History of Prussia - John S. C. Abbott

King William I.

Thus the tumult of affairs continued, ever varying, and yet ever essentially the same, until the year 1857. The king, Frederick William IV., then gave indubitable evidences of insanity; it consequently became necessary for him to withdraw from the government. As he had no children, his next brother, William, was declared regent. William was exceedingly unpopular, in consequence of his openly-avowed advocacy of absolutism, and his implacable hostility to popular reform. For four years, the Crown Prince, William reigned as regent; then, upon the death of his brother, he was crowned king on the 2nd of January, 1861.

William I., who now occupies the throne, was the second son of Frederick William III. He was born on the 22nd of March, 1797. In 1829, he married the Duchess Catharine of Saxe-Weimar. He has two children. The eldest, the Crown Prince, Frederick William Nicholas Charles, was born Oct. 18, 1831. He was married to Victoria, Princess Royal of Great Britain, on the 25th of January, 1858. The younger child, the Princess Louisa Maria, was born Dec. 3, 1838; and married, on the 20th of September 1856, the Grand Duke Frederick of Baden.

The coronation of the king took place in the ancient town of Konigsberg. In this city, which is situated upon one of the inlets of the Baltic Sea, there is an antique castle, very imposing in its structure, which overlooks and commands the city. In the chapel of this venerable edifice, the ceremony of coronation took place.

There was no enthusiasm on the occasion. The king, who had already attained the age of sixty-four, a bluff, stern man, fully conscious that he was hated by the populace, whom he despised, apparently made no efforts to secure popularity. He was far to proud to seek the applause of the canaille. An eye-witness thus graphically describes the scene at the coronation:—

"The first time I saw the king was when he rode in procession through the ancient city, some two or three days before the performance of the coronation. He seemed a fine, dignified, handsome, somewhat bluff old man, with gray hairs and gray mustache, and an expression, which, if it did not denote intellectual power, had much of cheerful strength and the charm of a certain kind of frank manhood about it. He rode well,—riding is one of the accomplishments in which kings almost always excel, and his military costume became him.

"Certainly no one was just then disposed to be very enthusiastic about him: but every one was inclined to make the best of the sovereign and of the situation; to forget the past, and to look hopefully into the future. The manner in which the coronation ceremony was conducted, and the speech which the king delivered soon after it, produced a terrible shock of disappointment; for in each the king manifested that he understood the crown to be a gift, not from his people, but from Heaven.

"To me, the ceremonies in the chapel, splendid and picturesque as was the mise en scene, appeared absurd, and even ridiculous. The king, bedizened in a regal costume which suggested Drury Lane or Niblo's Garden, lifting a crown from off the altar, and, without intervention of human aid other than his own hands, placing it upon his head to signify that he had his crown from Heaven, not from man; then putting another crown upon the head of his wife to show that she derived her dignities from him; and then turning round, and brandishing a gigantic sword, as symbolical of his readiness to defend state and people,—all this seemed to me too suggestive of the opera comique  to suit the simple dignity of the handsome old soldier.

"Far better and nobler did he look in his military uniform, and with his spiked helmet, as he sat on his horse in the streets, than when, arrayed in crimson velvet cloak and other such stage paraphernalia of conventional royalty, he stood in the castle chapel, the central figure in a ceremonial of mediaeval splendor, and worse than mediaeval tediousness."

The king is a man of unusually fine physique. He is of majestic and well-proportioned form; and his finely-chiseled features are expressive of that indomitable resolution which has characterized every act of his life. There was present on this occasion Marshal McMahon, Duke of Magenta. He had just returned from the campaign in Italy against the Austrians, where he had won his title and European renown. At the coronation, he represented the empire of France.

"There was great curiosity among the Konigsberg public to get a glimpse of the military hero; and, although even Prussians could hardly be supposed to take delight in a fame acquired at the expense of other Germans, I remember being much struck with the quiet, candid good humor with which people acknowledged that he had beaten their countrymen. There was, indeed, a little vexation and anger felt when some of the representatives of Posen, the Prussian Poland, cheered somewhat too significantly for McMahon as he drove in his carriage from the palace.

"The Prussians generally felt, annoyed that the Poles should have thus publicly and ostentatiously demonstrated their sympathy with France, and their admiration of the French general who had defeated a German army. But except for this little ebullition of feeling, natural enough on both sides, McMahon was a popular figure at the king's coronation; and, before the ceremonies were over, the king himself had become any thing but popular.

"The foreigners liked him, for the most part, because his manners were plain, frank, hearty, and agreeable; and to foreigners it was matter of little consequence what he said or did in accepting his crown. But the Germans winced under his blunt repudiation of the principle of popular sovereignty; and, in the minds of some alarmists, painful and odious memories began to revive, and transform themselves into terrible omens for the future."

William I. had but a bloody record to present. Every uprising of the people in behalf of liberty, whether in Prussia or in any other of the States, he had been eager to cut down with the sword. More than once, his dragoons had crimsoned the pavements of the streets of Berlin with the blood of its citizens; and when, in Hanover, in Saxony, in Baden, the people attempted by violence to effect that reform which they found themselves unable to attain by peaceful means, the helmeted squadrons of Prince William hewed them down, and trampled them in the dust.

"This pleasant, genial, gray-haired man," writes Mr. McCarthy, "whose smile had so much of honest frankness, and even a certain simple sweetness, about it, had a grim and blood-stained history behind him. The blood of the Berliners was purple on those hands which now gave so kindly and cheery a welcome to all comers. The revolutionists of Baden held in bitter hate the stern prince, who was so unscrupulous in his mode of crushing out agitation.

"From Cologne to Konigsberg, from Hamburg to Trieste, all Germans had for years had reason, only too strong, to regard William, Prince of Prussia, as the most resolute and relentless foe of popular liberty. During the greater part of his life, the things he promised to do, and did, were not such as free men could approve. He set out in life with a general detestation of liberal principles and of any thing which suggested popular revolution."

King William is not regarded by any who know him as a man of superior abilities, or of much intelligence. He has a dogged firmness of character, which his friends call decision, and his enemies stigmatize as obstinacy. His strongest mental development consists of a clinging to the despotism of the past, and a horror of reform. In the year 1815, he was one of the princes who entered Paris with the allies as they trampled beneath iron hoofs the first empire in France. Since then, he has seemed conscientiously to deem it his divinely-appointed mission to keep the people in subjection.

Frederick William IV. was one of the most vacillating of men. He was kind-hearted, and sought the happiness of the people, but had not sufficient force of character to mark out and pursue any clearly-defined policy. William I. is one of the most inflexible monarchs who ever sat upon a throne. The fundamental principle of his reign seems to be, that there shall be no innovations. The policy of the government is, not to bend to meet the exigencies of modern times, but to force those exigencies to frame and mould themselves in accordance with the existing government.

"William I.," writes Mr. McCarthy, "was for many years a downright, stupid, despotic old feudalist. At one of his brother's councils he flung his sword upon the table, and vowed that he would rather appeal to that weapon than consent to rule over a people who dared to claim the right of voting their own taxes."

Unattractive as appears the character of William I., he has secured a certain degree of respect by the unquestionable and almost religious sincerity with which he pursues his inflexible course. The simplicity of his mode of living and of his address invested the bluff unpolished soldier with a certain charm over the minds of the people. The gray-haired old man could often be seen by the passers in the streets, sitting at one of the windows of his palace, reading or writing.

It is reported that domestic discord disturbs the repose of the palace. In the celebrated diary of Varnhagen von Ense, which seems to be authentic, and which very graphically describes life in the Prussian court, it is stated that the king and his wife Augusta do not live very lovingly together. Augusta has a vein of radicalism in her nature, and cannot conceal a certain degree of admiration for some of those popular leaders in Germany, and other parts of Europe, whom her husband detests and despises. King William is far too stubborn a man to be a yielding and agreeable companion.

Varnhagen represents the king as naturally kind-hearted, but dull, brusque, and pig-headed in the extreme, a man who will not do what he thinks is wrong; and who will do what he believes to be right, come what may. He is like those conscientious inquisitors who prayed God to strengthen them to break the bones of heretics on the rack, and to consign them to the flames.

From the revelations of Varnhagen, which have never been contradicted, it does not appear that the court in Berlin has been, in modern times, a model of purity. Humboldt was a constant inmate of that court. From his diary, it appears how thoroughly he despised most of those royal personages by whom he was patronized. His life at court must often have been almost loathsome to him. The following anecdote throws a flood of light upon the character, or at least the reputation, of the court—

"The late King of Hanover was a coarse, rough, cultivated man. His reputation for brutality was such, that he was accused, by the general voice of the people, of the murder of his valet.

"He once accosted Humboldt in the palace of the late King of Prussia, and, with his customary brusqueness, inquired why it was that the court was always full of philosophers and dissolute characters. Humboldt replied, 'Perhaps the king invites the philosophers to meet me, and the others to please your Majesty.'"

After the coronation of the king, he grew, month after month, increasingly unpopular. He quarreled constantly with his parliament, silenced the journals, and persecuted every one who ventured to speak in favor of reform. Count Bismarck, to whom we shall hereafter allude, was in entire sympathy with the king in his hostility to representative governments, and in his support of absolutism. He was called into the council of the king, and became the power behind the throne stronger than the throne itself.

"There was, probably," writes Mr. McCarthy, "no public man in Europe so generally unpopular as the King of Prussia,—except, perhaps, his minister, the Count von Bismarck. In England, it was something like an article of faith to believe that the king was a bloody old tyrant. The dislike felt towards the king was extended to the members of his family; and the popular conviction in England was, that the Princess Victoria, wife of the king's son, had a dull, coarse drunkard for a husband. It is perfectly wonderful how soon an absurdly erroneous idea, if there is any thing about it which jumps with the popular humor, takes hold of the public mind of England."

In the month of July, 1861, as the king was taking a walk, accompanied by one or two of his suite, along the fashionable avenue of Baden-Baden, a fanatic discharged at him two barrels of a pistol. Both balls, happily, missed the king. The event caused many deputations to wait upon him with congratulations for his providential escape.

An American gentleman who chanced to be in Baden at that time accompanied a delegation of Englishmen to present an address to the king. In the following terms he describes the interview:—

"At the appointed day and hour, we assembled, some fifteen or twenty of us, in the lower story of the hired house which the king occupied. It was known in Baden parlance as the Mesmeric House, from the name of its owner, Herr Mesmer.

"We were all in full evening-dress. The spokesman of the delegation, while mustering his forces, said to us, 'Gentlemen, please take off your gloves.' So I learned one bit of court etiquette, that you take off your gloves to a king; at least, to the King of Prussia.

"The gloves being removed, we were conducted up stairs, and ushered into his Majesty's presence. The first impression his Majesty gave me was that of a very badly-dressed man. His dark cutaway and striped trousers looked as if they had been bought at a slop-shop, and a second-rate one at that.

"The next impression that his Majesty gave me was, that his manners were no better, that is, no more elegant or graceful, than his dress. He reminded one of a military puppet. All his actions were stiff and jerky. When he advanced, it was 'Forward, march!' When he turned, it was a manoeuvre executed by pivoting on one heel. His massive features and powerful frame could not be devoid of a certain dignity; but it was a clumsy dignity at best, like that of an Aeschylean actor in mask and buskins.

"The king's reply to the address probably the same speech which he had made to each successive deputation—was brief, and well worded. One expression some of as noted at the time, and had reason to remember afterwards: 'I am convinced,' said he, 'that Providence has preserved me for a special purpose.' But, when each individual was successively presented to him, his awkwardness came out again." [Mr. Carl Benson, in Galaxy, November 1870.]

With discriminating criticism Mr. McCarthy writes, "I do not believe that the character of the king is anywise changed. He was a dull, honest, fanatical martinet when he turned his cannon against the German liberals in 1848; he was a dull, honest, fanatical martinet when he unfurlg1 the flag of Prussia against the Austrians in 1866, and against the French in 1870.

"The brave old man is only happy when doing what he thinks is right; but he wants alike the intellect and the susceptibilities which enable people to distinguish right from wrong, despotism from justice, necessary firmness from stolid obstinacy. But for the war, and the great national issues which rose to claim instant decision, King William would have gone on dissolving parliaments and punishing newspapers, levying taxes without the consent of representatives, and making the police-officer master of Berlin. The vigor which was so popular when employed in resisting the French, would assuredly, otherwise, have found occupation in repressing the Prussians. I see nothing to admire in King William but his courage and his honesty.

"For all the service he has done to Germany, let him have full thanks; but I cannot bring myself to any warmth of personal admiration for him. It is, indeed, hard to look at him, without feeling, for the moment, some sentiment of genuine respect. The fine head and face, with its noble outlines, and its frank, pleasant smile; the stately, dignified form, which some seventy-five years have neither bowed nor enfeebled, make the king look like some splendid old paladin of the court of Charlemagne. He is, despite his years, the finest physical specimen of a sovereign Europe just now can show.

"But I cannot make a hero out of stout King William, although he has bravery enough of the common military kind to suit any of the heroes of the Nibelungenlied. He never would, if he could, render any service to liberty. He cannot understand the elements and first principles of popular freedom. To him the people is always as a child, to be kept in leading-strings, and guided, and, if at all boisterous or naughty, to be smartly birched, and put in a dark corner.

"There is nothing cruel about King William; that is to say, he would not willingly hurt any human creature, and is, indeed, rather kind-hearted and humane than otherwise. He is as utterly incapable of the mean spites and shabby cruelties of the great Frederick, whose statue stands so near his palace, as he is incapable of the savage brutalities and indecencies of Frederick's father.

"He is, in fact, simply a dull old disciplinarian, saturated through and through with the traditions of the feudal past of Germany; his highest merit being the fact, that he keeps his word; that he is a still, strong man, who cannot lie; his noblest fortune being the happy chance which called on him to lead his country's battles, instead of leaving him free to contend against, and perhaps, for the time, to crush, his country's aspirations for domestic freedom.

"Kind Heaven has allowed him to become the champion and the representative of German unity, that unity which is Germany's immediate and supreme need, calling for the postponement of every other claim and desire. And this part he has played like a man, a soldier, and a king.

"But one can hardly be expected to forget all the past,—to forget what Humboldt and Varnhagen von Ense wrote; what Sacobi and Waldeck spoke; what King William did in 1848, and what he said in 1861. And unless we forget all this, and a great deal more to the same effect, we can hardly help acknowledging, that, but for the fortunate conditions which allowed him to prove himself the best friend of German unity, he would probably have proved himself the worst enemy of German liberty."