J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 04, 2021

The Myth of Frederick II’s Fan Letter to George Washington

portrait of the rosy-cheeked young Lafayette painted for Jefferson, now at the Massachusetts Historical Society
On 20 May 1780, the Providence Gazette ran a paragraph headed “Extract of a Letter from an Officer in the American Army, dated May 4, 1780.”

The article read:
On Thursday we were mustered and inspected by the Baron Stuben. We had likewise the Honor of his Excellency’s Presence. The Appearance of the Troops, their Arms, Accoutrements, &c. drew the Applause of that great Man, who does Honor to the Name of Soldier. The Dignity of his Manners, the Elevation of his Sentiments, and the Nobility of his Soul, speak him the first of Characters.

Did I ever mention to you an Anecdote which respects him? For Fear I never did, I’ll relate it:—His Majesty of Prussia wishing to bestow some Mark of his Esteem on so exalted a Character, sent him his Picture; underneath were these Words: “FROM THE OLDEST GENERAL IN EUROPE, TO THE GREATEST GENERAL IN THE WORLD.”
“His Excellency” who was, of course, Gen. George Washington. This laudatory item was reprinted in several other American newspapers that year. Whether or not the letter was genuine, it could be useful propaganda.

While relating the story of King Frederick II sending Gen. Washington a picture, this anonymous officer didn’t claim to have seen the picture itself. He was just retelling “an Anecdote” that was going around.

As I discussed yesterday, scholars studying the papers of Frederick the Great haven’t found any letter mentioning Washington by name, much less sending him a picture and fan letter. No such image or correspondence survives in Washington’s papers, and he was careful about saving such documents. So, of course, was the Prussian court.

In sum, this is just as much of a myth as Frederick the Great’s praise for Washington’s maneuvers around Princeton, yesterday’s example. This story arose during the war, rather than decades later, which makes it seem more reliable, but it lacks the confirmation we should expect.

The officer’s anecdote resurfaced decades later in the Eastern Argus of Portland, Maine, on 20 June 1825, in a review of a French pamphlet about Lafayette (shown above). That item stated that when Lafayette met Frederick II at “Pottsdam” in “the Autumn of 1782,” the Prussian monarch invited the French marquis to his palace and listened to his stories about Washington. In admiration, the king sent Washington an unidentified “token of remembrance” with the “greatest General” inscription. (This item in the Eastern Argus was said to be a letter to the editor of the Albany Argus, but I couldn’t find an issue of the New York newspaper carrying it.)

Lafayette did indeed visit Potsdam, but in 1785, as he reported to Washington in a letter dated 6 Feb 1786. The marquis stated:
I went to Make my Bow to the King, and notwisdanding what I Had Heard of Him, could not Help Being struck By that dress and Appearance of an old, Broken, dirty Corporal, coverd all over with Spanish snuff, with His Head almost leaning on one shoulder, and fingers quite distorted By the Gout. But what surprised me much more is the fire and some times the softeness of the most Beautifull Eyes I ever saw, which give as charming an expression to His phisiognomy as He Can take a Rough and threatening one at the Head of His troops
Obviously, Lafayette hadn’t met Frederick II before this moment. The two men had no long conversation about Washington. And Frederick definitely didn’t send a token to Washington to arrive by May 1780, as the Providence Gazette letter had claimed.

The story bobbed up again in 1839 when newspapers published an article called “The Character of Washington,” the recreation of a speech delivered at a Daniel Webster dinner party in early 1838 by Sen. Asher Robbins (1761-1845) of Rhode Island. Robbins included the anecdote about Frederick II sending a picture “from the oldest General in Europe, to the greatest General in the world.” He might have read that story as a Yale student in 1780 or later. From the newspapers, the speech and thus the story were published the next year in the Rev. Charles W. Upham’s Life of Washington and Ebenezer Smith Thomas’s Reminiscences. Again, there was still no such picture.

TOMORROW: Frederick the Great’s supposed encomium in a new form.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

The 6 July 1796 Sun newspaper of Dover, New Hampshire, said Frederick II sent his portrait to Washington “in miniature on an elegant snuff-box,” and the inscription was, “From the OLDEST General in the civilized world to the BEST.”