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Denmark - 1814-1849 - Assemblies and Constitution

Following the Peace of Kiel, the Danish monarchy comprised just four parts: The kingdom of Denmark (including the Faeroe Isands, Iceland and Greenland) and the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and (later) Lauenburg. Denmark was reduced to a small state and was forced to fall into line with the wishes of the great powers. The colonies in India and Africa were sold in 1845 and 1850. The Faeroe Islands and Greenland were governed from Copenhagen, while a consultative Alting was reintroduced in Iceland in 1843. In 1874, the Alting assumed responsibility for all legislative matters.

The period which followed the Napoleonic Wars was marked by stagnation. The war had badly affected the economy; trade and shipping showed a pronounced decline and after the State Bankruptcy in 1813 inflation rose sharply. The latter problem was solved to a certain extent when the National Bank in Copenhagen became the sole note-issuing bank in 1818. Agriculture was hit by British import duties on corn and, from 1818 onwards, by a marked fall in prices. The situation was eventually stabilised at the end of the 1820s, and by the 1830s agriculture began to prosper once again. The success of the farming community slowly began to affect business in the towns.

In 1815, Holstein had been promised a consultative assembly, and following the July Revolution in France in 1830, the duchies finally began to demand the introduction of a Schleswig-Holstein assembly. In order to keep its promise to Holstein, while still maintaining the unity of the kingdom, the government of Frederik VI decided in 1831 to introduce the Consultative Provincial Assemblies in Holstein, Schleswig, Jutland and the islands.

Only those in possession of property were eligible to vote or sit on the assemblies, leaving only three groups: Landowners, landlords in the towns and property- owners in the country, i.e. those who owned the larger farms. Regardless of censorship, a public political debate, which was partly conducted through the newspapers, began to take shape.

The consultative assemblies first met in 1835-1836 and together with the government, they introduced a system of local self-government in Copenhagen (1837), as well as in the market towns (1840) and the rural municipalities (1841) and a revised Customs Act in 1838.

Generally speaking, the assemblies wanted control over state finances and urged the government to practice strict economy; the peasants wanted the agricultural reforms to continue and the liberals, with the help of the academics and the businessmen, wanted a more liberal economy, greater freedom of the press and more influence for the constitutional assemblies.

The 1840s were a period of great upheaval in Denmark. Both the urban and the rural population became more involved in the affairs of society. The national conflict in the duchies worsened, and in the 1840s the liberal opposition became The National Liberals. During the same period, the economic boom took hold for good. Agriculture was still the country’s principal industry but industrialisation slowly began to appear, particularly in Copenhagen. Great Britain became the main market for agricultural products from Denmark, and the terms of trade between the two countries developed positively for many years, particularly as far as agriculture was concerned.

Around the same time, a peasant movement began to stir in Zealand and on the islands of Lolland and Falster. The peasants wanted something done about the existing ties between the landowners and the tenants. These demands overshadowed all other business at the consultative assembly held in Roskilde in 1844, and in November 1845, the government felt compelled to issue Bondecirkulæret (the Peasants’ Bill) in order to restrict the political activities of the peasants. The bill brought the peasants, who had until then been loyal to the king, closer to the National Liberals. Bondevennernes Selskab (the Society of Friends of the Peasants) was set up in 1846 to promote the cause of the peasants.

When Christian VIII ascended the throne in 1839, the country had great expectations; as king of Norway he had introduced the constitutional monarchy in 1814 through the Eidsvoll constitution. As king of Denmark, however, he refused to acknowledge any limitations to his absolute power. He did, however, introduce administrative reforms and appointed the moderate liberal A.S. Ørsted as prime minister in 1842.

But political developments slowly brought a realisation that absolutism would not survive the accession of a new king. Christian VIII therefore prepared a number of constitutional changes before his death, and the National Constitutional Assembly was formed after an election on 5 October 1848. The ensuing debates on a free constitution lasted many months, but on 5 June 1849 Frederik VII was finally able to sign Denmark’s first constitution, commonly known as the June Constitution.

In democratic terms, the document was well ahead of its time in guaranteeing the civic rights of the people and introducing a bicameral system (the Folketing and the Landsting) which gave all men the right to vote, though with certain restrictions in the case of the Landsting. It was already possible to discern the main political divide between those who were sympathetic to the political claims of the peasants on the one side, and the National Liberals and other moderates on the other.

From the very first meetings of the Rigsdag (parliament), the peasants’ representatives appeared to be forming a united party. This was not the case for the other representatives: At the centre was a large group of liberals who appeared to have no real party structure, but had gathered round a number of prominent figures, including D.G. Monrad. The group was very heterogeneous but did include a large number of academics. To the right of them was a smaller group of older civil servants and landowners who were against the constitution.

The economy was liberalised around the middle of the 19th century. The Trade Act of 1857 eliminated the old division between town and country. The Sound Tolls were abolished the same year, and the Customs Act of 1863 was introduced as a moderately liberal reform. Work on the railways and the telegraph plants took off during the 1850s, gasworks were built in the larger towns and in 1857 C.F. Tietgen founded Privatbanken, the first modern-day Danish bank of commerce.

The main political issue of the peasants’ party was the abolition of the old system of tenure. In 1861, however, this merely led to a number of modifications in the law relating to tenants and landowners. On the other hand, the standard of living of both small and big farmers improved considerably.



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