Thursday, 26 November 2009

New books: Peder Anker, landowner and Prime Minister

When it comes to the union between Norway and Sweden, chroniclers of Norwegian history have tended to focus on the beginning (1814) and the end (1905). It was only in 2005 that a history of the union itself (by a Swedish historian) was published. The important, formative early years of the union have been particularly overlooked and the historian Bård Frydenlund’s biography of Norway’s first Prime Minister Peder Anker, Stormannen Peder Anker – En biografi, published by Aschehoug in mid-November, is therefore a welcome addition.
Peder Anker, who, with his brothers and cousins, was ennobled in 1778, belonged to a family of tradesmen which played an important role in Christiania (as Oslo was then called). He did however remain in the shadow of his elder brother Bernt until the latter’s death in 1805. Peder Anker bought Bogstad Manor outside the city from relatives and this became not only his patrician seat, but the centre of his vast estates – an “empire” which came to cover large parts of Southern Norway. The production and export of timber and iron was the foundation of Peder Anker’s great wealth.
Peder Anker was first and foremost a businessman and landowner for the most of his life – his entry into politics came only in the last decades of his life. But Anker also came to play a role as an official under the Danish Crown before the secession in 1814. He came to the notice of Crown Prince Frederik, who reigned in the name of his insane father, when he took part in the military campaign in Sweden in 1788 and was afterwards put in charge of road construction in the eastern half of Southern Norway.
As a businessman Anker was clearly quite efficient and innovative as well as successful, but in my opinion these are not the most interesting aspects of Peder Anker’s life and I could have done with less than half the book devoted to this. 3 ½ pages on a dispute over the construction of a bridge linking Strømsø and Bragernes (later united as Drammen) came close to causing me to lose interest.
More interesting to me is Anker’s role in the schemes laid by him and other fellow aristocrats and landowners, led by his son-in-law, Count Herman of Wedel-Jarlsberg, to bring about a union between Norway and Sweden. The policy of King Frederik VI (as he now had become) during the Napoleonic Wars made Anker and his friends increasingly sceptical both of him and the union with Denmark. Frydenlund argues that this was mostly because of the effect the events on the world stage had on Anker’s business interest rather than for ideological or political reasons.
Their contacts with certain Swedes who also encouraged a union between the two countries were possibly treacherous, but the union was not brought about in the way they had imagined. Anker was critical of Prince Christian Frederik, who was proclaimed regent when Frederik VI ceded Norway by the Treaty of Kiel in January 1814 and who called a Constitutional Assembly to meet at Eidsvold Værk, a manor belonging to Anker’s cousin Carsten, in April.
Peder Anker was elected a member of the Assembly and also became its first Speaker, yet he did not play a leading role. Count Wedel became the leader of the minority “unionist party”, while Anker remained in the background. As we know, the unionists were not victorious at the Constitutional Assembly, but after a brief war in July/August, Norway and Sweden agreed to form a personal union with further details to be settled by an extraordinary Parliament.
Anker failed to be elected to this extraordinary Parliament, which approved the union with Sweden and passed a revised Constitution on 4 November. Two weeks later Anker was appointed Prime Minister, allegedly quite unwillingly, but talked into it by Crown Prince Carl Johan. He thereafter had to leave his business interests in the hands of others and move to Stockholm – as the King of Norway would mostly be resident in Sweden, it had been decided that the Prime Minister and two ministers should also reside there, with the rest of the government “holding the fort” in Christiania.
This constitutional construction was unique, but when Frydenlund explains it, he does not do so by quoting the November Constitution. Instead he quotes the relevant article from a secondary source, but in a version which says that “one of the Prime Ministers” should reside in Sweden – i.e. the version from after 1873, more than fifty years after Anker’s resignation. One of Anker’s first and most important duties was to take part in the negotiations over the Act of the Union, which was approved in 1815. But Frydenlund says not a word about what was Anker’s contribution to this or if his views were taken note of. When it comes to the Act of the Union itself, Frydenlund briefly describes it and a footnote points us to “Steen 1952, p. 26-28” as his source. There is in fact no Steen 1952 in the bibliography, but a Steen 1953 and a Steen 1954. More importantly this shows that, incredibly, Anker’s biographer has not bothered to consult either the November Constitution or the Act of the Union, the constitutional texts upon which both the union itself and Anker’s job were based. The texts of both are easily available, but the author apparently only knows them from two secondary sources, one of which is not relevant for Anker’s time.
It is quite funny to see that when Frydenlund describes the Prime Minister’s official residence in Stockholm, he sounds surprised when he notes that there was a “tambur” and writes that it is not known how often the drummer was on duty. “Tambur” does indeed mean a military drummer in Norwegian, but in Swedish it means a small entrance hall or vestibule.
It is generally acknowledged that Anker was neither a great politician nor a strong leader and that the real power in government lay with his son-in-law, who was Minister of Finance in Christiania and often found himself at odds with King Carl Johan. Anker is however considered to have played a rather important role as a go-between and mediator between these two strong-willed men, but Frydenlund says little about this and even less about the interaction between Anker and Wedel. One may also wonder what if any role was played by Anker’s daughter and Wedel’s wife, Countess Karen of Wedel-Jarlsberg, who served as Mistress of the Robes for three decades, but she is hardly mentioned.
Anker’s own relationship with Carl XIV Johan soon deteriorated and Frydenlund writes that the Prime Minister tendered his resignation after the King had slapped his face during a stormy State Council meeting. Yet Anker changed his mind and remained in office until 1822, when he returned to Bogstad, dying two years later.
It seems to me that the author finds Anker the businessman, landowner, private man and genial host most interesting and deals quite left-handedly with his political career. To me the book would have been more interesting if it were the other way around. As it is, the part of the biography dealing with Anker as Prime Minister left me with more questions than answers and the chapters dealing with 1814 and the schemes leading up to those momentous events are probably the book’s most interesting parts.

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