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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

1952 - Ole Schulberg
1953 - Rev. Leif T. Gulbrandser
1954-1955 - Edw. C. Halvorsen
1956-1960 - Dr. Einar Bredland
1961-1965 - L. Kaare Johansen
1966-1968 - Helge Aursland
1969-1971 - John L. Carlson
1972-1976 - John Kaare Hagen
1975-1976 - Arthur T. Svennevik
1977-1979 - John Kaare Hagen
1979-1982 - Rev. Kjell Jordheim
1982-1983 - Susan Rudjord
1984-1986 - Arthur E. Andersen
1986-1987 - Guttorm K. Feste
1987-1990 - Rev. Kjell Jordheim
1990-1993 - David Dunlop
1994-1996 - Ruth Haanes Santoro
1997-1999 - Gail Peterson
2000-2001 - Evald Olson
2002-2004 - Sandy Ginsberg
2005-2008 - Kenneth Johnson
2009-2011 - James Svendsen
2011-2014 - Arlene Rutuelo
2015-2017 Barbara Berntsen


 

NORWAY’S CONSTITUTION DAY

By Carl Søyland *

  1. Why do we celebrate the 17th of May?

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.

  1. What happened on the 17th of May and When?

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.

  1. What kind of Constitution was it that was brought into being on May 17, 1814?

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.

  1. What were the historical events that led to the 17th of May in 1814?

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.

  1. What brought about Norway’s union with Sweden?

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.

  1. How long did the union with Sweden last?

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.

  1. How did Norway get its own King?

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.


Copy of 2011 NY State Assembly Citation

Copy of 2011 NY State Legislative Resolution

 

MAIN SPEAKERS AT MAY 17TH PARADES IN GREATER NEW YORK

1952 Hon. John J. Bennett, Former Attorney General of New York State and the chairman of New York City Planning Commission.
1953 Hon. John J. Cashmore, President, Borough of Brooklyn, New York City.
1954 Hon. Henry M. Jackson, Everett, Wash., United States Senator from State of Washington.
1955 Hon. John J. Rooney, Member of Congress, 14th Congressional District, New York State.
1956 Rev. Dr. Sverre Norborg, Pastor, Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church, Chicago, Illinois.
1957 Rev. Billy Graham, D.D.
1958 Major General Leif J. Sverdrup, St. Louis, Mo., U.S.A. (Ret.)
1959 Colonel Bernt Balchen, U.S.A.
1960 Lieutenant Governor Malcolm Wilson, New York State, substituted for Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, because of sudden death in latter’s family.
1961 General Lauris Norstad, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO Forces.
1962 Hon. Trygve Lie, First Secretary General of the United States.
1963 Hon. Orville L. Freeman, Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
1964 Hon. Hubert H. Humphrey, United States Senator, State of Minnesota.
1965 Hon. Hugh L. Carey, Member of Congress, 15th Congressional District, New York State.
1966 Hon. William T. Conklin, Member of New York State Senate, 25th Senatorial District.
1967 Captain Finn Ronne, United States Naval Reserve (Ret.).
1968 Oscar Bakke, Associate Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration.
1969 Dr. Arthur Ole Davidson, President, Wagner College.
1970 H. E. Edward Hambro, Norwegian Ambassador to the United Nations.
1971 Joe Foss, Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient.
1972 Sverre Norborg, PhD., Dunedin, Florida
1973 Professor Dr. Einar Bredland.
1974 H.E. Soren Chr. Sommerfelt, Norwegian Ambassador to the United States.
1975 H.E. Ole Aalgaard, Norwegian Ambassador to the United States.
1976 Statsraad Kjolv Egeland, Minister of Education & Ecclesiastical Affairs. “Norwegian-Americans Salute the Bicentennial”
1977 Consul Torvald Rafoss, substitution for Consul General Eigil Nygaard. “Salute to the Seafaring Norsemen”
1978 Vice President Walter Mondale and Captain Finn Ronne, U.S.N. (Ret.)
1979 Consul General Georg Knap Thestrup, Norwegian Consulate, N.Y.C.
1980 H.E. Knut Hedemann, Norwegian Ambassador to the United States. “Salute to the Olympic Spirit”
1981 Paul Thyness, United Nations Development Program. “Salute to our Viking Heritage”
1982 H.E. Tom E. Vraalsen, Norwegian Ambassador to the United Nations.
1983 Bishop Harold Jansen, The American Lutheran Church. “Salute to Freedom Loving People”
1984 Consul General Bjarne Grindem. “Salute to Norway’s Industrial Enterprise”
1985 H.E. Kjell Eliassen, Norwegian Ambassador to the United States. “Salute to the Norwegian Folk Lore”
1986 Major General Magne T. Sorensen. “Salute the Statue of Liberty”
1987 Trade Commissioner Theis Pedersen, Norwegian Export Council, U.S.A. “Salute to the Spirit of the 17th of May”
1988 Gunnar Jerman, Presdent of Norskow “Salute to Norway Today”
1989 Rear Admiral Gustav A. Steimler, Pres., Norwegian Sea Rescue Service. “Norway—Natures Wonderland”
1990 Hon. Albert Nordengen, Mayor of Oslo “Norway—Land of the Midnight Sun”
1991 Jo(sef) Benkow, President of Norwegian Parliament. “Hands Across the Sea”
1992 Consul General John Bjornebye “Our Children—Our Future”
1993 Hjalmar “Hjallis” Anderson “Winter Olymics—Lillehammer”
1994 Loret Miller Ruppe, Past American Ambassador to Norway “Salute to Peace”
1995 Bag Berggrav, Chairman, Norway’s Liberation Committee.
1996 Cato Zahl Pedersen “People of Courage”
1997 Finn Holmer-Hoven, Editor and Chief, Faedrelansvennen “Sorlandet, Norway’s Pearl”
1998 Jane Hanson, Anchor, WNBC. “New York City Centennial, 1898-1998”
1999 Peter Bridgwater, Vice President, NY/NJ Women’s World Cup Kim Wyant, 1st Goalkeeper, United States Women’s National Soccer Team, 1985-1993
2000 Norwegian Consul General Atle Leikvoll of New York “1000 Years Norwegian History”
2001 Peter Thomassen – President, N.Y.C. District Council of Carpenters “50th Parade”
2002 Dr. Paul A. Qualben – “Salute the Heroes”
2003 Finn Kristian Marthinsen – “Honor the Family”
2004 Thorvald Stoltenberg – “150th Anniversary of Bay Ridge”
2005 Jan Egeland, Under Secretary – General of the United Nations.
2006 Rolf Kristian Stang - “Celebrating Norway’s Cultural Heritage”
2007 Knute Vollebaek - "Songs of Norway"
2008 Ken Farber - "Salute to Norwegian Explorers"
2009 Norwegian Consun General Sissel Breie of NY - "Salute to Norse Mythology"
2010 Boomer Esiason - "Ja, Vi Elsker Dette Landet"
2011 Brian Andersson - Honoring Roald Amundsen
2012 Helle Aanesen - Honoring Norwegian Women 'Grete Waitz'
2013 Rune Edvardsen - Sharing Our Norwegian Traditions
2014 John G. Bernander- Norway's Constitution
2015 Jon Forrest Dohlin - Celebrating 1000 Years of Christianity

2016 Thorhild Widvey - "Saluting Norwegian Immigrants"  

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