The wit of Macaulay, who wrote of Frederick II

My people and I have come to an agreement which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.

—Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712–1786)

This rather cynical commentary on the role of “freedom of the press” intrigued me and I did some googling into its background.

It appears that this quip was popularized by Thomas Babington Macaulay’s biography of Frederick circa 1842, and in fact Macaulay probably invented it. The humorous story to which Macaulay attached it is older; still, I doubt the story originated outside of 19th-century England.

The oldest source I can find is in volume 9, number 24 of The Olio; or Museum of Entertainment (1832-06-09):

ANECDOTE OF FREDERICK THE GREAT. One day, at Potsdam, the king heard from his cabinet a considerable tumult in the street; he called an officer and told him to go and ascertain the cause. The officer went, and came back to tell his majesty that a very scurrilous placard against his majesty was fixed on the wall, but that it was placed so high that a great crowd pressed forward, and were pushing each other to read it. “But the guards,” he added, “will soon come and disperse them.” “Do nothing of the kind,” replied the king, “fix the placard lower down that they may read it at their ease.”

The story was soon repeated by H. L. Bulwer in the House of Lords (1832-08-02).

The placard anecdote next appears in Macaulay’s Frederick the Great (first printed in number 151 of the Edinburgh Review, April 1842); and it is capped with a quip which Macaulay attributes to Frederick… but it seems to me that Macaulay probably originated the quip himself, since I can’t find any earlier source for it.

Considered as an administrator, Frederick had undoubtedly many titles to praise. Order was strictly maintained throughout his dominions. Property was secure. A great liberty of speaking and of writing was allowed. Confident in the irresistible strength derived from a great army, the king looked down on malcontents and libellers with a wise disdain, and gave little encouragement to spies and informers. When he was told of the disaffection of one of his subjects, he merely asked, “How many thousand men can he bring into the field?”

He once saw a crowd staring at something on a wall. He rode up, and found that the object of curiosity was a scurrilous placard against himself. The placard had been posted up so high that it was not easy to read it. Frederick ordered his attendants to take it down and put it lower. “My people and I,” he said, “have come to an agreement which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.”

Sometimes (volume 3, number 15 of Putnam’s Monthly, March 1854) the quip was repeated without the accompanying anecdote:

Character must be associated with great firmness and decision, and the man who has it will not be turned from his course by any amount of abuse, ridicule, or “paper bullets of the brain.” “My people and I,” said Frederick the Great, “have come to an agreement which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.” And he suffered all sorts of lampoons and satires to be written upon him.

The quip was repeated in F.W. Longman’s Frederick the Great and the Seven Years’ War (1881), and, separately, the placard anecdote was given a “happy ending” which had not appeared in earlier versions of the story. Here’s Longman’s version, as what-sure-looks-like-plagiarized into Augusta Hale Gifford’s Germany, Her People and Their Story (1899).

Although he was despotic, Frederick allowed unparalleled freedom of speech. The liberty of the press was such in his time that it was no uncommon thing for satires to be published in Berlin which would not have been tolerated in any other capital in Europe. “My people and I,” he said, “have come to an agreement which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.” Both kept up the understanding quite generally throughout his reign. He was able to suffer this state of things to exist, because he knew he had the love and esteem of the greater part of his subjects, and he did not care what his enemies said about him. One day, as he was riding through Berlin, he saw a crowd of people looking at something high up on the wall, and sent his groom to inquire what it was all about. It proved to be a caricature of himself. It occupied so elevated a position that it was difficult to see it or read what was said about the king; so Frederick ordered that it should be placed lower, in order that the people might not tire themselves stretching their necks to look at it. He had hardly given the order when with a shout of joy the crowd pulled down the placard and tore it in pieces, giving the king a hearty cheer as he rode away.

Thomas Carlyle alludes to the placard story in History of Friedrich II of Prussia (1887), but does not repeat it wholesale, nor repeat Macaulay’s quip.

Finally, by 1886, the anecdote had made its way back to Germany. From Karl Hillebrand’s Zeiten, Völker und Menschen (1886), speaking of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821):

Seine vollständige Nervenlosigkeit … ihn nie verhinderte, seiner knabenhaften Empfindlichkeit gegen die Nadelstiche der Opposition, der Presse, der Salons nachzugeben. Er hätte sicher nicht wie Friedrich II. das verleumderische Plakat tiefer hängen lassen, damit man es bequemer lesen könne, er hätte es ungestüm abgerissen; so reizte ihn jeder Angriff, selbst der lächerlichste. Er verstand ebensowenig, wie ein gewisser großer Zeitgenosse — der freilich Nerven hat …

His complete lack of nerves … never prevented him from yielding to his boyish sensitivity to the pinpricks of the opposition, of the press, of the salons. He certainly would not have allowed Frederick II to hang the slanderous placard lower, so that it would be easier to read; he would have ripped it off impetuously; so he was tempted by every attack, even the most ridiculous. He understood just as little as a certain great contemporary — who of course has nerves …

I think the “certain great contemporary” being needled here was Hillebrand’s contemporary Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898). But it doesn’t really matter whom you put upon the list…

UPDATE: The placard anecdote was present in Germany by 1849 (a mere seven years after Macaulay), when it was referenced in a speech (1849-04-13) by Julius Rupp in the Zweite Kammer of the Prussian Landtag. Could it be of German origin after all?

Posted 2019-04-29