Peter Forsskal: Thoughts on Civil Liberty
Second Edition
  Who published it?
  The Swedish 1766 Freedom of the Press Act, although it was a constitutional law, was overturned by Gustav III after his seizure of power and change of the constitution in 1772. The freedom of the press, for publishers and authors, was gradually reduced until the murder of the king in spring 1792. His son was then a child, too young to take up government, and the regency, in the person of the leading official, Gustaf Adolf Reuterholm, introduced a new law for the freedom of the printed word by the act of July 11, 1792. This statute has been much criticized for its legal deficiencies – a clear-sighted contemporary dismissed it as a “piece of eloquence labelled a freedom of the press act”. Nevertheless, it was enthusiastically welcomed by many and it resulted in several new or restarted magazines and a public discussion of civil rights and the principles of government. The debate was influenced by developments in America but above all by the French Revolution, and this was shortly to be the reason for stifling public discussion again. A warning against violations of the act of July was issued on December 21 1792, and although some magazines tried to continue, their permissions to publish were soon withdrawn. Another contemporary remark is too good not to be quoted: “a pity that Reuterholm's child should die so soon” – “yes, and precisely as it was teething”.
  Even if this window of freedom was more imaginary than real, it still must be considered a factor in the publication of the second edition of Peter Forsskål's forbidden pamphlet from 1759. It opened up an opportunity for lively political discussion and inspiration resulting from the developments in France which form the logical context for the 1792 edition of Peter Forsskål's Tankar om borgerliga friheten. As can be seen from the following comparison between the original edition and that of 1792, the latter has an extended title claiming that the text is relevant to the current principles of freedom among the French – which it certainly is. There is no denying, however, that the references to France in the title were probably a way of attracting buyers for the pamphlet. Looking more closely at the two versions, one can see that the references to France are few and not very important. The most substantial addition is a note to § 6, which, as Thomas von Vegesack suggests, most probably has been added to soften the criticism of the king in this paragraph and of absolutism in the preceding one. These were intertwined and very sensitive issues in the political debate throughout the eighteenth century, not less after the murder of the king in 1792.
  But who was behind it? Torsten Steinby makes a guess at the bookseller (and later printer) J.S. Ekmanson, who published one of the liberal magazines, Werlds-borgaren, August-December 1792 (Steinby, Peter Forsskål och Tankar om borgerliga friheten, 1970). Although Ekmanson embraced the freedom of the printed word in his magazine, I have never found this suggestion likely. In 1802, when the new king, Gustav IV Adolf, introduced a very strict form of censorship, Ekmanson became inspector of the printing offices, with the charge to go prying about in the houses of his former rivals. He performed his task with ardour. Could the minion of oppression be the publisher of Tankar 1792? No. But, most importantly, the pamphlet does not appear in any of the advertisements for his bookshop.
  Tankar 1792, however, does appear in the advertisements for another bookseller and publisher in Stockholm: Bengt Holmén (1731 - 1794). The first advertisement is in Stockholms Post-Tidningar, no. 97, Dec. 10 1792, which is also the only advertisement in this official newspaper. Advertisements do appear regularly, however, first in Stockholmsposten, Dec. 14, 1792, the next one in Dagligt Allehanda, Dec. 17, and the next one after that also in Dagligt Allehanda, Dec. 27 – in this issue the warning against violations of the press act of December 21 is published, so Holmén's timing was not the best. It is advertised frequently during 1793 and 1794 until Holmén fell ill on May 5 1794. He died on June 30, and his stock was finally sold off in August 1794. The new edition of Tankar seems to have escaped the attention of the authorities, or, perhaps they chose to turn a blind eye to it. One may guess that they burnt their fingers in 1759.
  There is not much to be found about Holmén in published or archival sources. He has, however, an interesting and pertinent history in connection with the freedom of the press. After having spent the years 1752-1757 at Uppsala University, supported by a Royal scholarship, and then having earned his living as a private tutor, he applied for, and got, a privilege as bookseller on August 19 1766, but he had appeared as an author already the year before.
  This is not the place to give a full picture of him as author; suffice it to say that he did not have many thoughts of his own as a writer. He usually echoed the political ideas of greater men. I must say, however, that he was a stronger than usual supporter of equality, and that his commitment to the freedom of the printed word is consistent throughout his career. In one of his own works from 1765 he recommends a reasonable and sensible freedom of the printed word as a surer means than state inspectors to spreading useful knowledge among the farmers. He was the publisher behind several works advocating freedom of the press in 1766-1770. One of them in particular is interesting; it is by Isac Faggot (1769) and is clearly elaborating on Forsskål's ideas of ten years earlier, even referring to Forsskål by name. Another one, also in 1769, caused great commotion. It was a furious attack on the Hat party and, barely disguised, on the king. In a letter of 1792 another publisher and bookseller, Carl Christoffer Gjörwell, said that Holmén became known as a fair anti-royalist because of this publication when he “took the waters for it”, referring to the fact that Holmén in 1770 was condemned to 21 days on water and bread in place of the unknown author, whom he refused to reveal.
  After that experience he escaped to the safer area of religious publications for many years but towards the end of the 1780s he began to turn back to his old publishing line with items of general political concern. It is of course risky to draw any definite conclusion about his political views from his publishing profile. In a cynical vein you may remark that he followed the trade conditions, publishing what was likely to sell rather than supporting radical ideas. However, both may be true. He called his bookshop the Moral bookshop, which annoyed Gjörwell who thought he was being made fun of, as he ran the Historic bookshop (in Swedish it rhymes: Moraliske-Historiske).
  There is no absolute proof that Holmén was the publisher of Tankar 1792, but the phrasings in his advertisements suggest it, and the pamphlet was not available in any other bookshop in Stockholm. It is also in line with other works he published, e.g. a translation (possibly by himself) of Essai sur les formes de gouvernement, et sur les devoirs des souverains, by Frederick the Great in 1789, which contained a clear declaration against oppression of opinions. He also reissued several of the political texts he had published in the beginning of his career and added some new. In the multitude of political texts published in 1792, the second edition of Peter Forsskål's Tankar om borgerliga friheten stands out as one of the best pleas for civil rights and economic equality for everyone. Whether he published for political or business reasons, Holmén must have found the text relevant, as, in fact, we still do today.
  Gunilla Jonsson 2011-03-28