This study investigates the prior conditions for and content of political radicalism at the end of the Swedish Age of Liberty (1719–1772). In the first part of the article it is argued that, over the course of time, shifts in the balance of power between the different organs of government and in the interpretation of constitutional documents shaped a parliamentary and republican practice that provided what at the time were unique opportunities for political reforms. The radicalism, that became particularly evident in the 1760s was neither homogenous nor did it achieve hegemony, but its social foundation and dissemination have never been properly investigated. Nevertheless, it seems clear that it gained ever growing support among the common estates, cutting across former boundaries between the political parties.
In the second part of the article, an analytical tool for political and social classification is proposed in which five issues are regarded as central to the radicals. They maintained: (1) that legislative and executive power was restrained by the will of the People; (2) that all citizens formed part of the legislative body and should be able to elect their representatives on equal terms; (3) that merit, not descent, should have precedence in all official appointments; (4) that social privileges should be abolished and that all citizens should have equal standing before the law; and (5) that the state should maintain law and order but otherwise intervene as little as possible in people’s lives. In a broader analysis, these five criteria should be handled in an ideal-typical manner. They seem to have formed the core of the radical agenda, although different solutions were put forward by different politicians on each and every issue.
The third part of this essay briefly discusses the possible uniqueness of the Swedish experience. Besides political developments, there were also conceptual and social factors behind the turn to radicalism. These were part of a general European trend, however, as were many of the specific ideas advanced. But the Swedish parliamentary system, it is argued, in which the three common estates could outvote the nobility, provided unique opportunities to realize the radical agenda. The step-by-step abolition of aristocratic precedence and the propagation of civil and human rights was still in progress when king Gustav III staged his coup d’état in 1772 and managed to restore royal power. The nobility, which had generally been among the king’s most ardent opponents during the Age of Liberty, now supported the monarch in order to salvage their privileges. Within a couple of decades, however, under the sheer force of social and political upheaval, the king had to reintroduce many of the progressive reforms he had abolished at the beginning of his reign.
Atlantis, Stockholm , 2003. 55–72, 357–359- p.