The Hessian Nanny State

A lot is made of the discipline, organization and fighting qualities of the German soldiers sent to North America to do and die for the English king. As noted in last week’s post, the majority came from the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel.

The 3,700 square miles of Hesse-Kassel was in North Central Germany  centered around its capital of Kassel. It had four other small areas nearby, but geographically separated. At the time of the American Revolution, there were 300,000 people in the landgraviate.

At the time of the American Revolution, Hesse-Kassel was ruled by Frederick II. His uncle was Frederick I, the King of Sweden and his wife was Princess Mary, the fourth daughter of King George III of England.

Soldiers from Hesse-Kassel had fought with the British in the Seven Years War and provided 6,000 soldiers to King George II to help suppress the Jacobite Revolution in Scotland.

Frederick II of Hesse-Kassel was considered an enlightened king and a cameralist. In the 18th and 19th Century, a cameralist favored centralized control of the economy by the state. The German word for cameralism is kameralismus which is also the word for the science of public administration. To be efficient, cameralists within the Hessen, Prussian and Swedish states were pioneers in gathering economic, environmental, and population data and developing analyses to help manage their countries. They also created government agencies to track births, marriages, and deaths along with data on businesses, harvests, and climate to attempt to manage their people and economy. To make sense of the data, they began to develop financial “tools” to help them develop policies. They reasoned that the more the government knew about its population and economy, the better it could manage the country’s economy and tax its citizens.

Back to the Hessians fighting for the British. Renting out soldiers was an economic boon to Hesse-Kassel. When a young male turned seven, he was required to register with the government.

Every year, men between the ages 16 and 30 were mustered in their town square for possible induction into Hesse-Kassel’s army. There were formal exemptions based on the needs of the state, but if one wasn’t gainfully employed, you were drafted along with doctors and those convicted of crimes. During the American Revolution, 7% of the 300,000 citizens of Hesse-Kassel were in the army, either being trained or on garrison duty or deployed in the service of King George III.

Discipline in the Hessian Army, as was in other countries, was harsh yet morale was high. Hessian soldiers prided themselves in their abilities as soldiers. Officers were well-educated and promoted on merit as were the NCOs, and both groups were well-paid. They could make more in the army than in almost any other profession.

To reduce the economic hardship of serving in the army, the state reduced the taxes on families with serving soldiers. Frederick II could offer this largesse since each year that he rented soldiers to the British, he generated 13 years’ worth of national tax revenue. In other words, the ROI for Frederick II on renting soldiers to his father-in-law was very high.

To his credit, Frederick II put much of the money to work by creating a nationwide educational system, building roads, and a social welfare system that provided medical care and food for those who were out of work. He also supported artists, writers, and composers.

Yet, despite all the training, discipline, and social programs, according to the American Battlefield Trust, 30 – 40% of the German soldiers who came to fight in the Thirteen Colonies, refused to go home! As noted last week, opportunities and individual freedom are the best words to describe their motivation. These are draws that haven’t changed in two and a half centuries.

Don Troiani’s Hessians being pushed out of Breymann’s Redoubt during the Battle of Saratoga courtesy of the American Battlefield Trust.

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