The foundation of the welfare state
Autumn 1660 marks a turning point in the efforts to abolish absolute monarchy in Denmark. The event was an Assembly of the Estates of the Realm in Copenhagen. The nobility, the bourgeoisie and the clergy all took part; peasants were not invited. The assembly was called to rectify the kingdom’s financial situation after the Swedish Wars had left it in tatters. Non-noble Estates, not least the Copenhagen bourgeoisie, saw themselves as the heroes of the Swedish Wars, and the nobility as the goats. And for this reason, the meeting was held under a pall of mutual mistrust.
Common front against the nobility
During the meeting, the bourgeoisie, the clergy and royal cliques interested in undermining the nobility banded together to form a common front. The alliance proposed hereditary monarchy to replace the system of elected kings. With the military also supporting the proposal, the nobility had little choice but to accept. Representatives from the Estates left it up to the king to draw up a new constitution. Presumably, the bourgeoisie and the clergy had a system in mind that would give them a say in government, but the king had other ideas. In January 1661, a bill was put forth proposing not just hereditary, but absolute, monarchy. In 1665, the King Act – the constitution of the absolute monarchs – was passed and remained in effect until the current constitution replaced it in 1848.
The period of absolute monarchy brought with it widespread changes. The nobles’ Council of State was abolished. Their solitary right to own estates was repealed, as was their monopoly on senior positions in the bureaucracy and the officer corps. Henceforth, such privileges were open to anyone the king saw fit, regardless of class. The king also made it his right to ennoble anyone. Landlords retained significant privileges, but the right to be a landlord was no longer the sole right of the nobility. Suspicion fell on the old noble families for plotting to reinstate the rule of the nobles, and they found themselves being overlooked to the benefit of the middle classes and foreign-born nobles. The new social order was underscored by a complex rank system for the new monarchy that placed service to the state above hereditary peerage.
A royal dilemma
But it was one thing to have been granted absolute power, exercising that power was another question entirely. All absolute monarchs faced the same dilemma: decide personally in all cases and face losing track of them, or concentrate on the overarching issues and hand over some of their absolute power. Some kings came close to deciding everything on their own; some had the support of councillors. But during the 18th century, the bureaucracy had become so established that it was impossible for the king to decide unilaterally. The development was partly made necessary due to the incompetence of two kings – Frederik V and the mad King Christian VII. Christian’s reign undermined national stability – particularly during the de facto regency of royal physician Johan Friedrich Struensee (1770-1772). Christian’s son, the later King Frederik VI, took over as prince regent in 1784, returning stability to the kingdom.
The absolute monarchy was the child of the security and financial troubles created by the Swedish Wars. For that reason, during the first century of absolute monarchy the goal was to rebuild the military and maintain domestic tranquillity. The absolute monarch organised the governing structure by establishing “colleges” (ministries) that were headed by a board who discussed all matters before making a decision. The first decades of absolute monarchy saw a number of important reforms – including the Danish Law of 1683 declaring Denmark a single, coherent legislative area, and the registration of agricultural land according to yield as a way to calculate taxes. During the early part of the first century of absolute monarchy, landlords dominated local administration after they were granted authority to collect taxes and conscript soldiers.
The absolute monarchs initially looked to large-scale agriculture as the engine of the national economy, but during the 18th century, townsmen began to play an increasing role. By the mid century, the king was no longer seeking to maintain the old order. Instead, the Crown sought to implement reforms and promote public welfare. Best known are the agricultural reforms of the period, but modernisation also led to the implementation of mandatory education in 1814 as well as a number of other reforms that affected daily life. Struensee abolished censorship in 1770, and even though restrictions were later re-enacted, the guidelines for public discourse were unusually broad – even if the king remained out of bounds. Because of the reformist tendencies of the period, it became known as the age of the enlightened or the opinionated absolute monarchy.
“We alone know”
By 1799 freedom of expression had been reined in significantly. Not long after, Denmark was at war with England and then the state went bankrupt in 1813. The following decades were a period of severe economic crisis that saw reforms come to a halt. The popularity of King Frederik VI dwindled as people began to blame him for the problems. His reign came to be characterised by its somewhat presumptuous motto: “We alone know”. During the final year of his reign, Assemblies of the Estates of the Realm were established, and in 1837-41 self-governing rural and urban municipalities were introduced. Meanwhile, the liberal opposition gained momentum with its calls for a free constitution. And after Frederik’s death many believed his successor Christian VII would give it to them, since he had granted his Norwegian subjects a free constitution in 1814. But Christian hesitated. It wasn’t until the end of his reign that the administration began the process of dismantling absolute monarchy. The events of 1848, however, overtook those plans.
The foundation of the welfare state
The legacy of the absolute monarchy was primarily a strong state with a centralised, well-developed bureaucracy. After 1848, that bureaucracy was co-opted by the new powers that be, and the development came to serve as the foundation for the Danish welfare model. Another legacy that lived on was the closed decision-making processes of the monarch’s administration. On the other hand, animosity towards the nobility and openness towards commoners had the unintended consequence that democracy in Denmark was implemented more easily than in other European countries.