frederick II

Frederick II, King of Prussia

Frederick II, King of Prussia

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (1712-1786), was a notable practitioner of what was known as “enlightened despotism” – a philosophy that espoused absolute monarchy combined with a social contract that the ruler was obliged solely to rule in the interests of his people.

I studied this philosophy briefly at university and recall a particular text that I would like to read again, that I have now been fruitlessly seeking for some years. I had thought for a long time that the author was Frederick himself, and that an essay that he had written on the nature of monarchy was the source of the text I had read. It took some time to find the actual name of that essay – An Essay on Form of Government, and on the Duties of Sovereigns –   and then even longer to find the full text, as most references to it contained only short extracts.

Given the difficulty of sourcing this text, which I eventually found in a scan of a 1789 translation of Frederick’s unpublished works uploaded to Google Books, I am rather suspicious of its widespread citation in various student essays!

Sadly for myself, the full 33 page essay does not contain the text that I am looking for, and it seems now likely that it was excerpted from a letter by Voltaire. Before I embark on reading all of Voltaire’s selected letters, however, I have typed up and made An Essay on Forms of Government available to the public in an accessible form.

APA citation: Holcroft, T. (1789). Posthumous Works of Frederic II, King of Prussia. Vol. V. Ireland: G.G.J. and J. Robinson. Pp. 5-33.

The scanned book itself:

Download (PDF, 12.02MB)


An Essay on Form of Government, and on the Duties of Sovereigns


If we look back into the most remote antiquity, we shall find that the people whose history has descended to us led pastoral lives, and did not form social bodies. What the book of Genesis related of the history of the Patriarchs is sufficient proof. Previous to this small Jewish nations, the Egyptians must in like manner have been dispersed over those countries which the Nile did not submerge; and many ages no doubt paffed away before the vanquished river would permit the people to assemble in small towns. From the Grecian history we learn the names of founder of states, and of those legislators who first assembled the Greeks in bodies. This nation was long in a savage state, as well as all the nations of the globe. Had the annals of the Etruscans and those of the Samnite, Sabine and other tribes, come down to us, we should assuredly have learnt that they lived in distinct families, before they were assembled and united.


The Gauls were forming into societies at the time they were conquered by Julius Caesar; but it appears Great Britain has not attained this point of affection, when the conqueror first paffed into that island with his Roman legions. In the age of this great man, the Germans could only be compared to what the Iroquois and Algonquins, or some equally savage people, are at present. They existed by hunting and fishing, and on their milk and herds. A German thought himself debased by cultivating he earth; this was a labour performed by the slaves he had taken in war. The Hercynian forest, at that time, was almost wholly covered the vast extent of country which at present composes the German empire. The nation could not be populous, for want of sufficient food; and this no doubt was the true cause of the prodigious emigrations of the northern people, who hastened southward in search of lands ready cleared, under a less rigorous climate.


We are astonished at imaging the human race so long existing in a brutal state, and without forming itself into societies. Reasons are accordingly suggested, such as might induce people like these to unite in bodies. It must have been the violence and pillage which existed among neighbouring hordes, that could have first inspired such savage families with the wish of uniting, that they might secure their possessions by mutual defence. Hence laws took birth, which taught those societies to prefer to the general to individual good. From that time, no person durst seize the effects of another, because of the dread of chastisement. The life, the wife, and the wealth of the neighbour were sacred; and if the whole society were attacked, it was the duty of the whole to assemble for its defence. The grand truth, -“That we should do unto others as they should do unto us” – became the principle of laws, and of the social compact. Hence originated the love of our country, which was regarded as the asylum of happiness.


But, as these laws could neither be maintained nor executed, unless some one should incessantly watch for their preservation, magistrates arose, out of this necessity, whom the people elected, and to whom they subjected themselves. Let it be carefully remembered that the preservation of the laws was the sole reason which induced men to allow of, and to elect, a superior; because this is the true origin of sovereign power. The magistrate, thus appointed, was the first servant of the state. When rising states had any thing to fear from their neighbours, the magistrate armed the people, and flew to the defence of the citizens. [click to continue…]

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