Saturday, 3 June 2017

Gustav III of Sweden: An 'Enlightened Absolutist'?

In its traditional form 'Enlightened Absolutism' refers to the idea that in the second-half of the 18th century the domestic policies of most European states were influenced by the Enlightenment. Government now became a systematic and rational attempt to apply new knowledge to the task of ruling, whereas the improvement of educational opportunities, social conditions and economic life became a priority of rulers. The term first arose to prominence in historical writing in the 1930s and for a generation was largely accepted by the scholarly community. However, by the 1960s the term came under increasing criticism,  for its practical impact as a top-down policy, the importance it places on the monarch in governance and as an attempt of the ruling elite to promote stability in the face of increased unrest throughout the period 1763-89. In the 1970s and 1980s the term was steadily redeemed to an extent in scholarship, most notably in the work of Anderson, who stated that he was willing to admit the enlightened intentions, if not the achievements of many rulers. This post shall engage with this debate by assessing whether Gustav III of Sweden (1771-1792) can be used to support or dismiss the idea of 'Enlightened Absolutism'.

Gustav III of Sweden

The first traces of Enlightenment ideals that may have influenced Gustav III can be seen in his youth. His mother, Lovisa Ulrika, sister of Frederick the Great, was interested in the scientific, philosophical and aesthetic trends of the day. In particularly, she admired the work of Voltaire, who she had known in Potsdam. At the age of four, Count Carl Gustav Tessin was appointed as his governor, teaching Gustav the classical ideals of 17th century France. His history tutor Olof von Daln, known as the 'Voltaire of the North, undermined much of the effect of the conventional piety of Tessin.  Sweden in Gustav's youth was in its 'Age of Liberty', an era which increased parliamentary control and therefore once the Estates began to suspect Tessin and Dalin's political principles they replaced them with Count Carl Fredrik Scheffer.

In 1766, Gustav married the Danish princess, Sophia Magadalena, established his own court and began to take a role in politics. From this period onwards we see an increasingly autocratic strain in Gustav's thought. In 1766, he also prepared a rough constitutional draft with a preference for strong kingship. Scheffer, now also disillusioned with the parliamentary politics of Sweden, introduced Gustav to Le Mercier de la Rivière's L'Ordre naturel in 1767. This work argued that competing and particular interest prevented just and efficient government, only a hereditary sovereign with unlimited power could uphold the common good while protecting the legitimate rights of each class.

By March 1768, Gustav drafted a second constitution. Encouraged by the duc de Choiseul in the hope of French aid, this was the beginning of Gustav's attempts to seize power through a coup. However, any attempt to stage a coup would have required the cooperation of the Hats, one of the main political parties alongside the Caps, who were currently out of office and searching for political retribution. To gain the support of the Hats, Gustav made some concessions with his ideology and sought to show this through another speculative constitution. It now stated that a separation of powers should exist, but it still provided for a greatly strengthened monarchy. At the same time Gustav became more immersed in the works of the Enlightenment. Catalogs in the Royal Library in Stockholm show how he quickly acquired the latest works, whereas Gustav's personal correspondence shows some degree of exchange with the philosophes.

                                      L'Ordre Naturel by Le Mercier de la Rivière

The opportunity to seize power finally came as the Swedish Estates entered into political chaos in 1772. The three lower estates began a concerted attack against noble privileges, through the Riksdag and also through an intense period of pamphleteering. Gustav had already previously played at mediating, most notably between the Hats and the Caps at the Riksdag of 1771-72, and so the crises provided a perfect opportunity to increase his power, On 19 August 1772, gained consent from the assembled Estates for a new constitution which strengthened the monarch's power greatly, Gustav III had succeeded in his coup. However, how far can the early stages of Gustav's reign be characterised as autocratic? The new constitution itself proclaimed adbhorrence for despotic power, despite in the detail actually increasing it. Furthermore, the ambiguity of parts of the document seemed to not put too much focus on either the monarch or parliament. The King himself proclaimed that he wished to restablish the constitution of Gustav II Adolf, which in his view included the rallying of the Estates, with the nobility at the head based around the King. It is therefore, clear that at this stage Gustav III can hardly be called an absolutist.

Can Gustav III said to be have been seen following Enlightenment ideals in the early part of his reign? His reception in intellectual circles in Europe seems to have been mixed, Voltaire sent congratulations writing a poem entitled "Young and worthy heir to the name of Gustav. However, Raynal condemned the Swedes for accepting from their monarch rather than imposing on him in the  second edition of his Histoire des deux Indes (1774). Whereas, after dissolving the Riksdag following the regime change he embarked on numerous programmes with the aim of economic and social improvement. The civil administration was improved through the purges of corrupt and inefficient officials, whereas peasant landholdings were consolidated alongside the reclamation and settlement of uncultivated lands. The Order of the Vasa was set up to encourage merit in agriculture, commerce, mining and the arts. The introduction of  a 'Swedish dress' in 1778 sought restrain luxury, reducing expensive imports. Gustav III also took on the notion of an 'enlightened' ruler through some of his humanistic reforms. He immediately abolished torture and penalties on the whole were reduced in severity. In 1781, he proclaimed limited toleration for non-Lutherans, including Roman Catholics. However, Gustav also increased the censorship of the press, particularly in relation to criticism of the monarch himself. Many of Gustav's reforms could also be seen as political maneuvers, his economic reforms would have especially pleased the lower estates who had previously been problematic in the political crisis before he seized power. Gustav III therefore seems to fit the 'Enlightened' part of the model used by historians, to a certain degree.

                Swedish warships being fitted in 1778 for the Russo-Swedish War (1778-1790)

Gustav's reform programme however began to encounter difficulty with the Riksdag of 1778-79, there was increasing criticism of his regime and his opposition to further religious and penal changes also resulted in a degree of discontent. He also began to display growing disillusionment with the Parisian philosophic world, complaining that philosophy generalises everything and that the philosophic-democratic spirit that was prevailing was contrary to his principles. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that Gustav had turned against Enlightenment ideals as a whole. While attending a Christmas mass at St Peter's in Rome he publicised the toleration of Catholics in Sweden. To foreign visitors, such as William Coxe and Francisco de Miranda, he continued to point out the enlightened benefits of his reign: hospitals, prisons, dockyards and canals. His criticisms therefore were directed at certain philosophers, rather than the application of philosophical ideals as a whole,  Gustav also became increasingly absolutist, in 1779 he progressively increased restrictions on the freedom of the press. Yet, the continual increased  in royal power came at cost in the form of increased aristocratic opposition. This generally stemmed from the old Swedish constitutional traditions, but some was based on some of the anti-despotic ideals that came out of the Enlightenment, For example, Locke's social contract or Voltaire's condemnation of the irresponsible tyranny of Charles XII. The ideas of those such as Paine and Rousseau also had an influence on the Swedish aristocracy. The crisis point came with Gustav's declaration of war on Russia, currently at war with the Ottoman Empire, in 1788, violating his own constitution that stated an offensive war required the consent of the Estates.

The rebellious Anjala Confederation, charging Gustav with the breaking of social contract, appealed to Catherine II of Russia and drafted new constitutions which aimed to decrease royal power. Denmark also declared war on Sweden, due to her alliance with Russia, but this rallied the Danophobic and anti-aristocratic passions of the masses. Therefore, once the Danes were repelled, the nobility was isolated and was branded with treason. Ironically, the rebellion gave Gustav the opportunity to increased autocratic powers further. In late 1789 he called a Riksdag and with the support of the three lower Estates forced through an Act of Union and Security. This abolished most noble privileges, while increasing greatly the power of the crown. Can the Act of Union be used to call Gustav an 'absolutist'? This does not seem the case on the whole and seems that the extremity of it was seen as a temporary measure. Although, he renounced France's republican system following the Revolution, he became particularly interested in Delomle's Constitution de'l Angleterre. The influenced of this can perhaps seen when he was forced to call a Riksdag in 1792, where he planned another coup to introduce a constitution based on the English one. A upperhouse of 24 'jarls' alongside a lower house of 240 elected by the people (of course with both roles having high property qualifications). However, Gustav did not try to implement the idea at the Riksdag, the atmosphere during it persuaded him otherwise.

                                                  Pope Pius VI and Gustav III

The case of Gustav III of Sweden shows the limitations of using the term 'Enlightened Absolutism'. In terms of matching the 'Enlightened' part of the definition he seems to have been personally inspired by philosophical trends at the time, especially those which matched with his political principles. But, his opinions were open to change, as seen in his increased criticism of the Parisian intellectual community following the Riksdag of 1778-79. His economic and social reforms could also be said to fit the notion of an 'Enlightened' ruler, but it is difficult to discern whether these were for cynical political usage or as a result of personal belief. It is also difficult to match Gustav III wholly to the 'Absolutist' part of the definition. Although, his reign did see a general increase in authoritarian power, he was certainly open to concession. The Act of Union and Security can be seen as a measure to solve a temporary political crisis, whereas the constitution following the coup of 1772 can be said to have allowed enough to space to gradually increase the power of the monarch, without the dangers of over emphasis. Therefore, Gustav III's reign was much more complex and subject to change than the term 'Enlightened Absolutism' would suggest.


Barton, H. Arnold. "Gustav III of Sweden and the Enlightenment." Eighteenth-Century Studies 6, no. 1 (1972): 1-34.

Scott, Hamish. M. Enlightened Absolutism: Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe. University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Image Credit goes to WikiCommons

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