revolution. This saved the day to some extent, and the union with Sweden became as loose as you could possibly get it - ratified at Moss in August. Charles XIII was elected king of Norway by November 4, but the union with Sweden was so shaky it rattled considerably every tenth year over one issue or another. Local farmers and veterans who had been at the front in 1809 and again in 1814, complained, and even 40 years afterwards, and as long as there were veterans alive, they claimed they could have won "had not the great ones bailed out". On the other hand, the compromise secured peace in Northern Europe, which apparently was a good thing.

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