Emanuel Swedenborg

Public Career

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In 1716, even before this period of travel and study ended, Swedenborg began a long career in public service. King Charles XII appointed the talented 28-year-old scientist to the post of Extraordinary Assessor in the Royal College of Mines. The position, though partly honorific, also carried varied duties connected with the supervision and development of mining, one of Sweden's most important industries. For thirty-one years Swedenborg served as a valued member of the Board of Mines. The Board met regularly and made decisions affecting all aspects of the mine industry. Swedenborg sometimes received leaves of absence for travel and study but attended Board meetings faithfully when he was in Sweden.

The post of Assessor became far more than a sinecure. Swedenborg's responsibilities included inspecting mines and rendering detailed reports on the quality and amount of mined ore. He spent most of seven different summers traveling around Sweden on these inspection tours, riding horseback or in carriages through miles of forest, staying at local inns, going down in all types of safe and unsafe mines. He was involved in personnel and administrative problems, hiring officials, arbitrating labor disputes, and submitting suggestions for improvements. He even had the unpopular responsibility of collecting national taxes levied on mining. His activities on the Board of Mines finally ended when he resigned in 1747 to give full time to more important tasks to which he believed he had been called.

Swedenborg's public career also included some fifty years of service in the House of Nobles, one of the four estates of the Swedish Riksdag or legislature. He first took his seat on the ennoblement of his family in 1719. From that time until a few years prior to his death in 1772, Swedenborg attended most of the sessions of the House of Nobles. Deep dedication to the welfare of Sweden led him to make special efforts to plan his travels abroad during times of legislative adjournment. He usually remained in Sweden when the Riksdag was in session, and though not a ready speaker, he repeatedly wrote pamphlets and resolutions on the important questions of the day. On a number of occasions he expressed views on the nation's economy and tax structure. Foreign policy and matters related to the proper development of Sweden's natural resources also drew his attention. His most pointed political contest occurred in 1760, during a period of economic stress in Sweden. The Councillor of Commerce, Anders Nordencrantz, became chairman of a special committee on finance. He was authorized to name all the members of his committee, and their report, not surprisingly, reflected Nordencrantz's thinking on the nation's financial crisis which he had detailed earlier in a lengthy published book. The Nordencrantz analysis contained some useful insights, but his proposals for reform threatened to sweep away the entire structure of the government of Sweden; many felt that his recommendations, if adopted, might tear the fabric of society apart.

Swedenborg, while not unmindful of the need for economic improvement, found Nordencrantz's views generally unacceptable. They put the entire blame for the crisis on government officials. Nordencrantz favored replacing all appointees other than those in church and military positions; these, in turn, would be replaced again every second year thereafter. In brief, Nordencrantz argued for reform by means of a continuous turnover of government officials. The most pernicious feature of his plan would have been vastly increased personal power for the King. Swedenborg's commentary to the Riksdag objecting to the Nordencrantz report argued that Sweden's problems were caused by a variety of factors in both the private and public sectors rather than simply by the corruption and stupidity of officialdom. He underscored the need for a just balance in criticism of the government in the interests of maintaining an effective structure within which social and civil freedom might gradually be expanded. "Mistakes occur in every country" he wrote, "and with every man. But if a government should be regarded simply from its faults, it would be like regarding an individual simply from his failings and deficiencies." In this contest, which he won, Swedenborg showed himself to be a man of moderation willing to work toward practical solutions of real problems.

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- by Sig Synnestvedt

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