Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

A Cursory View of Prussia from the Death of Frederick II to the Peace of Tilsit

LETTER IV: Prussian State of Affairs in 1797


BY the above recital, you will perceive that both the Prussian cabinet and army must considerably lose in the opinion of Europe; nor did their future operations contribute to retrieve their reputation.  Their treasure squandered, their revenue insufficient for the various extravagant calls upon it, they had recourse to considerable loans from Holland.  The church lands and other important domains, which were seised in Poland, were not employed for the service of the government, but merely to gratify the minions of the crown; amongst which were particularly considered, Bischoffswerder, the Marquis Luchesini, Prince Hohenlohe, Count Lükichau, besides many others, who now pressed about the king, as a dropsy in his breast began to have a threatening appearance.  He now totally neglected all business in the cabinet, and his sole employment was dallying with an opera dancer, who exerted herself to make his time pass agreeably.  His favorite procuress, Mrs. Rietz, he had raised to the rank of Countess of Lichtenau, and had permitted her to visit Pyrmont and Pisa.  From the former place she wrote to him:  “That she had formed an acquaintance with a man of advanced years, of great exterior “dignity, but of few words, and retired life; yet, from the singularity of his whole “appearance, he attracted much notice, and it seemed that nothing escaped his penetrating “observation.”—“He is one of our secret society,” answered the deluded monarch; “ask “him if I shall renew the war with France.”—She afterwards wrote from Pisa: “I have “here found an old acquaintance again; he charged me to beseech you by no means to “renew the war with France, as this step would bring your whole house to ruin.”  The King followed this advice, and let Bonapartè do what he pleased.  At that time, indeed, Frederick William had no intellect but for sensuality, and though towards the autumn of 1797, he grew much worse, yet still his whole mind was only bent on procuring himself the means of indulging his lascivious appetites.  Nature, which had been lavish in his favor, had long been exhausted; and the provocatives of art had been so liberally employed, that they now refused their wonted effect; till at length every nerve was thus robbed of it’s elasticity, and the whole system overthrown:  though formed by nature to last, perhaps, for a century, yet he fell a dreadful sacrifice to his own excesses.

At the death of Frederick William, the worm of destruction had already gnawed it’s way to the vitals of his kingdom.  The army’s great pillar of support was gone; for, during the few years of his reign, the king had squandered away more than three hundred and fifty millions of the public money (about sixty millions sterling), besides alienating much valuable property in Poland; and leaving his country twenty-two millions (dollars) in debt.  The army was no more that finely disciplined phalanx bequeathed by Frederick II., but corrupted by the example of it’s sovereign.  Discipline was totally relaxed; there was no subordination; the officers in general were a scandal to their profession; they regarded nothing but feasting, drinking, wenching, gambling, and all the vices which attend debauchery and intrigue.  Nor were the civil departments much more respectably filled.  The courts of justice, which Frederick had brought under such excellent control, were abused by royal mandates, dictating a final sentence.  Lawyers were also allowed to purchase causes; and, as they associated with Jews and usurers, they ruled the slender-salaried judges with a rod of gold.  The principal of every department had it in his power to act the despot, as they seemed all to have a tacit convention not to interfere.  Offices were distributed, not according to merit, but favor, and therefore many footmen and improper persons came into employments they did not understand.  In short, the universal depravity which proceeded from the court overflowed the whole kingdom, and, as this was accompanied with a high degree of luxury and extravagance, no income of office was adequate to the expence; from which naturally arose villany and venality in all their branches.  There were, undoubtedly, many worthy individuals in every department, but discretion closed their lips, as, when discovered, they were pointed at in derision; for such was the power of court favor, that no one in office dared to reprimand a subaltern, if he happened to have the honor of writing out only a Countess of Lichtenau’s washing-bill.  Such is too frequently the effect of female influence.

I purposely suppress every reflection which must naturally arise on a retrospect of this disgraceful reign, and shall only lament that the man who possessed in other respects many social virtues and real good qualities, should suffer himself to be debased to such a degree.  This is sufficient proof of my former remark, that, “it is the energy of the mind, “and not the situation of the person, which must govern the state.” 


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