'Probably the most indefatigable prince that ever existed': a Rational Dissenting perspective on Frederick the Great
Page, AR, 'Probably the most indefatigable prince that ever existed': a Rational Dissenting perspective on Frederick the Great, Enlightenment and Dissent, 23 pp. 85-130. ISSN 0262-7612 (2007) [Refereed Article]
Frederick the Great of Prussia was hailed by many as the model of an ‘Enlightened Despot’. Historians continue to debate both the concept of ‘Enlightened Despotism’ and Frederick’s credentials as an enlightened monarch. Should we talk in terms of ‘enlightened absolutism’? Of ‘reform absolutism’? Or simply drop the use of any such terms for a monarch who used his enlightened philosophising and flute playing as window dressing for a system of governance that was essentially conventional absolutism? In light of continuing debate about the nature of Frederick’s reign, it is worth revisiting the views of contemporaries. As a friend of Voltaire, Frederick’s place was well established in traditional depictions of the Enlightenment as centred on the French philosophes. In the past two decades, however, scholars have broadened and deepened our conception of Enlightenment by researching the ‘social history of ideas’ and illuminating Enlightenment in various national and cultural contexts. In this vein, an analysis of perceptions of Frederick the Great can shed light on the nature of Enlightenment in Britain. Frederick’s popularity in Britain reached dizzying heights in the late 1750s as he won spectacular victories in the Continental campaign against Britain’s enemies in the Seven Years War. From the 1760s on, however, British opinion was generally critical of his regulated and militaristic state and his aggrandisement through diplomacy. While it is not within the scope of this essay to explore broader perceptions of Frederick II in late eighteenth-century Britain, it appears that writers who can be located within ‘conservative’ enlightened thought had a more positive perception of Frederick than dissenters. Samuel Johnson declared that the King of Prussia could get away with wearing plain cloths because ‘of the dignity of his character’. On separate occasions in 1780 Edmund Burke praised Frederick for the economy and efficiency of his royal court and for his religious toleration. An article is in preparation that will explore the range of British opinion on Frederick the Great at the end of his long reign. This essay, however, will focus on how some leading Rational Dissenters perceived the self-consciously enlightened King of Prussia, and provide an exposition of the Memoirs of the life and reign of Frederick (1788) by Joseph Towers.