1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ancillon, Johann Peter Friedrich

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 1
Ancillon, Johann Peter Friedrich
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ANCILLON, JOHANN PETER FRIEDRICH (1766-1837), Prussian historian and statesman, great-grandson of Charles Ancillon, was born at Berlin on the 30th of April 1766. He studied theology at Geneva, and after finishing his course was appointed minister to the French community at Berlin. At the same time his reputation as a historical scholar secured him the post of professor of history at the military academy. In 1793 he visited Switzerland, and in 1796 France, and published the impressions gathered during his travels in a series of articles which he afterwards collected under the title of Mélanges de littérature el de philosophie (1801). Ancillon took rank among the most famous historians of his day by his next work, Tableau des révolutions du système politique de l'Europe depuis le XVe siècle (1803, 4 vols.; new ed., 1824), which gained him the eulogium of the Institute of France, and admission to the Academy of Berlin. It was the first attempt to recognize psychological factors in historical movements, but otherwise its importance was exaggerated. Its “sugary optimism, unctuous phraseology and pulpit logic” appealed, however, to the reviving pietism of the age succeeding the Revolution, and these qualities, as well as his eloquence as a preacher, early brought Ancillon into notice at court. In 1808 he was appointed tutor to the royal princes, in 1809 councillor of state in the department of religion, and in 1810 tutor of the crown prince (afterwards Frederick William IV.), on whose sensitive and dreamy nature he was to exercise a powerful but far from wholesome influence. In October 1814, when his pupil came of age, Ancillon was included by Prince Hardenberg in the ministry, as privy councillor of legation in the department of foreign affairs, with a view to utilizing his supposed gifts as a philosophical historian in the preparation of the projected Prussian constitution. But Ancillon's reputed liberalism was of too invertebrate a type to survive the trial of actual contact with affairs. The practical difficulty of the constitutional problem gave the “court parson ”—as Gneisenau had contemptuously called him—excuse enough for a change of front which, incidentally, would please his exalted patrons. He covered his defection from Hardenberg's liberal constitutionalism by a series of “philosophical” treatises on the nature of the state and of man, and became the soul of the reactionary movement at the Berlin court, and the faithful henchman of Metternich in the general politics of Germany and of Europe.

In 1817 Ancillon became a councillor of state, and in 1818 director of the political section of the ministry for foreign affairs under Count Bernstorff. In his chief's most important work, the establishment of the Prussian Zollverein, Ancillon had no share, while the entirely subordinate rôle played by Prussia in Europe during this period, together with the personal part taken by the sovereign in the various congresses, gave him little scope for the display of any diplomatic talents he may have possessed. During this time he found plentiful leisure to write a series of works on political philosophy, such as the Nouveaux essais de politique et de philosophie (Paris, 1824). In May 1831 he was made an active privy councillor, was appointed chief of the department for the principality of Neuchâtel, in July became secretary of state for foreign affairs, and in the spring of 1832, on Bernstorff's retirement, succeeded him as head of the ministry.

By the German public, to whom Ancillon was known only through his earlier writings and some isolated protests against the “demagogue-hunting” in fashion at Berlin, his advent to power was hailed as a triumph of liberalism. They were soon undeceived. Ancillon had convinced himself that the rigid class distinctions of the Prussian system were the philosophically ideal basis of the state, and that representation “by estates” was the only sound constitutional principle; his last and indeed only act of importance as minister was his collaboration with Metternich in the Vienna Final Act of the 12th of June 1834, the object of which was to rivet this system upon Germany for ever. He died on the 19th of April 1837, the last of his family. His historical importance lies neither in his writings nor in his political activity, but in his personal influence at the Prussian court, and especially in its lasting effect on the character of Frederick William IV.

See C. A. L. P. Varnhagen von Ense, Blätter aus der preussischen Geschichte, 5 vols. (Leipzig, 1868-1869); ib. Tagebücher, vol. i. (Leipzig, 1861); H. O. Treitschke, Deutsche Geschichte (Leipzig, 1879-1894), and essay on Ancillon in Preussische Jahrbücher for April 1872; Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, s.v. (Leipzig, 1875).