Economic Development in Denmark Before and During the World War/The Free Constitution of 1849

The Free Constitution of 1849

A new day, however, dawned on the country with the introduction of the Free Constitution, which held forth many promises of social readjustment. Now the aim was to bring all these promises into effect. It was in conformity with the fundamental idea of the new constitution, as well as with existing economic ideas, to cut all ties with the past as quickly as possible. If we look through the laws of the period, this fact is vividly impressed upon us. These laws are evidently based on the view generally prevalent at the time, that the chief aim must be to organize the community with reference to the free development of the powers of the individual. The individualist community was thus the great goal. The task of the state was to be limited so far as possible to the protection of rights and the maintenance of order.

We may mention a few parliamentary acts that seem to support this view. The constitution, of course, asserted religious freedom. In 1851 an act was passed permitting civil marriage for persons belonging to different sects or for persons not belonging to any recognized sect. In 1855 an act was passed releasing members of the established church from the so-called Sognebaand (obligation to accept the services of the pastor of their own parish) and permitting them to have recourse to another pastor of the same church. In 1857 compulsory baptism was abolished. Some years later, in 1868, an act was passed permitting free congregations to be formed within the established church by persons who had been released from the Sognebaand and desired a pastor of their own choosing. In reality this law was not often applied, but it is thought to have been of great importance as a sort of safety valve.

The constitution likewise asserted the principle of freedom of speech, and a Press Act was accordingly passed in 1851. A few years later, in 1856, an act was passed concerning elementary schools in the towns and rural districts. In the same year an act was passed to establish public funds for the relief of the poor, in order to lighten the burden resting on the customary poor relief funds. Besides these there were several municipal laws for the government of Copenhagen (1857); for the levying of taxes in Copenhagen (1861); and for the government of the provincial towns (1868).

In regard to economic legislation proper, we may mention an act of 1855 relating to charging of interest and bearing the title: 'An Act whereby the rate of interest in certain cases is made optional and the punishment for usury is changed.' A number of acts were also passed to regulate the carrying-on of certain businesses in the capital, such as brewing and baking. Of the greatest importance, however, was the comprehensive Trade Act of December 29, 1857, which redeemed the promise of the constitution that all restrictions of free and equal access to trade, which were not calculated to promote the public welfare, should be abolished. By this act, which also asserted free trade, with a short period of transition, as its leading principle, the towns were largely deprived of their monopolies, and the guilds also lost their monopolistic position. The latter were to continue as purely voluntary institutions, and the journeyman's probation work was no longer to be compulsory.

With regard to agriculture, the aim was to abolish all inequality. Thus in 1850 an act was passed concerning privileged and unprivileged Hartkorn. In the same year acts were passed abolishing the service obligation still resting on farms and houses, and in the following year came an act to abolish the right of killing game on lands where it was not connected with the right of ownership. But the work of the parliament (Rigsdag) was soon entirely concentrated on furthering the transition from leaseholds to freeholds. Various acts were passed to facilitate the sale of leaseholds belonging to the state, the university, and other public institutions. The sale of leaseholds under fiefs and entails was encouraged by an act of 1854. There followed, in 1861 and 1872, two acts introducing various improvements in the leases of those who remained leaseholders, and several others concerning sales. It was provided that a landowner who sold land in lease might freely dispose of a part of it, in order, for instance, to form new estates. The result was that in a short time only a few thousand leaseholds were left, while still a large number of houses were rented or let. For freeholders no legislation was necessary. The times were good, the prices of grain were high and the value of land was increasing.

Less favourable, however, were the circumstances of the farm labourers, who were very poorly paid. Wages rose about the middle of the century, to be sure, but not rapidly enough to keep pace with the increasing cost of commodities. The farmers helped their hands along to some extent by their customary gifts, but the condition of labourers in general was little to be envied; and when old age came, the poorhouse was often their only recourse. But to all this the legislature paid little attention. In 1854 it passed a Servants' Act which protected the servants in various ways and abolished the earlier regulation whereby children of peasants were obliged to enter into service. Shortly before the introduction of the Free Constitution an ordinance had been issued (1848) which was designed to improve the condition of cottars and lodgers and abolish the master's right of punishment. The owner of a house was thereby prevented from exacting any work of a person who rented his house but was not in his regular service. But beyond this the legislature did not go.

As the populations of the towns increased, the living conditions of the lower classes grew worse and worse. In the middle of the century the housing question in Copenhagen as most discouraging. Little attention was paid to the unhealthy condition of the overcrowded tenements in some quarters of the city, and still less to other evils resulting from it. The cholera epidemic in 1853 created some alarm, to be sure, but did not lead to the adoption of any vigorous measures to prevent another similar occurrence. The Building Act of 1856 did not provide sufficient protection against these nuisances, and the consequences were quick to appear. Poor and inadequate as were the wages and housing conditions of the working people, the latter were nevertheless increasing in number, and it was obvious that they would not long remain satisfied with the indifference manifested by the government toward social questions. In the Emancipation Acts they could see advantages for their employers, masters or manufacturers, but it was difficult for them to see the merits of a legislature which provided for them only the poorhouse and otherwise mostly left them to shift for themselves. Thus the circumstances of the tradesmen remained wretched; and after the abolition of the guild system by the Trade Act of 1857 they were left without any real organization, even though the old guilds lived on as purely voluntary institutions.