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Johan Sverdrup

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Johan Sverdrup

Johan Sverdrup
1st Prime Minister of Norway
In office
Monarch Oscar II
Preceded by Christian Homann Schweigaard
Succeeded by Emil Stang
Personal details
Born Johan Sverdrup
30 July 1816
Died 17 February 1892(1892-02-17) (aged 75)
Nationality Norwegian
Political party Liberal Party
Spouse(s) Caroline Sverdrup
Occupation Politician
Profession lawyer
Religion Church of Norway

Johan Sverdrup (30 July 1816 – 17 February 1892) was a Norwegian politician from the Liberal Party. He was the first Prime Minister of Norway after the introduction of parliamentarism. Sverdrup was Prime Minister from 1884 to 1889.


  • Early years 1
  • Forming the alliance 2
  • The strife hardens 3
  • Sverdrup's government 4
  • Father of Parlamentarism 5

Early years

He was born in Sem, close to Norway's oldest city, Tønsberg. His father was a pioneer in scientific agriculture in Norway. He finished his law studies in 1841. The year before he had his debut as a mountaineer and climbed Norway's eighth highest mountain, Surtningssui, and thereby becoming for a short period the Norwegian who had been at the highest point in the country. His remarkable feat was his sole first climb.

He worked as a lawyer in Larvik, a small town on the west coast of the Oslofjord. In 1851 he was for the first time elected to the Storting, and from then until his appointment as Prime Minister in 1884, he was one of the leaders of parliament. In Norway, political parties were considered inappropriate and unwanted. Sverdrup tried from his earliest days in the Storting to form a radical party consisting of the large group of peasants and the radical elements among the representatives from the cities. His first attempt was named the "lawyers' party" after the profession of the leaders of the group. It soon became evident that the times were not ripe for such a radical novelty, and for the next years Sverdrup knit a loose alliance with the peasant leader, Ole Gabriel Ueland.

Sverdrup's ministry

It is ironic that if it hadn't been for Sverdrup's fervent opposition, the reform that would transform Norwegian political life from 1884 on, would have been introduced two decades earlier. The Government wanted the Ministers to meet in parliamentary sessions to further the communications between the King's Council and those elected by the people. Sverdrup managed to prevent this reform with the support of a great number of the peasants.

Forming the alliance

In 1870 Ueland died, and the loose leadership of the alliance of peasants went over to Oscar II, decided that Norway, in its precarious situation with the Council mostly convening in the capital, Christiania (presently Oslo), while the king mostly lived in Sweden's capital Stockholm needed two Prime Ministers, one in each capital. Until then there had only been one in Stockholm, because the Council in Christiania was supposed to be led by an appointed governor, a position which had been vacant for 15 years because no Swedish king had dared or wished to appoint a new governor.

This made an extremely minor change in the suggested change in the constitution, when it was passed in 1873, necessary, namely that there were now two Prime Ministers, while there was only one in the previous law text. The changed constitution was not sanctioned this time either. The same happened in 1876 and 1879, and now a major problem had occurred, which made Norwegian politics extremely difficult for several years. The Constitution explicitly stated that the king had a veto three times in law and budget matters, but there was no mention of any kind of veto concerning constitutional matters.

This omission gave way to three possibilities:

  1. The king had no veto at all
  2. The king had an absolute veto
  3. The king had the same veto rights as in all other matters

The opposition which made up a vast majority, had practically rejected the first possibility and decided upon the third, whereas the Council and the minority of the Storting was certain of the king's absolute veto.

The strife hardens

The strife which had started as a practical political reform had now turned into a political debacle which would have to change the checks and balances between the legislative and the executive branch. This had definitely become Sverdrup's goal. "All power must be gathered in the halls of the Storting" became his political program. In 1879 his party in the making made a coup by promulgating the new change in the constitution. This took the Council by surprise that the grand old man of the Council, Prime Minister Frederik Stang, resigned. The new Prime Minister, Christian Selmer, was not such a leader and force in the Council, and Sverdrup was ready for the next move, which should constitutionally have been taken in 1881. But Sverdrup's majority was not great enough to be certain of a victory in the forthcoming impeachment of the Council.

In the 1882 general elections Sverdrup's party won a convincing majority. They were able to fill the 25% of the Storting who were, together with the Supreme Court, the judges of the court, with only members of the leftist party in formation. A word must be said about the names of the two original political parties which formed during the trial, venstre, the Norwegian word for left and høyre, the Norwegian word for right. Venstre was Sverdrup's and Jaabæk's party, a liberal and radical party but definitely a party with no socialist affiliations. Høyre, the Council's and the minority party, was considered to be conservative.

Engraving by H. P. Hansen
Sverdrup's wife, Caroline

In the fall 1883 the judges convened, and the trials took several months and resulted in loss of position without honor for most of the ministers and huge fines. The king appointed a new Council led by Christian Schweigaard, but was a rather lame move, since Sverdrup immediately threatened with a new impeachment trial. The new Council was named the April Ministry, which says something about how long the king's struggle to find a solution to the total crisis that had occurred, which he could deem acceptable.

It turned out there was no other choice than to appoint Johan Sverdrup as Prime Minister. In Norwegian tradition the transition from Montesquieu's ideal of checks and balances to a parliamentary system took place when he became Prime Minister. This is an exaggeration, clearly. There is evidence that Sverdrup himself never really understood the consequences of a parliamentary system. Hence his five years in power with a vast majority in support, was no triumph march, but a row of defeats in Parliament. It is not far from a personal tragedy, and his resignation in 1889 was the only possible finale to a rather unworthy drama that took place in the almost almighty venstre.

Sverdrup's government

It turned out from the first day that Sverdrup as a Prime Minister was not the competent strategist that most Norwegians had either learned to fear or admire. He expected his adherents to follow him as they had done for almost 30 years. It also turns out that Venstre was a more loosely knit coalition than Sverdrup and the other leaders had expected. The fight against the powerful executive branch had created alliances that broke very quickly afterwards. Sverdrup and all his ministers belonged to the conservative faction of the party. They had strong support what the leading Norwegian sociologist, Stein Rokkan, labeled the periphery, adherents of lay Christianity in opposition to the clergy, adherents of the so-called New Norwegian in opposition to the Norwegian spoken in the cities, adherents of totalitarianism.

His great mistake was to refuse to include anyone from the radical faction and to further alienate them by not accepting their advice in any of the difficult political situations that arose in those years. In the 1885 general election the party's slogan was "Have confidence in Johan Sverdrup" which later has been deemed one of the most ridiculous slogans ever created. A party without ability to find anything to unite about will have no long life, and the breach in the party became evident throughout the three years before the next general elections.

Sverdrup and his colleagues and diminishing group in the Storting were more or less expelled from the party and had to start their own Venstre. The original party, now led by Sverdrup's leading opponents, Ullmann and Steen, voted against him and mocked the old man for clinging to the "Chair", but he was saved by Høyre who had no intentions to diminish the strife within the earlier almighty Venstre, and believed that their best hope was to leave the Sverdrup ministry in peace until the general elections in 1888. After those elections, which proved fully that Høyres strategy had been a sound one, Sverdrup's Ministry was quickly ousted.

Father of Parlamentarism

The views towards this controversial political leader will differ greatly with the political and historical affiliation of those expressing a view. It can not be denied that Sverdrup was an extremely skilled and able opposition leader and strategist whose influence of domestic politics was enormous for about 30 years. What can be said against such a viewpoint, is that most of the results of his opposition was destructive because he sold his radical and social liberal political views in order to gain influence in Jaabæk's loosely knit alliance of peasants. On the other hand one tends to forget that there was a class struggle between the peasants and the public servant and tradesmen classes, which in Norway with no nobility, were the most influential, and that Sverdrup, a public servant, joined the vast and less influential group of peasants in order to transform the society.

His weakness was his inability to bury hatchets and his apparent lack of

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