Instrument of Government (1772)

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Sweden's Constitution of 1772 (Swedish: regeringsform, lit.'Instrument of Government') took effect through a bloodless coup d'état, the Revolution of 1772, carried out by Gustav III, who had become king in 1771. It established once again a division of power between the parliament and the king. The period came to be known as the Gustavian era. This was a response to a perceived harm wrought upon Sweden by a half-century of parliamentarism during the country's Age of Liberty[1] practiced according to the Instrument of Government (1719), as many members of the Swedish parliament then used to be bribed by foreign powers.

History and effects[edit]

The 1772 Constitution was partly inspired by the current Enlightenment ideas of separation of powers by Montesquieu,[2][3] but also based on earlier traditions in Sweden, especially from the era of King Gustav II Adolf,[2][3] and two of the offices of the ancient Great Officers of the Realm were revived. King Gustav III also cherished other Enlightenment ideas (as an enlighted despot) and repealed torture, liberated agricultural trade, diminished the use of death penalty etc.[4] The somewhat later Freedom of the Press Act of 1774, a part of the constitutional law and largely edited by Gustav III, was actually commended by Voltaire.[4] The earlier first Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 was repealed by the Constitution in 1772.

The outcome of the constitution and its deliberately vague formulations,[1][3][2] partly attributable to it being written in haste,[2] was however a more or less authoritarian political system more weighted in favour of the king's power.[1][3] In 1789 it was amended in a still more autocratic direction by the Union and Security Act.

Formally, the 1772 Constitution was adopted by the Parliament (Riksdag) on 21 August 1772, but this took place as members of the Parliament and the Privy Council were under threat by the royal garrison on order by King Gustav III outside of Stockholm Palace, where the Parliament and Privy Council were assembled in different parts of the palace. Leading members of the Caps party who sat in the Privy Council (as well as in Parliament) were arrested,[1] as they were locked up in the Privy Council Room and released shortly after the adoption of the constitution.[1]

The 1772 Constitution replaced the Swedish Constitution of 1720 (which was fundamentally similar to the 1719 Constitution) and was in turn replaced by the 1809 Instrument of Government following the defeat in the Finnish War and the removal of King Gustav IV Adolf from the throne.[5]


Largely the content of the Constitution was the following:

  • The king governed the civil service and Parliaments were assembled only at the king's will when the king had to raise taxes and legislate (legislation was regulated in articles 40-43). An offensive war also had to be approved by Parliament (article 48) and also new taxation (articles 45-46).[2][3]
  • The Privy Council's justice department (Swedish: Justitierevisionen), functioned as a fairly independent Supreme Court[2] (the king had two votes in this Court's judgements, as in all decisions by the council in the Age of Liberty). The Privy Council did not however function so much as a political institution as in the Age of Liberty,[2][3] and in these matters the king could put it aside and listen to other advisors and councillors as the king also often did.[2]
  • The king however, had to listen to the advice of the Privy Council in cases concerning treaties about peace, armistice and alliances with foreign powers[2][3][6] and (state) visits to other countries.[6] In these cases the council also could veto the king, if all members of the Council shared this view unanimously.[6]

In Finland after 1809[edit]

In the Grand Duchy of Finland, created in 1809 from the eastern third of Sweden as part of the Russian Empire, the 1772 Constitution had a peculiar status. While the Russian emperors, reigning in Finland as grand dukes, never gave any indication that they considered their autocratic powers limited by any constitution, a theory was developed in Finland that the old Instrument of Government remained in force, mutatis mutandis, with Finland's position as part of the Empire having the nature of a personal union. This theory was, however, never put forward officially and never accepted in St. Petersburg. It did gain considerable popular currency in Finland, so that Russification measures instituted from the 1890s onwards were commonly decried as an "unconstitutional" assault on the country's autonomy. The "Constitutionals" (perustuslailliset) were an important political faction in Finland at this time, and their legacy of constitutional legalism has had a significant effect on later Finnish politics.

The matter remained officially uncontested and arguably unresolved for more than a century, but after the abdication of Nicholas II in 1917, the Parliament of Finland, as successor to the old Estates of the Realm, moved to assume sovereign power in Finland, based on the old Swedish provisions in case of a vacancy on the throne. This led to a power struggle with the Provisional Government of Russia, as well as within Finland, culminating, after the October revolution, in the Finnish declaration of independence.

The Instrument of Government was finally superseded when Finland adopted a republican form of government in 1919.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Gustaf III, Nordisk Familjebok (1909) (in Swedish)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Bäcklin, Martin, ed. (1965). Historia för gymnasiet: allmän och nordisk historia efter år 1000 (in Swedish) (3rd ed.). Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. pp. 283–284. SELIBR 1610850.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Borg, Ivan; Nordell, Erik; Rodhe, Sten; Nordell, Erik (1967). Historia för gymnasiet. Årskurs 1 (in Swedish) (4th ed.). Stockholm: AV Carlsons. pp. 412–413. SELIBR 10259755.
  4. ^ a b Borg, Ivan; Nordell, Erik; Rodhe, Sten; Nordell, Erik (1967). Historia för gymnasiet. Årskurs 1 (in Swedish) (4th ed.). Stockholm: AV Carlsons. p. 410. SELIBR 10259755.
  5. ^ Regeringsformen, Nordisk Familjebok (1915) (in Swedish)
  6. ^ a b c Articles 6 and 7 of the Constitution (Instrument of Government or Regeringsform). (in Swedish)

External links[edit]