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From John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 7 February 1801

No 24

7. February. 1801—

Dear Sir

The most important change in the internal condition of Silesia, which followed its conquest by the king of Prussia, proceeds from the precautions which he found necessary to secure it. Under the Austrian Government, there had been no strongly fortified places to bar the progress of an invader & not more than two thousand men garrisoned within the province in time of peace. You have seen by former letters at what a vast expence Frederic. II, shielded his acquisition by the fortressess of Schweidnitz, Silberberg & Glatz; besides which he constantly kept on foot an army of 40,000 men, within the limits of the province. To defray the cost of all this force, the revenues arising from the country to be defended by it were alone to be applied, & there cannot possibly be a more luminous proof of the difference between a good & a bad administration of the same resources, than the fact that the king of Prussia accomplished all this without adding at all to the burthens of the people, who had become his subjects.

The revenues drawn from Silesia by its last Austrian sovereigns had been collected from the produce of the domains, & from the taxes granted by the provincial Estates—Upon the system common to almost all the Governments in Germany, the domains are considered as the private property of the prince. They consist of the rents of his lands, judicial fines, the capitation, the ransom of the Jews, the sale of salt, & certain tolls & customs—The sums raised & granted by the States, were levied by land tax & excise—These in the last years of the Austrians Government had amounted to about two millions & a half of rix dollars annually, & the land tax granted in the year 1739. was of 1704932 rix dollars.

Immediately after the conquest Frederic declared that he would take this sum as the measure of that which he should annually require by the land tax, & promised for himself & his successors, that no higher sum should ever be required; however the value of the lands in the province might be raised by improvements—At the same time he abolished the excise altogether, excepting in the cities, & took it away in several absurd & oppressive particulars, even there—By this proceeding the very shadow of what Englishmen, & Americains usually consider as the most important principle of liberty, the necessity of the subje[c]ts consent for the levying of taxes, was removed—In this respect Frederic acted as a conqueror, & in a very arbitrary manner. But it was probably for the real advantage of the people, that one permanent & unalterable sum should be fixed as the annual claim of the government upon their lands, instead of the unequal, & often more burthensome demands, to which they were liable under the Austrian sway, with which they were alike obliged to comply; the consent of the States being little more than a bare form. The mode of raising the sum, Frederic took upon himself—He employed a small number of officers to take an evaluation of all the lands in the province, & of the income proceeding from them. This work was accomplished in two years time, & is asserted to be one of the most exact & detailed evaluations ever made. This being accomplished, the assessment was made upon the income of the lands, & in proportions varied according to the condition of the proprietors—The estates belonging to the king, the princes, the nobility, the secular clergy, & to schoolmasters, were charged to the amount of 28% of their annual income—Those of the peasants were burthened with 34 per cent. Those of knightly orders with 40 per cent—And those of the bishop, the spiritual foundations & the convents with 50 per cent. It is one of the peculiarities of this ordinance, that the king’s own domains are subjected to it. The panegyrists of Frederic, make a merit of this, though it amounts to little else than taking from one pocket to put into another. It was however [a] necessary pretext to him for charging in like manner the noble, & clerical estates, which in many other countries are exempted from taxation. Had he carried the spirit of equity, upon which he made this arrangment still further, & inverted the proportions of the two first classes of his assessments, the regulation would have been yet more honorable for himself, & might be contemplated with more pleasure by the friends of humanity. A tax of 34 per cent upon the whole annual produce of the farmer’s lands, raised at all times, in profound peace as well as amidst the flame of war, in our country would be considered as altogether intolerable. Yet are there few countries in Europe, where the burthen is not still heavier—In many one half of the peasant’s produce suffices not to satisfy the demands of his government—Frederic’s evaluation rated the lands very low, & their worth has since then been raised so that an average of about 28 per cent is considered to be the charge upon the whole landed income. The value of [. . .] all the lands was estimated at about thirteen millions Sterling, & their income at about [one].

The capitation tax was limited to such inhabitants of the country, as were not proprietors of lands; in proportions from one rix dollar to eight, according to the means of the individual. The linen & woolen spinners & weavers were exempted from it—The produce of this tax amounts to about 150,000 rix dollars, or £25,000 Sterling. For the purpose of collecting these taxes, the whole province is divided into forty eight Circles, each named from the city contained within it. In every circle there is a landrath (an officer I mentioned to you in my letter from Frankfurt) & under him a Receiver who keeps his office in the city, within the circle—The Schultz, or constable, in every village, collects the taxes due by the inhabitants, & at a stated day in every month, pays them into the receiver’s office—The proprietors of lands not concluded with in any village must pay in like manner to the Receiver, for themselves—At Breslau, & at Glogau, are two officers of Receivers General, where at the close of each month, the Receivers of all the Circles within the respective districts, render in the monies they have received—These officer’s are under the superintendance of the Governor, or according to the customary Prussian denomination, the <superin> Minister of Silesia—The monthly payments must invariably be made without any variation, or deduction; but if a landholder has met with any extraordinary loss or damage, by fire, Storms, or desease among his cattle, a proportional allowance is not abated from his usual monthly assessment, but is paid to him in specie out of the Receiver General’s office. This arrangment must often occation trouble, seemingly unecessary to individuals—Yet it is more calculated to confirm & establish a systematic punctuality than if the allowance was deducted from the landholder’s monthly payment—The Landrath is responsible for the regular collection of the tax, & if any landholder run into considerable arrears his estate is put into administration, with an allowance for his support, while the rest of his income is applied to the discharge of his taxes due.

The excise, as I have before mentioned is limited to the Cities, where it is intended as a substitute for the land tax, which is not extended to them—But this excise is applied even to the most necessary articles of consumption, such as corn & beer—It is collected by the visitors and receivers at the gates of the Cities: a class of people with whom you as a traveller in Germany have been well acquainted. These consist commonly of invalid soldiers, who are thus provided with a confortable subsistance, & they pay monthly the sums collected into the two offices at Breslau & Glogau, in the same manner as I have mentioned of the land tax. The produce of the excise may be estimated now at more than £200,000 Sterling, & like the other tax is appropriated to the maintenance of the troops in Silesia.

The seven year’s war cost the province at least 150,000 of its inhabitants, & ruined many of [the] principal cities—It could not be surprizing therefore that after undergoing such a series of calamities, & such a thorough devastation, the produce of the excise should have suffered a great diminution—Frederic. II. without making a due allowance for what was so easily accountable, imagined the deficienc[i]es of return to proceed from a defect in the system of collection—Soon after the peace he received a visit from the philosopher Helvetius—But for the misfortune of the Prussian people, Helvetius was a farmer general of France, as well as a philosopher, & persuaded his brother philosopher-king, that the only way to raise the profits of his excise was to collect it after the manner of the french farmer’s general, & by officer’s ready trained under them—This system it is <perpetually> perfectly well known, was at once in the highest degree odious & oppressive to the people, who paid the taxes, & unprofitable to the Government, which raised them; but these little inconveniences were abundantly compensated by the consideration of the immense profits derived from it by the collectors, the farmers general, of which body Helvetius himself was so worthy a member—The king took his advice, & sent for an army of french excisemen, which he dispersed in every part of his dominions, to take ample vengeance, as the English minister Mitchel observed, for the defeat of their countrymen at Rosback—This was the most injudicious measure, & unpopular measure of his whole reign. The system was continued however untill his death—One of the first acts of his successor was to abolish it, & send home the french excise-men, as you will recollect to have seen in Mirabeau’s book—

In each of the two, Chambers of Domains, or Receiver Generals offices, there is a subdivision, called the Office of domain rents, into which all the revenues from the domains are paid—Of these domains, the tolls & turnpike payments for the maintainance of roads & bridges, the rents of lands belonging to the king personally; & stamp taxes, are of an unexceptionable nature—But there seems an absurdity that the king should declare himself the only salt merchant in his dominions, & something oppressive & arbitrary in compelling the subjects to take a given quantity of the article, whether he wants it, or not—This usage has been however established here for more than four centuries—On the south side of the Oder, the Silesians are furnished with this article<s> from the royal salt works—near Halle, & Schönbeck, On the north side with rock salt from the neighbouring mines of Wieliczka, situated in that part of Poland, which at the first partition was allotted to the house of Austria—This rock salt the farmers give in large masses to their sheep & cows to lick—The fineness & softness of the Silesian wool, is ascribed to the use of this salt, which contains a certain proportion of pretoleum & bitumen—

The tax upon Jews, who are obliged to pay annually 10,000 rix dollars, for being suffered to live in Silesia, is another <sou> iniquitous source to the royal domains—The object was so small, & the tax in its nature so odious, that it might have been expected a Monarch, who was tolerant & equitable, where his interest was not concerned would have abolished it. Perhaps he partook of the common prejudice against the Jews, which you will have seen by some of my former letters is unusually violent in Silesia.

All persons appointed to civil offices are likewise obliged to pay the first quarter’s salary into the royal domain office.

The fundamental maxim of Frederic. II. in affairs of finance was, that the <immense> income must always exceed the expences—This system is in the present reign restored to its full vigor—The revenues from Silesia are calculated to exceed the outgoings by about half a million of dollars.

On the first of June every year the estimate of both for the ensuing twelve month, & the accounts of the year preceeding are laid before the king, & must have his approbation & signature—Besides this, he receives an abstract of income & expence to the close of every month, from the two general offices. The Minister of Silesia has a limited authority to direct the payment of unforseen, or contingent charges to a small amount, but otherwise no disbursments can be made without an express order from the king.

Thus much may suffice to give you a general idea of the Prussian Government in Silesia, relative to the important point of finance. In some respects it is a system common to all the Prussian dominions—In others it is distinguished by peculiarities, which do not extend to the other Provinces—But the taxes, heavy as by the above relation you have found them to be, are not the only burdens, which the people are obliged to support for maintaining the country in a state of defence—There are others of a no less aggravating nature, which I shall reserve for your consideration in my next letter.

MHi: Adams Family Papers, Letterbooks.

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