Adams Papers

From John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 20 January 1801

No 23

20. January. 1801.

As my purpose is only to give you the great & general outlines of the Silesian history, with a special view to show the origin of the conquest, which made it a Prussian province, I shall merely, to complete the chronological series of its Austrians sovereigns observe to you, that the Emperor Leopold 1. at his death in 1705 was succeeded by his eldest son, Joseph. 1 who dying in 1711, made way for his next brother, Charles the sixth—This prince reigned untill 1740, at the latter end of which he died, & with him expired, the male line of the house of Austria.

The great object of his life from the time, when he ascended the Imperial throne, was to secure the succession of his hereditary dominions to his daughter Maria Theresa—He had prescribed this succession by the ordinance, which became so famous by the name of the pragmatic sanction; this was assented to, by the States of his several provinces, & among the rest by those of Silesia—By a continued series of negotiations for almost thirty years, & by a variety of great sacrifices, he had obtained the guarantee of his dispositions by all the important powers of Europe—Scarcely had the breath deserted his body, when the greatest part of Europe, & particularly most of the powers, who had guaranteed the pragmatic sanction, fell like tygers upon that very princess they had engaged to support, & waged a bloody war to despoil her of every inch of her patrimony—This is altogether natural, & as Shakespear’s Jacques observes “just the fashion.”

Among the numerous princes, who started up on all sides with some new vamp’d old claim to her possessions, the king of Prussia, who like the rest had guaranteed the pragmatic sanction, came forward with the old pretensions to the four principalities, which had been so equivocal in point of right, from the beginning, & which such as they were, his predecessors the Great Elector, & the first king of Prussia, had for valuable considerations so formally renounced—The Prussian crown had descended to the hands of Frederic II, but a few months before the death of Charles the Sixth, & the royal phylosopher had in his memoires, himself alledged the motives, which sway’d him on this occasion. That the power of the Prussia was not sufficiently respected by foreign states, when he came to the throne that it was necessary to establish a character, by some action of eclat with the beginning of a reign—That he was strong by the treasure & army, which his father had left him; the last of which he had on coming to the throne increased, with eight new regiments—That Maria Theresa was weak by her youth & inexperience, by the embarassment of her finances, & by the numerous enemies she had upon her hands—That Silesia was the only province, easy to invasion by its proximity to the Prussian territory, & disabled for resistance by the smallness of the military force contained in it—That Prussia having been raised to the name of a kingdom by the vanity of his grandfather, it was incumbent upon him to make it in real strength worthy of the title. And that he was ambitious to make himself a man.

In all this there is about as much philosophy, as in Sir John Fallstaf’s reasons for swindling money from Justice Shallow—If the young dace, says Sir John, be a bait for the old pike, I see no reason in the law of nature, but I may snap at him.” Frederic says in his memoires, that the pretentions of his house to the four dutchies were incontestable—But he thinks it not expedient to state what they were—You have seen them in my former letters reduced to their just value—He thought it as useless to discuss them with Maria Theresa, as to unfold them in his writings to [the] public—He sent indeed a minister to Vienna, with orders to negotiate if possible, an amicable cession of Silesia to him; but he placed so little dependance upon this measure, that he himself says his army entered Silesia, two days before his Ambassadeur arrived at Vienna.

The mere conquest of the province was an affair of no great difficulty. In little more than a month, the Prussians were in possession of almost all Silesia, & when the queen of Hungary was able to send what forces she could spare to maintain her dominion over it, they were successively defeated in the two battles of Molwitz, & Chotusiz, after which she gave up the province contest, & by the peace of Breslau, signed on the 11th: of June, 1742, ceded the province of Silesia to the king of Prussia.

But two years afterwards the war was renewed—Superior fortune & superior skill continued to attend upon the Prussian arms—The three successive battles of Friedberg, Sohr, & Kesselsdorf, all issued advantageously to Friedric, & on the 25th. of December 1745, the peace was signed a second time.

In the mean while, Maria Theresa had prevailed against the mighty combination of her enemies, & had secured to herself not only the remainder of the Austrian hereditary dominions, but likewise after an interval of two years, & the shadow of an Emperor, personated during that period by the elector of Bavaria, under the name of Charles the 7th: had procured the restoration of the imperial dignity to her house, in which it has remained to this day—Her prosperity inspired or corroborated the design also of recovering the provinces, which she had been in the hour of her distress compelled to sacrifice, & in the progress of ten years negotiation, she gathered against Frederic that tempest, which he so gloriously weathered, & with which you are well acquainted by the name of the seven years war—In this much more than in his conquest, he displayed the qualities, which entitle him unquestionably to the appellation of a great man—Of this war Silesia was one of the principal theatres, & one of the most considerable objects—The battles & sieges of which it was the scene, form some of the most remarkable events in the history of modern Europe, & are full of instruction to students in the Art of war—But this is not the place to enlarge upon so copious a subject—It will suffice to say, that by the peace of Hubertsburg, signed on the 15th. of February, 1763; he was put in possession of all his dominions, just as they had been at the commencement of the war & among them of course was the province of Silesia. From that day, it has been an undisputed appendage of the Prussian monarchy, & will in all probability continue so, as long as the powers of Austria shall be inadequate to vindicate the rights, which though so often renounced by treaty, she has perhaps not yet abandoned in her heart.

Thus much for the Silesian history—Let us now turn a little towards our own times—We have as yet no account, that peace has been signed between France & Austria, but there is no doubt this event has taken place, or will do so shortly—A bloody battle was fought in Italy, the very same day, that the armistice was concluded near Vienna—The french were again victorious, & Bellegarde was obliged to retire behind the Adige. This, according to a message from the french consuls to the Legislature is to be the Emperor’s boundary in Italy, as the Rhine is to be that of the Republic in Germany—The independence of the Batavian, & Helvetic republics is to be recognized & secured, but the Cisalpine is not mentioned, whether the omission was accidental, or whether Bonaparte’s breath is ashamed of itself for blowing into flame, so feeble a luminary, & now purposely means to blow it out again. What is meant by the independence of the two others, you understand perfectly well. The independence of being under no external controul, but that of France—These terms are considered as extremely moderate, & are so really—The first consul is generally supposed to be growing sick of republics & to feel a sort of sympathetic yearning with Emperor’s & kings, which renders him averse from humbling them too much—You will see by the pamphlet enclosed, that his friends begin to hint that an imperial crown would sit as well, & look as well upon his brows, as upon any others—It is very generally asserted that this piece was written by his brother Lucien, which I do not believe—But its language is certainly held by some of the Consul’s warmest friends & partisans in France. It will be not at all surprizing, if this should be the rock upon which the Corsican will split—France is certainly not prepared for a new dynasty of absolute monarchs in his person & family. There has been another jacobinical attempt to assassinate him, which failed only by one of those extraordinary chances, which superstitious, nay, which many religious minds ascribe to the special interposition of Heaven. It was an instrument emblimatical of the jacobin character, an infernal, by which he was to [be] blown up as he rode through the streets of Paris—The extraordinary rapidity, with which his coachman drove, saved him by an interval of less than half a minute—By the explosion however, seven persons casually passing at the time lost their lives, & more than twenty were wounded. The report was heard all over Paris, & the neighbouring houses were damaged to a large amount—All France has congratulated him upon his escape, but had he not escaped, who shall say that all France would not have congratulated his murderers?—I will be obliged to you to send the parellel to your father, as Mr Murray, who forwarded it to me, requests—He will not be surprized to see this incipient mortification of a democratic revolution—He knew long ago that excessive inflamation is the elder brother of corruption; but it may amuse him to see the special symptoms of the disease in its various stages, & remark how exactly they correspond with those, he anticipated at a time, when flattering physicians swore the patient laboured under no distemper at all, but had only supernaturally been filled with a new infusion of pure blood, & inspired with a new breath of immortal life.

I have mentioned the opinion generally accredited, that Buonaparte begins to feel a sort of unaccountable tenderness for Emperors & kings; but there is one instance, in which he has ventured to make an avowal of these same intentions of kindness in the face of the world. And who think you is this fascinating tamer of the democratic tyger, this sceptered Orpheus at the magic of whose voice, the furies of democracy drop their snakes, and bear away their rage? Why no more, or less than the Emperor Paul, for whom the Moniteur, now the only french official Gazette, declares, that the first Consul has long entertained a most particular esteem—Paul appears determined not to wear his name for nothing, & as on the one hand he has become the most formidable champion of the cause, which he began by persecuting with fury, so on the other his eloquence has been so prevailing upon the modern Felix, as to make him exclaim, almost thou persuadest me to become an Emperor.

The happiness of France say the Consuls in their message about peace, shall be to calm the apprehensions of Italy & Germany—Her glory shall be to save Europe from the rapacious & malignant genius of England—Germany & Italy are spared at Paul’s intervention as a counterpart for which Paul is to contribute his share towards the ruin of England—Ay! stare as much as you will, but such is really the portentuous coalition, which threatens the human race at the opening of the nineteenth century—As a coalition it is not yet formally declared, but such to all intents & purposes it is in fact—In pursuance of this system, Paul has renewed the armed neutrality of the year 1781. & prevailed upon Prussia, Sweden, & Denmark, much against the will at least of the two last; to join him in it. To the principles laid down as maritime law in the armed neutrality, G. Britain now declares in apparently the most resolute tone that she will not submit. But the convention for carrying the plan into effect is already signed, & therefore unless one side, or the other step back, they must come to actual hostilities by sea, no later than the ensuing spring, or summer. Should this take place, such is the decisive & indisputable superiority of England upon the sea, that the four northern powers will in the course of six months time, have no more commerce, or navigation in their own ships, than Holland has had [since] she became the Batavian Republic—From this Russia would suffer the least—Prussia might find indemnity on the shore, for what she would lose upon the Ocean, but Sweden & Denmark would suffer deep and irreparable injury. On the other hand, England would be cut off almost entirely from all communication with the continent of Europe, & it is scarcely within the limits of rational conjecture what such a combination of enemies at once might effect against her—I have heard of an old admiral, who upon being challenged to fight a duel, said that the only way in which he could meet his man should be, seated side by side upon two barrels of gun-powder, each with a lighted torch in the hand, & set fire to both barrels at once—The northern powers are the challenger, & England answers like the old Admiral—In mercy to the human race it is to be hoped that both parties before they meet will reflect upon what they are doing, & retire from the field.

It is more than a month since I received a line from you, & excepting your letters, I have not had a word from any part of the family these seven months—My dear mother I know would write, had she not strong reasons for silence, & I am so unable to guess at these, that I imagine her letters must have failed in the passage. My ever affectionate duty to her, & my father—


MHi: Adams Family Papers, Letterbooks.

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