Norway Celebrates 200th Anniversary of Constitution
February 16th marks the official start of the 200th anniversary of Norway’s constitution and its independence from Denmark. At the beginning of 1814 Norway was still under Danish rule. At the end of the year, Norway was in a union with Sweden. In the meantime, however, the Norwegian people and a poor, small country grasped the opportunity that arose when the major national powers were settling things after the Napoleon Wars. The Norwegians declared themselves free and independent, and passed one of the most liberal constitutions at the time.On February 16, 1814, Danish Prince Christian Frederik and Norwegian lords met at Eidsvoll. There they decided to form a national committee that would give Norway its own constitution.
Prince Christian Fredrik realized that he would have to be chosen by the people’s representatives if he would become a Norwegian king. Being a heir to the throne was simply not enough, and the Norwegian people had successfully taken over the power and changed the country’s entire political framework.
The committee at Eidsvoll ensured that the focus was on the individual and his/her own rights in the constitution that was written in 1814. They looked to the U.S. and France for inspiration, which also meant a revolutionary new look on the citizens’ role in society, human rights and division of power.
Today, Norway’s constitution is the world’s second oldest acting constitution. Only the U.S. constitution is older and still in effect. That alone says a lot about the men at Eidsvoll’s capability to look ahead of their own time.
14 January – the Treaty of Kiel
In the late autumn of 1813, the Swedish Crown Prince Carl Johan invaded Denmark, with superior forces and the intention of forcing Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden. On 15 December a ceasefire was entered into, and then negotiations on a peace treaty were started in Kiel. Under the threat of a resumption of hostilities, the Danish negotiators reluctantly gave in to Sweden’s demands. The Kiel Treaty was signed on 14 January 1814. It set out that Norway was to enter into a personal union with Sweden. This marked the end of a 434-year-long union between Denmark and Norway.
16 February – meeting of prominent Norwegians at Eidsvoll
The terms of the Kiel Treaty were met with resistance in Norway under the leadership of the heir to the Danish throne, Prince Christian Frederik, who had earlier been sent to Norway as Vice-Regent. On 16 February, he gathered 21 prominent Norwegian citizens in Eidsvoll to announce his intention to defy the Treaty of Kiel and to ascend the throne as the heir to the kingdom of Denmark–Norway. He met resistance from the majority of those gathered there, who maintained that, as the Danish King had relinquished his power over Norway, Norwegian sovereignty belonged to the Norwegian people. Christian Frederik gave in to this majority, which in practice meant that an elected body had to be brought together to draw up a constitution and choose a king.
25 February – prayers and elections
On 19 February, Christian Frederik sent out an open letter stating that an assembly would be held in Eidsvoll on 10 April to draw up a constitution for Norway. In churches all over the country special services were held on 25 February or as soon as possible after this, followed by a meetings where those attending were sworn in and then chose the electors. These met again to appoint a representative for each county to take part in the assembly in Eidsvoll. However the deadline had already passed by the time the instructions for choosing representatives reached the northernmost counties. This is why there were no representatives from North Norway at Eidsvoll in 1814. Nevertheless, elections were still held in Finnmark even though the “men of Eidvoll” had finished their work by them.
10 April – 112 representatives meet at Eidsvoll
On 10 April, 112 representatives met at Eidsvoll, with authorisations from their respective constituencies. There were 57 government officials, 18 industrialists and 37 farmers. They attended a service in Eidsvoll church before they handed in their letters of authorisation to Christian Frederik. On 11 April, they met for the first time in the main hall at Eidsvoll Manor, for the official opening of the assembly. Christian Frederik held the equivalent of a Speech from the Throne, in which he emphasised that the assembly’s task was to draw up a constitution for the country.
17 May – the assembly dates the Constitution and elects Christian Frederik as King
The men of Eidsvoll worked on the Constitution for six weeks. All 112 representatives agreed that it should draw inspiration from the current ideas about the sovereignty of the people, freedom and balance of power. However they disagreed about which foreign policy option would secure the greatest possible freedom for Norway: some wanted full independence and a possible reunion with Denmark; and some wanted independence within a union with Sweden. This split affected both the debate on the Constitution and the election of the King, but those who wanted full independence were a strong majority, and it was this alternative that was settled on.
On 17 May, the Constitution was completed and signed by the members of the assembly. Christian Frederik was then unanimously elected as the King of Norway, but 14 of the supporters of the union requested that it be recorded in the minutes that they voted for Christian Frederik under coercion. Nevertheless, when the 112 representatives left Eidsvoll their differences were replaced by a spirit of agreement, as expressed in their cry of “United and faithful until the Mountains of Dovre should crumble!”
19 May – Christian Frederik accepts the Crown
The day after the Constitution was signed, 18 May, Christian Frederik heard that England, Russia and Austria were intending to send commissioners to Norway to force through the Swedish–Norwegian union. Norwegian independence was not realistic if the major powers opposed it, and Christian Frederik could still have avoided a conflict if he had turned down the throne. But in a solemn meeting on 19 May, he received the Crown offered to him by the men of Eidsvoll.
14 August – the Moss Convention ends the war between Norway and Sweden
All spring, Carl Johan and his Swedish forces had been engaged on the continent in the ongoing war against Napoleon. It was not until the French Emperor had finally been beaten that Carl Johan could turn his full attention to Norway, and with the support of the major powers demand that the provisions of the Kiel Treaty be complied with. On 26 July he declared war against Christian Frederik and Norway. The Swedish army made rapid advances and the Norwegians were forced to retreat. Nevertheless, they entered into ceasefire negotiations on 7 August, where one of the terms demanded by the Norwegians was acceptance of their Constitution. The negotiations culminated in the Moss Convention which was signed on 14 August. Carl Johan accepted the Norwegian Constitution with the amendments necessary for a union with Sweden, and Christian Frederik promised to abdicate. The Constitution was saved.
7 October – the first extraordinary session of the Storting
In accordance with the provisions of the Moss Convention, Christian Frederik called an election to bring together an extraordinary session of the Storting. On 7 October, the Storting met in the large auditorium of the cathedral school, and the assembly of 79 representatives was officially declared to be the first extraordinary session of the Norwegian Storting. Shortage of time and the long distances involved meant that this time, too, there were no representatives from North Norway. In practice it was a national constituent assembly that met, as it was called to amend the Constitution drawn up in Eidsvoll in line with the union with Sweden, and was thus not following the provisions for constitutional amendments set out in the original document. On 9 October, Christian Frederik gave a speech to a group of 25 representatives, in which he renounced the Norwegian throne. This meant that the Storting, led by the recently elected President of the Storting, Wilhelm Christie, had sole responsibility for the amendments to the Constitution and negotiations with the Swedes.
4 November – the Storting adopts the amended Constitution
On 4 November 1814, the new Constitution was completed. Formally, it was not a revised version of the Constitution from Eidsvoll, but a new Constitution, dated 4 November. The fundamental change was that Norway, as an independent kingdom, was to enter into a union with Sweden. Many of the articles relating to the King, the Council of State and the Storting were also amended, but these amendments actually strengthened the position of the Storting and Council of State in relation to the King. This was made particularly clear by the fact that the King’s military and foreign political powers were weaker in the amended Constitution than in the text from Eidsvoll. Once the amendments to the Constitution were completed on 4 November, the Storting declared that it accepted Christian Frederik’s abdication. Later the same day the representatives chose a new King – the second in 1814. Carl XIII of Sweden became the new King of Norway, not on the basis of the Treaty of Kiel, but on the basis of the vote in the Storting.