|The Spirit of the Seventeenth of May
By Erik J. Friis
The Seventeenth of May parade in Brooklyn salutes the spirit of the day, as manifested both in the past and the present. The spirit underlying, evening motivating, the celebrations, might be hard to describe but an attempt can be made to mention briefly, some of the ways it has influenced men and events in the course of Norwegian history.
If we define the Spirit of the Seventeenth of May as a desire for independence, freedom, and democracy on the part of the Norwegian people, we have to go back quite far in order to determine its role in the history of the nation. We can clearly observe (in spirit) the workings of this vital concept in the events of the past, evident in a fervent desire for autonomy, for freedom from foreign rule, which may have slumbered by was ever present during the five centuries of union with Denmark. Intermittently, these feelings erupted against foreign officials, against economic oppression by nobles and landed magnates. One illustrative example, now half forgotten, is Halvard Gratop a leader who came out of the common people of Telemark and in 1438 led a mini-revolt, culminating in an expedition to Oslo to punish the king’s officials; although having many ingredients of the desire for freedom and justice, the attempt failed, no doubt because times were not ripe and its underlying spirit had not been able to ignite the people nationwide.
The Age of the Enlightenment helped to usher in political attitudes similar to that later adhered to by the Founding Fathers at Eidsvoll. A salient example of this new attitude is the patriotic song “For Norge, kjempers fødeland,” published in 1771 by the Bergen poet and clergyman Johan Nordahl Brun, who was without a doubt imbued to the full with what later was to be called the “Spirit of the seventeenth of May.” The same spirit, embodying man’s yearning for liberty and individual freedom, gave rise to the American Constitution. The words of the American Founding Fathers were indeed years ahead of their time and have inspired lovers of freedom and makers of constitutions the world over. So did the French Constitution of 1791, adopted during the revolutionary period following 1789 and the demise of a society based on oppression and on privileges for some. It should perhaps be especially noted that the principals underlying these two constitutions had greatly influenced the thinking of many of the men of Eidsvoll and were incorporated in the Norwegian Constitution of 1814 finally adopted on May 17th of that year.
The Constitution, the second oldest democratic constitution in the world continually in force since its creation, is indeed a work that also was way ahead of its time and has also stood the test of time. Above all, it has given rise to what can only be characterized as a fierce spirit protective of freedom and democracy which we properly call the Spirit of the Seventeenth of May.
That spirit has thrived ever since. We can trace its existence throughout the nineteenth century. It was already manifest in early private get-togethers and patriotic celebrations in Trondheim fairly soon after 1814; public arrangements began in 1824 and they rapidly spread to towns throughout the ladn. The authorities, however, took a dim view of popular demonstrations of any kind, the opposing feelings clashing on May 17, 1829, with the so-called “Battle of the Marketplace.” On that day people had gathered in Oslo’s main square to celebrate in commemoration of the achievements at Eidsvoll. It so happened that at that very same time Norway’s first steamship, happily named the Constitution, had arrived in Oslo harbor on its maiden voyage, which no doubt added an extra something to the day’s activities. But the Union king, Carl Johan, took umbrage at this demonstration for democracy and freedom and had the people chased away by his troops. It proved not to have been a wise move!
Not long after, a young idealistic poet named Henrik Wergeland (1808-1845) took up the good fight for a mass celebration of the great day and what had been accomplished at Eidsvoll. He made two important speeches, in 1833 and 1834, which served to consolidate public opinion in favor of what he considered right and proper for Norwegians to pay their respects to their “founding fathers” and setting the seventeenth of May aside as a day of rededication to the spirit of freedom and justice also made him rally to the cause of the Jews who had been prevented from settling in Norway. Some years later the Constitution was amended to correct that infraction on religious freedom and worship.
The “Spirit of the Seventeenth of May” found what may be called its physical embodiment in the poet, novelist, dramatist, orator, and editor Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910). Through his patriotic poems, principally “Ja, vi elsker,” the present national anthem, through his historical plays, and through his speeches and personal influence, Bjørnson inspired and rallied the people; he was also instrumental in arranging the children’s parade along Oslo’s main street, with the first such parade taking place in 1870. Such parades (barenetog) are, now, as everyone knows, centerpieces in Seventeenth of May celebrations throughout Norway.
And if one wants to get a glimpse of the “Spirit of the Seventeenth of May” one will only have to observe Norwegian children parading on a spring day, their faces expressing, more than words can describe, the spirit without which no nation can long flourish. Its strong presence in what some have called the national psyche, serves to ensure that freedom and democracy will never be in danger, but will be, as we saw during the last war, victorious even in a bitter struggle against a ruthless enemy.
Note: This article was written and published in the 1987 17th of May Parade Journal by the late Erik J. Friis. The theme for that year’s parade was “Salute to the Spirit of the 17th of May.” As Mr. Friis wrote, “The same spirit of the founding fathers of Eidsvoll, embodying man’s yearning for liberty and individual freedom gave rise to the American Constitution, whose Bicentennial was celebrated in 1987 .
Mr. Friis served as editor of a number of the annual 17th of May journals. He generously shared his vast knowledge and excellent writing skills with the Scandinavian community.
GENERAL CHAIRMAN OF THE 17TH OF MAY COMMITTEE OF GREATER NEW YORK
NORWAY’S CONSTITUTION DAY
By Carl Søyland *
Just as the Irish-American celebrate their St. Patrick’s Day and other immigrant groups celebrate the national holidays of the country f their origin so also do the Norwegian-Americans celebrate the national holidays of the country of their origin so also do the Norwegian-Americans celebrate the 17th of May, the Constitution Day of Norway. From the earliest childhood in Norway, this day has been the most joyous. Because it is also associated with spring and the coming of summer—after the long winter season of the North.
On that day in 1814—the same year as “The Star Spangled Banner” was first written in America—Norway’s Constitution was signed at Eidsvoll, a few miles north of Oslo, by representatives from all parts of Norway.
It was a Constitution for a free and democratic Kingdom. The Norwegian Constitution was drafted by men who had studied the Constitutions of France and the United States. Magnus Falsen, whose role in drafting the Norwegian Constitution may be compared with Jeffeson’s part in the drafting of the American Constitution, had in 1814 written a biography of George Washington, and he had become an admirer of such American statesmen as Washington and Benjamin Franklin so he named his son George Benjamin.
The European situation was rather complicated. During the Napoleonic wars the British blockade isolated Norway from Denmark, Norway had been united with Denmark since 1397, but had remained under the autocratic rule of the Danish King.
By its union with Denmark, Norway became involved in the Napoleonic wars. After the bombardment of Copenhagen (by the British in 1801) Norway had been compelled by Danish policy to embrace the cause of Napoleon against both England and Sweden.
Napoleon lost the war and the political break between Norway and Denmark came at the Peace Conference at Kiel in Germany in 1814. The Danish King was forced to give up the sovereign rights of Norway to King Charles XII of Sweden, but the Danish King retained for himself Iceland, Greenland and the Faraos, which had ‘belonged’ to Norway after almost 900 years may be considered a grave historical accident.
According to the peace treaty of Kiel, where of course Norway had nothing to say, it was generally understood that Norway should be taken away from Denmark and given to Sweden as a compensation for Sweden’s loss of Finland—to Russia.
The Norwegians declared, however, that while the Danish King had been entitled to renounce every claim to the Norwegian throne for himself and his descendants, he had not been entitled to cede an unconquered country to an enemy king.
The Danish Crown Prince, Christian Frederik, who resided in Norway was persuaded to convoke a Constitution Assembly. This body met at Eidsvoll from April 10th to May 18th, 1814 and gave Norway one of the most free and democratic constitutions in the world. The Great Powers of that time supported Sweden in her claim of sovereignty over Norway according to the Peace of Kiel War naturally broke out, but an armistice was signed after only seventeen days. A special meeting of the Norwegian Parliament sanctioned a union with Sweden. Christian Frederik had to abdicate, but the Free Constitution of Norway remained in force.
A struggle for power between the King of the United Kingdoms (Sweden and Norway) and the Norwegian Parliament went on for several generations, during which Norway developed its economic power. The Norwegian merchant marine developed until it reached a leading position in the world trade, from 1870 and onwards. A dispute between Norway and Sweden over the establishment of a separate Norwegian consular service led on June 7, 1905, to the dissolution of the Union with Sweden by a Norwegian coalition government under Christian Michelsen.
By plebiscite, Prince Carl of Denmark was chosen Norwa’s King. With the motto “All for Norway” he was formally elected by Parliament on November 18, 1905; he took the name of Haakon VII.
Not since the last king of the Royal Harald Haarfagre line (King Haakon VI, 1340-1380) had Norway had its own king. When King Haakon VII took his oath on November 25, 1905, in accordance with the Norwegian Constitution, Norway was again established as a free and independent kingdom.
King Haakon VII died September 21, 1957 and was succeeded by his son, Crown Prince Olav V. In 1991 King Harald V became the reigning monarch of Norway
· In addition to his many contributions to the Scandinavian community, the late Carl Soyland served for many years as the editor of Nordisk Tidende. He was a loyal supporter of the 17th of May Parade Committee. This explanation of why we celebrate “The 17th of May” appeared in a number of the parade journals during the years.
MAIN SPEAKERS AT MAY 17TH PARADES IN GREATER NEW YORK
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