1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Struensee, Johan Frederick
STRUENSEE, JOHAN FREDERICK (1731-1772), Danish political philosopher, was born at Halle in 1731. His father, subsequently superintendent-general of Schleswig-Holstein, was a rigid pietist; but young Struensee, who settled down in the sixties as a doctor at Altona, where his superior intelligence and elegant manners soon made him fashionable, revolted against the narrowness of his father's creed, became a fanatical propagandist of the atheism associated with the Encyclopädie, and scandalized his contemporaries by his frank licentiousness. But he was a clever doctor, and, having somewhat restored the king's health, and gained his affection, was retained as court physician, accompanied Christian VII. on a foreign tour and returned with him to Copenhagen. It had always been Struensee's ambition to play a great part in the world and realize his dream of reform. He had gathered from various Danish friends, most of them involuntary exiles of doubtful character, that the crazy, old-fashioned Dano-Norwegian state, misruled by an idiot, was the fittest subject in the world for the experiments of a man of superior ingenuity like himself; and he proceeded to worm his way to power with considerable astuteness.
First he reconciled the king and queen, for he calculated, shrewdly enough, that if the king was to be his tool he must needs make the queen his friend. At first Carolina Matilda disliked Struensee, but the unfortunate girl (she was scarce eighteen) could not fail to be deeply impressed by the highly gifted young doctor, who speedily and completely won her heart. By January 1770 he was notoriously her lover; a successful vaccination of the baby crown prince in May still further increased his influence; and when, in the course of the year, the king sank into a condition of mental torpor, Struensee's authority became paramount. Previously to this, the capable minister of foreign affairs, J. H. E. Bernstorff (q.v.), was got rid of by a royal letter of the 13th of September 1770, and Struensee's disreputable friend, the exiled Count Rantzau-Ascheburg, was recalled to court; and with him came another Altona acquaintance of Struensee's, Enevold Brandt, who had also been living abroad under a cloud.
For a time Struensee kept himself discreetly in the background, though from henceforth he was the wirepuller of the whole political machine. But he soon grew impatient of his puppets. In December the council of state was abolished; and Struensee appointed himself maître de requêtes. It was now his official duty to present to the king all the reports from the various departments of state; and, Christian VII. being scarcely responsible for his actions, Struensee dictated whatever answers he pleased. His next proceeding was to dismiss all the heads of departments, and to abolish the Norwegian stadholderships. Henceforth the cabinet, with himself as its motive power, was to be the one supreme authority in the state. Unfortunately, he had made up his mind to regenerate the benighted Danish and Norwegian nations on purely abstract principles, without the slightest regard for native customs and predilections, which in his eyes were prejudices. He was hampered, moreover, by not knowing a word of Danish. Many of his reforms, such, for instance, as the establishment of foundling hospitals, the abolition of capital punishment for theft and of the employment of torture in judicial process, the doing away with such demoralizing abuses as perquisites, and of “lackeyism,” or the appointment of great men's domestics to lucrative public posts, were distinctly beneficial if not original. Unfortunately reform was not as much a principle as a mania with Struensee. The mere fact that a venerable institution still existed was a sufficient reason, in his eyes, for doing away with it. Changes which a prudent minister might have effected in a generation he rushed through in less than a fortnight. Between the 29th of March 1771 and the 16th of January 1772—the ten months during which he held absolute sway—he issued no fewer than 1069 cabinet orders, or more than three a day. In order to be sure of obedience he dismissed wholesale without pension or compensation the staffs of all the public departments, substituting for old and experienced officials nominees of his own, in many cases untried men who knew little or nothing of the country they were supposed to govern.
The dictator's manners were even worse than his morals, He habitually adopted a tone of insulting superiority, all the more irritating as coming from an ill-informed foreigner; and sometimes he seemed deliberately to go out of his way to shock the most sacred feelings of the respectable people. Nor was this all. His system of retrenchment, on which he particularly prided himself, was in the last degree immoral and hypocritical, for while reducing the number of the public officials, or clipping down their salaries to starvation points, he squandered thousands upon balls, masquerades, and other amusements of the court, and induced the imbecile king to present him and his friend Brandt with 60,000 rix-dollars apiece.
Still, in spite of all his blunders and brutalities, it is clear that, for a short time at least, middle-class opinion was, on the whole, favourable to him; and, had he been wise, he might perhaps have been able to defy any hostile combination. But such was his contempt for the Danish people that he cared not a jot whether they approved or disapproved of his reforms. What incensed the people most against him was the way in which he put the king completely on one side; and this feeling was all the stronger as, outside a very narrow court circle, nobody seems to have believed that Christian VII. was really mad, but only that his will had been weakened by habitual ill usage; and this opinion was confirmed by the publication of the cabinet order of the 14th of July 1771, appointing Struensee “gehejme kabinetsminister,” with authority to issue cabinet orders which were to have the force of royal ordinances, even if unprovided with the royal sign-manual.
Nor were Struensee's relations with the queen less offensive to a nation which had a traditional veneration for the royal house of Oldenburg, while Caroline Matilda's shameless conduct in public brought the Crown into contempt. The society which daily gathered round the king and queen excited the derision of the foreign ambassadors. The unhappy king was little more than the butt of his environment, and once, when he threatened his keeper, Brandt, with a flogging for some impertinence, Brandt, encouraged by Struensee and the queen, actually locked him in his room and beat him with his fists till he begged for mercy. Things were at their worst during the winter of 1771. Struensee, who had, in the meantime, created himself a count, now gave full rein to his licentiousness and brutality. If, as we are assured, he publicly snubbed the queen, we may readily imagine how he treated common folk. Before long the people had an opportunity of expressing their disgust openly. In the summer of 1771 Caroline Matilda was delivered of a daughter, who was christened Louisa Augusta; and a proclamation commanded that a “Te Deum” in honour of the event should be sung in all the churches; but so universal was the belief that the child was Struensee's that, at the end of the ordinary services, the congregation rose and departed en masse.
The general ill will against Struensee, which had been smouldering all through the autumn of 1771, found expression at last in a secret conspiracy against him, headed by Rantzau-Ascheburg and others, in the name of the queen-dowager Juliana Maria. Early in the morning of the 17th of January 1772 Struensee, Brandt and the queen were arrested in their respective bedrooms, and “the liberation of the king,” who was driven round Copenhagen by his deliverers in a gold carriage, was received with universal rejoicing. The chief charge against Struensee was that he had usurped the royal authority in contravention of the Kongelov. He defended himself with considerable ability and, at first, confident that the prosecution would not dare to lay hands on the queen, he denied that their liaison had ever been criminal. But, on hearing that she was also a prisoner of state, his courage evaporated, and he was base enough to betray her, though she did all in her power to shield him. On the 25th of April Struensee and Brandt were condemned first to lose their right hands and then to be beheaded; their bodies were afterwards to be drawn and quartered. Sentence of death was the least that Struensee had to expect. He had undoubtedly been guilty of lèse-majesté and gross usurpation of the royal authority, both capital offences according to pars. 7 and 26 of the Kongelov. The sentences were carried out on the 28th of April, Brandt suffering first.
See Élie Salomon François Reverdil, Struensee et la cour de Copenhague 1760-1772 (Paris, 1858); Karl Wittich, Struensee (Leipzig, 1879); Peter Edward Holm, Danmark-Norges Historie, vol. iv. (Copenhagen, 1897-1905); Gustave Bascle De Lagrèze, La Reine Caroline-Mathilde et le Comte Struensee (Paris, 1887); Robert Nisbet Bain, Scandinavia, cap. xv. (Cambridge, 1905); William Henry Wilkins, A Queen of Tears (London, 1904); Georg Friedrich von Jenssen-Tusch, Die Verschwörung gegen die Königin Karoline Mathilde und die Grafen Struensee und Brandt, nach bisher ungedruckten Originalakten (Leipzig, 1864).
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