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Empress Maria Theresa Appraises the Character of Joseph II, her Son and Co-Regent (September 14, 1776)

This letter, originally written in French, expresses Empress Maria Theresa’s displeasure over Joseph’s arrogant and wounding behavior toward several of her most trusted and highly placed officials, including chancellor and foreign minister Wenzel Anton Kaunitz-Rietberg. It exemplifies her political sagacity, Christian sensibility, and motherly love. Joseph replied in an apologetic and conciliatory fashion but never learned to treat others with finesse and respect.

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Schönbrunn, September 14, 1766

Monsieur mon cher fils

[ . . . ] I cannot pass over in silence what you write about Ayasase. Since I have known him, I have never found him so full of amour propre or so malicious as to harm anyone out of self-love. I know him to be serious, stiff, but upright and zealous, no intrigant. Why, then, wish to see him in a bad light and to condemn him out of hand? I greatly fear that through having a generally bad opinion of people you will lose even the small number of honest men by mixing and confounding them with the others. It is a most essential point, for a man of good intentions will not suffer himself to be suspected and confused with others; he will rather remove himself, if he can, or he will serve with less zeal. The great moving force is confidence; if that is absent, everything is absent.

The same with the San Remo affair. I must confess to you that the terms in which the German note was drawn up were such that I found it hard to believe that you could think like that, and find satisfaction in mortifying others and publicly humiliating them. I must tell you that is the exact opposite of what I have done all my life. I have preferred to get people to do what I wanted by kind words, to persuade them rather than force them. This has served me well. I hope you may find as many resources as I have in your States and your servants. [ . . . ]

[Maria Theresa now goes into some small personal details of the way in which Joseph had personally wounded certain ministers, and goes on:]

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