The Age of Liberty – Linnaeus’ day

The period 1719–1772 in Swedish history is usually called the Age of Liberty. In this context, the word ‘freedom’ means freedom from absolute monarchy. Common people hardly noticed the difference, except that they were relieved of the great burdens brought about by the protracted wars. See further Linnaeus’ Sweden.

When Charles XII was killed at Fredrikshald, Norway, in 1718, there was no heir apparent, but in January the following year his younger sister Ulrika Eleonora was made regent. After only a year, however, she abdicated in favour of her husband Fredrik I. The weakness of the monarchy enabled the parliament—the four estates—to severely constrain the power of the regent. The king was not allowed to travel abroad without the consent of the estates, for example.

The government of Sweden during this period was called the council, and it answered to the parliament. To be sure, the king was the chair, but he lacked a majority of his own. The chancellery president, the equivalent of today’s prime minister and foremost among the council members, had at least as much power.

It is usually said, with some degree of accuracy, that the modern Swedish party system took shape during the Age of Liberty. Two parties, the Hats and the Caps, competed for power. Initially the Caps ruled, under the leadership of Chancellery President Arvid Horn, but in 1738 the Hats assumed power. The Hats—who advocated a more offensive foreign policy toward Russia and a strongly mercantilist economic policy—stayed in power until 1765. Toward the end of the Age of Liberty, power shifted hands more often.

To start with, the monarchy accepted its subordinate role, but in 1756 the new king Adolf Frederick and his queen Lovisa Ulrika attempted a coup d’état, which was thwarted. Seven coup conspirators were executed, and the influence of the monarchy was further diminished.

Adolf Frederick had to accept that the estates used a stamp with his signature to sign documents, so limited was his authority.

Adolf Frederick’s signature.

However, the growing conflicts between the parties in the late 1760s made more and more people place their hope in the monarchy as a unifying force. After a few months of planning, the new king, Gustav III carried out a bloodless revolution that spelled the end of the Age of Liberty. The year was 1772. In the royal propaganda the party system was blamed for splitting the nation and for not successfully dealing with poor crops and hunger. This ushered in a new period of Swedish history, the Gustavian Era. The climate for public debate changed, the freedom of expression charter that had been established in 1766 was curtailed, and Swedish natural history, which had blossomed during the Age of Liberty, now declined.

History’s picture of the Age of Liberty has not been univocal. Some, especially older, scholars have emphasized the fact that party strife splintered the country and that the parties were incapable of coping with the country’s problems. Others have claimed that the form of parliamentary government in existence then was a precursor of modern Swedish democracy.

Michael Roberts, 1986. The Age of Liberty: Sweden 1719–1772.
Sten Carlsson & Jerker Rosén, 1980. Svensk historia 2: Tiden efter 1718 (1th ed.1961).

Last modified: 2022-03-08