Confessions of Frederick the Great - H. Treitschke




Third Morning—On Justice

To our subjects we owe justice, as they owe respect to us. By this, I mean, dear nephew, that we must do justice to all men, and especially to our subjects, when it does not overset our own rights, or wound our own authority; for there ought to be no sort of equality between the right of the monarch and the right of the subject or slave. But we must be firmly impartial and just when the point is to settle a matter of right between one subject, whatever he may be, and another. This is an act which is alone enough to make us adored.

Represent to yourself Charles I brought to the scaffold by that justice which the people implores, and demands with a loud voice. I am born with too much ambition to suffer in my dominion any order that should cramp my authority, and this most certainly is the only reason that obliged me to make a new code of justice. I am very sensible that I have reduced the old dame from her long robes to a jacket and petticoat; but I was afraid of her sharp sight, as I knew her weight with the people, and knew, withal, that princes of any dexterity might, at the same time that they were satisfying their ambition, make themselves adored.

The greatest part of my subjects really believed that I was moved at the grievances resulting to them from chicanery, or the tedious processes of the law. Alas! I own to you, nay, I sometimes blush to myself for it, that so far from having had such a relief in view, I am actually regretting the little advantages those processes used to procure me; for the taxes on them, and on the stamped papers made use of in them, have suffered a diminution, to the detriment of my revenues, near five hundred thousand livres.

Do not then, my dear nephew, suffer yourself to be dazzled with the word justice; it is a word that has different relations, and is susceptible of different constructions. These are the ideas that I annex to it:

Justice is the image of God. Now who can attain to such high perfection? Is it not more reasonable to give up so vain a project as that of an entire possession of her? Review all the kingdoms of the earth, examine and mark whether she is in any two kingdoms administered in the same form. Consult next the principles that rule mankind, and see whether they and Justice agree. What is there, then, so extraordinary in a man's being just after his own way? When I cast my eyes over all the tribunals of my kingdom, I observed an immense army of lawyers, all presumably honest men, and yet violently suspected of not being so. ["So are we all; all honorable men!"]

Every tribunal had its superior; I myself had mine; for even those judgments given by my council were liable to control or opposition. I was not angry at this because it was a custom. But on examining, or rather on observing, chicanery every day gaining ground, and invading the property of my subjects, I was frightened at all the immense bewildering labyrinths in which thousands of my subjects were losing themselves and being devoured alive. But what gave me most disquiet was, the slow, but sure and constant, march of the people of the law, that spirit of liberty inseparable from their principles, and that dexterous management of theirs of preserving their advantages, and of crushing their enemies, with all the appearances of the most austere equity.

[Note from orig. translator: The men of the law can, in process of time, come to such a pitch, as to be a match for the monarch, to struggle with his power, and even to overset it. Under a weak prince, surrounded with ignorant or avaricious ministers, lawyers will start up, and strengthen themselves with the love of the people, whose cause they affect to embrace; and, little by little, they will accomplish their end of breaking, and levelling in the dust, the idols to which they publicly before burnt incense. Do not let the shrewd management of the parliaments of France be forgotten.

Under the pretext of disburdening from the taxes they are loud for taking off, they exaggerate to the king the public distresses, they paint the state running to its ruin, they give fresh spirit to the boldness of its enemies, destroy the patriotism of the subject, and end with usurping the administration into which they force themselves.

Instead of doing justice to the wretches whom circumstances of oppression compel to apply to them, they drag them at their chariot-wheels, strip them, and send them to die naked on a dung-hill. All the philosophers of Paris loudly exclaim against these open depredations exercised on the weak. The men of the law in that kingdom have been ever depraved, and rapacious of money. Read the Chancellor de l'Hopital, and you will be convinced of this truth.]

I made pass in review before my memory all those acts full of rigor, and often very unaccountable, of the parliaments of England and Paris, and was surprised at some of them being so disgraceful to the majesty of the throne. It was amidst all these reflections that I determined to strike at the foundations of this great power, and it was only by simplifying it as much as I could, that I have reduced it to the point at which I wanted it.

You will, perhaps, be surprised, my dear nephew, that men who have no arms, and who never speak but with respect of the sacred person of the king, should be the only people in his kingdom able to give law to him. It is precisely for these very reasons that it is not difficult for them to check or set bounds to our power. There is no suspecting them of violence, since they always speak to us with the greatest decency, and our subjects are soon captivated and led away in chains by that firm eloquence, which seems never to display itself but for their happiness and our glory.

I have often reflected on the advantages resulting to a kingdom from a body of representatives of the people, which is a depositary of its laws; I am even ready to believe that the crown is the safer on a king's head for its having been given, or for its being preserved, to him by such a body; but that he must be strictly an honest man, and made up of good principles, to permit his actions to stand every day its scrutiny or examination.

When one has ambition, one must renounce that plan; I should never have done anything if I had been cramped. Perhaps I might have obtained the character of a just king, but I should have missed that of a hero.

The limited monarch is oftener exposed to the vicissitudes of fortune than the arbitrary despot; but then the despot must be active, enlightened, and firm. There are more virtues required to give a luster to a state of despotism than to that of monarchy.

The courtier flatters the monarch, soothes his vices, and deceives him; the slave prostrates himself, but gives him right information. It is, then, of more use to a great man to reign arbitrarily, but more grievous to the people to live under such a government.