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Commentary on The Natural Rights of Masters and Servants

This tract was published by the Royal Printing-Press in Stockholm, most probably in November or December 1778. Its publication is directly connected with the fact that Chydenius in the autumn of this year once again was appointed as a delegate of the Estate of Clergy in the forthcoming Diet. The notice of call for a new gathering of the Diet was sent out on 9 September and, as we can see, the foreword to the tract was signed on 12 September. During the next month, elections were held, which eventually (and not without the usual complications1) led to Chydenius being appointed as a delegate from Ostrobothnia. When he arrived in Stockholm on 12 November, the Diet had already started, and shortly afterwards his tract on the natural rights of masters and servants was published.

It is clear that the intention of writing the tract was to use the new Diet as a platform for pushing for reform – the abolition of the Statute on Servants and Hired Workers (tjänstehjonsstadgan). While regulations concerning servants have a long pedigree in Sweden, all the way back to the medieval county laws (landskapslagar), the first “modern” statute was inaugurated in 1664.2 However, as the Swedish economic historian Gustaf Utterström explains, it was not until the Age of Liberty that these regulations reached their zenith.3 Two regulations were issued during this period, in 1723 and in 1739. As in many other parts of Europe at the time, statutes and ordinances of this kind were proclaimed in order to combat vagrancy and begging – practices that during this period were endemic in most societies and occurred both in the towns and in the countryside. In addition, the aim was to guarantee that agriculture and industry, including the always highly esteemed iron industry, were furnished with enough hands. The statute of 1739 – which Chydenius refers to – was especially rich in detail. It not only stated that it was unlawful and punishable to be a vagrant and without a master – to be without lawful protection (laga försvar) – but also regulated the employment relationship between the master and the servant. With regard to the master, it was ordained that he should treat his servants well and keep them for at least one year. Moreover, he was only allowed to employ and keep a certain number of workers on his farm or on his premises. With regard to servants, the statutes of 1723 and 1739 included certain wage tariffs (in coin and kind): an employer who offered wages above this level could be fined. Moreover, servants had no right to move to another county, but had to seek a new employer within Ostrobothnia, for example, if they wanted to move for some reason.

As has been pointed out, this regulative order implied that servants and hired workers were kept in very servile conditions. They were dependent upon their masters, who also had the right to administer corporal punishment. This right was preserved until as late as 1858; the statute as such was finally abolished in 1885. During the Age of Liberty it was defended as a necessary means to overcome the problems caused by a small population. According to this view, without such legislation, servants and workers would instead put themselves up as crofters or even free labourers. This danger was especially acute given the abundance of available land in the Swedish realm; the statute of 1723 in particular explicitly referred to a lack of hands after the devastation of the Great Northern War. The strict prohibitions against the splitting up of farms (hemmansklyvning) that were in effect until 1739, as well as against the increase of crofters, were based upon the same arguments. A constant fear, especially during the 1730s, was that servants would flee to the towns. Stockholm was considered to be a particular magnet. The capital city received a constant inflow of people who more or less illegally had left their old masters in the countryside. Even in the 1760s – as we have seen – emigration out of Sweden, for example to Denmark, was still considered such a severe problem that the Royal Academy of Sciences launched an essay competition in order to find a remedy.

Although Chydenius was probably the most outspoken enemy of this system, he was not by any means the only one. In 1772 the Royal Academy of Sciences published a text, which Chydenius most probably had read, written by the Uppsala adjunct in economics Anders Gustaf Barchaeus (1735–1806) who spoke in favour of radical reform. In the same year a committee was formed by the Estates which suggested that the statute of 1739 should be abolished and instead argued for the establishment of free contracts between masters and servants without restrictions on mobility. However, after the mid­1770s more reactionary ideas were again voiced. In 1777 a decision was taken in the county of Gävleborg that the statute of 1739 should be fully enforced, not least the wage tariffs (after a period of more slack practice). Moreover, the servants should be counted and then distributed among masters according to certain criteria. The background to this draconian decision was that the masters of Gävleborg felt that several years of good harvests had created such a demand for more agricultural workers that the masters were forced to increase wages rapidly in order to employ enough hands.

It was this decision that triggered the heated debate taking place in periodicals such as Dagligt Allehanda, Stockholms Posten and Hushållnings­Journal (the last published by the Patriotic Society, Patriotiska sällskapet). Chydenius’s first contribution to the debate was a letter to the editor published in Dagligt Allehanda on 11 August 1778 under the signature “Prodromus”. His arguments here are largely the same as in the longer tract published later in the autumn: the system of sharing out servants was both cruel and against the principles of natural right. For these reasons, the whole system of restricting the freedom of servants should be scrapped, the author argued. The opinions presented in the article, and especially in the tract, provoked a large number of interventions, and Chydenius himself wrote several responses during the first eight months of 1779 – this time under his own name.4 As Virrankoski has pointed out, Chydenius’s critics mainly argued that it was the workers’ duty to serve their masters so that agriculture could prosper. Higher wages would only lead to increased idleness and to workers spending their money on drink. Moreover, Virrankoski has proposed that one of the anonymous critics of Chydenius, signing himself “Sincere & Moderate”, was none other than his friend the historiographer royal Anders Schönberg. Schönberg as well as others most likely felt that Chydenius had gone too far in defending the human rights of servants – a fanatic for democratic principles once again.

In the tract Thoughts Concerning the Natural Rights of Masters and Servants, its author without doubt develops views that were not common at the time. His fierce attack on the view that servants were morally inferior and needed a paternal hand particularly stands out in this context. Economic literature at the time, both in Britain and on the Continent, was full of moralist proclamations of the same kind as when the Irish economist Richard Cantillon (c.1680–1734) stated that poor people receiving a slight rise of income would multiply “as mice in the barn”. In general, workers were supposed to behave according to the “theory of a backward­sloping demand curve for labour”; that is, they would diminish their work effort if their wages were increased.5 Moreover, Chydenius’s condemnation of the use of corporal punishment was quite advanced for the period. As was discussed in the Introduction, his more humane attitude followed from his very consistent interpretation of natural rights doctrine (as well as from his faith). However, to this must be added his almost innate sympathy with ordinary people, the peasants and servants from his home provinces of Ostrobothnia and Lapland.

We have already argued that the result of Chydenius’s campaigning for the establishment of a free contractual relationship between masters and servants must have been a disappointment – this especially as a joint committee of the Estates in 1772 in fact had recommended a withdrawal of the old statute. In accordance with his wish, in 1778 Chydenius became secretary of the committee that was to put forward a new proposal. It was known that Gustavus III and his government (in practice, Permanent Secretary Johan Liljencrants6) were in favour of a reform creating free contracts between masters and servants. However, after a good start everything went wrong. The proposal issued by the king was voted down in three of the estates (the Clergy, the Burghers and the Nobility). Only the Peasants supported it. We can only speculate about the reasons for this outcome. On the one hand the proposal might have seemed too radical, even for those who disliked the extreme position taken by the authorities in Gävleborg. Where indeed would such a system of free contracts lead? Hence, the estates at the same time saw the opportunity to send a clear signal to Gustavus III that they wished to be more involved in decisions of this kind. Such new laws should, according to the fundamental laws of 1734, be decided on by the estates, they argued. At this point, Gustavus III retreated. The issue must be further investigated, he stated – and the statute on servants (or most parts of it) survived for another hundred years.

Lars Magnusson

  1. P. Virrankoski, Anders Chydenius: Demokratisk politiker i upplysningens tid, Stockholm: Timbro, 1995, p. 306.
  2. See B. Harnesk, Legofolk: Drängar, pigor och bönder i 1700- och 1800-talens Sverige, Umeå Studies in the Humanities 96, Umeå, 1990, p. 32f.
  3. G. Utterström, Jordbrukets arbetare: Levnadsvillkor och arbetsliv på landsbygden frånfrihetstiden till mitten av 1800-talet, del I, Stockholm: Tidens förlag, 1957, p. 249.
  4. The debate continued for at least another year after this, but Chydenius did not take part in it, although some of the later contributions were directly addressed to him. Every contribution to the debate by Chydenius and eleven contributions by his opponents are published in Anders Chydenius Samlade skrifter, Vol. 3. and on the Swedish web pages.
  5. A.W. Coats, “Changing Attitudes to Labour in the Mid­Eighteenth Century”, in A.W. Coats, On the History of Economic Thought: British and American Economic Essays, vol. 1, Routledge: London, 1992, p. 63f.
  6. Concerning Permanent Secretary Johan Liljencrants, see Anders Chydenius’s life and work/A kingdom in concordance, note 10.