1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Frederick William III. of Prussia

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FREDERICK WILLIAM III. (1770–1840), king of Prussia, eldest son of King Frederick William II., was born at Potsdam on the 3rd of August 1770. His father, then prince of Prussia, was out of favour with Frederick the Great and entirely under the influence of his mistress; and the boy, handed over to tutors appointed by the king, lived a solitary and repressed life which tended to increase the innate weakness of his character. But though his natural defects of intellect and will-power were not improved by the pedantic tutoring to which he was submitted, he grew up pious, honest and well-meaning; and had fate cast him in any but the most stormy times of his country’s history he might well have left the reputation of a model king. As a soldier he received the usual training of a Prussian prince, obtained his lieutenancy in 1784, became a colonel commanding in 1790, and took part in the campaigns of 1792–94. In 1793 he married Louise, daughter of Prince Charles of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whom he had met and fallen in love with at Frankfort (see Louise, queen of Prussia). He succeeded to the throne on the 16th of November 1797 and at once gave earnest of his good intentions by cutting down the expenses of the royal establishment, dismissing his father’s ministers, and reforming the most oppressive abuses of the late reign. Unfortunately, however, he had all the Hohenzollern tenacity of personal power without the Hohenzollern genius for using it. Too distrustful to delegate his responsibility to his ministers, he was too infirm of will to strike out and follow a consistent course for himself.

The results of this infirmity of purpose are written large on the history of Prussia from the treaty of Lunéville in 1801 to the downfall that followed the campaign of Jena in 1806. By the treaty of Tilsit (July 9th, 1807) Frederick William had to surrender half his dominions, and what remained to him was exhausted by French exactions and liable at any moment to be crushed out of existence by some new whim of Napoleon. In the dark years that followed it was the indomitable courage of Queen Louise that helped the weak king not to despair of the state. She seconded the reforming efforts of Stein and the work of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in reorganizing the army, by which the resurrection of Prussia became a possibility. When Stein was dismissed at the instance of Napoleon, Hardenberg succeeded him as chancellor (June 1810). In the following month Queen Louise died, and the king was left alone to deal with circumstances of ever-increasing difficulty. He was forced to join Napoleon in the war against Russia; and even when the disastrous campaign of 1812 had for the time broken the French power, it was not his own resolution, but the loyal disloyalty of General York in concluding with Russia the convention of Tauroggen that forced him into line with the patriotic fervour of his people.

Once committed to the Russian alliance, however, he became the faithful henchman of the emperor Alexander, whose fascinating personality exercised over him to the last a singular power, and began that influence of Russia at the court of Berlin which was to last till Frederick William IV.’s supposed Liberalism was to shatter the cordiality of the entente. That during and after the settlement of 1815 Frederick William played a very secondary part in European affairs is explicable as well by his character as by the absorbing character of the internal problems of Prussia. He was one of the original co-signatories of the Holy Alliance, though, in common with most, he signed it with reluctance; and in the counsels of the Grand Alliance he allowed himself to be practically subordinated to Alexander and later to Metternich. In a ruler of his character it is not surprising that the Revolution and its developments had produced an unconquerable suspicion of constitutional principles and methods, which the Liberal agitations in Germany tended to increase. At the various congresses, from Aix-la-Chapelle (1818) to Verona (1822), therefore, he showed himself heartily in sympathy with the repressive policy formulated in the Troppau Protocol. The promise of a constitution, which in the excitement of the War of Liberation he had made to his people, remained unfulfilled partly owing to this mental attitude, partly, however, to the all but insuperable difficulties in the way of its execution. But though reluctant to play the part of a constitutional king, Frederick William maintained to the full the traditional character of “first servant of the state.” Though he chastised Liberal professors and turbulent students, it was in the spirit of a benevolent Landesvater; and he laboured assiduously at the enormous task of administrative reconstruction necessitated by the problem of welding the heterogeneous elements of the new Prussian kingdom into a united whole. He was sincerely religious; but his well-meant efforts to unite the Lutheran and Reformed Churches, in celebration of the tercentenary of the Reformation (1817), revealed the limits of his paternal power; eleven years passed in vain attempts to devise common formulae; a stubborn Lutheran minority had to be coerced by military force, the confiscation of their churches and the imprisonment or exile of their pastors; not till 1834 was outward union secured on the basis of common worship but separate symbols, the opponents of the measure being forbidden to form communities of their own. With the Roman Church, too, the king came into conflict on the vexed question of “mixed marriages,” a conflict in which the Vatican gained an easy victory (see Bunsen, C. C. J., Baron von).

The revolutions of 1830 strengthened Frederick William in his reactionary tendencies; the question of the constitution was indefinitely shelved; and in 1831 Prussian troops concentrated on the frontier helped the task of the Russians in reducing the military rising in Poland. Yet, in spite of all, Frederick William was beloved by his subjects, who valued him for the simplicity of his manners, the goodness of his heart and the memories of the dark days after 1806. He died on the 7th of June 1840. In 1824 he had contracted a morganatic marriage with the countess Auguste von Harrach, whom he created Princess von Liegnitz. He wrote Luther in Bezug auf die Kirchenagenda von 1822 und 1823 (Berlin, 1827), Reminiszenzen aus der Kampagne 1792 in Frankreich, and Journal meiner Brigade in der Kampagne am Rhein 1793.

The correspondence (Briefwechsel) of King Frederick William III. and Queen Louise with the emperor Alexander I. has been published (Leipzig, 1900) and also that between the king and queen (ib. 1903), both edited by P. Bailleu. See W. Hahn, Friedrich Wilhelm III. und Luise (3rd ed., Leipzig, 1877); M. W. Duncker, Aus der Zeit Friedrichs des Grossen und Friedrich Wilhelms III. (Leipzig, 1876); Bishop R. F. Eylert, Charakterzüge aus dem Leben des Königs von Preussen Friedrich Wilhelm III. (3 vols., Magdeburg, 1843–1846).