“I see a host of happy, calm activity”


For many Hamburgian tradesmen, successful trade and social commitment belong together in the later phase of enlightenment. One of these is Caspar Voght: he founded an estate in the village of Flottbek, on which he realised his ideals.

Their voices echo across the grey-green water, which has dammed before the city gates towards the Outer Alster River. They sing with tears in their eyes – almost eighty men and women, festively clad, cheerful and solemnly touched. »Freie Deutsche, singt die Stunde, / Die der Knechtschaft Ketten brach. / Schwöret Treu dem großen Bunde / Uns’rer Schwester Frankreich nach [Free Teutonians, sing to the hour that broke the chains of servitude; swear to honour this alliance as did France, our sister] « was the sound that came forth soulfully.

The young ladies wear long white dresses, leaving men with only an occasional glimpse of delicate ankle. Laced waists are bound by sashes in the French national colours: bleu, blanc, rouge, their straw hats are adorned with ribbons. The lively men and women are jubilant about what happened one year ago on the 14th July 1789 – the start of the French Revolution, the storming of the Bastille in Paris, the call to liberty, equality, fraternity. What ideals that should be elevated, also in Hamburg, while the »happy year« 1790 in Paris is being celebrated at the confederation festival on the “Marsfeld”.

Society celebrates itself and the revolution in the natural beauty of the banks of the Alster River – no splendid townhouses, no Versailles-like gardens – and moves away from urban class-oriented conservative conventions for a short while. In confident manner, the Hamburg middle classes have moved away from a courtly status; one can feel wealthy and thus free in the merchant city with its almost one hundred thousand inhabitants; Hamburg and the neighbouring Danish Altona are the spiritual and economical centres of the North; the economy is flourishing.

The celebrants feel especially connected by their philanthropic attitude to life; it is a carefree summer’s day under the July-green foliage of thick-stemmed oaks.

The idyllic estate of the successful Hamburg merchant Georg Heinrich Sieveking in Harvestehude lies just outside of Hamburg’s mighty city walls, which still protected the city from the devastations of the Thirty Year War in the 17th century. Sieveking himself wrote the song of liberty song by his guests.

The now 39 year old merchant has worked himself up from an apprentice to partner of the trading company Voght and Sieveking. The circle around him is wide, the guests include merchants, landowners and scholars, dignitaries and celebrities such as the poet – his appearance alone at the festivities ensures a great deal of attention. Sieveking’s friend and business partner Caspar Voght also belongs to society; he knows France well from pre-revolutionary times and, after initial enthusiasm for the revolution, will be one of the first to distance himself from its consequences. The 37 year old is a special appearance and the driving pragmaticist of the later age of enlightenment in Hamburg.

He seems to be a morally acting and partly eccentric freethinker able to put into practise only a few of the ideals of the age of enlightenment. For four years he has been committed to the poor and propagates productive help for others to help themselves: work instead of alms. The medieval charitable way of thinking has outlived itself. Instead of the Church, other social groups have taken responsibility, individual citizens, enlighteners such as Voght and Sieveking with their individual ideas, which they turn into reality in groups, circles and associations in order to serve the community.

Caspar Voght (1752–1839)

Together with Georg Heinrich Sieveking, the reformer of the poor managed one of the largest trade companies in Hamburg and founded an agricultural estate in Flottbeck during the second half of the 18th century. The merchant’s friends gathered regularly in the manor house’s salon for discussions, drinking and a game of chess.

A group of people gather around Friedrich Klopstock at a particularly beautiful, slightly secluded spot in the Sieveking garden; the Hamburgians love and honour their poet, who had settled in Hamburg in 1770 and was soon counted among the circle of enlighteners around Johann Georg Büsch. Klopstock and Büsch found a reading association in which women determine the reading matter; from 1783 they also hold a monthly dinner party with Hamburgian and Altonian enlighteners, to which Voght also belongs: to inform, discuss, debate.

Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803)

The writer of the »Messiah« and of many odes lived in Hamburg from 1770 to his death in 1803. He was often the central focus at gatherings of the educated middle classes.

As many Hamburgians before him, Klopstock is enthusiastic about the French Revolution and so he recites two odes to Liberty in the Sieveking gardens, after three shots have been fired into the air at midday. The listeners are enthralled, but Klopstock is insisting that these lines may only be published after his death. »The good old man cries with joy as he recites them, his verses and he himself are aglow with youthful enthusiasm«, says Voght, who as a 15 year old visited the grave of Meta Moller, Klopstock’s early departed wife, together with his friends Johann Michael Hudtwalcker and Georg Heinrich Sieveking in the mornings before the opening of the office. The three friends write their own poems and prose and enact stage plays. In 1766/67 they form the »Association of Fifteen-Year Old Youths« and set up a reading library. Voght appears as an actor and – just 27 years old – assumes the role of provisional manager of the Hamburg Theatre at the Gänsemarkt, where there is always some person in the audience who has a fainting spell because what is enacted is so unusually touching to the common soul. Apart from business matters, the sensitive disposition does have its justification.

As business partners, the friends Voght and Sieveking make their money at the harbours of the French and English Atlantic coasts, whereby they benefit from the contacts tied by Caspar Voght during his 3-year grand tour. Trade with America makes them rich. At an early stage they recognise the opportunities presented by American independence in 1783: a large field of trade which opens up overseas. First ships from the American East Coast arrive at the Hamburg harbour bearing tobacco, rice and indigo, then trade expands to a worldwide scale. »I was the first Hamburgian merchant to fetch coffee from Mocca [al-Muchã, Yemenite harbour city], tobacco from Baltimore, coffee from Surinam and rubber from Africa«, Caspar Voght is claimed to have said once.

But actually Voght’s heart is aflame for something completely different. In 1785 he had purchased two farms in Flottbek, a village to the west of Hamburg between Altona and Blankenese – where he – led by great ideals – wants to set up an estate. He visits country estates, farms and parks in England and gets to know the poet William Shenstone’s ornamented farm, an aesthetically designed farm. Voght is fascinated by the gardening art, the progressive social-political structures and modern farming methods of England. Especially the »Equality before the Law«, the justness of taxation and the security of property meet his profound approval.

After his return he purchases further land and now owns more than one hundred hectares. His is an ambitious goal: a life in the service of the community in rejection of the city which only promotes selfish ideals. Caspar Voght wants to set up a show-case estate, one which combines a public park with beneficial, profitable agriculture. He will drain the partly marshy Flottbeck area and then intensely fertilise it by having the urban sewage brought to his land in ewers from Altona across the Elbe River to Teufelsbrück. In this way he manages to increase the fertile humus layer by more than twenty centimetres in three decades. Voght plants new cultured fruit in crop rotation, lupines and other nitrogen-collecting plants, fruit and vegetables, especially potatoes. Without his intense promotion of potato planting, the British blockade of the Elbe River (1803–1805) would have lead to a catastrophic famine in Hamburg and northern Germany.

Voght manages his farm in what we would nowadays call an ecological and sustainable manner. He systematically studies conditions and effects, protocols breeding and seeding trials. At night after office hours, he flees the city to his farm to sit under the shade-providing high oak trees on the narrow banks of the Flottbeck River, which flows down to the Elbe, where »where all my childhood dreams became reality. He enjoys the solitude among the protection of the light green larches and old copper beeches, he hears the song of the nightingale and feels »the blessedness of life.

At the end of the 1780s he has become one of Hamburg’s richest men due to corn sales in France. By the time of his death he will have increased the value of his estates, with approximately 600 employees, by a tenfold. His friend James Booth sets up a successful tree nursery, while Voght, together with his administrator Lucas Andreas Staudinger, founds an »Agricultural Institute of Education«, teaching 30 pupils in cultivation, vegetable farming, botany, physics and chemistry – it is the first teaching institute of its kind in Germany.

But Voght, who as a ten-year old contracted smallpox and had to spend years in isolation, not only cares for the training and employment of his farm hands, he also pays them – wholly in the social reforming sense – when they are sick or old. He also builds them so-called “Insten” houses: elongated brick/wattle-and-daub buildings with eleven or twelve units for his farm hands to live in. As an owner, Voght does not want to become rich, but rather create a solid management and grant work and income to the people. On his 260 hectares (since 1797) he unifies social reformist teachings, commercial and aesthetic matters. »Everything in Flottbeck is given one spirit, an entire entity!”«, say the Schleswig-Holsteinischen Provinzialberichten. [Local Reports from Schleswig-Holstein]

In later generations, Heinrich Sieveking will write, »The park was created by a lover, Voght, to honour the wistfully beloved Mrs Pauli by changing the marshy meadows of some farms into this jewel of landscape«. Voght loved the married Magdalena Pauli for more than forty years, initially painfully unreciprocated, then renouncing from afar and finally on friendly terms. »Everything was due to and for her«, writes Voght, »every point on the high banks of the Elbe River, where nature has delighted us, received its monument, every place which had become sacred to me through her word or her gaze.

Meanwhile, poverty is growing in the ever narrowing city; beggars lie around in the alleys, »with disgustingly revealed, often artificially inflicted wounds, wherever the Hamburg citizen would want to get a breath of fresh air after a day’s work«, notes Voght for a report of the Hamburgian Institute of the Poor. Begging mothers force their children to scream to arouse sympathy, while older children run around in rags until picked up by so-called “beggar overseers”.

In Hamburg as in Altona there is a small upper class of wealthy foreign trade merchants, major companies and higher officials, an upper middle class of merchants and tradespeople, a lower middle class of shopkeepers and craftsmen and a broad lower class consisting of half the population. Peons, the unemployed and the poor make up 20 percent of the population. They are undernourished and live in damp and at much too close quarters, threatened and tortured by disease, poverty and unemployment. While the city is surrounded by ever expanding country homes and is unfolding a new gardening culture, the people in the city are crowded at the closest proximity. As wealth continues to grow, so does the suffering.

It’s only just 70 years ago that 10 000 people die of the plague in Hamburg in 1713. Three catastrophic floods have destroyed crops, livestock and homes since 1717. Some trades loose a drastic number of employees : if Hamburg had been one of Europe’s leading locations for fabric, velvet and manual weaving as well as for cotton printing with almost 5000 employees at the beginning of the 17th century, only a few hundred were left to work at the end of the 18th century. Many factories and trade sectors disappear; trade now dominates the city’s economy. At the end of the 18th century, 45 000 people are making a living from the harbour; however, their jobs are highly dependent on the economy and the weather: hard winters can bring shipping along the Elbe River to an end for months. Wages are far too low, food – especially meat and bread – is too expensive. »Many, many fall as victims of the most oppressive deficiencies, starve and pine away entire months and years«, says Voght. Inspired by Rousseau, he becomes increasingly occupied with the ratio between wealth and poverty.

»O Émile«, writes Rousseau, »where is the man who owes nothing to his country?

The general public welfare, used by others as a guise, is his one and only motive.

Johann Georg Büsch (1728–1800)

The teacher and publicist founded the Hamburgian Trade Academy in 1768 and was one of the most important people of the later age of Hamburgian Enlightenment.

Voght leaves the work on the farm to an administrator and invests his energy in social tasks instead. Johann Georg Büsch, the central figure of the later enlightenment in Hamburg apart from Johann Albert Heinrich Reimarus and as the director of the trade academy, can recognise that unemployment is not self-inflicted but rather has structural reasons. »It is not the fault of the poor that there are so many of them and that their multitude causes their suffering. They came to existence in the same way as the family heir or the prince. They want to continue their existence together with us and next to us, and have the same rights to this desire as we do.

Voght and Büsch, together with Nicolaus Matsen and Johann Arnold Günther, compile the Poor Law of 1788. In accordance with this law, the city area is divided into five poor areas with twelve quarters each, and each quarter receives three guardians of the poor; these distribute sheets with 51 questions (this is why all streets were given names and all houses numbers for the first time) in order to review the neediness and social status. The result: 5166 people are living in poverty, 446 people are in jail, 600 people are homeless, 2000 are ragged children. From now on the guardians of the poor are required to attend to the poor families. »[We]… implemented a plan on how the citizens could turn themselves into fathers and supporters of the poor. Something like this had never been tried before«, states Voght confidently.

Johann Albert Heinrich Reimarus (1729–1814)

The physician introduced the smallpox inoculation in Hamburg. He was one of the enlighteners of the second half of the century. His father, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, was the author of the »Fragmente« published by Lessing.

When the General Institute of the Poor opens its doors on 1 November 1788, »all alley begging disappears as if by magic wand, because every citizen giving something to a beggar was immediately penalised«, states one report. Beggars from other cities were made to leave. According to the principle of work instead of alms, »everyone volunteering must be given work or taught if necessary«. Work and school institutes as well as trade schools are opened and 1245 adults and 1179 children are admitted within only 16 months.

Sunday and evening schools are opened for working children. Smaller children not yet at school are provided with so-called “waiting rooms”, where they are cared for with milk and bread while their mothers are at work. Compulsory education is applied from 1792 and a teachers’ library provides access to literature. In order to »alleviate the incredible suffering of single mothers«, a birthing house was opened in 1795. Medical care and the medical institute are also reorganised.

Voght is the driving force of social progress and is called the “Father of the Poor”. He writes to Hannchen Sieveking, the wife of his friend and one to whom he is profoundly attached: »I simply cannot refrain, dear Sieveking, from telling you about the incredible inner joy and the untold peace I feel sitting here under my chestnut tree while working with institutes for the poor unhappy people. I am at one with whatever surrounds me, I see a host of happy faces, a host of calm activity.« during the following decades, the Hamburgian Institute of the Poor is copied in more than forty European cities and Voght is assigned to publish the organisational principles (the »Hamburg System«) or even to implement it.

What is special about Hamburg is the fact that a number of community service associations are characterising the city over long periods of time. Like the Patriotic Association founded in 1765 in accordance with ideals from London and Paris, they understand themselves as modernisers. Their members want to, in the true understanding of the word during those times, render selfless service tot he benefit of the community as the good patriots that they are. Various classes and professions cooperate for the first time in order to promote a reformative movement encompassing many areas of life: in 1768 the Rescue Association for victims of water accidents was brought to life; 1778 saw the opening of the first general savings bank, 1782 the credit bank for heirs and properties; then in 1788 the General Institute of the Poor by Voght and Büsch.

The common factor is the spirit of enlightenment; a maturity-seeking reformation founded on sensibility, discussion and criticism. As many people as possible should have the right to determine and plan their own lives, always combined with the moral duty of benefiting the community. It is significant that the Patriotic Association is founded on the trading floor and the member acceptance lists are distributed in coffee houses – which is after all where the merchants, lawyers, diplomats and journalists meet: to exchange news, snap up some gossip, prepare business transactions and establish contacts. That’s what networking looks like in the 18th century. Associations, societies, clubs instead of medieval feudal systems.

This phase of enlightenment allows cultural and spiritual emancipation: rich and educated citizens such as Sieveking, Voght and Büsch continue to develop society without princely or courtly ideals. Scientific circles are formed, other mannerism are tried and tested: at tea tables, in gardens, during coffee, at musical or stage theatres. Flyers, newspapers and magazines are published, correspondences are maintained and trips undertaken.

News of the Sieveking Freedom Festival in 1790 spreads all the way to France, something which is surely not detrimental for the economic interests of the Sieveking/Voght trading company. The festival holds no consequences for Hamburg’s political culture; the Senate does not even acknowledge the festival. However, this does not bother the confident merchants; they feel committed to their enlightened ideal, to business and the community: they trade and they celebrate. Even years later Caspar Voght is known to gush: «Meanwhile the morning sun rising in France had delighted the hearts of all German noblemen and the people around my so vehemently beloved, to whom I had been so beneficially committed, inflamed our hearts with the holy flame, which has brought forth so many high deeds in the land of blossoming liberty.» After the festival, the nobility spread the snippet that the friends of liberty had destroyed a Bastille made of marzipan in the Harvestehude garden.

Hella Kemper, born in 1966, is a German Philologist and Journalist. She has published several books on Hamburg

  • Franklin Kopitzsch/Daniel Tilgner: Hamburg Lexikon
  • Ellert & Richter, Hamburg 2005; 672 pages, 29.95 €
  • Franklin Kopitzsch: Grundzüge einer Sozialgeschichte der Aufklärung in Hamburg und Altona
  • Verlag H. Christians, Hamburg 1982

www.hudtwalcker.com 2014