Seminar explores Norway’s constitution
California Lutheran University’s symposium celebrates one of the world’s oldest living constitutions
Judith Gabriel Vinje
Southern Californian Scandinavians delved into the dramatic story behind the Norwegian Constitution in an all-day seminar Friday, October 2, at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
With the year 2014 marking the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, the seminar was intended to deepen appreciation of the document and its relevance in the world today.
Norway’s constitution is still considered to be a living document, one that is the basis of Norwegian identity and democracy, noted Knut I. Oxnevad, chair of the seminar titled “The Norwegian Constitution—200 Years: Inspiration, Drama, and Lasting Legacy.”
The document was signed at Eidsvoll on May 17, 1814, declaring Norway to be an independent kingdom in an attempt to avoid being ceded to Sweden after Denmark’s devastating defeat in the Napoleonic Wars.
But it wasn’t until 1905 that Norway actually won its freedom. However, the fact that it had a constitution granted many rights and freedoms that prevailed in the meantime.
Norway’s Constitution was regarded as quite radical in its time. It was inspired by both the U.S. and the French constitutions.
Oxnevad welcomed the audience of about 110 persons and gave an overview of the Norwegian Constitution, noting that it is the second oldest written constitution in the world. Oxnevad is vice president of the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation (SACHF) and president of the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce in Southern California.
Speakers included Terje I. Leiren of the University of Washington in Seattle, who set the historical framework for the document. “1814 was called a miraculous year,” he said. “The Norwegian Constitution is a wonderful document, showing great optimism.”
Laying out the complex turn of events that gave Norway the chance to draft a constitution in the first place, Leiren noted that: “It was the push and pull of great powers that opened the doors for Norway, and the Norwegians had the sense to step through them.”
CLU professor David Nelson summed up the forces at play in the world that led up to the Constitution, such as the Renaissance and the Reformation, which paved the way for the Norwegian mindset at the time the Constitution was drafted.
Consul General Hilde Skorpen of San Francisco called 1814 the “year of miracles” in Norway. “How was it possible for one of the poorest countries in Europe to have adopted such a document, one that withstood the test of time?” she queried.
The Norwegian Constitution is both a symbolic and a living document, Skorpen said, noting that it was continually being updated, with two-thirds of it already having been revised. “This year alone there have been major revisions,” she said. And yet the Norwegian Constitution lives on, still inspiring its citizens who celebrate Norway’s National Day, or Constitution Day, with a fervor few countries muster.
Following the seminar, which concluded with a panel discussion on the impact of the Norwegian Constitution on the rest of the world, a reception was held, featuring a fashion show by Moods of Norway. “This has been a surprisingly fascinating and well-executed event,” noted one member of the seminar audience.
A joint effort by SACHF and California Lutheran University, the seminar was also sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in San Francisco, Moods of Norway, the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce Southern California, and Sons of Norway, with support from the Sons of Norway Norseman Lodge of Thousand Oaks and the Association for Norwegian Students Abroad (ANSA) in Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.