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names were involved in the meshes of the intrigue. A lawsuit ensued,
which created excitement almost inconceivable. The recent law reform
caused the process to be pushed very rapidly to its conclusion.
Voltaire emerged from the suit with his character sadly maimed. He was
clearly convicted of both falsehood and forgery. The king, annoyed by
the clamor, retired from Berlin to Sans Souci. Voltaire was not invited
to accompany him, but was left in the Berlin palace. In a letter which
Frederick wrote to D’Arget, dated April, 1752, he says:

“Voltaire has conducted himself like a blackguard and a consummate
rascal. I have talked to him as he deserved. He is a sad fellow. I
am quite ashamed for human abilities that a man who has so much of
them should be so full of wickedness. I am not surprised that people
talk at Paris of the quarrel of our _beaux esprits_. Voltaire is the
most mischievous madman I ever knew. He is only good to read. It is
impossible for you to imagine the duplicities, the impositions, the
infamies he practiced here. I am quite indignant that so much talent
and acquirement do not make men better. I took the part of Maupertuis
because he is a good sort of man, and the other had determined upon
ruining him. A little too much vanity had rendered him too sensitive
to the manœuvres of this monkey, whom he ought to have despised after
having castigated him.”[95]

Frederick wrote to Wilhelmina: “Voltaire picks Jews’ pockets, but he
will get out of it by some somersault.”

Voltaire fell sick. He had already quarreled with many persons, and
had constrained the king in many cases, very reluctantly, to take his
part. He now wrote to Frederick, begging permission to join him in the
quietude of Sans Souci. The following extracts from the reply of his
majesty will be read with interest:

“Potsdam, February 24, 1751.

“I was glad to receive you in my house. I esteemed your genius,
your talents, and your acquirements. I had reason to think that a
man of your age, weary of fencing against authors, and exposing
himself to the storm, came hither to take refuge, as in a safe

After briefly alluding to the many quarrels in which Voltaire had been
involved, the king adds:

“You have had the most villainous affair with a Jew. It has made a
frightful scandal all over town. For my own part, I have preserved
peace in my house until your arrival; and I warn you that, if you have
the passion of intriguing and cabaling, you have applied to the wrong
person. I like peaceable, quiet people, who do not put into their
conduct the violent passions of tragedy. In case you can resolve to
live like a philosopher, I shall be glad to see you. But if you abandon
yourself to all the violence of your passions, and get into quarrels
with all the world, you will do me no good by coming hither, and you
may as well stay in Berlin.”

Four days after this Frederick wrote again, in answer to additional
applications from Voltaire.

“If you wish to come hither you can. I hear nothing of lawsuits, not
even of yours. Since you have gained it I congratulate you, and I am
glad that this scurvy affair is done.[96] I hope you will have no more
quarrels, either with the Old or the New Testament. Such contentions
leave their mark upon a man. Even with the talents of the finest genius
in France, you will not cover the stains which this conduct will fasten
on your reputation in the long run. I write this letter with the rough
common sense of a German, without employing equivocal terms which
disfigure the truth. It is for you to profit by it.”

Voltaire’s visit lasted about thirty-two months. He was, however,
during all this time, fast losing favor with the king. Instead of being
received as an inmate at Sans Souci, he was assigned to a small country
house in the vicinity, called the Marquisat. His wants were, however,
all abundantly provided for at the expense of the king. It is evident
from his letters that he was a very unhappy man. He was infirm in
health, irascible, discontented, crabbed; suspecting every one of being
his enemy, jealous of his companions, and with a diseased mind, crowded
with superstitious fears.

On one occasion, when the king had sent him a manuscript to revise, he
sarcastically exclaimed to the royal messenger, “When will his majesty
be done with sending me his dirty linen to wash?” This speech was
repeated to the king. He did not lose his revenge.

Frederick was endowed with brilliant powers of conversation. He was
fond of society, where he could exercise and display these gifts and
accomplishments. Frequent suppers were given at Sans Souci, which
lasted from half past eight till midnight. Gentlemen only - learned
men - were invited to these entertainments. Frederick was not an
amiable man. He took pleasure in inflicting the keenest pain possible
with his satirical tongue. No friend was spared. The more deeply he
could strike the lash into the quivering nerves of sensibility, the
better he seemed pleased with himself.

He could not but respect his wife. Her character was beyond all
possible reproach. She never uttered a complaint, was cheerful and
faithful in every duty. She had rooms assigned her on the second floor
of the Berlin palace, where she was comfortably lodged and fed, and
had modest receptions every Thursday, which were always closed at nine
o’clock. A gentleman writes from Berlin at this time:

“The king esteems his wife, and can not endure her. It was but a few
days ago she handed him a letter petitioning for some things of which
she had the most pressing want. Frederick took the letter with that
most smiling, gracious air, which he assumes at pleasure, and, without
breaking the seal, tore it up before her face, made her a profound bow,
and turned his back on her.”

“The king respects his mother,” the same writer adds. “She is the only
female to whom he pays any sort of attention. She is a good, fat woman,
who moves about in her own way.”

It was a peculiarity quite inexplicable which led Frederick to exclude
females from his court. His favorites were all men - men of some
peculiar intellectual ability. He sought their society only. With the
exception of his sister, and occasionally some foreign princess, ladies
were seldom admitted to companionship with him. He was a cold, solitary
man, so self-reliant that he seldom asked or took advice.

Voltaire hated M. Maupertuis. He was the president of the Berlin
Academy, and was regarded by Voltaire as a formidable rival. This
hatred gave rise to a quarrel between Frederick and Voltaire, which was
so virulent that Europe was filled with the noise of their bickerings.
M. Maupertuis had published a pamphlet, in which he assumed to have
made some important discovery upon the law of action. M. König, a
member of the Academy, reviewed the pamphlet, asserting not only that
the proclaimed law was false, but that it had been promulgated half
a century before. In support of his position he quoted from a letter
of Leibnitz. The original of the letter could not be produced. M.
König was accused of having forged the extract. M. Maupertuis, a very
jealous, irritable man, by his powerful influence as president, caused
M. König to be expelled from the Academy.

Frederick regarded the Academy as his pet institution, and was very
jealous of the illustrious philosopher, whom he had invited to Berlin
to preside over its deliberations. Voltaire, knowing this very well,
and fully aware that to strike the Academy in the person of its
president was to strike Frederick, wrote an anonymous communication to
a review published in Paris, in which he accused M. Maupertuis - first,
of plagiarism, in appropriating to himself a discovery made by another;
secondly, of a ridiculous blunder in assuming that said discovery was
a philosophical principle, and not an absurdity; and thirdly, that he
had abused his position as president of the Academy in suppressing free
discussion, by expelling from the institution a member merely for not
agreeing with him in opinion. These statements were probably true, and
on that account the more damaging.

The authorship of the article could not be concealed. Frederick was
indignant. He angrily seized his pen, and wrote a reply, which, though
anonymous, was known by all to have been written by the king. In
this reply he accused the writer of the article, whom he well knew
to be Voltaire, of being a “manifest retailer of lies,” “a concocter
of stupid libels,” and as “guilty of conduct more malicious, more
dastardly, more infamous” than he had ever known before.

This roused Voltaire. He did not venture to attack the king, but he
assailed M. Maupertuis again, anonymously, but with greatly increased
venom. A brief pamphlet appeared, entitled, “The Diatribe of Doctor
Akakia, Physician to the Pope.” It was a merciless satire against M.
Maupertuis. Voltaire was entirely unscrupulous, and was perfect master
of the language of sarcasm. No moral principle restrained him from
exaggerating, misrepresenting, or fabricating any falsehoods which
would subserve his purpose. M. Maupertuis was utterly overwhelmed
with ridicule. The satire was so keen that few could read it without
roars of laughter. Voltaire, the king’s guest, was thus exposing to
the contempt of all Europe the president of the Berlin Academy, the
reputation of which Academy was dear to the king above almost every
thing else. An edition of the pamphlet was printed in Holland, and
copies were scattered all over Berlin. Another edition was published in
Paris, where thirty thousand copies were eagerly purchased.

Frederick was in a towering passion. Voltaire was alarmed at the
commotion he had created. He wrote a letter to the king, in which he
declared most solemnly that he had not intended to have the pamphlet
published; that a copy had been obtained by treachery, and had been
printed without his consent or knowledge. But the king wrote back:

“Your effrontery astonishes me. What you have done is clear as the day;
and yet, instead of confessing your culpability, you persist in denying
it. Do you think you can make people believe that black is white? All
shall be made public. Then it will be seen whether, if your words
deserve statues, your conduct does not deserve chains.”

The king, in his anger, ordered all the pamphlets in Berlin to be
collected and burned by the common hangman, in front of Voltaire’s
windows. Three months passed away, during which the parties remained
in this deplorable state of antagonism. Voltaire was wretched, often
confined to his bed, and looked like a skeleton. He was anxious to
leave Berlin, but feared that the king would not grant him leave. He
wrote to Frederick, stating that he was very sick, and wished to retire
to the springs of Plombières for his health. The king curtly replied,

“There was no need of that pretext about the waters of Plombières in
demanding your leave. You can quit my service when you like. But,
before going, be so good as to return me the key, the cross, and the
volume of verses which I confided to you.

“I wish that my works, and only they, had been what König attacked. I
could sacrifice them with a great deal of willingness to persons who
think of increasing their own reputation by lessening that of others.
I have not the folly nor vanity of certain authors. The cabals of
literary people seem to me the disgrace of literature. I do not the
less esteem the honorable cultivators of literature. It is the cabalers
and their leaders that are degraded in my eyes.”

For some unexplained reason, soon after this, the king partially
relented, and invited Voltaire to Potsdam. He allowed him to retain
his cross and key, and said nothing about the return of the volume of
poetry. This was a volume of which twelve copies only had been printed.
On the 25th of March, 1753, Voltaire left Potsdam for Dresden.

In the following terms Thiebault describes their parting: The final
interview between Frederick and Voltaire took place on the parade at
Potsdam, where the king was then occupied with his soldiers. One of
the attendants announced Voltaire to his majesty with these words:

“Sire, here is Monsieur De Voltaire, who is come to receive the orders
of your majesty.”

Frederick turned to Voltaire and said, “Monsieur De Voltaire, are you
still determined upon going?”

“Sire, affairs which I can not neglect, and, above all, the state of my
health, oblige me to it.”

“In that case, sir,” replied the king, “I wish you a good journey.”

Thus parted these remarkable men, who were never destined to meet again.

Voltaire, being safe out of Prussia, in the territory of the King
of Poland, instead of hastening to Plombières, tarried in Dresden,
and then in Leipsic. From those places he began shooting, through
magazines, newspapers, and various other instrumentalities, his
poisoned darts at M. Maupertuis. Though these malignant assaults,
rapidly following each other, were anonymous, no one could doubt their
authorship. M. Maupertuis, exasperated, wrote to him from Berlin on the
7th of April:

“If it be true that you design to attack me again, I declare to
you that I have still health enough to find you, wherever you
are, and to take the most signal vengeance upon you. Thank the
respect and obedience which have hitherto restrained my arm, and
saved you from the worst adventure you have ever had.


Voltaire replied from Leipsic:

“M. LE PRESIDENT, - I have had the honor to receive your letter.
You inform me that you are well, and that, if I publish La
Beaumelle’s letter,[97] you will come and assassinate me. What
ingratitude to your poor Doctor Akakia! If you exalt your soul so
as to discern futurity, you will see that, if you come on that
errand to Leipsic, where you are no better liked than in other
places, you will run some risk of being hanged. Poor me, indeed,
you will find in bed. But, as soon as I have gained a little
strength, I will have my pistols charged, and, multiplying the
mass by the square of velocity, so as to reduce the action and
you to zero, I will put some lead into your head. It appears that
you have need of it. Adieu, my president.


There were some gross vulgarities in Voltaire’s letter which we refrain
from quoting. Both of these communications were printed and widely
circulated, exciting throughout Europe contempt and derision. Voltaire
had still the copy of the king’s private poems. Frederick, quite
irritated, and not knowing what infamous use Voltaire might make of
the volume, which contained some very severe satires against prominent
persons, and particularly against his uncle, the King of England,
determined, at all hazards, to recover the book. He knew it would be of
no avail to write to Voltaire to return it.

Voltaire, on his journey to Paris, would pass through Frankfort.
Frederick secretly employed a Prussian officer to obtain from the
authorities there the necessary powers, and to arrest him, and take
from him the cross of Merit, the gold key of the chamberlain, and
especially the volume of poems. The officer, M. Freytag, kept himself
minutely informed of Voltaire’s movements. At eight o’clock in the
evening of the 31st of May the illustrious philosopher arrived, with
a small suite, traveling in considerable state, and stopped at the
“Golden Lion.” M. Freytag was on the spot. He was a man of distinction.
He called upon Voltaire, and, after the interchange of the customary
civilities, informed the poet that he was under the necessity of
arresting him in the name of the King of Prussia, and detaining him
until he should surrender the cross, the key, and the volume of poems.
Voltaire was greatly annoyed. He professed warm friendship for the King
of Prussia. Very reluctantly, and not until after several hours of
altercation, he surrendered the key and the cross. The volume of poems
he was very anxious indeed to retain, and affirmed that they were,
he knew not where, with luggage he had left behind him in Leipsic or
Dresden. He was informed that he would be detained as a prisoner until
the volume was produced.

In a state of great exasperation, Voltaire wrote for a large trunk
to be sent to him which contained the book. To save himself from the
humiliation of being guarded as a prisoner, he gave his _parole
d’honneur_ that he would not go beyond the garden of the inn. After a
delay of three weeks, Voltaire decided, notwithstanding his parole,
to attempt his escape. His reputation was such that M. Freytag had no
confidence in his word, and employed spies to watch his every movement.

On the 20th of June, Voltaire dressed himself in disguise, and, with a
companion, M. Coligny, entered a hackney-coach, and ordered the driver
to leave the city by the main gate. M. Freytag was immediately informed
of this by his spies. With mounted men he commenced the pursuit,
overtook the carriage as it was delayed a moment at the gate, and
arrested the fugitive in the king’s name. Voltaire’s eyes sparkled with
fury, and he raved insanely. The scene gathered a crowd, and Voltaire
was taken by a guard of soldiers to another inn, “The Billy-Goat,” as
the landlord of the “Golden Lion” refused any longer to entertain so
troublesome a guest.

All Frankfort was excited by these events. The renown of Voltaire as
a philosopher, a poet, and as the friend of Frederick, filled Europe.
His eccentricities were the subject of general remark. The most
distinguished men, by birth and culture, had paid him marked attention
during his brief compulsory sojourn in Frankfort. Having arrived at
“The Billy-Goat,” his conduct, according to the report of M. Freytag,
was that of a madman, in which attempted flight, feigned vomitings, and
a cocked pistol took part. The account which Voltaire gave of these
events is now universally pronounced to be grossly inaccurate.

On the 6th of July, the trunk having arrived, the volume of poems was
recovered and Voltaire was allowed to go on his way. His pen, dipped in
gall, was an instrument which even a monarch might fear. It inflicted
wounds upon the reputation of Frederick which will probably never be
healed. Four years passed away, during which Voltaire and Frederick
were almost entirely strangers to each other.

The merciless satires of Voltaire, exposing Maupertuis to the ridicule
of all Europe, proved death-blows to the sensitive philosopher. He
was thrown into a state of great dejection, which induced disease,
of which he died in 1759. Maupertuis needed this discipline. In the
proud days of prosperity he had rejected Christianity. In these hours
of adversity, oppressed by humiliation and pain, and with the grave
opening before him, he felt the need of the consolations of religion.
Christian faith cheered the sadness of his dying hours.[98]

The Marquis D’Argens, another of Frederick’s infidel companions, one
whom Voltaire described as “the most frank atheist in Europe,” after
a very ignoble life of sin and shame, having quarreled with the king,
found himself aged, poor, friendless, and infirm. He then, experiencing
need of different support from any which infidelity could give, became
penitent and prayerful. Renouncing his unbelief, he became an openly
avowed disciple of Jesus.[99]

What effect was produced upon the mind of Frederick as he saw one
after another of his boon companions in infidelity, in their hours of
sickness and approaching death, seeking the consolations of religion,
we do not know. The proud king kept his lips hermetically sealed upon
that subject. Voltaire, describing the suppers of the gay revelers at
Sans Souci, writes:

“Never was there a place in the world where liberty of speech was so
fully indulged, or where the various superstitions of men were treated
with so much ridicule and contempt. God was respected. But those who,
in His name, had imposed on mankind, were not spared. Neither women nor
priests ever entered the palace. In a word, Frederick lived without a
court, without a council, and without a religion.”

Prussia had enjoyed eight years of peace. But Frederick was not a
popular man excepting with his own subjects. They idolized him.
Innumerable are the anecdotes related illustrative of his kindness to
them. He seemed to be earnestly seeking their welfare. But foreign
courts feared him. Many hated him. He was unscrupulous and grasping,
and had but very little sense of moral integrity. He was ambitious of
literary renown; of reputation as a keen satirist. With both pen and
tongue he was prone to lash without mercy his brother sovereigns, and
even the courtiers who surrounded him. There were no ties of friendship
which could exempt any one from his sarcasm. Other sovereigns felt that
he was continually on the watch to enlarge his realms, by invading
their territories, as he had robbed Maria Theresa of the province of

Some years before this time Frederick had taken possession of East
Friesland, and had made Emden a port of entry. It was a very important
acquisition, as it opened to Prussia a convenient avenue for maritime
commerce. With great vigor and sagacity Frederick was encouraging this
commerce, thus strengthening his kingdom and enriching his subjects.
England, mistress of the seas, and then, as usual, at war with France,
was covering all the adjacent waters with her war-ships and privateers.
Frederick had inquired of the English court, through his embassador
at London, whether hemp, flax, or timber were deemed contraband.
“_No_,” was the official response. Freighted with such merchandise, the
Prussian ships freely sailed in all directions. But soon an English
privateer seized several of them, upon the assumption that the _planks_
with which they were loaded were contraband.

It was an outrage to which Frederick was not disposed to submit. He
entered his remonstrances. The question was referred to the British
Court of Admiralty. Month after month the decision was delayed.
Frederick lost all patience. English capitalists held Silesian bonds to
the amount of about one million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

“I must have my ships back again,” said Frederick to the British
court. “The law’s delay in England is, I perceive, very considerable.
My people, who have had their property thus wrested from them, can
not conveniently wait. I shall indemnify them from the money due on
the Silesian bonds, and shall give England credit for the same. Until
restitution is made, I shall not pay either principle or interest on
those bonds.”

The British court was frantic with rage. Frederick had a strong army
on the frontiers of Hanover. The first hostile gun fired would be the
signal for the invasion of that province, and it would inevitably be
wrested from the British crown. The lion roared, but did not venture
to use either teeth or claws. England was promptly brought to terms.
It was grandly done of Frederick. There was something truly sublime
in the quiet, noiseless, apparently almost indifferent air with which
Frederick accomplished his purpose.

Maria Theresa was more and more unreconciled to the loss of Silesia.
Never for an hour did she relinquish the idea of eventually regaining
the province. The various treaties into which she had been compelled to
enter she regarded as merely temporary arrangements. Between the years
1752 and 1755 the energetic and persistent queen was making secret
arrangements for the renewal of the Silesian war.

The King of Poland, who was also Elector of Saxony, had strong feelings
of personal hostility to Frederick. His prime minister, Count Von
Brühl, even surpassed his royal master in the bitter antagonism with
which he regarded the Prussian monarch. Frederick, whose eagle eye was
ever open, and whose restless mind was always on the alert, suspected
that a coalition was about to be formed against him. He had false keys
made to the royal archives at Dresden; bribed one of the officials
there, M. Menzel, stealthily to enter the chamber of the archives, and
copy for him such extracts as would throw any light upon the designs of
the court. Among other items of intelligence, he found that Austria,
Russia, and Poland were deliberating upon the terms of a coalition
against him.

On the 15th of May, 1753, the Russian Senate had passed the resolution
that it should henceforth be the policy of Russia not only to resist
all further encroachments on the part of Prussia, but to seize the

Online LibraryJohn S. C. (John Stevens Cabot) AbbottHistory of Frederick the Second → online text (page 32 of 52)