Professor Mestad works at the Centre for Advanced Study (CAS) at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, along with other researchers in the fields of law and history. The members of his research group are studying the historical process that led to Norway gaining its own constitution 200 years ago.
Drawing on experience
A number of other countries experienced dramatic revolutions and the transformation of their societies, and many of the constitutions that were drafted in North America and Europe between 1776 and 1814 were revolutionary. The Norwegian constitution was the last of the revolutionary constitutions of this period, but it was drawn up in peaceful conditions. However, it did not arise out of a vacuum.
- The Norwegian Constitution contains elements of both the US Constitution and the French Constitution. It was based on other countries’ experience of drawing up constitutions. It was the last in a wave of revolutionary constitutions in the years leading up to 1815, when monarchy once again became dominant in Europe, Professor Mestad explains.
The Norwegian citizens who were selected to draw up the Constitution, and became known as the “men of Eidsvoll”, had learned from the mistakes that had been made in other countries. This, in Professor Mestad’s view, is one reason why the Norwegian Constitution has endured as well as it has.
A national symbol
- The relationship between the Crown and the national assembly was balanced in such a way that the Storting was to have the final word. Norway did not have its own unifying and absolute monarch at the time. The Constitution became a permanent national symbol, in the same way as in the US, says Mestad.
The Americans had led the way with their Universal Declaration of Independence in 1776. When the 13 separate states became the United States and adopted the Constitution in 1787, a centre of power came into being that included defence and banking systems. The men of Eidsvoll knew this.
According to the story that is often told, a shipowner from Bergen, Peter Greve Bredahl, brought a copy of the American Constitution home with him after a trip to Baltimore. He sent this to the men of Eidsvoll, with the message that they could send the text on to Norway’s newly established university.
Liberty, security and property
The first draft of the Norwegian Constitution, written by Johan Gunder Adler and Christian Magnus Falsen, began along these lines:
“All people are born free and equal: they have certain natural, essential and imprescriptible rights. These are liberty, security and property."
According to Professor Mestad, Adler and Falsen built on the American Constitution in that the Lagting and the Odelsting are equivalent to the two chambers in Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate. But the French Constitution of 1791 also inspired the men of Eidsvoll. This combined revolutionary ideas with a ruling monarch.
- While the French Constitution begins with a flowery introduction about human rights, the Norwegian one is more practical from a legal point of view, Professor Mestad points out.
Sovereignty of the people
Hostilities between England and Sweden on one side and Denmark–Norway on the other came to an end in 1814, and Denmark–Norway, lost. Sweden demanded Norway in compensation for its loss of Finland to Russia. This was settled under the Treaty of Kiel, which was signed on 14 January. The Danish King transferred sovereignty over Norway to Sweden, but at the same time released the Norwegian people from their oath to the king. This is the reason why events developed as they did in Norway in 1814.
- When the King released the Norwegian people from their oath to the king, sovereignty returned to the people. The absolute monarchy of Denmark–Norway was based on the idea that sovereignty was originally, in 1660–61, transferred from the people to the monarch.
In Professor Mestad’s view, Denmark–Norway considered that the basis for its absolute monarchy meant that the Danish King could not hand over Norway without the people’s consent.
A new opportunity
Towards the end of January 1814, news of the Treaty of Kiel reached Norway, and sparked the Norwegian independence movement. Norwegians spotted the opportunity to draw up their own constitution. They did not agree to their country being transferred to the Swedish King and elected Danish Prince Christian Fredrik as Norwegian King at the assembly convened in Eidsvoll. Not long after, Swedish troops attacked Norway. On 14 August, the Swedish King and the Norwegian Storting signed a ceasefire agreement known as the Moss Convention. Christian Fredrik promised to withdraw and to give up the crown at a special session of Storting, which was held in October.
No right of veto
In 1821, the King of the Swedish–Norwegian union, Karl Johan, wanted to make certain amendments to the Constitution. He wanted to introduce an absolute right of veto on legislation and the right to dissolve the Storting. He also wanted the right to dismiss all civil servants, except for judges, and to award hereditary titles. The Storting refused.
Right up until 1905 the original Constitution remained virtually unchanged.
- It was the fact that the King did not have the right of veto that paved the way for the introduction of parliamentarianism in 1884 within the framework of the existing Constitution. This was the starting point for the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905, says Professor Mestad.