Frederick William I

Frederick William I (1688-1740) was king of Prussia from 1713 to 1740. He inherited a state whose resources were meager and turned it into a leading German power.

The son of the elector Frederick III of Brandenburg and of Sophie Charlotte of Hanover, Frederick William I was born in Berlin on Aug. 15, 1688. In 1701 his father was named king of Prussia by Emperor Charles VI. Raised at a court which strove to achieve a cultivation and a level of material display rather beyond it means, Frederick William refused to participate in the elegant life around him and spent his leisure time hunting and drinking vast quantities of beer. When he came to the throne after his father's death in 1713, he moved his household into a handful of rooms in the corner of the palace; he turned the rest of the huge structure over to the use of various ministries and transformed the pleasure gardens into a parade ground. Henceforth, hard work, parsimony, and the voice of the drill sergeant would characterize Prussia.

Partly for reasons of economy, partly because he trusted no one, Frederick William was determined to establish a purely personal government. His father's ministers were dismissed, and their successors were told to give their reports to the King in writing. Thus all major decisions were, in the last analysis, made by Frederick William himself.

Frederick William had come to the throne convinced that Prussia was in danger of being swallowed up by its more powerful neighbors. Determined to prevent this, he began strengthening his army. In 1715 he reentered the Great Northern War against Sweden. But although this campaign resulted in the gain of a part of western Pomerania, the deficiencies of the small (under 40,000) Prussian army were glaring. Unwilling to alienate the Prussian nobility, which insisted that its peasants could not be spared from their obligatory labor to do military service, Frederick William concentrated upon hiring troops abroad. Not until 1733 did he establish the canton system, which allowed regiments to recruit among the peasants and craft laborers of their home districts. By the end of his reign the size of the army had doubled and was second only to the imperial one in numbers. Two-thirds of the Prussian effectives, however, were foreigners.

To finance his military forces, Frederick William initiated new government procedures both for the spending and the collecting of revenue. The first was done by the creation of the General Finance Directory (1723), which was to approve all requests for money. The latter was achieved by replacing the feudal levy (an assessment that the nobility in practice no longer rendered) with a tax on land held by the nobles; by collecting taxes more efficiently from the peasantry; and by placing excise taxes not merely on luxury imports such as coffee, tea, and sugar but on most staple food items. Through these measures the yearly income of the state rose by 250 percent.

Apart from a general process of consolidation, the administrative reforms that made these financial gains possible were largely operational in nature. Spheres of responsibility were defined, and specific officials were made responsible for the functioning of various departments; in short, a class of amateur, part-time officials was transformed into a state-serving bureaucracy, staffed with newly chastened noble-men at the top and retired noncommissioned officers at the bottom. There were also minor judicial reforms and limited attempts to improve the lot of the peasants in the crown lands. Some 17,000 Protestants, expelled from Salzburg, were settled in East Prussia, to the considerable gain of that underpopulated province.

By the second half of the 1730s it was apparent to most contemporary observers that the work of 20 years had created a formidable army, backed by a full treasury. But the King, in spite of a developing quarrel with the empire over the province of Berg, could not be persuaded to use his resources. His last years were dominated by an increasingly bizarre concern with his palace guard of giants and with a running quarrel with his son and heir, Frederick. Frederick William I died in Potsdam on May 31, 1740.

Further Reading on Frederick William I

The best biography of Frederick William I is Robert Ergang, The Potsdam Führer (1941). Also useful are Sidney B. Fay, The Rise of Brandenburg-Prussia to 1786 (1937; rev. ed. by Klaus Epstein, 1964), and Hans Rosenberg, Bureaucracy, Aristocracy and Autocracy: The Prussian Experience, 1660-1815 (1958).