To be an enlightened person in the mid-eighteenth century was seldom to be a democrat in the modern sense. Instead, most such people supported absolute monarchy – if it implied government according to law and the constitution (anything else was called arbitrary despotism) – in order that an enlightened rule could be inaugurated. Chydenius was no exception in this respect. By the end of the Diet of 1765–6 he had become increasingly critical towards the existing political system, most pertinently its party system. Saying farewell to the Caps – who of course had kicked him out – he raised a critique against the Age of Liberty as a whole. Certainly the verdict regarding this Age has differed among historians. While some have seen only its shortcomings, others have been more positive. In contrast to the absolutism that prevailed before 1718, the new constitution without doubt brought many new liberties. At least to some extent, a polity was introduced which resembled the English system after 1688: a system of checks and balances that could curb the abuse of governmental power. While the estates system did not constitute a parliament in the modern sense, it was nevertheless the case during the Age of Liberty that the estates were much more powerful than the monarch. In theory it resembled an order built upon the idea of a balance of power, as the new constitution defined that the estates were the lawmakers, while the monarch (including the Council of the Realm and the state administration) functioned as the executive power. In reality, of course, the divide between law-making and execution was crossed constantly by the estates, which were eager to govern directly.1
Against this background, most modern historians have described the Age of Liberty as semi-democratic, the embryo of a modern parliamentary system.2 Others (scholars mainly of an older generation) have instead condemned it as corrupt, and dominated by selfinterested elitist parties fighting over the spoils of government.3 As we have seen, Chydenius was apt to agree with the latter characterization. Rather than an Age of Liberty, it was an age of bitter party strife and lack of concord, he thought.
This was the reason why Chydenius, following Gustavus III’s coup d’état in 1772, was so ready to hail him as a liberator. Hence, right from the beginning and until his death he defended the new constitution of 1772, which emphasized monarchical power as a replacement for the rule of the estates that had held sway during the Age of Liberty. Chydenius became what in the Swedish realm at the time was called a Gustavian, a follower of an order that to a large extent resembled the kind of enlightened absolutism which was common in continental Europe during this period. Chydenius especially hailed the new regime for creating national concord and internal peace. In a speech given in Kokkola in 1778 at Gustavus’s birthday, Chydenius depicted the old regime in dark colours: “Sweden was in a bad way when Gustavus took over the sceptre,” he said. It was a time when “everybody wanted to rule but no one wanted to obey”. But now a new time had emerged in all its glory. Gustavus has created the necessary concord, and unity now prevails in the nation, he insists. And he breaks into verse:
Let out fire and thunder
so that the Heavens shake,
Our ship steers blissfully forward,
As long as Gustavus illuminates our path.4
Chydenius’s earlier biographers have often found it problematic that this prototype of a “modern” liberal could have been such a stern Gustavian. Even Virrankoski in his balanced analysis wonders whether or not Chydenius was an opportunist who defended the king in order to gain favour.5 Without doubt his support was conditional: only to the extent that Gustavus defended the rights and liberties of his subjects was he the kind of ruler Sweden needed. At times, Chydenius seems to have doubted whether the king was really fulfilling this role; especially after his dramatic return from the Diet of 1792 in Gävle, which, as we have seen, was dominated by the king and his police. On the other hand, there is no doubt that Chydenius really did become a convinced Gustavian; standing for election in 1792 to participate in Gävle, he was openly recognized as belonging to the “royal party”. While most of his colleagues in the Estate of Clergy in Ostrobothnia had left this party during the 1780s, Chydenius remained loyal to it.6 He was certainly also horrified by the assassination of Gustavus at the opera house in Stockholm some months later, carried out by a group of conspiring noblemen.7
Perhaps we should not be surprised at Chydenius’s support of the king. In fact, to regard monarchical rule as the best means of serving the common good was common during this period. First, the view that it was as a guarantee for concord and happiness in the state was part of an older popular ideology in Sweden connected with the Estate system defining a fair and just political order. In that country, as Michael Roberts has emphasized, “the peasants have always by tradition been positive to a strong monarch”.8 Hence, an older generation of historians such as Erik Gustaf Geijer spoke of “condemnation of aristocracy” (aristokrati-fördömande) as a prevailing political attitude among the lower estates in the Swedish realm all the way back to the medieval period. The reason was simple: a “just” monarch could maintain the existing privileges and the rights of the different orders in society. A weak monarch would leave the door open for private interest and rent-seeking.
Second, to hail absolute monarchs ruling according to the constitution as the best proponents of enlightened governance was widespread among radicals too during this period. In Denmark and Prussia this was a common view among friends of liberal reform. In France the economically liberal Physiocrats, headed by the king’s personal physician, François Quesnay, were openly in favour of a strong monarchy which could guarantee that laws were protected within a constitution based upon natural liberty. In the Swedish realm, Chydenius was by no means alone in being a follower of Gustavus’s revolution while at the same time propounding Enlightenment views. On the contrary, up to the mid-1780s there were very few who had a problem with this, while at the same time condemning the Age of Liberty for its corruption and party politics. One obvious example is Carl Fredrik Scheffer, Crown Prince Gustavus’s tutor and friend, as well as one of the founding fathers of the new constitution of 1772. He was also the translator of French Physiocratic texts and was known for his hatred of the Age of Liberty constitution.9 Another example is the finance minister Johan Liljencrants,10 who more than any other politician at the time contributed to pushing forward a number of liberal economic reforms, which incidentally were in accordance with Chydenius’s views during the 1780s. Lastly, the case of Chydenius’s long-term friend and correspondent Anders Schönberg is highly illuminating. He was a warm friend of the coup in 1772, finding arguments for his support in Montesquieu’s contract theory. In 1776 he published a fragment of a much longer piece which he as official historiographer royal had written concerning the history of government in Sweden. Here he condemned the Age of Liberty in clear language and hailed a system in which the king was the executive power while the estates should be the procurers of new legislation.11
Against this background it might seem peculiar that Chydenius at the same time was regarded as an enthusiastic democrat. However, this must also be understood in its contemporary and pre-modern meaning. Hence, what struck contemporaries was Chydenius’s support for the common people against the nobility and big merchant capitalists. In particular, his taking the side of servants and workers – which involved him in a lengthy public debate in the Stockholm newspaper Dagligt Allehanda in 1778 and 1779 – has led at least some modern interpreters to question whether he was not in fact some kind of socialist.12 However, this would certainly be a mistake. First and foremost, his insistence that all men were born free and should not be the property of other men stemmed from his interpretation of concepts such as natural law and natural liberty. The opinion that they should be able to move freely and to speak their minds independently merely followed from such a premise. Moreover, the fact that men were born with rights must be recognized by the ruler, he thought. All men should be equal under the constitution and the law. Hence, when he gives support to servants, he points to their problematic situation as semi-slaves under their masters. Accordingly, they were not free with regard to body and mind and hence able to use their freeborn rights. When he criticized the prohibitions against free peasant trade in Ostrobothnia, he insisted that such regulations violated the natural liberty of this group. As ordinances hindered the peasants from seeking opportunity and gain wherever they could, regulations of this kind upset the principle of natural liberty.
Defending the rights of common people, Chydenius also looked backwards to ideologies of an older origin. As in many parts of Europe, the estates’ status as free corporations was still defended in the Swedish realm during the Age of Liberty. Ideally, the estates were regarded as the instruments for the corporate and collective will. One peculiarity, which we have already noted, was that the peasants too were allowed to form an estate in order to influence the political order in the kingdom. By the middle of the seventeenth century the Estates of Peasants and of Clergy had both become hothouses of radical ideas based on the notion of exclusive rights and privileges provided to them. With the exception of bishops and other higher clergy, perhaps, the Estate of Clergy often tended to take the peasants’ view in their struggle against the noblemen and burghers; this was also to some extent the case at the Diet of 1765–6 and in the campaigns of the radical Caps from the clerical estate. Especially under the reign of Queen Christina (1644–54), both the peasantry and the clergy had defended the free status of the so-called tax-paying farmers (skattebönder) with allodial rights to their land against “feudal” conceptions (which the Swedish nobility had picked up when expanding their landowning in the Baltic area during the seventeenth century), which instead emphasized the subordinate position of all peasants.
While much of this radicalism disappeared during the period when Sweden was ruled by absolute monarchs up to 1718, this sense of estate exclusiveness returned during the Age of Liberty. However, as we have observed, at the end of the Age of Liberty a “party” of radical Caps emerged which was fiercely opposed to the Hat regime and saw itself as representing the people versus the elite. In general, its followers in the peasant or the clerical estate were especially vocal at the Diets of 1762, 1765–6 and 1769. Chydenius, as we have seen, belonged to such a Finnish network of radical Caps when he first entered the Diet of 1765–6. Moreover, at this Diet he was so outspoken in his critique against the noblemen and merchant capitalists that he gained the reputation of being a fierce radical. Especially regarding the nobility, he remained critical for the rest of his life. Hence, he supported all the reforms made during the reign of Gustavus III to strengthen the peasants’ legal titles and ownership of land. When the nobility was stripped of its privilege to hold land with special rights, so-called frälse-jord, in 1789, he applauded loudly. Later in life, when he wrote his proposal on how to develop and populate Lapland, he spoke in favour of a system in which small peasants should be able to own their tilled land and from which all noble landowners should be excluded.13
When Chydenius defends the right of common people, he takes his point of departure from an ideology of rights developed within the old estate system – spiced up with the gospel of hard work as a moral obligation. This is the mixture he used when opposing the nobility as well as the rich merchant class. To some extent he transcended this ideology in order to advocate equal rights for all (including servants, which was seldom explicitly done at this time, as servants were often regarded as dependants in the same fashion as non-adults). However, all this took place still largely within a political idiom that was pre-modern in every sense of the word. Chydenius is in principle not affronted by an order that allocated different positions in society to different estates. It was only when such privileges violated the principle of natural rights – or, more profoundly, when the elite made use of their position of power to violate these rights – that his indignation is stirred.