Prussia and the American Revolution

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Prussia and the American Revolution

PRUSSIA AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. On 6 April 1776, the Continental Congress resolved to open trade to all nations except Great Britain. While this international trade plan was developing, the fundamental question was whether the foreign governments involved might also be enlisted to protect or even legitimize that trade. Because of the structure of the Prussian state, its king, Frederick the Great, set foreign policy. His relationship with Britain had been strained before the disturbances in North America developed. During the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), Britain's alliance with Prussia had been abandoned by the policies of Britain's prime minister, John Stuart, the third Earl of Bute, in favor of reaching a settlement with Britain and Prussia's mutual enemy, France. Frederick felt himself betrayed. A decade later (at the time of the first Polish partition), Frederick was further embittered by the British attempt to prevent him from acquiring Danzig.

As the American crisis intensified, Frederick became a close observer of developments. Frederick was interested in seeing Britain humbled while trying to keep Prussia out of direct involvement. When his adviser, Count Joachim Karl von Maltzan, suggested open commercial relations with the Americans, Frederick replied on 3 June 1776 that the American situation was still too problematical and that, without a navy, Prussia would be unable to protect the trade. Therefore, Frederick was determined to maintain a strict neutrality. In November 1776, Silas Deane sent William Carmichael to Berlin to make proposals for direct trade. Frederick again declined, preferring that all such trade be conducted through French ports. On 14 February 1777, Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and Arthur Lee sent Frederick copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation to indicate American resolve. This time Frederick instructed his foreign minister, Gebhardt Wilhelm von der Schulenberg, not to completely refuse—he hoped not to offend the colonies but to keep them in a friendly disposition. When the commissioners (a group including Deane, Franklin, and Lee) proposed sending a formal representative to his court, Frederick declined, but before his reply could be received, Arthur Lee arrived in Berlin. The Prussians were willing to tolerate Lee's presence, provided that he act in a private capacity. This he was willing to do until the Elliot Affair.

On 26 June, during the absence of Lee from his residence, the British minister to Prussia, Hugh Elliot, sent one of his servants to take Lee's papers and have them copied. Elliot's private secretary, Robert Liston, carried the copies to London and sent the servant out of Prussia. Elliot, sensing an impending diplomatic furor over the theft of the papers, immediately acknowledged personal responsibility for the act. Frederick, hoping to avoid a diplomatic crisis, suspended all further investigations into the matter. Lee left Berlin amid the failed negotiations. During Lee's absence, his secretary, Stephen Sayre, attempted to continue negotiations with Prussia with a proposal that Prussia take the island of Dominica in exchange for sending Prussian officers to serve in the American army. This aroused little interest from Frederick. Further relations between Prussia and the Americans would be conducted by correspondence alone.

When Lee wrote again to propose the opening of Prussian ports to American vessels, Frederick instructed Schulenberg to "[p]ut him off with compliments." Frederick now acted to refuse the British permission to cross his lands with their mercenaries from Bayreuth, Anspach, and Cassel. Yet Frederick's actions were not so much a support of the American cause as concern about potential mutinies among these mercenaries. When Arthur Lee wrote to inform Schulenberg about American successes in the battle of Saratoga, Frederick directed his minister to reply that he was waiting on France to recognize American independence. This time the Prussians made a counter proposal: If the Americans wanted muntions, they were free to purchase them through the firm of Splittgerber. Arthur Lee purchased 800 guns, only to discover later that they were useless.

Through 1778, Frederick continued to resist William Lee's proposals for formal relations. On 2 January 1778, Schulenburg wrote to Lee that Prussian ports would be open to "all nations who come there to trade in goods not forbidden," but Prussia would not protect those vessels nor permit prizes into its ports. What especially interested Frederick was the Silesian linen trade, which had largely been a pre-war American market through Britain. It constituted one-third of Prussian exports. Yet Frederick did not recognize American independence until after Britain had. Only in June 1783 did the Prussian minister to France, Baron Bernhard Wilhelm von der Goltz, propose to Franklin a formal commercial agreement between the two countries. A commercial treaty would not be signed until 10 September 1785.

Had Frederick been friendlier to Britain, France might have hesitated to tie itself to the American cause, and more German states might have provided mercenaries to the British. Frederick seems to have been oblivious to any ideological significance from the American Revolution. As he had informed Prince Henry in 1777, "[w]ithout shocking anyone, we are profiting quietly from the opportunity offered to us."

SEE ALSO Deane, Silas; Franklin, Benjamin; German Auxiliaries; Lee, Arthur.


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                            revised by Robert Rhodes Crout