“Barely nine months have passed since thousands of men have happily given their lives in the fight for the new rights, the flowers that sprouted from the ground they fertilised with their hero’s blood have barely wilted, no winter’s storm has raged across their graves, and yet already, the rights they won have been demolished!”
What might pass off as a particularly moving paragraph in a novel actually stems from the front page article of an issue of the weekly newspaper Der Volksfreund (“The people‘s friend”), which was published on the 23rd of December 1848. While nowadays it seems unimaginable not to be confronted with Christmas spirit in every publication one opens on such a date, there is no such thing to be found here. The Volksfreund keeps to a strict political theme, albeit – as can be seen from the quote above – in quite an emotionally charged tone, specifically the topic of the new constitution, which had been imposed by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV on the 5th of December of the same year.
On the nature of “constitutional” states
The article, digitalised as part of the ReConFort research project headed by Prof. Dr. Ulrike Müßig, begins with an outline on the nature of “constitutional” states, in which the power is divided between the people and a sovereign. The people has the legislative power, which it wields through its representatives, while the king has the right to execute these laws – he is in command of the state authorities responsible for the country’s organisational structures and for keeping the law.
After this brief explanation, the author takes a clear stance against this form of government, stating that he cannot understand the wisdom that supposedly lead to establishing a constitutional monarchy, and that his sense of justice is not met when such a division of power is made.
The current political system
The author goes on to make a case for an unconditional sovereignty of the people, as all the power and sovereignty itself derives from the people, therefore no single person can, as a king, wield half of all power. Nevertheless, the author recognises that the current political system is that of a constitutional monarchy. He therefore wishes to take a closer look at the new constitution and, more specifically, the fact that it was “gifted” to the people by the sovereign through the lens of the current form of government.
“By the grace of god” or “by the grace of the people”?
The author states that a constitution – the most important legal framework for a state – is an expression of the legislative power of the people and, as such, can only be issued by the people and their representatives, but never be a sovereign’s gift “by the grace of God”. In this, he sees a violation of not only the fundamental principle outlined above, but also of a law which was passed by the unified parliament of Prussia (Vereinigter Landtag) and ratified by the government on the 8th of April 1848, back when, according to him, the people were still rightfully represented. The law in question determines that the parliament created in the same document is tasked with producing a constitution in accordance with the crown. By “gifting” the people with a constitution “by the grace of God”, this law was violated. If anything, the author argues, the people – and the people alone – have the right to choose a constitutional monarchy as their form of government and pick a king to uphold their laws. He becomes, so to speak, king “by the grace of the people”. In consequence, the people retain the power to take away this gift of sovereignty should it ever be abused, rendering it a very unsteady right and by no means a base for absolute power.
A closer look
Towards the end, the article focuses on a more in-depth look at several paragraphs from the new constitution. The author finds the promised rights to sound wonderful, but also cautions there are a number of traps hidden within, meant to catch those who want to make use of aforementioned rights and powers. He specifically criticizes § 108, which regulates that, until new laws are made, any remaining old laws and regulations (for example in the areas of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly) continue to apply, effectively negating any real freedom granted by the constitution. In his conclusion, he laments the revolutionary movement’s failure to replace older, reactionary civil servants and officials with younger, liberal ones, to rescind the old laws and to hold military leaders accountable.
A high-quality scan of this edition of the Volksfreund, as well as a vast amount of other fascinating sources on the topic of constitutional formation, is accessible at sources.reconfort.de. Our previous blog entry discussing the December 16 edition of the Volksfreund, which concerned itself with the political and legal processes behind the imposed constitution, might also be of interest.