Proofs of a Conspiracy, by John Robison 1798

But, although I cannot consider the German Union as a formal revival of the Order under another name, I must hold those United, and the members of those Reading Societies, as Illuminati and Minervals. I must even consider the Union as a part of Spartacus’s work. The plans of Weishaupt were partly carried into effect in their different branches–they were pointed out, and the way to carry them on are distinctly described in the private correspondence of the Order–It required little genius to attempt them in imitation. Bahrdt made the attempt, and in part succeeded. Weishaupt’s hopes were well founded–The leaven was not only distributed, but the management of the fermentation was now understood, and it went on apace.

It is to be remarked, that nothing was found among Bahrdt’s papers to support the story he writes in his diary–no such correspondences–but enough for detecting many of these societies. Many others however were found unconnected with Bahrdt’s Ruhe, not of better character, either as to Morality or Loyalty, and some of them considerable and expensive; and many proofs were found of a combination to force the public to a certain way of thinking, by the management of the Reviews and Journals. The extensive dealings of Nicholai of Berlin gave him great weight in the book-making trade, which in Germany surpasses all our conceptions. The catalogues of new writings in sheets, which are printed twice a-year for each of the fairs of Leipzig and Frankfort, would astonish a British reader by the number. The booksellers meet there, and in one glance see the whole republic of literature, and, like Roman senators, decide the sentiments of distant provinces. By thus seeing the whole together, their speculations are national, and they really have it in their power to give what turn they please to the literature and to the sentiments of Germany. Still however they must be induced by motives. The motive of a merchant is gain, and every object appears in his eye something by which money may be made. Therefore in a luxurious and voluptuous nation, licentious and free-thinking books will abound. The writers suggest, and the booksellers think how the thing will tickle. Yet it must not be inferred from the prevalence of such books, that such is the common sense of mankind, and that the writings are not the corrupters, but the corrupted, or that they are what they ought to be, because they please the public. We need only push the matter to an extremity, and its cause appears plain. Filthy prints will always create a greater crowd before the shop window than the finest performances of Woollet. Licentious books will be read with a fluttering eagerness, as long as they are not universally permitted; and pitiable will be the state of the nation when their number makes them familiar and no longer entertaining.

But although it must be confessed that great encouragement was given to the sceptical, infidel, and licentious writings in Germany, we see that it was still necessary to practice seduction. The religionist was made to expect some engaging exhibition of his faith. The Citizen must be told that his civil connections are respected, and will be improved; and all are told that good manners or virtue is to be supported. Man is supposed to be, in very essential circumstances, what he wishes to be, and feels he ought to be; and he is corrupted by means of falsehood and trick. The principles by which he is wheedled into wickedness in the first instance, are therefore such as are really addressed to the general sentiments of mankind: these therefore should be considered as more expressive of the public mind than those which he afterwards adopts, after this artificial education. Therefore Virtue, Patriotism, Loyalty, Veneration for true and undefiled Religion, are really acknowledged by those corrupters to be the prevailing sentiments; and they are good if this prevalence is to be the test of worth. The mind that is otherwise affected by them, and hypocritically uses them in order to get hold of the uninitiated, that he may in time be made to cherish the contrary sentiments, cannot be a good mind, notwithstanding any pretentious it may make to the love of mankind.

No man, not Weishaupt himself, has made stronger professions of benevolence, of regard for the happiness of mankind, and of every thing that is amiable, than Dr. Bahrdt. It may not be useless to enquire what effect such principles have had on his own mind, and those of his chief coadjutors. Deceit of every kind is dishonorable; and the deceit that is professedly employed in the proceedings of the Union is no exception. No pious fraud whatever must be used, and pure religion must be presented to the view without all disguise.

“The more fair Virtue’s seen, the more she charms.

“Safe, plain, and easy, are her artless ways.

“With face erect, her eyes look strait before;

“For dauntless is her march, her step secure.

“Not so pale Fraud–now here she turns, now there,

“Still seeking darker shades, secure in none,

“Looks often back, and wheeling round and round,

“Sinks headlong in the danger she would shun.”

The mean motive of the Protestant Sceptic is as inconsistent with our notions of honesty as with our notions of honor; and our suspicions are justly raised of the character of Dr. Bahrdt and his associates, even although we do not suppose that their aim is the total abolishing of religion. With propriety therefore may we make some enquiry about their lives and conduct. Fortunately this is easy in the present instance. A man that has turned every eye upon himself can hardly escape observation. But it is not so easy to get fair information. The peculiar situation of Dr. Bahrdt, and the cause between him and the public, are of all others the most productive of mistake, misrepresentation, obloquy, and injustice. But even here we are fortunate. Many remarkable parts of his life are established by the most respectable testimony, or by judicial evidences; and, to make all sure, he has written his own life. I shall insert nothing here that is not made out by the two last modes of proof, resting nothing on the first, however respectable the evidence may be. But I must observe, that his life was also written by his dear friend Pott, the partner of Walther the bookseller. The story of this publication is curious, and it is instructive.

Bahrdt was in prison, and in great poverty. He intended to write his own life, to be printed by Walther, under a fictitious name, and in this work he intended to indulge his spleen and his dislike of all those who had offended him, and in particular all priests, and rulers, and judges, who had given him so much trouble. He knew that the strange, and many of them scandalous anecdotes, with which he had so liberally interlarded many of his former publications, would set curiosity on tiptoe, and would procure a rapid sale as soon as the public should guess that it was his own performance, by the singular but significant name which the pretended author would assume. He had almost agreed with Walther for a thousand dahlers (about L. 200) when he was imprisoned for being the author of the farce so often named, and of the Commentary on the Religion Edict, written by Pott, and for the proceedings of the German Union. He was refused the use of pen and ink. He then applied to Pott, and found means to correspond with him, and to give him part of his life already written, and materials for the rest, consisting of stories, and anecdotes, and correspondence. Pott sent him several sheets, with which he was so pleased, that they concluded a bargain. Bahrdt says, that Pott was to have 400 copies, and that the rest was to go to the maintenance of Bahrdt and his family, consisting of his wife, daughter, a Christina and her children who lived with them, &c. Pott gives a different account, and the truth was different from both, but of little consequence to us. Bahrdt’s papers had been seized, and searched for evidence of his transactions, but the strictest attention was paid to the precise points of the charge, and no paper was abstracted which did not relate to these.

All others were kept in a sealed room. Pott procured the removal of the seals, and got possession of them. Bahrdt says, that his wife and daughter came to him in prison, almost starving, and told him that now that the room was opened, Pott had made an offer to write for their support, if he had the use of these papers–that this was the conclusion of the bargain, and that Pott took away all the papers. N. B. Pott was the associate of Walther, who had great confidence in him (Anecdotenbuch meinen lieben Amtsbruder, p. 400.) and had conducted the business of Stark’s book, as has been already mentioned. No man was better known to Bahrdt, for they had long acted together as chief hands in the Union. He would therefore write the life of its founder con amore, and it might be expected to be a rare and tickling performance. And indeed it was. The first part of it only was published at this time; and the narration reaches from the birth of the hero till his leaving Leipzig in 1768. The attention is kept fully awake, but the emotions which successfully occupy the mind of the reader, are nothing but strong degrees of aversion, disgust, and horror. The figure set up to view is a monster, clever indeed, and capable of great things; but lost to truth, to virtue, and even to the affectation of common decency–In short, a shameless profligate.–Poor Bahrdt was astonished–flared–but, having his wits about him, saw that this life would sell, and would also sell another.–Without loss of time, he said that he would hold Pott to his bargain–but he reckoned without his host. “No, no,” said Pott, “You are not the man I took you for–your correspondence was put into my hands–I saw that you had deceived me, and it was my duty, as a man who loves truth above all things, to hinder you from deceiving the world. I have not written the book you desired me. I did not work for you, but for myself–therefore you get not a groschen.” “Why, Sir,” said Bahrdt “we both know that this wont do. You and I have already tried it. You received Stark’s manuscript, to be printed by Walther–Walther and you sent it hither to Michaelis, that I might see it during the printing. I wrote an illustration and a key, which made the fellow very ridiculous, and they were printed together, with one title page. You know that we were cast in court. Walther was obliged to print the work as Stark first ordered, and we lost all our labour. So shall you now, for I will commence an action this instant, and let me see with what face you will defend yourself, within a few weeks of your last appearance in court.” Pott said, “You may try this. My work is already sold, and dispersed over all Germany–and I have no objection to begin yours to-morrow–believe me, it will sell.” Bahrdt pondered–and resolved to write one himself.

This is another specimen of the Union.

DR. CARL FRIEDERICH BAHRDT was born in 1741. His father was then a parish-minister, and afterwards Professor of Theology at Leipzig, where he died in 1775. The youth, when at College, enlisted in the Prussian service as a hussar, but was bought off by his father. He was M. A. in 1761. He became catechist in his father’s church, was a popular preacher, and published sermons in 1765, and some controversial writings, which did him honor–But he then began to indulge in conviviality, and in anonymous , uncommonly bitter and offensive. No person was safe–Professors–Magistrates–Clergymen–had his chief notice–also, students–and even comrades and friends. (Bahrdt says, that these things might cut to the quick, but they were all just.) Unluckily his temperament was what the atomical philosophers (who can explain every thing by aethers and vibrations) call sanguine. He therefore (his own word) was a passionate admirer of the ladies. Coming home from supper he frequently met a young Miss in the way to his lodgings, neatly dressed in a rose-coloured silk jacket and train, and a sable bonnet, costly, and like a lady. One evening (after some old Rhenish, as he says) he saw the lady home. Some time after, the mistress of the house, Madam Godschusky, came into his room, and said that the poor maiden was pregnant. He could not help that–but it was very unfortunate, and would ruin him if known.–He therefore gave the old lady a bond for 200 dahlers, to be paid by instalments of twenty-five.——“The girl was sensible, and good, and as he had already paid for it, and her conversation was agreeable, he did not discontinue his acquaintance.” A comrade one day told him, that one Bel, a magistrate, whom he had lampooned, knew the affair, and would bring it into court, unless he immediately retrieved the bond. This bond was the only evidence, but it was enough. Neither Bahrdt nor his friend could raise the money. But they fell on another contrivance. They got Madam Godschusky to meet them at another house, in order to receive the money. Bahrdt was in a closet, and his comrade wore a sword. The woman could not be prevailed on to produce the bond till Bahrdt should arrive, and the money be put into her hands, with a present to herself. The comrade tried to flutter her, and, drawing his sword, shewed her how men fenced–made passes at the wall–and then at her–but she was too firm–he then threw away his sword, and began to try to force the paper from her. She defended herself a good while, but at length he got the paper out of her pocket, tore it in pieces, opened the closet-door, and said, “There you b——- there is the honorable fellow whom you and your wh——- have bullied–but it is with me you have to do now, and you know that I can bring you to the gallows.” There was a great squabble to be sure, says Bahrdt, but it ended, and I thought all was now over.–But Mr. Bel had got word of it, and brought it into court the very day that Bahrdt was to have made some very reverend appearance at church. In short, after many attempts of his poor father to save him, he was obliged to send in his gown and band, and to quit the place. It was some comfort, however, that Madam Godschusky and the young Miss did not fare much better. They were both imprisoned. Madam G. died some time after of some shocking disease. The court-records give a very different account of the whole, and particularly of the scuffle; but Bahrdt’s story is enough.

Bahrdt says, that his father was severe–but acknowledges that his own temperament was hasty (why does not his father’s temperament excuse something? Vibratiunculae will explain every thing or nothing.) “Therefore (again) I sometimes forgot myself.–One day I laid a loaded pistol on the table, and told him that he should meet with that if he went on so. But I was only seventeen.”

Dr. Bahrdt was, of course, obliged to leave the place. His friends, and Semler in particular, an eminent theological writer, who had formed a very favorable opinion of his uncommon talents, were assiduous in their endeavours to get an establishment for him. But his high opinion of himself, his temper, impetuous, precipitant, and overbearing, and a bitter satirical habit which he had freely indulged in his outset of life, made their endeavours very ineffectual.

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Methinks I am a conspiracy theorist. Art thou? Thou block, thou stone, thou worse than senseless thing, for whilst thou slept didst this become a badge of honor. Informed dissent shall always prevail, wherefore art thou worthy, or art thou this unwholesome fool in the group conformity experiment herein?

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