Accession of Frederick the Great Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Frederick the Great’s ascension to the Prussian throne set the kingdom on an expansionist and imperialist course. During his reign, Prussia became the dominant Germanic state, significantly changing the balance of power Europe.

Summary of Event

The rather sickly child who would become Frederick the Great was born on January 24, 1712, to Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, wife of Crown Prince Frederick William I. The aging King Frederick I responded to the birth by ordering a celebration that rivaled his own coronation as “Frederick by the Grace of God King in Prussia” in the city of Königsberg eleven years earlier. Thirteen months later, Frederick I, king in Prussia, was dead; his son Frederick William I became the first king of Prussia, gaining recognition of his royal title by France and Spain in the Treaty of Utrecht Utrecht, Treaty of (1713) (1713). Universal recognition of the title would develop slowly, however. [kw]Accession of Frederick the Great (May 31, 1740) [kw]Great, Accession of Frederick the (May 31, 1740) [kw]Frederick the Great, Accession of (May 31, 1740) Prussian throne [g]Prussia;May 31, 1740: Accession of Frederick the Great[1030] [g]Germany;May 31, 1740: Accession of Frederick the Great[1030] [c]Government and politics;May 31, 1740: Accession of Frederick the Great[1030] Frederick the Great Elizabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern Frederick William I Sophia Dorothea of Hanover Frederick I Seckendorff, Friedrich Heinrich von Wilhelmina of Prussia Katte, Hans Hermann von Grumbkow, Friedrich Wilhelm

The Great Elector’s legacy of education, science, and the arts—in the “Athens of the North”—rapidly gave way to “Sparta” and the militarism of Frederick William I. Upon Frederick William’s accession to the Prussian throne, the two main bodies of government were the General Finance Directory, responsible for the royal domains, and the General War Commissary, responsible for the army and revenue collections. Frederick William’s first order of business was to balance Prussia’s budget, basing financial expenditures on expected revenues. He would tolerate no burdensome national debt like that of France, Austria, and England.

By an ordinance of August 13, 1713, Frederick William declared all royal domains and property as indivisible and inalienable, lessening the influence of the nobility by filling the provincial administrators’ posts with his own civil servants. He encouraged development of war materials industries, and increased the Prussian army Army, Prussian by seven regiments. Soon, the army became a large part of the domestic consumer market and was consuming two-thirds of the state revenues. Troops were garrisoned within the recruitment districts, using peasant farmers as soldiers and the nobility as officers. Frederick William’s one extravagance was the tall grenadiers who served as his personal bodyguards. Once Prince Frederick was placed in charge of his own regiment, he gained favor with the king by recruiting tall men for the army.

King Frederick the Great of Prussia.

(Harper & Brothers)

Crown Prince Frederick was given military responsibility at an early age, and he proved himself a capable leader, though at first he viewed the uniform as a “dead man’s shroud.” Frederick often rebelled against his father’s demand for absolute obedience and suffered harsh discipline when he dared to show independence. Frederick William despised his son’s intellectual pursuits, his “French” manners, and his lavish spending on extravagances such as music lessons, entertainment, and books. In one fit of temper, Frederick William destroyed an entire library of four thousand books that Frederick had secretly accumulated.

Frederick William’s harsh treatment of his son worsened as the king’s health failed. His mistrust of Frederick’s loyalty was exacerbated by the political maneuvering of Marshal Friedrich Heinrich von Seckendorff, the Austrian envoy, and General Friedrich Wilhelm Grumbkow, Austrian adviser to Frederick William I. Fearing an alliance between Prussia and Great Britain, the Austrians successfully thwarted the efforts of Prussia’s Queen Sophia Dorothea to arrange marriages for Crown Prince Frederick and Crown Princess Wilhelmina with the British ruling house of Hanover. In 1733, Prince Frederick was compelled by his father to marry Princess Elizabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern.

For several years prior to his marriage, Frederick was virtually a prisoner in Prussia. With the help of Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte, he made plans to escape to England. The plot was betrayed, and the king had Frederick arrested and court-martialed as a military deserter. Frustrated because the court would not execute the prince, his father confined him to Küstrin and forced him to watch the execution of his friend, Lieutenant von Katte. The trauma hardened Frederick’s resolve to succeed his father on the throne, and he began to concentrate his studies on economics, politics, and military science. Eventually, a formal reconciliation was effected, and, near death, Frederick William turned away from Austria, which smoothed the way for Frederick’s accession to the throne.

On Tuesday, May 31, 1740, Frederick William I died. That same day in Berlin, Crown Prince Frederick was proclaimed King Frederick II of Prussia. Frederick saw no need of coronation, but he accepted homage in three places—Berlin, Königsberg, and Cleve—and encouraged the swearing of fealty to unite the country. Word of Frederick’s accession was carried by envoys to foreign heads of state, who hastened to pay their respects to the new king, whose soldiers would soon acclaim him as “Frederick the Great.” The old king’s body lay in state in Potsdam, with the four thousand tall men of his Grenadiers in attendance. When their final salutatory volleys had been fired, Frederick II ordered the dissolution of the Potsdam Grenadiers.

One day after his accession, Frederick declared that he was “first servant of the state” and that the good of the state would have priority over his personal good. He opened the corn magazines and distributed grain to the needy. The next day he abolished the use of legal torture in criminal trials. Justice was his prime domestic policy, and he reformed the laws throughout his reign. In his political testaments of 1752 and 1768, Frederick II wrote that the duty of the sovereign was to protect the laws and legal process. Yet, no formal separation of powers existed: The courts could not limit the political power, sovereignty, and administrative authority of the absolute monarch. Absolute monarchy


Frederick made few changes in his father’s organization of state administration. He viewed the army as a political tool rather than a security force for Prussia’s indefensible borders. Frederick II saw but two alternatives for his fragmented kingdom: Expansionism;Prussia He must either seek peace by compromise with all neighboring countries, or he must acquire the territories Imperialism;Prussian that would consolidate the scattered territories. Frederick chose consolidation. As crown prince, he had discussed the ultimate necessity of linking Pomerania and East Prussia—a belief that would lead to the partition of Poland by Prussia and Russia in 1772. Word of the death of the Austrian kaiser in October, 1740, and Maria Theresa’s accession to the Habsburg throne opened the door for Frederick the Great to test his military forces in a bid to take Silesia Silesian Wars (1740-1745) from Austria.

Frederick the Great’s support of education and his intellect earned him the title of Philosopher King. He built up the German Academy of Sciences Academy of Sciences, Germany to rival that of France. He sought outstanding academicians Enlightenment;Prussia , literary geniuses, musicians, actors, and dancers to enrich Prussian culture. Religious toleration Religious tolerance , freedom of the press, and philanthropy, all were reforms that gained respect for Frederick II as an enlightened despot. Enlightened despotism His letters and journals reflect his understanding that he was recording his thoughts and actions for the benefit and instruction of generations to come.

By the end of the costly Silesian Wars in 1745, Frederick realized that fame and glory would neither fill an empty treasury nor keep a trained army at full strength. With most of Europe caught up in wars, Frederick faced almost constant danger from all sides. By skillful diplomacy and selective military actions, Frederick managed to ensure Prussia’s survival and consolidate territories within the weakening Holy Roman Empire. As a result of his alliance with Britain in the Seven Years’ War Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)[Seven Years War] (ended 1763), Prussia emerged as a powerful force in central Europe. In the shifting balance of power in Europe, Frederick the Great guided Prussia to a position of power from which it would become a dominant force in the nineteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asprey, Robert B. Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1986. A biography that reveals the personality of Frederick, as well as his view of the monarchy and the Prussian state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dwyer, Philip G., ed. The Rise of Prussia: Rethinking Prussian History, 1700-1830. New York: Longman, 2000. A collection of essays about various aspects of Prussian history, politics, and social conditions during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The essays include discussions of the reigns of Frederick William and Frederick the Great, Prussia and the Enlightenment, the development of Prussian towns, the Prussian military state, religion, and social protest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fischer-Fabian, S. Prussia’s Glory: The Rise of a Military State. Translated by Lore Segal and Paul Stern. New York: Macmillan, 1981. Traces the rise of Prussia as a military power from the investiture of 1713 to Frederick the Great.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fraser, David. Frederick the Great: King of Prussia. New York: A. Lane, 2000. Fraser, a general and biographer, focuses on Frederick’s military career. The book contains detailed descriptions of battles and military strategy, placing these conflicts within the context of eighteenth century European diplomacy and political history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koch, H. W. A History of Prussia. New York: Longman, 1978. A comprehensive history of the Prussian state, from the Teutonic Orders to the emergence of the German state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacDonogh, Giles. Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Comprehensive biography, based on meticulous research into primary documents, including Frederick’s correspondence. Readers already familiar with Frederick will not find new revelations, but the book is a useful introduction for students and others who want to know more about the man and his times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ritter, Gerhardt. Frederick the Great: A Historical Profile. Translated, with an introduction, by Peter Paret. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. An analysis of the person and monarchy of Frederick the Great.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snyder, Louis L., ed. Frederick the Great. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Reveals Frederick’s worldview through excerpts of his writings and correspondence, and the world’s view of Frederick through the eyes of selected writers.

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Categories: History