A Life's Work

Political Activities

When Jón Sigurðsson had been living in Copenhagen for some years, he developed increasingly strong views on the political relationship between the Icelanders and the Danes, who had ruled Iceland since the fourteenth century. These opinions were clearly expressed in letters to friends in 1839-40, and before long Jón began to make his voice heard in the political arena. In 1840 he wrote his first article in the press, on the subject of the Iceland trade (controlled by Danish merchants and authorities). He propounded a historical argument that the form of the Iceland trade was unfair, and that the Icelanders’ hostility to Danish merchants was essentially an expression of their desire for free trade instead of the existing restrictive system. From this point onwards, Jón Sigurðsson emerged as a leading advocate for the rights of the Icelanders, in long and closely-argued articles in the press.

In 1841 Ný félagsrit (The New Social Journal) was launched by Jón Sigurðsson. Here he published his principal political polemics for over three decades, until 1873 when publication ceased and a new political journal, Andvari, took its place. The New Social Journal played a vital role as a vehicle for Jón to present his political arguments to his fellow-countrymen. On the pages of the New Social Journal Jón put forward ideas and arguments that would form the ideological basis of the Icelandic campaign for self-determination for many decades.

The ancient Icelandic Alþingi (parliament), founded around 930 AD after the settlement of the country, had gradually declined over centuries of foreign rule, before being abolished in 1800. In 1845 a new Alþingi was established, initially only with advisory powers to the King of Denmark, who was an absolute monarch. Jón Sigurðsson was elected to Alþingi, and retained his seat for the rest of his life. Initially the parliament assembled only for one month on alternate summers. Jón continued to live in Copenhagen, and travelled home to Iceland to attend parliament. Jón was active in parliament, and never shrank from criticising the Danish authorities. He was an outstanding orator, who presented issues and ideas to his fellow-parliamentarians in a logical and cogent manner. For most of his time in parliament he was president (speaker) of the house.

Jón put forward his principal ideas on the relationship between Iceland and Denmark in his essayHugvekja til Íslendinga“ (A Call to Icelanders), published in the New Social Journal in 1848. He argued that the Icelanders were entitled to greater autonomy, including an Icelandic parliament. The Danish king had resigned his absolute powers; the Icelanders, Jón claimed, had been subject only to the king, and not to the Danish state. Hence the Icelanders, like the Danes, were now entitled to parliamentary government, and Iceland should not be treated simply as one administrative region of the Danish realm. Jón also came up with a revolutionary idea that the Danes actually owed Iceland large sums, due to profits accrued over centuries of colonial rule. Prior to this time it had been taken for granted that Iceland was a financial burden on the Danish state, but now Jón demonstrated that the boot was on the other foot, and that the Icelanders could unashamedly demand what was theirs.

In 1851 a constitutional assembly or National Convention was held, for consultation on the legal status of Iceland. The Danish authorities submitted a proposal on the status of Iceland within the Danish realm which was completely unacceptable to the Icelanders, who were influenced by Jón Sigurðsson’s ideas that government should be transferred to Iceland – legislative, judicial and executive powers – and that Iceland should be fiscally separate from Denmark. The Danish bill was referred to a committee, which reached the conclusion that it should be rejected, and that a new bill should be proposed for a constitution for Iceland, with the emphasis on self-determination in accord with Jón Sigurðsson’s arguments. The royal representative then unceremoniously dismissed the Convention, to vociferous protests led by Jón Sigurðsson.

In 1874 King Christian IX of Denmark and Iceland signed a separate constitution for Iceland. It was controversial in Iceland, as it entailed only a small step towards self-determination. But it marked the first stage of the nation’s progress towards autonomy: Home Rule in 1904, sovereign status in1918, and finally the foundation of the Republic of Iceland in 1944. The legacy of Jón Sigurðsson was honoured by founding the Republic on his birthday, 17 June, which is now Iceland’s National Day. Thus the name and memory of Jón Sigurðsson are enshrined in Iceland’s status as an independent nation.


Jón Sigurðsson. LÍÞ