Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

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

LETTER VI: The Weak Character of Frederick William III


HAD Frederick William III mounted the throne immediately after Frederick II. with an experienced minister, to instruct him to keep pace with the times, Europe would not apparently have been dislocated as at present:  but to purify the then general corruption of Prussia, to heal the cancer which had already corroded the State, was an undertaking too arduous for his mild disposition; and though in his childhood he had shown some striking marks of a decided character, yet by the very worst mode of education a Prince could possibly receive, it was stifled in the very germe; so that he became timed and diffident even to bashfulness.

By his father he was totally neglected, and was indulged with little society but that of his own servants and of his tutor, one Benisch, a sickly hypochondriacal being, always snarling at every cheerful sally, and continually chiding and snubbing the young Prince.  Under such tuition he naturally retired within himself, and thus, unsociable and dissatisfied, thought much lowlier of himself than he deserved.  Even his domestic arrangements contributed to depress him, as his table was stinted to the paltry annual pittance of six hundred rix-dollars, (somewhat less than a hundred pounds) he has frequently risen hungry from dinner.  When he was afterwards put under the care of Count Brühl, who possessed every accomplishment that could adorn the man, or the courtier, it was too late—the bias was fixed, and he remained locked up in himself.  Unpresuming, nay even shy and perplexed, whenever he must appear in public, he rejoiced, when freed from the painful exhibition, to return to his own room.  To correct this solitary disposition, it was deemed expedient to marry him; and he also afterwards attended the campaigns on the Rhine and in Poland.  He even commanded in person at the siege of Landau, but this he was obliged to abandon; and in his campaign in Poland, to make a precipitate retreat.  These small specimens of warfare gave him by no means a predilection for the field, though on every occasion he showed great courage and intrepidity.  But he is more formed for domestic enjoyments; and in his amiable Queen he possesses, in the highest degree, every thing that can contribute to them.  The delicacy of her mind, the gentleness of her character, added to the loveliness of her person, unite all the charms of her sex, and render their mutual love a happy example to their whole Kingdom.

With a mind thus formed, it may easily be imagined with what grief he witnessed the latter years of his father’s reign; and as the Countess of Lichtenau had given the most umbrage by the singular insolence of her conduct towards all the royal family, she was marked out as the first object of his disgust, and under the suspicion of treason, was immediately arrested, and her estates confiscated.  As however, the evidence against her was not sufficiently clear, she was only banished to the fortress of Glogau, and allowed an annual pension of four thousand rix-dollars.  With these, and other items she had saved from the general wreck, she purchased the best house there, and furnished it with that taste so peculiar to herself.  Here she had her sociable parties, and whoever pretended to wit and fashion belonged to her circle.  This was the mart for adventurers, and, it is said, that an Italian called Fantano, formerly employed in a very inferior capacity at Mr. Dobbelin’s theatre, had the honor of captivating the melancholy remains of herself; and this, to such a high degree, that after teasing the king into a permission to let her leave Glogau, she got her lover ennobled at Vienna, under the title of Baron Holbein, and afterwards deigned to marry him:  she then established herself as Madame la Baronne d’Holbein, at Breslaw.  But so soon as Monsieur le Baron had got all he could from her, he quitted the field, with the assurance to an intimate friend, “that he would rather return to his old employment with Mr. Dobbelin, than be the husband of an old woman of pleasure.”  If she is yet alive, she is in Vienna.

Bischoffswerder was of course also dismissed, and his Majesty forthwith filled his cabinet with men of character and ability.  Many salutary reforms were soon made; but the most difficult was to restore the dissipated treasure.  Regularity and œcomony became therefore the order of the day; and to these his Majesty attended so strictly, that he remained in the same palace he had occupied when Prince Royal, added little to the expences of his household, and carefully avoided all pomp and state, mildly observing, “that the King could live contentedly on the former income of the Prince.”  The cabinet readily adopted these frugal principles; and, under the liberal direction of Menke and Këckeritz, the most effectual measures were taken to redress the grievous dissipation and immoralities of the former reign.  But the depravity of that unfortunate period was too deeply impressed on the public mind, to be eradicated by lenient means; and the rage for revolution added now to the difficulty of reform.  The nation, indeed, seemed to ridicule this sort of sentimental government, and showed that the most determined despot ought to have held the reins.  It was not, in truth, a time for so humane, so gentle a Monarch to guide this unwieldy and disordered machine of government; and therefore Prussia was to sink still lower, though by a different kind of error.

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