200 years of Norwegian Constitution celebrated

Event at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center pairs art and discussion of the document

Photo: Michael Kleiner The speakers during the debate: Ola Mestad, Jeffrey Rosen, and Kaare Strøm.

Photo: Michael Kleiner
The speakers during the debate: Ola Mestad, Jeffrey Rosen, and Kaare Strøm.

Michael Kleiner
Philadelphia, Penn.

Philadelphia is known as the birthplace of America. The Declaration of Independence was written and approved here in 1776, and the Constitution followed in 1787. Philadelphia houses the National Constitution Center. What many people don’t realize is the U.S. Constitution birthed the Norwegian Constitution at Eidsvoll 27 years later.

On October 22, in a joint venture of the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce-Philadelphia, the National Constitution Center, Norwegian Consul General in New York and Global Philadelphia, the 200th Anniversary of Norway’s Constitution was celebrated at the NCC. An exhibit featured paintings related to Norway’s Constitution by contemporary Norwegian artists Christopher Robert Glein, Sverre Bjertnæs, Bjørn Båsen and Inghild Karlsen. Their work and those of six other artists, and articles by 15 authors appears in a book, Red, White, and Blue: Norwegian Constitution, American Inspiration. It was published by Trond B. Olsen’s Art Pro Forlag AS in Drammen. A polite discussion took place between two authors of articles in the book, Kaare Strøm, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and Ola Mestad, professor of law at the University of Oslo. Jeffrey Rosen, Executive Director and CEO of the National Constitution Center, served as moderator.

Photo: Michael Kleiner The speakers pose for a photo after the debate. From L to R: Jeffrey Rosen, Executive Director and CEO, National Constitution Center; Ola Mestad, professor of law, University of Oslo; Kaare Strøm, professor of political science, University of California, San Diego.

Photo: Michael Kleiner
The speakers pose for a photo after the debate. From L to R: Jeffrey Rosen, Executive Director and CEO, National Constitution Center; Ola Mestad, professor of law, University of Oslo; Kaare Strøm, professor of political science, University of California, San Diego.

Olsen conceived the idea of an American-Norwegian celebration, and the connection to the U.S. Constitution. “The project was to promote the ideas of freedom projected in our Constitutions,” Olsen said during a presentation of the book and two Bjertnæs prints to Rosen. “The U.S. and Norwegian Constitutions speak to the right to life, free speech, religious freedom and due process of law. Jeffrey was enthusiastic and positive about the idea. We are thankful to your nation and to your center.”

“During a meeting at the New York Consul General’s office last Fall, we were talking about what plans Official Norway had for celebrating the Norwegian Constitution Bicentennial,” said NACC Philadelphia President Frode Kjersem. “I mentioned the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia as the perfect venue. The consulate staff then mentioned Trond’s project for the book, exhibition and the connection to the American constitution. We introduced Trond to Jeffrey Rosen.”

“It was a natural,” said Rosen. “We have a mission from Congress to provide information in a non-partisan way about the U.S. Constitution. Trond explained to me the close relationship between our Constitution and the Norwegian Constitution and the influence of James Madison. I thought it would be exciting to compare, contrast and discuss the two documents. I did not know about the Norwegian Constitution and have learned a lot. Trond’s energy and those of the people in Norway and America were tremendous.”

Elin Bergithe Rognlie, Consul General, Royal Norwegian Consulate, New York, made some opening remarks, emphasizing, “We shouldn’t take for granted the freedoms we gained.”

“All of our members (including NCC) are international stakeholders,” said John Smith, III, Chair, Board of Directors, Global Philadelphia. “Our fundamental mission is to radically change Philadelphia’s presence and effectiveness in the world by promoting interaction. I’m here to encourage and support this effort.”

Among the questions Rosen posed were what Americans inspired the Norwegians; the early power of farmers; the role of the King; the unequal aspects in both countries’ original Constitutions, and how each document evolved as times changed. He often quoted from exact articles in the Norwegian Constitution.

“The Norwegians had two American heroes who inspired them, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin,” said Mestad.

“Two framers of the Norwegian Constitution (lawyers Christian Magnus Falsen, 36, and Wilhelm Christie, 32) were most influenced by James Madison,” added Strøm. “Falsen was probably the Norwegian equivalent of James Madison. Madison’s biggest influence was specific rights, the design of parliamentary structure, sovereignty and the overarching ideas of checks and balances. The Bill of Rights was very important, even if the Norwegian constitution did not have the exact same Bill of Rights.”

Farmers were the largest contingent of the 112 male delegates, which also included clergy, officers and lawyers. As land owners, they were given the right to vote. This became a problem in later years, especially after the negotiated dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905. “For most of the 19th century, the Constitution was seen as an instrument of the people,” said Mestad. “With the rise of the labour movement, the manual workers did not have the right to vote. They were divided on their relationship to the Constitution. Is it protecting us or not? Some in Labour said the idea of the Constitution is democratic, and others saw it as an instrument of oppression. In the 1930s, Labour came to the Constitution side as they became a majority in power.”

Women were granted the right to vote in 1913, seven years before the United States.

“There were some arguments for women’s suffrage at the Constitutional Assembly, but it was never discussed,” said Mestad.

“Only men with individual property could vote,” said Strøm. “After 1905, it was a foregone conclusion that the vote would extend to women, but first it had to be set in motion with full suffrage for adult men, then wealthy women, and then full women’s suffrage.”

Rosen noted that as the American Constitution didn’t initially address slavery and women’s suffrage, the Norwegian Constitution initially barred Jews and Jesuits. “They started with an agenda to work toward religious tolerance,” said Strøm. “Most people wanted an established church, but they ended up without an established church, but less religious tolerance. People began having second thoughts. There were social debates about the fairness. Jews were allowed in 1851. It took around 150 years before Jesuits were allowed to live in Norway and the last part of that article was repealed. The Norwegian Constitution was remarkably egalitarian, but wasn’t as liberal.”

One of the fascinating developments is how the role of the King evolved.

“The assembly tried to continue with a monarchy, and at the same time, have a sovereign King representative of the people,” said Strøm. “The influence on the design of Parliament from Madison was critical because Parliament was the branch of the Norwegian government directly elected by the people.”

“Changes to the Constitution could be made without any consent from the King,” said Mestad. “Parliament had ultimate power. This is different than other European countries.”

In 1905, Norwegian men elected Danish Prince Carl as King. He became Haakon VII without any power.

“In the King’s council, the secretary said ‘should I send documents to the King?’” said Mestad. “The Prime Minister said ‘the King does not need to see the documents, just sign them.’ In another case, the Prime Minister was in the minority, and the King said he agreed with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister said, ‘The King agrees with the majority.’”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 31, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.