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Commentary on Autobiography

This text, which Chydenius wrote on request by the learned society in Gothenburg, the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences (Kungliga Vetenskaps- och Vitterhets-samhället i Göteborg), when he became a corresponding member, was finished on 14 February 1780. As we saw, it was this society that some years earlier had so kindly received his prize competition essay on rural trade. After his return home from the stormy Diet of 1778–9, he might have felt that this was a good opportunity to explain himself and the positions he had taken on different political issues over the years. His work in bringing about the memorial regarding freedom of religion had not, as we saw earlier, made him very popular – to say the least – among his fellow clergymen. Moreover, he might have wanted to clarify his relations with King Gustavus III. There may be several reasons for this. First, there might have been opportunistic motives. In order to emphasize the great favours he had done for the king – not least at the last Diet – he might have searched for protection and support, especially at a time when many were critical of him. After all, sometime in the future another bishopric might become available; as Virrankoski has shown, there was, for example, a discussion in the mid­1770s whether the wide­stretching diocese of Turku should be divided into two.1 In such a situation, royal support for his candidacy would not be unwelcome. On the other hand, one might speculate that another motive may have been just as important. After the Diet of 1778–9, growing opposition towards the king was noticeable. He was accused of despotic tendencies in his treatment of the estates – as we have seen, he dissolved the Diet after only a few months, with unclear motives. What made him particularly unpopular was the prohibition of the free distilling of hard liquor (brännvin). In 1775 an ordinance had been introduced that made the production and selling of hard liquor a state monopoly. Especially during 1779, many reports of protests came in from different counties, and there was fear of a more general uprising in the countryside. This was made worse in September 1779 by the warning that any attempts at private distillation would be severely punished.2 In Stockholm the periodical Sanning och Nöje (“Truth and Enjoyment”) was particularly critical of the king, and there was an apparent risk that a more restrictive policy on the press and printing might be introduced at any day. After all, in the spring of 1779 the critical Stockholms Posten had already been subject to censorship.3 Moreover, a new ordinance on the freedom of printing was issued on 6 May 1780, which declared that libellous publications from then on would be severely punished. In contrast to the previous ordinances of 1774, and indeed of 1766, it was now the printer instead of the author who was fully responsible. Without doubt the motive behind this shift was to deter book printers from publishing critical texts. However, this aim seems not to have succeeded, because of a peculiarity in the law. The fine was quite low for the first offence against this law, but it increased rapidly for the second and third time. Hence, as von Vegesack claims, the period after 1780 in fact saw a rise in the number of journals and tracts dealing with political matters. Printers were willing to take the risk, and authors could always shift to a new publisher if the first one was sentenced.4

Against this background of threats towards the freedom of printing in 1779 and 1780, it is perhaps not peculiar that Chydenius in his autobiography provides an account of his role in putting through the reform in 1766. On this issue in particular, but also regarding his role during the Diet of 1765–6 as well as the (coming) ordinance on religious freedom, he wanted to set the record straight. Who knew what would come later in a situation of political turmoil? Hence when at the end of the text Chydenius praises Gustavus III for his confirmation of a liberality with regard to the press, it is largely a rhetorical trick: it is a warning to the king and at the same time a statement on Chydenius’s commitment to the ordinance of 1766.

Another highly relevant question here, of course, is the extent to which we can put our trust in this autobiography as a reliable historical source. There are some instances where he gets the historical facts wrong for one reason or another. In a more general sense the text must of course be read as a personal defence. Like any other author, Chydenius is writing with a purpose; he has a message for the reader. He is looking to be saved from harsh judgment by posterity and tries to present himself in the most favourable light possible. However, here as always, Chydenius shows his political aptitude. He is worried about the future. There might not be many alternatives – a new regime based upon more power to the nobles and the rich would be even worse – but his great hopes connected with King Gustavus III had at least partly been shattered. At this moment of increasing social tensions and possible threats to freedom of expression, he is eager to pinpoint the reforms for a just order founded on the principles of natural liberty on which he had worked.

Lars Magnusson

  1. P. Virrankoski, Anders Chydenius: Demokratisk politiker i upplysningens tid, Stockholm: Timbro, 1995, p. 339f.
  2. C.T. Odhner, Sveriges politiska historia under konung Gustaf III:s regering, vol. II, Stockholm: P.A. Norstedt & söner, 1896, p. 142f.
  3. T. von Vegesack, Smak för frihet: Opinionsbildningen i Sverige 1755–1830, Stockholm: Natur & Kultur, 1995, p. 91.
  4. von Vegesack, op. cit., p. 95.