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Glad Syttonde Mai! Celebration of the Bicentenary of the Norwegian Constitution

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The following is a guest post by Elin Hofverberg, a foreign law research consultant at the Law Library of Congress.

Carl Johans Gade
Carl Johans Gade with Slotted (i.e., Slottet), Christinia, Norway [between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, // (“Photo shows the Karl Johans Gate, Royal Palace, and Grand Hotel in Oslo, Norway; taken from a window in the Parliament building.”)
May 17 (or “Syttonde Mai” as the locals call it), which falls this weekend, is always cause for great celebration in Oslo as Norway celebrates its National Day or Constitution Day. This generally means dressing up in local traditional clothing, bunads, and heading to the Carl Johans Gate in Oslo, flag in hand, to celebrate. This year it is extra special as it marks the 200th anniversary of Norway’s constitution (grunnlov).

The drafting of the country’s own constitution as an act of independence came after Denmark surrendered Norway to Sweden as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. The surrender was required by the Peace Treaty of Kiel, signed on January 14, 1814.  The Norwegians, with an eye on full independence after more than 400 years with Denmark, were ready to seize their own destiny and create an independent sovereign nation. On May 17, 1814, the Storting (the Norwegian Assembly, later Parliament) in Eidsvoll adopted its own constitution and kingdom, albeit with a Danish prince on the throne, who became King Christian Frederik.

When the Norwegians were again to choose their own king in 1905, after the dissolution of the union with Sweden, they chose another Danish prince, Prince Carl.  Prince Carl changed his name to the more Norwegian-sounding Haakon. His son, Prince Olav (born Alexander) is the grandfather of the current Norwegian king, King Harald.

The Norwegian Constitution, which was based on the American, French, Spanish, and Swedish constitutions of the time, was considered modern and limited the powers of the king compared to the power of the previous Danish king. The enactment of the 1814 constitution meant the end of the Danish Kongelov (King’s Law), which gave absolute power to the monarch. Many amendments have been made to the Constitution since 1814, including the additions of state responsibilities related to enabling people to earn a living and protecting the right to a healthy and natural environment, and providing for real religious freedom.

Norwegian constitutioin
Photo by Donna Sokol

The Norwegian Parliament has an up to date version of the Constitution available online.

The 1814 events sharply affected the way the map of Scandinavia looks today. Norway left Denmark but the Norwegian provinces (Greenland, Faeroe Islands, and Iceland) that Norway had brought with it into Denmark in 1536 remained in Denmark’s possession until after World War II when Iceland gained its own independence. The Faeroe Islands and Greenland are both autonomous but with Denmark as a sovereign today.

The Norwegian Parliament Library has taken the opportunity to celebrate the 200th anniversary with a Constitution jubilee, including events, displays etc., all to commemorate independence and the text of the Constitution. For instance, it is having a special display of the documents surrounding the 1814 events, including the grunnlov.  The Danish National Library is also commemorating the 1814 event, including with a presentation titled “The greatest Danish loss ever” (Det storste dansk tab nogensinde).

The Norwegian legal website has developed a special Constitution jubilee page with fun facts about the constitution. The Nordic Council is also celebrating 1814 as it was the start of 200 years of peace between the Nordic countries.

The Library of Congress holds various copies of, and books about, the Norwegian Constitution as published in different years.

As the Norwegians would say: Glad Syttende Mai!

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