Eidsvoll – the birthplace of Norwegian democracy
Legacy of the past and vision for the future
For many Norwegians, May 17 is the best day of the year: flags, smiles, ice cream, good weather (most often), music, and fun make Constitution Day a day to look forward to. Young and old alike come together to celebrate one of the oldest constitutions still in force in the world today on Norway’s national day.
At Eidsvoll municipality in Viken County, the Norwegian Constitution was signed by the National Assembly in 1814.
Located just an hour from Oslo, the Eidsvoll Manor House lies in green and lush surroundings with the Andelva (Duck River) shaped like an S running through the municipality. Its name is derived from its geography: “Eid” comes from the Old Norse eið, meaning meadow, and the last element, voll, from vờllr, a field. Eidsvoll is also written as Eidsvold in many historical contexts.
Here, where the Constitution was signed, alternative May 17 celebrations have been organized since the first coronavirus year in 2020. Last year, the flag hoisting at 8 a.m. was covered by Norway’s national broadcaster NRK.
“Last year, we had broadcasts from Wergeland’s house in collaboration with the local newspaper, where we were responsible for national broadcasting with artists, speeches, and historical performances. This was distributed to regional newspapers,” said Bård Frydenlund, Museum director at Eidsvoll 1814.
With any luck this year, a decorated car parade and people waving flags and cheers will be heard and seen from Eidsvoll.
Eidsvoll Manor House
The Eidsvoll Manor House is one of Norway’s most important national symbols, with the museum Eidsvoll 1814. It is an architectural treasure, both inside and out. An assembly of 112 delegates gathered here and declared Norway an independent nation and elected a king, after more than 400 years in forced union with Denmark.
Now, during the pandemic, the museum is closed, but that doesn’t mean that friends and visitors, both in Norway and abroad, have been forgotten. Alternative forms of communication have been put in place, and Frydenlund offers a full tour of the house online (see link on page S5).
In 1814, Eidsvoll Manor was a private home belonging to the owner of Eidsvoll Ironworks, but it is now property of the Norwegian state. In 2014, the National Heritage Board approved the protection of the Eidsvoll building with two side buildings and gardens. The building was restored for NOK 350 million.
Next to the building is now a modern Democracy Center for young people called Wergeland’s House. Among other things, the basement floor has been completely reconstructed, the windows have been taken down and reset, stairs have been rebuilt, and the entire building has been replastered and painted. Rikssalen—the heart of the house—has had its benches, windows, and walls restored. Many of the original paintings have been hung up again.
We asked Museum Director Bård Frydenlund about the goal of transforming the Eidsvoll House from a well-preserved museum into a lively social meeting place for debate, social activity, and political decision-making and whether the project will be completed as planned.
“The restoration with preservation set its conditions. But Eidsvoll 1814 is more than the building, so yes, we have ambitions on behalf of the museum and the Democracy Center,” Frydenlund said.
The constitutions of the United States (1787) and Norway (1814) are the only two from the revolutionary era still in force. The Norwegian and U.S. Constitutions share much in common, helping to form a strong bond between the two countries.
In 2018, the museum at Eidsvoll initiated a project aiming to compare these two principal legal documents to shed light on the historic foundation for democratic values, ideals, and institutions that still stand strong in our two countries.
The project Founding Fathers across the Atlantic—History and Legacy in Norway and the USA highlights the wealth of Norwegian-American volunteer social activities, security policy cooperation, the Marshall Plan following World War II, and artistic exchange in the postwar period.
Over the years, the collaboration between Norway and the United States has resulted in multiple projects, books, and events at Eidsvoll. Among invited guests at Eidsvoll have been Philip Mead, chief historian at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia; Lillian Cunningham, reporter at The Washington Post and producer of the podcast series Constitutional; and Jeffrey Rosen, one of America’s leading political commentators and writers for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, and head of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, which can be said to be Eidsvoll 1814’s sister museum in the United States.
“We have held two exhibitions, The Books that Changed the World in 2019 and Iconic National Symbols – Trumbull & Wergeland in 2020, and we are in the process of a third, ‘Revolution Time’ in May,” said Frydenlund. “The ‘Democracy party’ for young people has had to be postponed until the coming autumn, when we will arrange, among other things, a co-creation program for Norwegian and American youth with the preliminary title ‘Look to the Future.’ So, the goal and prospects for the project are reasonably good, in spite of COVID-19.”
Tour Eidsvoll from your armchair:
Meet your favorite Eidsvoll assemblymen:
A few facts about Syttende Mai
1. “Ja, vi elsker”
“Yes, we love this country” is Norway’s national anthem on a de facto basis. The lyrics were written by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and the melody was composed Rikard Nordraak. The song wasn’t officially adopted as the national anthem until 2019.
2. The first 17th of May speech
Henrik Wergeland (1808 – 1845) gave the first May 17th speech in 1833. Throughout all his words, there is a strong national feeling. Wergeland’s enemies tried to drink him under the table, so he could not give the scheduled May 17th speech, and they almost succeeded. Instead cheers for the king, May 17th and Henrik Wergeland were heard all over Christiania (Oslo).
In more recent times, speeches have been held on the National Day in the spirit of democracy, emphasizing the future of children.
3. The first children’s parade in Norway
May 17 is also called Barnas dag, the children’s day. The author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832 – 1910) arranged the first children’s parade as we know it today, inspired by school headmaster P. Qvam’s parade in the capital. In 1870, only boys could participate. Today, all schoolchildren participate, even in the smallest fishing villages that the nearest brass bands visit.
4. May 17 during the war
During the occupation of Norway, World War II, the Germans did not allow celebrations on May 17. Some celebrations were nevertheless held in protest.
5. Royal greetings
Since 1906, the royal family has greeted the parade from the balcony of the royal palace. Princess Ingrid Alexandra is the fifth generation to watch the parade from the balcony where children from some 115 schools pass by, playing music, dancing, and waving flags.
6. Two revolutions
Two revolutions inspired the Norwegian Constitution: The American in 1776, with the principle of power distribution, and the French in 1789, in which the established autocracy fell apart.
7. Ice cream sales
Good weather on May 17 leads to six times the average consumption of ice cream—and it is the one day of the year when children can eat as much ice cream as they want. Crown Ice Cream (Krone-is) from Diplom-is is the most popular brand, and in 2019 it was “dressed up” in a bunad design. The eight bunads selected were from the regions of Nordland, Trøndelag, Gudbrandsdalen, Hardanger, Rogaland, Øst-Telemark, Østfold, and Vestfold.
8. National historic paintings
Norway’s most famous historic painting, “Eidsvold 1814” by Oscar Arnold Wergeland, depicts the National Assembly at Eidsvoll in May 1814. Wergeland’s image achieved the status of a national symbol that expresses the struggle for national independence and democracy.
In the United States, John Trumbull’s “The Declaration of Independence” from 1817 – 1818 has a similar place among the national historical paintings. His image of the assembly that declared the independence of the United States in 1776 is also internationally known and helped shape the understanding of this crucial political event.
9. North Norway not represented
Representatives from the whole country gathered at Eidsvoll Manor House in 1814, apart from representatives from northern Norway, including the Sámi people. The postal service was so late that the notice took a month to arrive up north, and the Constitution had already been signed once the message was delivered.
10. The three kings of 1814
During the year 1814, Norway had three kings, Frederik VI, Christian Frederik, and Karl XIII.
11. 17th of May banned
In 1828, the Swedish Union King Carl Johan banned the celebration. The king believed that the celebration was “anti-Swedish” and a tribute to his Danish predecessor, Christian Frederik. But the Norwegian people cared little about the ban—and the king ignored the celebration—so the ban, with yearly celebrations, lasted until Carl Johan’s death in 1844.
This article originally appeared in the May 7, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.