From farmers to framers

A look at the yeoman farmers who helped shape Norway’s constitution

Image: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
“Riksforsamlingen på Eidsvoll 1814,” by Oscar Wergeland. Fully a third of the delegates who helped write Norway’s constitution were farmers.

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

On the eve of the signing of Norway’s constitution on the 17th of May, 1814, Norway had a population just short of one million people. Of this near million, over 90 percent lived in rural settings far from Norway’s few cities.

At this time most of Norway’s population was engaged in farming. However, unlike most of Europe, Norway had a substantial number of farmers who owned their own land; they were what were known as freeholders or yeoman farmers. There were also cottars, or tenant farmers, and their numbers had grown throughout the 18th century, but still about 45 percent of Norway’s farmers were tilling their own land in 1814 and these numerous free-farmers controlled approximately 60 percent of the available farmland. The great Norwegian historian Halvdan Koht has written that at that time “Norway was basically the only country in which people could be proud of being a farmer.”

Of the 112 elected delegates to the Constituent Assembly that met at Eidsvoll in the spring of 1814, 37 were yeoman farmers. These farmers made up a full third of the delegates that shaped Norway’s constitution. This level of representation in a governmental constitutional assembly by farmers was unprecedented in the history of Europe and not even closely replicated in the Constitutional Convention of the United States. Who were these farmers and why were they at Norway’s Constitutional Convention? The short answer is that yeoman farmers were the economic backbone of Norway—the very sinews of its society in 1814.

Unlike on the Continent or in England, the nobility played a minimal role in Norway’s economy and society at the beginning of the 19th century. The economic engines of Norway were driven by its freehold farmers. These men and women were fiercely self-reliant, independent, and adaptable. In a country with few resources, they had learned how to use everything available to them but largely in a sustainable way so they did not exhaust the limited resources within their reach.

Along Norway’s long coast, most farmers were also fishermen in season. The greater majority also had sheep, goats, and milk cows, which their wives would care for and take to the upland pastures in the summer. Where timber grew they chopped it down to make their houses, barns, storage sheds, and all-important fishing boats. Almost all farmers made their own utensils, mostly of wood, and many were expert carpenters by necessity. In the interior valleys of Norway, the farmers also took advantage of everything the land would offer. Here, they also fished for trout and salmon and, of course, foraged the mountains and hills for berries and other edible plants. Similar to their coastal brethren, they kept animals and took them to the high pastures to fatten up.

Though independent, they recognized the benefits of mutual aid and helped each other out when needed and often cooperated in common projects that were to their benefit. Frequently, they combined resources and labor to build their own timber mills, grain mills, and even mills for processing wool. In the Lofoten Islands, where 88 percent of the people were fisher-farmers, many joined together to build shared fishing boats and even larger boats to freight their dried cod to market.

Although trade was supposed to be the sole province of crown-licensed merchants in the cities, the free-farmers were imbedded in active regional and interregional trade networks—essentially an extensive Norwegian “black market.” For instance, the farmers of Lærdal of the eastern Sognefjord region specialized in transporting both herring and grain over the mountains between western and eastern Norway, the herring going east and the grain west. Near Bergen, seafaring farmers often ignored the monopoly in trade held by the burgher merchants and traded directly with the Scots as well as the Dutch who plied the coast seeking anyone willing to sell dried cod and barrels of herring. The farmers of Vest-Adger in southern Norway also engaged in trade with the Dutch, who provided much-needed grain in return for Norwegian hides, leather, fish oil, butter, tar, and lumber. A number of Norwegian coastal farmers gained such a reputation for their beautiful and seaworthy sailboats like the “Nordlander,” “ottring,” and “gavl boat” that they began to build boats on order for Scottish fishermen.

Christian Jensen Lofthuus is a good example of the resourceful sort of men who eventually came to represent the Norwegian freehold farmers at the Constituent Assembly in 1814. Born in 1750 in Aust-Agder in southern Norway, he not only managed a successful farm but soon acquired interests in a sawmill and in shipping and trade. He also served as a skipper on overseas voyages to Great Britain, Denmark, and France. In 1786 he was elected by the other farmers of his community to take their complaints to Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark. They objected to the high taxes imposed by Danish officials as well as the Danish grain monopoly and called for a freer timber trade. After what he thought was a successful meeting with the Crown Prince, he returned to Norway with what he thought was a royal mandate to further document the complaints and collect petitions of support to present to the Crown Prince at a later date. To his surprise, Danish officials tried to arrest him, and his fellow farmers gathered round him and threatened armed conflict with the state. In the end, he was arrested for his resistance and imprisoned in Akershus Fortress until his death some 10 years later.

To the farmers attending the Constituent Assembly at Eidsvoll, Lofthuus’s struggle and tragic death served as an inspiration to create a constitution recognizing the rights and needs of farmers. Enevold de Falsen, a noted Norwegian attorney, had defended Lofthuus in his trial. As it turned out, his son Christian Magnus de Falsen became one of the leaders of the Constituent Assembly of 1814 and a primary author of the Norwegian Constitution.

The Norwegian yeoman farmers at Eidsvoll were not conservative, insular peasants. They were often well read and some had been exposed to the writers of the Enlightenment, like Rousseau. A number even composed poetry and music.

These freeholders were interested in getting rid of an oppressive Danish bureaucracy, opening up free trade, guaranteeing freedom of speech and universal suffrage, and gaining a popular democracy for Norway. Overall, they were more revolutionary in their views than the majority of the public officials and merchants that dominated the Constituent Assembly at Eidsvoll. Jørgen Aall, a wealthy ship owner and burgher, and also a delegate to the Constituent Assembly, openly complained about their “free-spirited independence.” On the other hand, other powerful delegates like Wilhem Christie, a judge and the Secretary of the Constituent Assembly, and Peter Motzfeldt, a prominent military officer, found the democratic and economic views of the freehold farmers admirable and welcome. Ironically, even Karl Johan, the Prince Regent of Sweden and effective ruler of Sweden at the time of the Constituent Assembly, found the positions of the farmers to his liking and he made sure that some of their demands were included in the amendments to the Norwegian Constitution in the fall of 1814 during negotiations for the union of Sweden and Norway. Odd as that may seem, it makes sense, for under his original French name of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, Karl Johan had been a leading general and later Marshall of France in support of the republican cause during the French Revolution.

Though the Norwegian yeoman farmers did not get everything they wanted included in the original Norwegian Constitution, the result was still radical for its day. This constitution placed great emphasis on the principals of equality and freedom of speech, abolished the privileges of the aristocracy, and gave the right to vote to a very large proportion of the population (about 45 percent of the men then residing in Norway). Today, the Norwegian Constitution survives as the second-oldest operational constitution in the world; only the Constitution of the United States is older.

If you wish to learn more of this topic, please see Victor Condorcét Vinje’s book, The Versatile Farmers of the North: The Struggle of Norwegian Yeomen for Economic Reforms and Political Power, 1750-1814, Booktango, Bloomington, IN, 2014.

This article originally appeared in the May 5, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.