Swedenborg in the House of Nobles

Alfred Wynne Acton 1

The New Philosophy 45.1 (1942): 132–43.


The subject of Swedenborg's work in the House of Nobles is peculiarly appropriate at this time, when service to the country is uppermost in the thoughts. That Swedenborg was a member of the House of Nobles is, of course, known, but not much is known as to his work there, or his contributions to the settlement of current political questions. These contributions consisted, mostly, if not altogether, of written Memorials addressed to the House or to one or other of its Committees; for it does not appear that Swedenborg ever took part in the oral debates; and it is interesting to note that some of these Memorials were written several years after the opening of his spiritual eyes. This fact does not, of course, clothe these Memorials with special authority other than that of a keen and experienced patriot; but it does lead us to expect a deep insight into the principles of government—and in this expectation we shall, I think, not be disappointed. But, before going further, something should be said as to the form of government obtaining in Sweden at the time.

In Swedenborg's early days, Charles XII, the great warrior king, had despotic power. In 1697, when he ascended the throne, Sweden was one of the great powers, and had many possessions on the continent, but owing to his devotion to war, and his obstinate refusal to acknowledge defeat, nearly all Sweden's foreign possessions were lost, and the country itself was reduced to the position of a second rate power. His wars had cost Sweden dear, and when he was killed in battle in November 1718, the country experienced a deep reaction against despotic government, and his younger sister, Ulrica Eleonora, succeeded him only after she and her husband Frederick had given solemn assurance that the government would be conducted with the consent of the Diet. A new constitution was then adopted, which, while recognizing the kingly office, deprived it of all but the semblance of power. Thus began the "time of freedom"—a time which continued during the next following reign of Adolph Frederick and Louisa Ulrica until the royal power was restored in 1772 by the latters' son, Gustaf III.

The "time of freedom" was not, however, a period of freedom in any modern sense. Sweden was governed by a Diet, consisting of four Houses, Nobles, Priests, Burghers, and Peasants. But the most numerous and powerful members of this Diet were the Nobles, and the whole period of this "time of freedom" (1719–1772) witnessed the struggle by the other three Houses, especially the House of Peasants, against the dominating power of the Nobles.

Swedenborg was ennobled, and so became a member of the ruling House of the Diet, in 1719, but, owing partly to his absence from the country, he took no part in its proceedings until 1723, when he presented a Memorial on the State of the Finances. The Memorial was timely, for Sweden's financial condition was at a low ebb, owing to the wars of Charles XII. Taxes were high, and the cost of living was ever rising; trade was almost at a standstill; imports were from two and half to three millions in excess of exports; and foreign exchange was low and ever fluctuating. In addition, there was the loss of the revenue that had formerly come from the conquered provinces; and also the immense damages which had been inflicted on the country's merchant marine.

For these conditions, Swedenborg, in his Memorial, proffered three remedies: 1. To build up and improve the merchant marine. 2. "To examine the nature, quality, and quantity of all the goods which are imported from abroad, and to what extent they are necessary and indispensable to us; so that either the excessive importation may be stopped, or the merchandise may be imported more cheaply and with less expense in its transport; or that it may be manufactured at home, whereby an unnecessary importation may be prevented, and the gain arising from the manufacture of the goods may be kept in the land. 3. To see how the works and manufactories in the country may be protected and promoted, so as to produce better results in regard to cheapness, quality, and quantity" (1 Doc. 474).

Three Memorials in the same year have to do with the mining trade and the establishment of rolling mills in Sweden. At this time, the production of copper was favored and protected to the disadvantage of iron. One of the reasons given for this was that copper was a nobler and richer metal, but Swedenborg shows the foolishness of this, inasmuch as Sweden abounded much more in iron than in copper, and the development of iron would result eventually in greater wealth to the country. He shows, with great minuteness, all the wealth which accrues to the country through its iron mines: first, in the iron actually produced; then, in the taxes levied on it; the profit to the sea ports through which it was transported; and the benefits resulting from the employment of so many men in the iron mines and the smelteries, and the consequent increase in their purchasing power. Moreover, all the profits thus gained by the citizens are reinvested in Sweden, and thus continue to contribute to the public welfare and revenue.

This Memorial was referred to the College of Mines, but did not receive their support, owing to the prejudice in favor of nobler metals.

Later, in 1723, Swedenborg presented to the House of Nobles a Memorial advocating the establishment of rolling or steel mills in Sweden. This Memorial presents Swedenborg as a practical man in that business of mining and metallurgy in which he was indeed an expert. He says: "It is well known throughout the whole world that no country has better opportunities for establishing manufactories of iron than Sweden; yet it is a source of regret to many, that we desire and hope for the establishment of manufactories without doing anything to encourage and foster them" (1 Doc. 480). He then shows how that pig iron produced in Sweden goes to Holland and thence to Liege or the Saar, to be rolled and prepared for sale; yet all this profit could remain in Sweden if mills were established there. He then enumerates the advantages which would result to all classes of people, especially to blacksmiths, locksmiths, and all workers in iron, who would get first class metal at lower prices. Also, the surplus could be exported at good prices, for Sweden has the best iron in the world.

This Memorial is accompanied by a drawing and description of a steel rolling mill used at Liege, 2—a description which goes fully into the financial aspect of the matter, as well as the working of the machinery.

We hear of no more memorials by Swedenborg from 1723 until 1734—the year when Swedenborg published in Leipzig and Dresden the three tomes of his Opera Mineralia (Principia, Iron, and Copper) and his work on the Infinite. On his return to Sweden in the autumn of that year, he presented "to the Secret Committee of the House of Nobles, a Memorial on the Impolicy of Declaring War against Russia." To understand this Memorial, we must know something of the background.

For sixteen years Sweden had been at peace, and had begun to regain some of her former internal strength. But she was still filled with the glory of past military exploits, and a party rose up which favored war on Russia to regain the lost Baltic Provinces and part of Finland which had been seized by Russia as the result of the wars of Charles XII. This party was formed both of ambitious men who sought gain and advancement through war, and also of genuine patriots. They called themselves the "Hats" as a sign of virile men; whereas the other party who favored peace and the consolidation of the national resources, they referred to as "superannuated old fogies, who sought rest and tranquillity in their 'night caps'" (1 Doc. 484). Incidentally, Swedenborg was not aligned with either party. The particular occasion for discussing war at this Diet, had regard to the succession to the Crown of Poland. Charles XII had placed Stanislaus on the Polish throne, but after the, defeat of Charles, Stanislaus fled to France, and the Russians gave the throne to Augustus, the Elector of Saxony, whose claims to the throne Charles XII had so fiercely opposed. On the death of Augustus, the Polish Nobles invited Stanislaus to return, but Russia favored the son of Augustus. This led to conflict between France, whose King, Louis XV, had married Stanislaus' daughter, and Russia; and France sought the aid of Sweden by virtue of an alliance between the two countries.

In his Memorial, Swedenborg urges the Diet to take a long view of the matter. Sweden did not have sufficient men or money to carry on a protracted war, and she could expect no help from Poland, and little more than promises from France. Russia, on the other hand, was much stronger than in the days of Charles XII, both because of the wealth of her new territories, and because her army was largely officered by others than native Russians. The tradition that the Swedish Army was invincible, held true only when they had been led by their hero king.

And what could Sweden hope to gain by the war? Even if they recovered Livonia (roughly, the present three Baltic Countries recently taken over by Russia), the revenues therefrom would not nearly pay the cost of equipping the army. Besides, its possession would always open them to attacks by others. On the other hand, Sweden would have much to gain from peace, for (said Swedenborg), "the wealth of a country does not depend upon the largeness of its extent, and the number of its provinces, but upon the flourishing state of its commerce" (1 Doc. 488).

Moreover (he continued), there could be no real cause for the war, although a pretended cause can always be found. In reality, it would be an offensive war, of which there were few examples in Swedish history. Sweden is not the guarantor of the Polish Election, nor is she bound thereto by any treaties. "The greatest honor seems to consist in our acquiring a position of respect by wise economy, and in endeavoring to enrich our land, when we shall be as much respected as Holland and England, who maintain their honor among the great powers of Europe entirely by such means; yea, their essential honor seems to be founded upon this" (ibid., 488). Swedenborg advocated the appointment of a committee to make a thorough investigation of their treaties; for he could not consent to any alliance or treaty being violated. If they do eventually have to go to war, let them be sure they are the offended party. In the meantime, preparations might be made.

As to the love of military glory, he observes: "To attack any one, simply to show that one possesses strength and courage, is false glory; but to defend oneself bravely when attacked is true glory" (ibid., 490).

A deep fear and hatred of Russia was in the mind of all Swedes, but Swedenborg argues that even if Russia, in alliance with the King of Prussia, should become more powerful and more ready to attack Sweden, yet the best way Sweden could defend herself was to remain neutral now and so to become stronger for the future conflict. She has always been able to defend herself. He discourages hopeful thought concerning internal dissension within Russia, for "the army is fully able to keep everything of that nature down" (ibid., 492).

In the Diet of 1734, the Hats were not successful in dragging Sweden into war with Russia, but they did succeed seven years later, with disastrous results which fully confirmed the soundness of Swedenborg's arguments. Yet Swedenborg was not wholly opposed to a war for the recovery of the lost provinces. But with prudent caution he asks Sweden first to make herself internally strong, and then she may wait for a more favorable opportunity when Russia may "be engaged in another direction" (ibid., 492).

The next Memorial was presented nineteen years later, in 1755, when Swedenborg was busily engaged in writing the Arcana Coelestia. He is again much concerned with the unfavorable balance of trade, and in this connection he touches upon the liquor question. The distilling of spirits had been a right, fiercely defended by every farmer, and the natural consequence was the spread of drunkenness. Swedenborg, indeed, takes note of this fact when, in the Memorial now spoken of, he says: "The immoderate use of spirituous liquors will be the downfall of the Swedish people" (ibid., 493).

But another evil resulting from the right of private distillation, was the immense sums annually expended by Sweden for the importation of grain, which materially contributed to the great excess of imports over exports. It was with this in mind that Swedenborg, in his Memorial, included, as one of his recommendations, the farming out by the State of the right of distilling spirits, by which means, he observes, the country would get considerable revenue; yet, having in mind the prevalent abuse, he adds, "that is, if the consumption of whiskey cannot be done away with altogether, which would be more desirable for the country's welfare and morality than all the income which could be realized from so pernicious a drink" (ibid., 494) . 3

It was in this same year, 1760, that Swedenborg, who had then finished the Apocalypse Explained and was writing some smaller works, notably De Verbo, presented his next Memorial to the House of Nobles. This dealt with the currency. The financial position of Sweden was at this time extremely low, owing to the disastrous rate of foreign exchange, due, as Swedenborg observes, to "paper, which represents money but is not money, becoming the medium of currency instead of coin" (1 Doc. 497). 4

His principal Memorial, dated November 1760, is divided into three parts, showing first the harm done by the unfavorable rate of exchange; second, its causes; and, third, the remedy. Among its injurious effects, he enumerates the rising prices of the necessities of life; the higher cost of government, leading to higher taxes, and to a great increase in the rise in prices; civil and military officers do not get sufficient to maintain their standard of living, which encourages corruption; and the increased expense of carrying on wars. We pass over five further injuries which he enumerates, but which he says "can be seen only by the initiated" (ibid., 499).

In the second part of this Memorial, Swedenborg analyzes the causes of the high rate of exchange. He observes that the main cause is the sanction given by the Diet, permitting banks to issue money upon all "fixed and movable property," far in excess of the total value of the capital of coined money. This led to the existence of much ready money, but without any solid foundation. People could indeed raise money on their property, but it was paper currency that was issued on the basis of it. This encouraged the people who had thus raised money to live extravagantly, without considering that the money would have to be paid back. The period was a period of great inflation, and this led Swedenborg to remark: "Our country has been outwardly rich and inwardly poor; but in the future, it will become outwardly poor also" (1 Doc. 500).

He then sets forth the remedy: It is essential to call back all loans on fixed and movable property, making the mortgagees pay annually a percentage of their debt, as well as the interest. This would restore the confidence of business men. Moreover, in future, all paper must be on the basis of the coin held, so that "banknotes not only represent money but to all intents and purposes are money" (ibid., 501). In the meantime, that there be no shortage of money, all exportation of copper in any form must cease. Several minor recommendations are added, even including provision for the loss of employment by bank employees.

Swedenborg's attitude to his duty to his country, even while he was engaged in the greatest use that has fallen to man, is shown in the concluding words of this Memorial. "All this I consider myself, as a member of the Diet, in duty bound to submit, in all humility, to the consideration of the several Houses of the Diet, inasmuch as I am obliged, according to my ability, to reflect upon, and to submit for consideration, everything that may be of use to the public good of the country; and the subject which I have discussed above is the most important of all, inasmuch as the general welfare of the country depends upon it; for the currency in a country is like the blood in the body, upon which depends its life, health, strength, and defence" (ibid., 503).

A second Memorial on the currency which Swedenborg sent in during this same year, analyzes other ways that might be tried for remedying the rate of exchange, and shows the fallacies that underlie them (ibid., 505). There is also a Memorial addressed to the King, asking him to prohibit the export of copper, which is attacking the very foundation of the country's wealth.

It is these Memorials, that led Count von Höpken, the former Premier, to write: "The most solid memorials, and the best penned, at the Diet of 1761, on matters of finance, were presented by him (Swedenborg). In one of these he refuted a large work in quarto on the same subject, quoted all the corresponding passages of it, and all this in less than one sheet" (ibid., 516 note).

Early in the following year, the Diet appointed a Secret Commission on Exchange, and, owing to his well known interest in this question, Swedenborg received an invitation to attend this Commission—an invitation, however, which he declined. 5

The "work in quarto," above referred to, was by Nordencrantz, a member of the House of Nobles, belonging to the Caps. In this work, he ascribed the falling rate of exchange to the corruption of state officials and private persons rather than to the policy followed by the government. To this, Swedenborg was utterly opposed, and this led him into a controversy with Nordencrantz which later developed some bitterness between the two.

Early in 1761, Swedenborg wrote a Memorial to the Diet in which he adversely criticizes Nordencrantz's book. The author, he held, had done great disservice to the country by pointing out the faults and weaknesses of the Government, but in no way looking for any of its good points. In this way, great harm is done to the Government in the minds of unthinking people, and the possibilities of good in the Government are minimized.

All proud and evil-disposed men place their prudence in finding fault with, and blaming, others; and all generous and truly Christian souls place their prudence in judging all things according to circumstances, and thence in excusing such faults as may have arisen from weakness, and in inveighing against such evils as may have been done on purpose. Should I undertake to make known all the mistakes of which I hear and which I know, from my own experiences, have happened in England and Holland to the detriment of justice and the public good, I believe I might fill a whole book with the lamentations. When, nevertheless, those governments, together with our own in Sweden, are the very best in Europe, as every inhabitant, notwithstanding all the shortcomings which happen there, is safe in his life and property, and no one is a slave, but they are all free men.(1 Doc. 512)

Swedenborg then says that if a heavenly government were to be established on earth, like faults would be found with it, so that at length even well-disposed men might be led to seek to change it and destroy it. He shows, in some detail, why the Swedish government is the best, because of its series of subordination of officials of every kind.

Yet it is impossible to escape all distortion of right, and all wrong interpretations of law, since most men are subject to human weaknesses, and hence are inclined to one of two parties, either by friendship, relationship, hope of promotion, or of presents, and this malpractice cannot be uprooted under any government, however excellent it may be. . . . The good in our government far overbalances the bad. . . . Take care lest by an enumeration of too many shortcomings, it create among the people themselves, and among the Houses of the Diet now assembled, discontent with the excellent government established among us. (ibid., ¶ 6)

He also wrote a detailed criticism of the Nordencrantz book which he sent to the author, together with a friendly letter.6 His argument here again centers chiefly on Nordencrantz's attack on the government. As being of special interest, we give the following extract: "In free governments, it is impossible to prevent corrupt practices, and power being exercised by cliques on the ground of such practices; yet, these are continually undergoing changes, i.e., they increase and decrease at every session of the Diet; in Sweden, however, these practices are much more insignificant than in England" (ibid., 518). Swedenborg then shows the corrupt practices of absolute monarchs who are corrupted by men who study their passions, and appeal to them; and he instances Charles XII who was corrupted by his minister Baron Goertz, who appealed to his passion for war. "From this, it may be seen that one absolute or arbitrary monarch is able to do more mischief in one year, than a clique or combination of many at a session of the Diet could accomplish in a hundred years" (1 Doc. 519).

The last two Memorials, addressed to the House of Nobles by Swedenborg, were written in 1761, in defence of three members of the Royal Council, von Höpken, Palmstjerna, and Scheffer. 7

Swedenborg's first Memorial was an appeal for the reinstatement in the Royal Council of his friend von Höpken. It was written early in February, as soon as he had heard of the latter's more or less enforced resignation. The second Memorial, appealing in favor of the other two Councilors, was written about July. In both Memorials, Swedenborg based his appeal on the ground that the action of the Councilors in question had been in accordance with the Swedish Constitution.8

We shall pass over Swedenborg's special defence as embodied in these two Memorials, and confine ourselves to an extract from the last of them, which deals with the question of freedom—in fact, the Memorial itself is entitled: "Frank views concerning the maintenance of the country and the preservation of its freedom" He says: "There are two fundamental points to which it behoves the honorable Houses of the Diet to devote particular attention, and to watch over as anxiously as each member would guard his own life and welfare. The first is the preservation of our noble form of government, and thereby of our invaluable freedom; the other is the maintenance of our alliances with foreign powers, and especially with France." In regard to the first point, he shows the terrible state of the country which would arise by going back to an absolute monarchy. Especially does he fear that an absolute monarch might be seduced by the Roman Catholic Church, and thus spiritually enslave all his people. He shows in how many lands this had recently happened, and how cunning is that Church; so we must not think Sweden would not be vulnerable to it. He adds also: "I cannot see any difference between a king of Sweden who possesses absolute power, and an idol; for all turn themselves, heart and soul, as well to the one as to the other, they obey his will, and worship what passes out of his mouth." In speaking of his second point about foreign alliances, he suggests France is the one they may be closely bound to because she is some distance from Sweden, and territorial disputes are not likely to arise. "Since England and Hanover have been united under one sovereign, and since he, as Elector of Hanover, has come into the possession of lands which formerly belonged to Sweden, his interests are turned against us, and ours against him, and it is impossible that this can be overlooked or forgotten by either party" (See 1 Doc. 538–42). The rest of the Memorial is concerned with showing how well the three Senators, for whose reinstatement he was appealing, had preserved these two cardinal principles of the Swedish Government.

So ends the record of Swedenborg's political acts, as they are left us. We see in them a keen insight into the needs of his country, and a practical knowledge of the measures to be taken for the meeting of those needs. Above all, we see, in them, a lover of his country; a man who refuses to enter into party strifes and animosities, and devotes himself solely to the ascertaining of what is for the welfare of the fatherland.

Footnotes top

1 Delivered in London, at a celebration of Swedenborg's Birthday on February second, 1941.

2 This drawing was engraved at Swedenborg's own expense during his sojourn in Liege in 1722, and was subsequently included as Plate XXIX in his work on Iron published in 1734. (Editor.)

3 It may be noted that, shortly after the submission of this Memorial, namely in November 1756, the Hat Party, which was then in power, entirely prohibited all private distillations—a prohibition which continued in force until 1760, when the Caps came to power and reintroduced private distillation on payment of a small tax. (Editor.)

4 It may here be noted, that some fifty years later, Swedenborg's position with regard to the coinage was highly praised by the Finnish economist, Chedenius, as the soundest and most excellently argued position that had ever been presented. (Editor.)

5 This " Secret Commission," of sixteen members, had been appointed in effect to supersede a Commission of forty-eight members nominated by Nordencrantz under authority of the Diet. Swedenborg's objection to joining it was due to his knowledge that its appointment was due to hatred of Nordencrantz. (Editor.)

6 This was the "single sheet" referred to by von Höpken. (Editor.)

7 In February 1761, there was a strong movement in the Diet to dismiss these men from the Council, on the ground that in 1757, when von Höpken was Premier, they had voted to join France in war against Prussia, without the consent of the Diet. When they took this step, the Diet had just been concluded, and no regular Diet would again meet until 1760. Moreover, the declaration of war was made in accordance with the Westphalian Treaty, by which Sweden bound herself to come to the help of France. Von Höpken, however, hearing of what was proposed, resigned from the Council before any action against him could be taken. The other two Councilors, Palmstjerna and Scheffer, were dismissed at the end of February. (Editor.)

8 This view finally prevailed, and early in August, the Diet made it possible for all three men to reenter the Royal Council. (Editor.)