Implementing Freedom of the Press in Eighteenth-Century Scandinavia: Perspectives on a Surprising Lack of Transnationalism
Ulrik Langen, Jonas Nordin and Frederik Stjernfelt
Only a few years apart in the late 1700s, the kingdom of Sweden and the dual monarchy of Denmark‒Norway introduced freedom of the press. These were unique experiences in many ways, even in a global comparison. The result of the liberation of the press was similar in the two cases: a tremendous increase in political pamphleteering led to an intensified and radicalised political discourse. The initial enthusiasm was followed by more ambiguous attitudes, and within a few years freedom of the press was once again restricted. In both cases, however, it proved difficult to close Pandora’s box once opened, and the short periods of freedom of the press proved to have long-lasting effects in both Denmark‒Norway and Sweden.
Many observers would probably expect interdependence between these two experiences but, as we aim to demonstrate, it is more a matter of historical coincidence or parallelism than mutual inspiration between the two cases. The constitutional framing of these countries was nearly dichotomous at the time, and this created very different roles for public discourse. Furthermore, for political and historical reasons, references to the neighbouring realm were often regarded with suspicion in either context. If anything, these two cases and their varying conditions may serve to prove how rapidly freedom of expression had become a core question in the European Enlightenment, whether ‘moderate’ or ‘radical’, in the course of the eighteenth century. Many of the central ideas and arguments were already framed around the beginning of the century. The traditional notion that freedom of speech was an idea born with the American and French revolutions has long been abandoned by historians, but we still need local case studies to see how this concept converged and diverged and was instantiated in very different ways and contexts, both diachronically and synchronically, before the Age of Revolutions.1 See, e.g., E. Powers (ed.), Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea (Lewisburg, 2011); on ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ Enlightenment, see J. Israel’s contribution in ibid.
This chapter highlights the different paths to freedom of the press in the two states and discusses the surprising lack of connection and mutual discussion between the two parallel initiatives. We focus on the limited periods of press freedom in the strictest sense (1766–72 and 1770–3 respectively) in order to highlight the sudden stimulation of literary citizenship brought about by the introduction of freedom of the press in Sweden and Denmark‒Norway.
1      See, e.g., E. Powers (ed.), Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea (Lewisburg, 2011); on ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ Enlightenment, see J. Israel’s contribution in ibid»