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Joachim Heinrich Campe, "Letter from Paris, 1789," from Letters from Paris (1790)

Joachim Heinrich Campe (1746-1818), a prominent and peripatetic German writer and pedagogue, witnessed the opening stages of the French Revolution, which he celebrates here for its fulfillment of an Enlightenment program of democratic liberalism. He emphasizes the dignity of the Revolution and the role of the progressive intelligentsia in its leadership. In 1792, the French government bestowed honorary citizenship on Campe, together with Friedrich Schiller and others. Campe’s views, as here expressed, were widely shared among educated Germans.

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Paris, August 9, 1789

The good fortune, my dear T., to be in France right now, namely in the capital of this country, the birthplace and cradle of newborn French liberty, right now, when the eyes of all the world are directed, full of admiration and amazement, at the center of the biggest and strangest world events at this time; right now, when people have awoken from the stifling state of an existence frittered away in long and shameful bondage, into a life that even the Brutuses and the Catos themselves would not refuse to experience; right now, when all the spirits of this people, down to the lowest orders, have torn the limitations of their formerly small and miserable existence like spider webs, and have raised themselves from that hour to a height of feelings and ideas to which the squinting eye of the foreigner can barely accompany them – this good fortune I count thankfully among the manifold undeserved favors by which providence has thought fit to distinguish my unimportant life in nearly every of its periods. One feels here, even as a mere observer, in all one’s feelings, in all one’s powers and capacities – I know not how – simultaneously elevated, simultaneously ennobled, and if I do not return to you noticeably better, with a noticeable increase in communal spirit, courage, power, and drive for every act that calls for self-forgetfulness and sacrifices, the school in which I now find myself is not to blame.

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