Frederick II was twenty-eight years old at his accession. As painted by Antoine Pesne a year before, he was still the musician and philosopher despite his shining armor: handsome and kindly features, big blue-gray eyes, lofty brow; “a natural and charming manner,” reported the French ambassador, “a soft and ingratiating voice.”58 He was still the pupil of Voltaire. To him he wrote, after six days of rule:
My lot is changed. I have witnessed the last moments of a king, his agony, his death. On coming to the throne I had no need of that lesson to be disgusted with the vanity of human grandeur.… I beg you will see in me nothing but a zealous citizen, a rather skeptical philosopher, and a really faithful friend. For God’s sake, write to me as a man, and, like me, scorn titles, names, and all exterior pomp.59
And three weeks later, again to Voltaire:
The infinite amount of work which has fallen to my lot scarcely leaves time for my real grief. I feel that since losing my father I owe myself wholly to my country. With this view I have worked to the limit of my capacity to make the promptest arrangements, and those most suitable to the public good.60
It was true. On the second day of his reign, judging from the cold spring that the harvest would be late and poor, he ordered that the public granaries be opened, and that grain be sold to the poor at reasonable rates. On the third day he abolished throughout Prussia the use of torture in criminal trials—twenty-four years before Beccaria’s epochal treatise; we should add that judicial torture, though permitted by law, had in practice become obsolete under Frederick William I, and that Frederick for a moment relapsed into its use in one case in 1752.61 In 1757 he commissioned Samuel von Cocceji, chief of the Prussian judiciary, to supervise an extensive reform of Prussian law.
The influence of philosophy appeared in other actions of this first month. On June 22 Frederick issued a simple order: “All religions must be tolerated, and the government must see to it that none of them makes unjust encroachments on any other, for in this country every man must get to heaven in his own way.”62 He issued no official order about freedom of the press, but in practice he allowed it, telling his ministers, “La presse est libre.” He bore with contemptuous silence a thousand diatribes that were published against him.63 Once, seeing a lampoon against him posted in the street, he had it removed to a position where it could be more easily read. “My people and I,” he said, “have come to an agreement that satisfies us both: they are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.”64 But the freedom was by no means complete; as Frederick became more and more the Great he allowed no public criticism of his military measures or his tax decrees. He remained an absolute monarch, though he tried to keep his measures consistent with the laws.
He made no attempt to change the structure of Prussian society or government. The administrative boards and agencies remained as before, except that Frederick kept a closer eye on them and joined more assiduously in their work; he became a member of his own bureaucracy. “He begins his government,” said the French ambassador, “in a highly satisfactory way: everywhere traits of benevolence, sympathy for his subjects.”65 This did not extend to mitigating serfdom; the Prussian peasant continued to be worse off than the French. The nobles retained their privileges.
The influence of Voltaire joined with the tradition of Leibniz in bringing about a vigorous revival of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Founded by Frederick I (1701), it had been neglected by Frederick William I. Frederick II now made it the most prominent in Europe. We have seen that he recalled Wolff from exile; Wolff wanted to head the Academy, but he was too old, weak in the legs, and a bit stooping to orthodoxy; Frederick wanted an esprit fort, a man abreast of the latest in science, and unimpeded by theology. At Voltaire’s suggestion (later mourned) he invited (June, 1740) Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, now in the summer of life, and fresh from a famous expedition to Lapland to measure a degree of latitude. Maupertuis came and received lavish support; he built a great laboratory, and performed experiments sometimes in the presence of the King and the court. Goldsmith, who must have known the Royal Society of London, judged the Berliner Akademie der Weissenschaften to “excel any other now subsisting.”66
All this warmed the heart of Voltaire. When Frederick had occasion to visit Cleves he invited his philosopher to meet him; Voltaire, then at Brussels, tore himself away from his fretful Marquise, and traveled 150 miles to the Schloss Moyland; there the new Plato saw his Dionysius for the first time, and spent three days (September 11 to 14, 1740) in ecstasy, spoiled only by the presence of Algarotti and Maupertuis. To M. de Cideville, in a letter of October 18, he gave his view of Frederick:
It was there I saw one of the most amiable men in the world, who forms the charm of society, who would be everywhere sought after if he were not king; a philosopher without austerity, full of sweetness, complaisance, and obliging ways; not remembering that he is a king when he meets his friends.… I needed an effort of memory to recollect that I here saw sitting at the foot of my bed a sovereign who had an army of 100,000 men.67
And Frederick was equally pleased. To his aide Jordan he wrote, on September 24:
I have seen that Voltaire whom I was so curious to know; but I saw him with the quartan fever hanging on me, and my mind as unstrung as my body… . He has the eloquence of Cicero, the mildness of Pliny, the wisdom of Agrippa; he combines, in short, what is to be collected of virtues and talents from three of the greatest men of antiquity. His intellect is at work incessantly; every drop of ink is an extract of wit from his pen.… La Châtelet is lucky to have him; for of the good things he flings out at random a person who had no faculty but memory might make a brilliant book.68
On returning to Berlin Frederick noted that he had an army of 100,000 men. On October 20 Charles VI died, and a young woman with a second-class army became head of the Austro-Hungarian empire. On that very day Frederick sent an ominous letter to Voltaire: “The death of the Emperor alters all my pacific ideas, and I think that in June it will be rather a matter of cannon and powder, soldiers and trenches, than of actresses, balls, and stages; so that I am obliged to cancel the bargain we were about to make.”69
Voltaire’s heart ached. Was his pupil a warmonger like any other king? Taking advantage of Frederick’s invitation to visit him in Berlin, he decided to see what he could do for peace. At the same time he might repair his fences at Versailles, for Cardinal Fleury, still at the helm in France, also wanted peace. On November 2 he wrote to the Cardinal, offering his services as a secret agent of France in an effort to win Frederick back to philosophy. Fleury accepted the offer, but gently reproved the new diplomat for his impetuous sallies against religion: “You have been young, and perhaps a little too long [Vous avez été jeune, et peut-être un peu trop longtemps]”70 In another letter of the same date (November 14) the amiable Cardinal acknowledged receipt of the Anti-Machiavelfrom Mme. du Châtelet, and praised it with judicious suspicion of its authorship:
Whoever may be the author of this work, if he is not a prince he deserves to be one; and the little that I have read of it is so wise, so reasonable, and expresses principles so admirable, that the author would be worthy to command other men, provided he has the courage to put them in practice. If he was born a prince, he contracts a very solemn engagement with the public; and the Emperor Antoninus would not have acquired the immortal glory which he retains, age after age, if he had not sustained by the justice of his government the exquisite morality of which he had given such instructive lessons to all sovereigns.… I should be infinitely touched if his Prussian Majesty could find in my conduct some conformity with his principles, but I can at least assure you that I regard his as the outline of the most perfect and glorious government.71
Voltaire, having arranged that all his traveling expenses should be paid by Frederick, crossed Germany for the first time, and spent almost two weeks with the King at Rheinsberg, Potsdam, and Berlin (November 20 to December 2). He made the mistake of showing to Frederick the Cardinal’s letter about the Anti-Machiavel; Frederick saw at once that Voltaire was playing diplomat; he translated Fleury’s beautiful commendation into an appeal for co-operation with France; and he was irked to find himself hampered by his essay in philosophy. He exchanged verses and repartee with Voltaire, treated him to performances on the flute, and sent him away with nothing more definite than thanks for the quinine with which the poet had mitigated the royal ague. To Jordan, on November 28, Frederick wrote, not naming but meaning Voltaire: “Thy Miser shall drink to the lees of his insatiable desire to enrich himself; he shall have three thousand thalers. This is paying dear for a fool [c’est bien payer pour un fou]; never did court jester have such wages before.”72 Apparently the sum included both Voltaire’s traveling expenses—which Frederick had probably volunteered to remit—and the cost of publishing the Anti-Machiavel, which Voltaire had advanced out of his own pocket. When money comes in, love goes out; Frederick did not relish paying the expenses of a French agent, or the costs of a book which he would gladly have paid the world to forget.
The influence of Frederick William now outweighed the teachings of the philosopher. As the opportunities of power and the responsibilities of rule replaced the music and poetry of his princely years, Frederick grew colder and harder; even the maltreatment which his father had lavished upon him had toughened his skin and his temperament. Every day he saw those 100,000 giants his father had left him; every day he had to feed them. What sense was there in letting them rust and rot in peace? Was there not some wrong that these giants could right? Certainly. There was Silesia, separated from Austria by Bohemia, and much closer to Berlin than to Vienna; the great River Oder ran down from Prussia to Silesia’s capital, Breslau, only 183 miles southeast of Berlin; what were the Austrians doing there? The house of Brandenburg had claims in Silesia—to the former principalities of Jägerndorf, Ratibor, Oppeln, Liegnitz, Brieg, Wohlau; all these had been taken by Austria, or had been ceded to it by arrangements never satisfactory to Prussia. Now that the Austrian succession was in dispute, and Maria Theresa was young and weak, and an infant Czar, Ivan VI, was on the Russian throne—now was the time to urge those old claims, to rectify those old mistakes, and to give Prussia some greater geographical unity and base.
On November 1 Frederick asked Podewils, one of his councilors, “I give you a problem to solve: When one has the advantage, should one make use of it or not? I am ready with my troops and with everything else. If I do not use them now I keep in my hands a powerful but useless instrument. If I use my army it will be said that I have had the skill to take advantage of the superiority which I have over my neighbor.” Podewils suggested that this would be considered immoral; Frederick countered, When had kings been deterred by morality?73 Could he afford to practice the Ten Commandments in that den of wolves known as the Great Powers? But had not Frederick William pledged Prussian support to the Pragmatic Sanction that guaranteed to Maria Theresa the dominions bequeathed to her by her father? That pledge, however, had been conditional on Imperial support of Prussian claims in Jülich and Berg; the support had not been given; on the contrary, it had gone to Prussia’s rivals. Now that galling affront could be avenged.
In December Frederick sent an envoy to Maria Theresa to offer her his protection if she would recognize his claims to a part of Silesia. Expecting that the offer would be rejected, he ordered a part of his army, thirty thousand men, to advance. It crossed the border into Silesia December 23, two days before Frederick’s envoy reached Vienna. So began the First Silesian War (1740–42).