According to contemporary domestic understanding early-modern Sweden (1500–1800) was a society characterized by ‘freedom’, socially as well as politically. The word frihet (embracing the concepts of both ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ in English) was essential in political mythology and rhetoric from the late middle ages up until the age of revolutions in the late eighteenth century. However, the understanding of the word did change over the centuries. Initially it had been used to describe national self-governance and the lack of foreign oppression. In the eighteenth century it was generally understood in a proto-liberal sense, meaning that the individual was immune to intervention from the state in private affairs. Accordingly, it carried with it a perception of civil rights. As a parallel process ‘subjects’ were more and more being transformed into ‘citizens’ in political rhetoric.
This latter change can be studied in many different countries in the eighteenth century. The object of this presentation is to discuss whether the Swedish development was unique in character, or part of a common European conceptual and political development. Was there a universal conceptual environment that transcended national borders, or did certain political systems stimulate the use of different political keywords in trying to legitimize themselves? Focus will be on the eighteenth century, which was firmly grounded in the ancien régime while at the same time heralding a new era. Thus it forms a bridge between a pre-modern and a modern political culture.