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Commentary on The Source of Our Country’s Weakness

Among the pamphlets published during Chydenius’s stay in Stockholm as a delegate of the Diet in 1765–6, The Source of Our Country’s Weakness, printed by Lars Salvius in April 1765, aroused most interest among the public. According to Chydenius’s autobiography, a new edition was printed after only two weeks. Later the same year it was even translated into German and published under the title Die Quelle von Schwedens Unvermögen.1 Although The Source was published anonymously, the name of the actual author must have leaked out gradually. This made him a famous man in the heated discussions that were held during this Diet – which has been described as something of a showcase trial castigating the former Hat government.2 At least nine small pamphlets were published criticizing the anonymous writer, who undoubtedly here presents his views in such a clear and condensed manner that it was easy to read and comment upon them. These critical comments too were published anonymously, but it has been supposed that the well-known economic writer Edvard Fredric Runeberg was among the authors with a piece called Water Tests Conducted at the Source of Our Country’s Weakness,3 published in the summer of 1765.4 Chydenius wrote at least two rejoinders to his commentators. The first rejoinder, A Circumstantial Response to the Refutation of the Treatise Entitled: The Source of Our Country’s Weakness, and Remarks on the Water Tests Conducted at the Same Source,5 was written as a direct response – as well as a response to Runeberg’s piece – to a small tract published during the summer of 1765. This tract was probably written by Bengt Junggren, a secretary to the Board of War.6 The second rejoinder was called Advice as an Answer to the 14 Questions Presented to Chydenius, M.A., regarding The Source of Our Country’s Weakness,7 which was a response to a list of critical points that had been raised against his original text.

Runeberg and Junggren to a large extent approve of the existence of the staple system as well as the ordinance of 1724, which Eli Heckscher called the “fundamental law” of the old Swedish mercantile shipping system, the Commodity Ordinance (produktplakatet).8 As we have seen, the Staple Ordinance allowed direct export trade only from certain ports in Sweden and Finland: the ones that were granted staple rights. The Commodity Ordinance prohibited foreign merchants from transporting to Sweden goods that did not originate from their own country, and from this it followed that their contribution to Swedish exports also diminished. The general argument behind both the staple system and the Ordinance was that they would stimulate the development of Sweden’s own shipping industry so that Sweden would not have to rely on Dutch or English ships, for example, for its import and export trade. Not always explicitly put was also the argument that a great commercial fleet of one’s own was necessary for naval strength and military omnipotence during times of war. Chydenius’s argument was instead that regulations of this kind made imports much more expensive, as foreign ships had no cargo to take back, and that the demand for Swedish exports would diminish. Perhaps even more important from Chydenius’s point of view was that a small number of big merchants in Stockholm and other staple towns would monopolize exports. According to him, the prohibition on “selling directly to the foreigner” would imply that Swedish growers and producers would receive a diminished price for their goods.

Later on in life, when Chydenius in his autobiography discusses The Source and how it came about, he notes that “[t]he subject was at first quite alien to me”. Lars Salvius, the printer of some of Chydenius’s tracts and in whose library he seems to have spent much time, acquainted the young member of the Diet with the subject, however. As a consequence of this, his arguments cannot be said to be particularly original. They had been repeated over and over again in pleas at several Diets. One particular authority that Chydenius follows rather closely is a text published by the Academy of Sciences in 1761 and written by a professor of chemistry at the Academy in Turku, Pehr Adrian Gadd, A Speech concerning the Finnish Climate and Its Consequences for the Country’s Economy.9 Moreover, Christopher Polhem, Christian König, Anders Nordencratz and of course Lars Salvius had earlier published works criticizing the Commodity Ordinance.

However, Chydenius seems to have picked up one new source when, as a member of the Fisheries Joint Committee, he was able to study the otherwise secret archives of the Board of Trade. What he found was a small memorandum dating from 1723 written by Emanuel Swedenborg, then assessor at the Board of Mining, in which Swedenborg forcefully criticized the Commodity Ordinance for causing a rise in the price of salt, which, he argued, would have detrimental effects on the Swedish economy.10 In A Circumstantial Response this text is mentioned without naming the author.

On the whole, the general result of Chydenius’s campaigning was mixed. As we have seen, the battle for staple rights for Ostrobothnian ports was crowned with success in 1765. However, to what extent Chydenius played an important role when the Estate of Burghers at last agreed to comply with the other estates in reforming the system we cannot know. With regard to the Commodity Ordinance, the campaign was a failure, as the ordinance was not lifted until the 1820s. However, through the publication of The Source, and the debate that ensued, the chaplain from Alaveteli had made a name of himself as a radical opponent of the prevailing protective system.

Lars Magnusson

  1. P. Virrankoski, Anders Chydenius: Demokratisk politiker i upplysningens tid, Stockholm: Timbro, 1995, p. 127. The German translation was published in Stockholm, but it is not known who had it translated or who did the translation.
  2. See Anders Chydenius’s life and work/The Diet of 1765–6.
  3. E.F. Runeberg, Wattu-prof wid Källan til rikets wanmagt, Stockholm, 1765.
  4. Virrankoski, op. cit., p. 130.
  5. Omständeligt swar, på den genom trycket utkomne wederläggning af skriften, kallad: Källan til rikets wanmagt, jämte anmärkningar öfwer de wid samma källa anstälda wattu-prof, Stockholm, 1765.
  6. Junggren’s tract was called Circumstantial Refutation of the Treatise Called The Source of Our Country’s Weakness (Omständelig wederläggning af skriften, kallad: Källan til rikets wanmagt, Stockholm, 1765.)
  7. Anwisning til swar, på de magist. Chydenius förestäldte 14 frågor, rörande Källan til rikets wanmagt, Stockholm, 1766.
  8. E.F. Heckscher, “Produktplakatet: Den gamla svenska sjöfartspolitikens grundlag”, in E.F. Heckscher, Ekonomi och historia, Stockholm: Albert Bonniers förlag, 1922, p. 164f.
  9. P.A. Gadd, Tal om finska climatet och dess fölgder, i landets hushållning, Stockholm, 1761.
  10. G. Schauman, Biografiska undersökningar om Anders Chydenius, Helsinki: Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland, 1908, p. 175f.