Adams Papers

From John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 24 February 1801

No: 26.

24. February. 1801—

Dear Sir,

The object of this letter will be to give you an idea of the political Constitution of the province of Silesia. By the word Constitution I do not here understand what commonly goes by that name in our Country. The supreme power in this as in most the other Prussian provinces, is in the hands of a single person. It is a simple monarchy. But it is governed by permanent laws, with regular forms, & the various classes of inhabitants have privileges, which every king upon receiving their homage promises to protect & maintain.

The inhabitants of Silesia are discriminated in three classes, by the names of Nobles, citizens, (or rather Townsmen) & Peasants. The nobility consist of the proprietors of the mediate principalities. You will remember to have seen in my former letters, that the province was parcelled out, when under the polish government into nearly twenty distinct principalities, held by various descendants of the Piast family—And that under the Bohemian dominion, these principalities escheated to the crown, whenever the branch of the family, which respectively held them became extinct. In process of time this happened to them all. But some of the principalities have ever since been held as appendages to the Bohemian, & now to the Prussian sceptre, while others, after the extinction of the Piasts were granted to other families—Hence the destinction prevailing at this day between the mediate principalities, possessed by subordinate proprietors, & the immediate principalities, belonging to the crown. The privileges of these holders of the mediate principalities, are, of not being bound to do homage to the king otherwise than in person, & of having a sort of government & judicial courts of their own appointments, subject only to appeal to the highest tribunal of the monarchy, to which alone they are themselves personally amenable. Next to these are the owners of certain free lordships, not bearing the title of principalities, but like them conferring the privilege of doing homage in person, & of having their own inferior courts—Others which bear the name of lesser lordships, have likewise peculiar, but less extensive privileges. Last of all come the Counts, Barons, & Nobles, old & new, between whose rights, there is little difference, consisting principally in the capacity to hold a noble landed estate, & in belonging to the class, among whom, all the high offices of state, ecclesiastical, civil & military are exclusively distributed. The land holders only have the right of a seat in the States of the Province, & they have but a limited power to purchase lands not previously noble. They are not allowed to practice any trade, or mechanic profession, but may engage in whole sale commerce. The number of noble families amounts to about five thousand.

The townsmen, are the inhabitants of the cities; or rather this denomination comprehends all the inhabitants of the province, other than those belonging to the two other orders. The greatest distinction between the privileges of the nobility, & those of the townspeople, are that the former are all personal, & the latter all corporate. The townsman individually has no privileges at all, but as a citizens partakes of those, which belong to the town. These are not uniform, & in former letters, I have noticed some, which are peculiar to Breslau, & the mountain towns. In general the privileges of the towns are. 1. To be governed by their own laws of internal police, & by laws subject to the approbation of the government by the designated provincial tribunal. 2. To elect their own magistrates—But this right is exercised by the magistrates themselves.—Generally their places are for life, & the vacancies are filled up by the choice of the remaining members. 3. The exclusive right of working, or practicing in any of the corporate trades within the city. 4. A privilege by the name of mile right, by force of which no trade, nor mechanic art whatsoever, whether corporate, or not, can be exercised within a German mile of the city, but by the burgers themselves—& 5. The right of holding annual fairs under antient grants from the Government—All these things bear the name of privileges, but what most of them really are, the fairs sufficiently indicate. The principle upon which the fairs are founded, is a momentary suspension of the exclusive rights of the corporations. A single week during which a stranger may sell a coat, or a pair of shoes, or a glass of beer, or brandy within the town. This last privilege therefore is only a short relief from the burden of the rest. The burgers form about one fourth of the population.

Under the name of peasants are comprized all the inhabitants of the country without the city, who are employed in the tillage of the land, with the exception of those, who by birth, office, or some special privilege belong to one of the other classes—They constitute nearly three quarters of the population. Of this great mass of the people, a very small part are entirely free. By the new Prussian code of laws personal servitude is in deed nominally abolished, but the services & duties of which it consisted are not only retained but formally regulated by law—According to the difference of these services the peasants are distinguished by three different denominations. 1. Peasants, properly speaking. These are men, who possess a hut & a small piece of land, & are bound to do farming work for the lord without pay a certain number of days in the week; the number of these days is different upon different estates. 2. Gardeners, or persons, who only hold a peice of ground, or a garden belonging to the lordship, upon the same condition of farming work for the lord; for which they receive a small & very inadequate portion of the produce of their labour, in kind, or a pittance in money; for instance about five cents of our money by the day. 3. Householders, or persons, who hold a hut without land, who subsist by working as day labourers, & pay the lord a small tax in money—All these people are in a manner appendages to the glebe, for they cannot quit the grounds to which they belong without the consent of their lords, or paying a sort of redemption fine, which though very trifling as it should seem, being only a ducat, is yet more than most of them can pay in the course of their lives command. On their part however, the lords cannot turn their tenants away from the spot of land, or the cottage they hold, nor can they sell the estate without conveying the same rights & obligations upon the new lord. All these securities in favor of the peasants were introduced & established by Frederic the Second. For before his time, the tenant was liable to be turned out of his possession at the lord’s pleasure, & employed in domestic service, or left to obtain a subsistance as he could. Several thousand of the peasant farms & cottages were in consequence of such practices untenanted & fallen to ruin at the period of the Prussian conquest—Frederic obliged the lords to rebuild the cottages, provide them with the grounds, cattle, farming utensils &c. which had belonged to them when previously occupied, & place them good able bodied tenants, whom they were no longer allowed afterwards to remove. This system thus established, & rigorously carried into execution certainly contributed most essentially to better the condition of the peasants; but it was oppressive upon the landlords, & a manifest violation of their rights of property. Such is the character of arbitrary power. Its only medicines are extracts from the deadliest poisons. Its most bounteous charities are but the fruits of robbery.

It was one of the most laudable principles of Frederic’s life to improve as far as he was able the condition of his subjects, & an absolute monarch sincerely & deeply impressed with this wish, & at the same time endowed with the most extraordinary mental powers, must in the nature of things succeed in a very considerable degree. Frederic unquestionably did succeed, & nearly as the veneration for his memory approaches to idolatry, his nation knows not half its obligations to him. Such however is the imperfection of every thing related to human nature, that even the best institutions, guided by the most consumate abilities, & executed by the most unlimited power, are in detail often defeated, & often but partially successful. Frederic’s measures were not always the best calculated to answer his designs. Thus when by particular ordinances he made regulations to relieve the peasants from being overburthened by excessive services, & prescribed the manner in which they might obtain redress against the ill treatment of their landlords, his measures were adapted to his ends, & in a great degree answered them. But when he not only forbad every peasant from possessing more than one small farm, & even compelled those, who already possessed more to sell, or tenant with full grown sons, the superfluous number, it is most probable, that his ordinance rather counteracted than promoted the objects he had in view. It might tend to preserve things in the state in which they were, & to prevent the diminution of the number of individuals, & of families employed in agriculture, but it took off the greatest spur of industry, the hopes of bettering one’s own condition—Where the farmer is thus prevented from ever acquiring possessions beyond those of absolute necessity for the subsistance of his family, it is the more incumbent upon his government to devise means of repairing the calamities of accident, of unpropitious seasons, or of raging elements. The whole rural part of Silesia is therefore districted out under the regulations of the government into societies of mutual insurance from which every farmer, who has suffered extraordinary damage from fire, inundations, storms, mortality of cattle, or other casualty receives assistance in money, labour, & the articles or animals he has lost. The government likewise remits for a number of years proportioned to the extent of the misfortune, all the taxes payable by the sufferers from such events, & the farmer, who without such relief would be irretrievably ruined, is thus preserved to the state & restored to agriculture.

I shall not pursue into further details this account of the political condition of the Silesians. You have seen that it is a system of manacles, & fetters, & I hope it will serve to endear to your mind the institutions of your own country. Not that I think it wise to amuse one’s self, or honest to delude others with a general, vague idea, that our form of government & state of society is the best in the world; the last effort to perfection of the human intellect. In contemplating the miseries of mankind, when bowed beneath the yoke of absolute dominion, let us not forget the vices & follies, into which a state of liberty too often leads them. Where there is no freedom of agency there can be neither virtue nor vice. Liberty gives ample scope for the exercise of both; but such is the perverseness, & such are the artifices of the human passions, that vice too often assumes the name, or the disguise of virtue. The historians of the antient Grecian republics impute their final ruin to this perversion of the moral sentiments. It is the most dangerous internal enemy of all Republics, & is the more powerful in proportion as the principle of democracy predominates in the Constitution. It is the duty of every virtuous citizen to stem this current with all his influence, & to withstand the failings in order to promote the happiness of his country.

I have more than once mentioned to you the prevailing reports that peace between France & Austria was concluded. None of them however were true. The fact is now certain. The Treaty was signed Luneville on the 9th: of this month, & is officially published in France. It is a peace for the Empire, as well as for the Emperor—France keeps the Rhine for her frontier, and the Adige is to be that of Austria in Italy. The Grand Duke of Tuscany cedes that dutchy, which is to given to the duke of Parma; All the losers by these cessions are to be indemnified in Germany, but it does not appear how, or at whose expence.

Under the Government of the first Consul, France is every hour growing in consideration, in substantial power, & in prosperity both external & internal. How long it will last, & how much of it results from good Fortune may be a subject of great discussion, but those, who still refuse to see in the french Administration great abilities & address, must have the eyes of reason at least seven fold bound by the bandages of passion.

At the same time England is threatened with the consequences of a combination both of misfortunes, & of errors, at which I am very far from taking delight. In the new quarrel, which she has upon her hands, her cause, as far as I can judge, is right; but I believe she could have avoided bringing it so boldly to an issue, & think that was her interest. The coalition is to all appearance too powerful for her to resist. Probably a change of ministry will take place, & their successors will make sacrifices to obtain peace, which the men now in power would not. Prussia has formerly declared, that she will join Sweden & Denmark in the war; & thinks she has the strongest of all inducements to a holy respect for her stipulated engagements; namely her own interest. But when she once gets undisputed possession of Hanover, when Russia gets that of Constantinople, & France gets settled beyond expulsion in Egypt, Sweden & Denmark will find that the question whether free ships make free goods, will lose much of its consequence, & the treaties pledging to them, much of their sanctity in the judgment of their allies. I need not tell you that England has sent under Genl: Abercromby about 20,000 men to Egypt, to be dealt with, as Providence & Genl: Menou shall think proper.


MHi: Adams Family Papers, Letterbooks.

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