FREDERICK WILLIAM (1620-1688), elector of Brandenburg, usually called the "Great Elector," was born in Berlin on the 16th of February 1620. His father was the elector George William, and his mother was Elizabeth Charlotte, daughter of Frederick IV., elector palatine of the Rhine. Owing to the disorders which were prevalent in Brandenburg he passed part of his youth in the Netherlands, studying at the university of Leiden and learning something of war and statecraft under Frederick Henry, prince of Orange. During his boyhood a marriage had been suggested between him and Christina, afterwards queen of Sweden; but although the idea was revived during the peace negotiations between Sweden and Brandenburg, it came to nothing, and in 1646 he married Louise Henriette (d. 1667), daughter of Frederick Henry of Orange, a lady whose counsel was very helpful to him and who seconded his efforts for the welfare of his country.
Having become ruler of Brandenburg and Prussia by his father's death in December 1640, Frederick William set to work at once to repair the extensive damage wrought during the Thirty Years' War, still in progress. After some difficulty he secured his investiture as duke of Prussia from Wladislaus, king of Poland, in October 1641, but was not equally successful in crushing the independent tendencies of the estates of Cleves. It was in Brandenburg, however, that he showed his supreme skill as a diplomatist and administrator. His disorderly troops were replaced by an efficient and disciplined force; his patience and perseverance freed his dominions from the Swedish soldiers; and the restoration of law and order was followed by a revival of trade and an increase of material prosperity. After a tedious struggle he succeeded in centralizing the administration, and controlling and increasing the revenue, while no department of public life escaped his sedulous care (see Brandenburg). The area of his dominions was largely increased at the peace of Westphalia in 1648, and this treaty and the treaty of Oliva in 1660 alike added to his power and prestige. By a clever but unscrupulous use of his intermediate position between Sweden and Poland he procured his recognition as independent duke of Prussia from both powers, and eventually succeeded in crushing the stubborn and lengthened opposition which was offered to his authority by the estates of the duchy (see Prussia). After two checks he made his position respected in Cleves, and in 1666 his title to Cleves, Jülich and Ravensberg was definitely recognized. His efforts, however, to annex the western part of the duchy of Pomerania, which he had conquered from the Swedes, failed owing to the insistence of Louis XIV. at the treaty of St Germain-en-Laye in 1679, and he was unable to obtain the Silesian duchies of Liegnitz, Brieg and Wohlau from the emperor Leopold I. after they had been left without a ruler in 1675.
Frederick William played an important part in European politics. Although found once or twice on the side of France, he was generally loyal to the interests of the empire and the Habsburgs, probably because his political acumen scented danger to Brandenburg from the aggressive policy of Louis XIV. He was a Protestant in religion, but he supported Protestant interests abroad on political rather than on religious grounds, and sought, but without much success, to strengthen Brandenburg by allaying the fierce hostility between Lutherans and Calvinists. His success in founding and organizing the army of Brandenburg-Prussia was amply demonstrated by the great victory which he gained over the Swedes at Fehrbellin in June 1675, and by the eagerness with which foreign powers sought his support. He was also the founder of the Prussian navy. The elector assisted trade in every possible way. He made the canal which still bears his name between the Oder and the Spree; established a trading company; and founded colonies on the west coast of Africa. He encouraged Flemings to settle in Brandenburg, and both before and after the revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685 welcomed large numbers of Huguenots, who added greatly to the welfare of the country. Education was not neglected; and if in this direction some of his plans were abortive, it was from lack of means and opportunity rather than effort and inclination. It is difficult to overestimate the services of the great elector to Brandenburg and Prussia. They can only be properly appreciated by those who compare the condition of his country in 1640 with its condition in 1688. Both actually and relatively its importance had increased enormously; poverty had given place to comparative wealth, and anarchy to a system of government which afterwards made Prussia the most centralized state in Europe. He had scant sympathy with local privileges, and in fighting them his conduct was doubtless despotic. His aim was to make himself an absolute ruler, as he regarded this as the best guarantee for the internal and external welfare of the state.
The great elector died at Potsdam from dropsy on the 9th of May 1688, and was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, Frederick. His personal appearance was imposing, and although he was absolutely without scruples when working for the interests of Brandenburg, he did not lack a sense of justice and generosity. At all events he deserves the eulogy passed upon him by Frederick the Great, "Messieurs; celui-ci a fait de grandes choses." His second wife, whom he married in 1668, was Dorothea (d. 1689), daughter of Philip, duke of Holstein-Glücksburg, and widow of Christian Louis, duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg; she bore him four sons and three daughters. His concluding years were troubled by differences between his wife and her step-son, Frederick; and influenced by Dorothea he bequeathed portions of Brandenburg to her four sons, a bequest which was annulled under his successor.
See S. de Pufendorf, De rebus gestis Friderici Wilhelmi Magni (Leipzig and Berlin, 1733); L. von Orlich, Friedrich Wilhelm der grosse Kurfürst (Berlin, 1836); K. H. S. Rödenbeck, Zur Geschichte Friedrich Wilhelms des grossen Kurfürsten (Berlin, 1851); B. Erdmannsdörffer, Der grosse Kurfürst (Leipzig, 1879); J. G. Droysen, Geschichte der preussischen Politik (Berlin, 1855-1886); M. Philippson, Der grosse Kurfürst (Berlin, 1897-1903); E. Heyck, Der grosse Kurfürst (Bielefeld, 1902); Spahn, Der grosse Kurfürst (Mainz, 1902); H. Landwehr, Die Kirchenpolitik des grossen Kurfürsten (Berlin, 1894); H. Prutz, Aus des grossen Kurfürsten letzten Jahren (Berlin, 1897). Also Urkunden und Aktenstücke zur Geschichte des Kurfürsten Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg (Berlin, 1864-1902); T. Carlyle, History of Frederick the Great, vol. i. (London, 1858); and A. Waddington, Le Grand Electeur et Louis XIV (Paris, 1905).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)