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Denmark - 1720-1814 - Long Peace and Short War

The peace in 1720 marked the end of the last Dano-Swedish war, and the time up to the war with Britain 1807-1814 was the longest period of peace that Denmark has ever enjoyed. The first years of peace were dominated by the struggle to repay the debts of war, combined with a serious agricultural crisis. The population of the kingdom, however, rose slowly from around 700,000 in 1720 to 978,000 in 1807 and reached approximately 1 million in 1814, when peace reigned once again. Around 1750 the general European boom reached Denmark in the shape of increasing demands for agricultural products and tonnage.

The boom created the basis for the flourishing overseas trade and shipping under Danish neutrality during the wars between the great powers. But Denmark’s exploitation of its neutral position brought the country into open conflict with Britain in 1801. The boom also affected the mentality and attitude of the people. A Danish national identity began to emerge amongst the bourgeoisie, and the tension between Danish and German took hold. The notions of freedom and equality which were discussed during the Age of Enlightenment made educated Danes question the divine right of kings even before news of the French Revolution in 1789 reached Denmark.

The foreign policy which safeguarded the State and the peace was not without its problems. Even though Sweden had been reduced to a power on a level with Denmark-Norway in 1720, Denmark dropped any further plans to regain the provinces east of the Sound by military means. With the Oath of Fealty from 1721, Frederik IV brought the Gottorp parts of Schleswig under Danish rule, but it required a long, intensive diplomatic and political effort to solve the Gottorp issue to Denmark’s satisfaction.

It did not happen until 1773 with the treaty on the exchange of land, in which the Duke of Gottorp renounced his Schleswig holdings and exchanged his parts of Holstein with Oldenburg, the native land of the Danish dynasty. In 1772, however, Gustav III’s coup d’état in Sweden created far more serious problems for the united Danish-Norwegian state. The Swedish royal powers were now much stronger and the country began a concentrated campaign to acquire Norway.

In 1773, Denmark reacted by entering into The Eternal Alliance with Russia. The alliance, which bound both countries to guard the territory of the other, put Denmark in a subservient position and forced it to conduct a foreign policy which did not interfere with vital Russian interests. The alliance did, however, provide Denmark with the protection it needed right up to the closing phase of the Napoleonic Wars in 1812; and until 1807, the Danish government was able to concentrate its efforts and its resources on a policy of neutrality which greatly benefited Danish trade and shipping.

Absolutism had a solid constitutional foundation in the Hereditary Monarchy Act of 1661 and Kongeloven (the Royal Law or Lex Regia) of 1665, and its principles were incorporated in Danske Lov (Danish Law) in 1683. As a political system, the Danish absolutism changed in line with society. Frederik IV could still run his kingdom like a thrifty landowner; under Christian VI, however, the actual political leadership began to shift from the king to the ministers in the council. In practical terms, Frederik V handed over the political power to his Lord High Steward, A.G. Moltke, who ruled the country in agreement with the ministers. Crisis struck the monarchy when those closest to the King realised that the young Christian VII was mad. His physician J.F. Struensee, who was also the Queen’s lover, seized all power in 1770 and ruled the country through cabinet orders which were signed by the King or issued with his consent.

Struensee was overthrown and executed in 1772, and the King was made to set up a new political institution, the State Council, where the monarch was to hear the advice of his ministers on all matters before reaching any decision. This system remained in force until the fall of absolutism in 1848. Behind the scenes, however, the real power shifted between the Court, the Cabinet and the Council of State.

The young crown prince Frederik (VI) seized power after a coup in 1784 with the express intention of weakening the Court and the Cabinet and strengthening the Council of State. At the end of the 1790s, however, Frederik changed to a Cabinet government which lasted until 1814 when the Council of State was re-established, this time permanently.

The officials working within the central administration slowly began to acquire real political influence, but it was characteristic of Danish absolutism that the large rural population never saw the king’s officials locally. In order to function, the monarchy had delegated responsibility for the collection of taxes and for conscription and, to a large extent, law enforcement to the Danish landowners. It was only towards the end of the 18th century when the agricultural reforms were introduced that the absolute monarch ceased delegating responsibility and began to establish a system of local administration with participation by the people.

The country’s economy underwent steady growth during the first 50 years of the long period of peace. The economic institutions were gradually modernised and a sound basis was created for the boom and the agricultural reforms which were to follow. Agricultural production rose in line with the slow increase in the population. During the agricultural crisis of the 1730s, however, the absolute monarch supported the landowners to the detriment of the tenant farmers.

Adscription was introduced in 1733, tying the farm workers to the place where they were born and preventing men from leaving the estates without the permission of the landowners. The official reason for the introduction of adscription was that manpower was required for the militia, but the system also provided landowners with cheap labor. The government turned a blind eye as the practice of villeinage became increasingly common, not only during the agricultural crisis but also during the ensuing boom.

A number of institutions were set up by the government around this time: Kommercekollegiet (the Board of Trade) in 1735, Kurantbanken (the first note-issuing bank) in 1736 and the Merchant’s Guild in 1742. These were all intended as instruments for the economic control of the urban society in line with the mercantilist philosophy of the time. This economic control by means of subsidies, privileges and monopolies was gradually abolished at the end of the 18th century as new enterprises were able to function independently and a liberalist policy proved more appropriate.

The extensive agricultural reforms introduced during the last 35 years of the long period of peace revolutionised the farming system. The mediaeval open-field system was abolished in all the 5,000 or so villages, and the fields cultivated by the individual farms were now collected into a single parcel of land. Around 15,000 farms out of a total of almost 60,000 were torn down and rebuilt on the new holdings, and almost half of all tenant farmers bought their holdings and became freeholders. The restructuring was mostly initiated by the landowners and tenant farmers themselves who felt that this change was vital if the agricultural output was to be increased.

The government took a back seat in the whole process, partly out of respect for the landowners’ right of ownership and disposal, and partly because the government was unable to provide a great deal of loan capital for the tenant farmers wishing to buy their own properties. The government’s most important contribution was the legal protection it provided for those who stayed on as tenant farmers.

At the time, there is little doubt that the nation considered the abolition of adscription in 1788 the most important of all the agricultural reforms. The freedom-loving, landowner-hating bourgeoisie of Copenhagen, made up of merchants and officials, marked the event by erecting Friheds-støtten (the Liberty Memorial) in the capital. The restructuring had many important long-term effects: It broke the old feudal ties between the landowners and the land users, and it created the new independent, self-sufficient farming class and thus the sharp distinction between the rural middle classes and the lower class made up of smallholders and farm workers.

The flourishing years of Danish overseas trade brought prosperity to many, particularly in Copenhagen, and thereby created a new political self-awareness. This wealth was the product of a number of factors: The international boom in trade and shipping; the nation's policy of neutrality which meant that Danish ships were in great demand on the oceans; the huge quantities of overseas goods which were channelled through Copenhagen to the European markets; the income from shipping under the neutral Danish flag.

One particular branch of overseas trade concerned the transport of slaves from Africa to the West Indies. The Danish king created an international sensation when he banned the Danes from taking part in this traffic in human beings in 1792. In actual fact, however, the king had merely taken a conscious economic decision to halt a trade which the big powers would have forced Denmark to stop anyway.

In the 18th century, the nation’s freedom of expression was limited by official censorship and the self-censorship which most authors exercised so as not to fall out of favour with the country’s leaders and the patrons of the arts. Censorship went against the free exchange of ideas advocated by the Age of Enlightenment, however, and was very leniently enforced under Frederik V. Nevertheless, Struensee caused a stir in Europe when he had Christian VII abolish censorship completely at the stroke of a pen in 1770.

Legislation introduced during the ensuing years stated clearly that authors were responsible for what they wrote, and that the printers would be held responsible if they printed anything that had been written anonymously. Denmark nevertheless enjoyed near total freedom of expression during the last 15 years of the 18th century, and controversial topics such as religion, the Church, absolutism and the structure of society were relatively openly discussed.

The debate was conducted in the newspapers and periodicals and in the clubs; it was during these years that terms such as the King were replaced by the State and subject by citizen. This phenomenon has been described as opinion-led absolutism. In 1799, those in power lost their patience and imposed strict limits on the freedom of expression, and during the war with Britain in 1807-1814 censorship was reintroduced.

In 1780, the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory sold a group of figures in memory of the Right of Citizenship of 1776. In keeping with the autocracy ideology of the autocratic state, the united native land is represented by a mother with her three equally loved children: Denmark, Norway and Holstein.

A national identity began to develop already in the middle of the 18th century, which is fairly early compared to the rest of Europe. It had previously only been those in power who identified themselves with their native country and its history, whereas ordinary citizens thought no further than the town, the parish and the region.

As early as the 1740s, however, the young well-educated sons of the middle class had begun to identify themselves with their nation, its language and its history, both in intellectual and emotional terms. This was partly a reaction against the foreign aristocracy at the Court and in government, and against the Danish aristocracy who adopted the language and culture of the foreigners and openly regarded Denmark as a culturally underdeveloped country.

The revolt against Struensee was partly provoked by his German language and his foreign birth. The group which overthrew him in 1772 consciously sought to stabilise their own power through a Danish and conservative policy. This nationalism culminated in 1776 with the Law of Indigenous Rights which made it illegal for anyone but Danish citizens to hold a government post.

The law was also an attempt to stem the conflicts which had begun to emerge between the Danish, Norwegian and German members of the population by deliberately instilling a sense of patriotism towards the conglomerate state. It proved impossible to put an end to the hostility between Danes and Germans, however, and in the autumn of 1789 the situation came to a head with the so-called German Feud which definitely made anti-German sentiments a regrettable, but very real, part of the Danish early identity.

The war came in 1807 when Britain attacked Denmark, bombarded Copenhagen and sailed away with the entire Danish fleet. Denmark had already provoked Britain in 1798 by letting her warships act as escort vessels providing protection for the many, not always strictly neutral, activities which were conducted under the Danish flag.

In July 1800, the convoy conflict gave rise to the Freya affair, in which Britain forced Denmark to put an end to the convoys. When Denmark then sought the help of Russia and entered into the League of Armed Neutrality in December 1800, Britain responded with war. On 2 April 1801, Admiral Nelson defeated the Danish line of defence in the Sound off the capital during the Battle of Copenhagen. Under threat of bombardment from the British ships in the Sound, Britain forced Denmark to suspend its membership of the League of Armed Neutrality and relinquish its policy of offensive neutrality.

The British attack in 1807 was designed to prevent Napoleon from gaining control of the Danish navy and thus putting him in a position to cut off Britain’s vital Baltic trade. Denmark then allied herself with Napoleon and joined the Continental System. In 1808 a French-Spanish auxiliary corps came to Denmark, and, trying to keep themselves warm, Spanish soldiers accidentally burnt Koldinghus (Castle of Kolding) to the ground. However, the situation in Spain changed and on 2 May 1808 Spain rose in rebellion against Napoleon.

Thus, in the summer of 1808, 9,000 of the 13,000 soldiers of the Spanish corps under General la Romana were brought back to Spain with the help of the English navy in order to fight against Napoleon. Despite the efforts of the Danish gunboats and privateers, Denmark did not succeed in blocking the passage of the strong British convoys through Danish straits. The result of the war was the State Bankruptcy in 1813, and at the Peace of Kiel the following year Frederik VI had to cede Norway to the king of Sweden.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2013 18:53:45 ZULU