Adolf Fredrik of Sweden, Age of Liberty, coup d'état, King Gustaf III of Sweden, Riksdag, Sophia Magdalena of Denmark, The 1772 Instrument of Government
Gustaf III (January 24, 1746 – March 29,1792) was King of Sweden from 1771 until his assassination in 1792. He was the eldest son of King Adolf Fredrik
of Sweden and Louisa Ulrika of Prussia, the daughter of King Friedrich Wilhelm I in Prussia and his wife Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, and was thus a younger sister of King Friedrich II the Great of Prussia.
In Stockholm on November 4, 1766, Crown Prince Gustaf married Princess Sophia Magdalena, daughter of King Frederik V of Denmark and Louise of Great Britain the youngest surviving daughter of King George II of Great Britain and Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach.
Gustaf was first impressed by Sophia Magdalena’s beauty, but her silent nature made her a disappointment in court life. The match was not a happy one, owing partly to an incompatibility of temperament, but still more to the interference of Gustav’s jealous mother, Queen Louisa Ulrika.
On February 12, 1771 with the death of King Adolf Fredrik, his eldest son became King Gustaf III of Sweden.
At the time of his accession, the Swedish Riksdag held more power than the monarchy, but the Riksdag was bitterly divided between rival parties, the Hats and Caps.
Gustaf III tried unsuccessfully to mediate between the bitterly divided parties. On June 21, 1771, he opened his first Riksdag with a speech that aroused powerful emotions. It was the first time in more than a century that a Swedish king had addressed a Swedish Riksdag in its native tongue.
He stressed the need for all parties to sacrifice their animosities for the common good, and volunteered, as “the first citizen of a free people,” to be the mediator between the contending factions. A composition committee was actually formed, but it proved illusory from the first: the patriotism of neither faction was sufficient for the smallest act of self-denial.
The subsequent attempts of the dominant Caps to reduce him to the role of a powerless king, encouraged him to consider a coup d’état.
Under the sway of the Cap faction, Sweden seemed in danger of falling prey to the political ambitions of Russia. It appeared on the point of being absorbed into the Northern Accord sought by the Russian vice-chancellor, Count Nikita Panin. It seemed to many that only a swift and sudden coup d’état could preserve Sweden’s independence.
Gustaf III was approached by Jacob Magnus Sprengtporten, a Finnish nobleman, who had incurred the enmity of the Caps, with the prospect of a revolution. He undertook to seize the fortress of Sveaborg in Finland by a coup de main. Once Finland was secured, he intended to embark for Sweden, join up with the king and his friends near Stockholm, and force the estates to accept a new constitution dictated by the king.
During the Age of Liberty (1719-72), Sweden was governed as a constitutional monarchy, initially under the Instrument of Government (1719) and later under the near-identical Instrument of Government (1720). Under this system, the king played a relatively minor role in the government, which was instead dominated by the Riksdag of the Estates, with most of the executive functions of government being discharged by the Council of the Realm (Riksdag).
The Age of Liberty is generally remembered as a golden age of political and artistic freedom, but it was also characterised by factional struggles between the so-called “Cap” and “Hat” parties in the Riksdag and by military humiliation in the Hats’ War (1741-3) and the Pomeranian War (1757-62). Indeed, some historians argue that by the early 1770s the situation had deteriorated to the extent that Sweden was on the brink of anarchy.
Gustaf III was therefore able to attract considerable support for his scheme to overthrow the government and replace the 1720 Instrument of Government with a new constitution. On August 19, 1772 the king rallied the Stockholm garrison and arrested the Council of the Realm, along with several prominent members of the Cap party. Two days later he convened a session of the Riksdag and compelled it to accept a new constitution which he had drawn up, the 1772 Instrument of Government.
The 1772 Instrument of Government was the constitution of the Kingdom of Sweden from 1772 to 1809. It was promulgated in the wake of the Revolution of 1772, a self-coup mounted by King Gustaf III, and replaced the 1720 Instrument of Government, which had been in force for most of the Age of Liberty (1719-72).
Although in theory the 1772 Instrument merely readjusted the balance of power between the crown and the Riksdag of the Estates without changing Sweden’s status as a constitutional monarchy, in practice it is generally seen as instituting an absolute monarchy, especially after its modification in 1789 by the Union and Security Act, which further strengthened royal power at the expense of the Riksdag.
However, while Gustaf III may have admired republican concepts like the separation of powers in theory, in practice he tended to rule as an enlightened despot, akin to contemporaries such as Joseph II of Austria and Friedrich II the Great of Prussia, rather than as a constitutional monarch.
The phraseology of the Instrument of Government was rather vague, in part due to its having been written in haste in the aftermath of the coup, and although it invoked ideas like the separation of powers, it provided few practical checks upon the king’s power. Moreover, in 1789 Gustav removed many of the few limits which did exist upon his power by compelling the Riksdag to pass the Union and Security Act, which revised the Instrument of Government in a more nakedly authoritarian direction.
The 1772 Instrument of Government remained in force throughout the Gustavian era, until replaced by the 1809 Instrument of Government as a result of the Coup of 1809.