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Axel von Fersen, senior

Count Fredrik Axel von Fersen (1719-1794), Swedish statesman and soldier, was a son of Lieutenant-General Hans Reinhold Fersen and entered the Swedish Life Guards in 1740, and from 1743 to 1748 was in the French service in the Royal-Suedois, where he rose to the rank of brigadier.

In the Seven Years' War Fersen distinguished himself during the operations round Usedom and Wollin in 1759, when he inflicted serious loss on the Prussians. But it is as a politician that he is best known. At the Riksdag of 1755-1756 he was elected lantmarskalk, or marshal of the diet, and from henceforth, till the revolution of 1772, led the Hat party. In 1756 he defeated the projects of the court for increasing the royal power; but, after the disasters of the Seven Years’ War, gravitated towards the court again and contributed, by his energy and eloquence, to uphold the tottering Hats for several years. On the accession of the Caps to power in 1766, Fersen assisted the court in its struggle with them by refusing to employ the Guards to keep order in the capital when King Adolf Frederick of Sweden, driven to desperation by the demands of the Caps, publicly abdicated, anda seven days’ interregnum ensued. At the ensuing riksdag of 1769, when the Hats returned to power, Fersen was again elected marshal of the diet; but he made no attempt to redeem his pledges to the crown prince Gustavus, as to a very necessary reform of the constitution, which he had made before the elections, and thus involuntarily contributed to the subsequent establishment of absolutism.

Revolution of 1772

When Gustav III of Sweden ascended the throne in 1772, and attempted to reconcile the two factions by a composition which aimed at dividing all political power between them, Fersen said he despaired of bringing back, in a moment, to the path of virtue and patriotism a people who had been running riot for more than half a century in the wilder-ness of political licence and corruption. Nevertheless he consented to open negotiations with the Caps, and was the principal Hat representative on the abortive composition committee. During the revolution of August 1772, Fersen remained a passive spectator of the overthrow of the constitution, and was one of the first whom Gustav summoned to his side after his triumph. Yet his relations with the king were never cordial. The old party-leader could never forget that he had once been a power in the state, and it is evident, from his Historiska Skrifter, how jealous he was of Gustav’s personal qualities. There was a slight collision between them as early as the Riksdag of 1778; but at the Riksdag of 1786 Fersen boldly led the opposition against the king’s financial measures which were consequently rejected; while, in private interviews, if his own account of them is to, be trusted, he addressed his sovereign with outrageous insolence. At the diet of 1789 Fersen marshalled the nobility around him for a combat against the throne and that, too, at a time when Sweden was involved in two dangerous foreign wars, and national unity was absolutely indispensable. This tactical blunder cost him his popularity and materially assisted the secret operations of the king. Obstruction was Fersen’s chief weapon, and he continued to postpone the granting of subsidies by the house of nobles for some weeks. But after frequent stormy scenes in the diet, which were only prevented from becoming mêlées by Fersen’s moderation, or hesitation, at the critical moment, he and twenty of his friends of the nobility were arrested in February 17, 1789 and the opposition collapsed. Fersen was speedily released, but hence forth kept aloof from politics, surviving the king two years. He was a man of great natural talent, with an imposing presence, and he always bore himself like the aristocrat he was. But his haughtiness and love of power are undeniable, and he was perhaps too great a party-leader to be a great statesman. Yet for seventeen years, with very brief intervals, he controlled the destinies of Sweden, and his influence in France was for some time pretty considerable. His Historiska Skrifter, which are a record of Swedish history, mainly autobiographical, during the greater part of the 18th century, is excellent as literature, but somewhat unreliable as an historical document, especially in the later parts.

See also: Axel von Fersen, junior, List of Swedish politicians, List of Swedish Field Marshals