Tuesday, September 18, 2018

170 years ago, events in Frankfurt, Germany impacted Tennessee history

By Will Thomas

Germany, as we know it today, did not exist as a unified country until after Prussia's victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Prior to that, what is now Germany was an amalgamation of quasi-independent territories forming the Holy Roman Empire (800-1806). Due to death and dynastic marriage, the number of these territories was constantly changing. In fact, they numbered over 300 at times during the 18th century. This period is referred to in German as Kleinstaaterei, literally "small-state-ism," or "balkanization" in modern English parlance.

Territories making up the Holy Roman Empire in 1789
Wikipedia Commons


After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, the Congress of Vienna created the German Confederation, which was an association of 39 independent (and often autocratic) states. When a wave of political revolutions swept across Europe in early 1848, German revolutionaries seized the opportunity to try to create a unified, democratic Germany. The civil unrest took most German rulers by surprise, and they quickly promised the revolutionaries numerous democratic reforms. One such concession was the creation of a National Assembly, which was duly convened in St. Paul's Church in Frankfurt am Main, in order to draft a constitution for a unified Germany.

However, the National Assembly had very little real power. It was also beset by factionalism, which made it extremely difficult to get much accomplished in a timely manner. The contentious issues involved in forming a unified German state engendered seemingly interminable debate. Would Germany be a republic or a monarchy? Would a unified Germany include Austria ("Greater Germany") or would it exclude Austria and allow Prussia to have the leading role ("Little Germany")? Would Germany have a strong central government or be a confederation of comparatively independent states (a topic that was also debated during the drafting of the U.S. constitution)?

A pivotal moment in the German revolution came when the National Assembly ratified the Malmö Treaty on September 16, 1848. The treaty brought an end to the First Schleswig War, which was fought between Prussia and Denmark over control of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Under international pressure, Prussia yielded to most of Denmark’s demands, including ceding control of the duchies to Denmark. By ratifying the treaty, the National Assembly enraged many Germans who felt that the duchies should be part of Germany. (The duchies would be retaken by Prussia during the Second Schleswig War in 1864, the first of the three Wars of German Unification.) The simmering discontent over the treaty erupted into violence when street fighting broke out in Frankfurt on September 18. A letter in the William J. Burnette Collection of Ruoff Family Papers offers a firsthand account of this event.

Letter to James F. Ruoff describing the rioting in Frankfurt after the National Assembly ratified the Malmö Treaty, September 19, 1848.*
William J. Burnette Collection of Ruoff Family Papers



The debacle over the Malmö Treaty caused public support for the National Assembly to significantly erode. Emboldened by this, the German rulers began rescinding many of the concessions they had made in the early days of the revolution. When the National Assembly finally adopted a constitution for a unified Germany in March 1849, it voted to offer the imperial crown to Frederick William IV, King of Prussia. Frederick William, however, declined the honor, allegedly stating that he refused to accept a crown "from the gutter." Having ultimately failed in its goals, the National Assembly dissolved itself at the end of May 1849.

With the failure of the Revolution of 1848-1849, thousands of Germans who had supported and/or actively taken part in the revolution were forced to leave the German states. Many of them immigrated to the U.S., and several of them ended up in Tennessee. James F. Ruoff, the recipient of the aforementioned letter describing the events in Frankfurt on September 18, was one of the "48ers" who settled in Tennessee.

Ruoff was a founding member and longtime Secretary of the Munich Gymnastics Club. The gymnastics movement in Germany was started in 1811 by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in response to the French occupation of German states during the Napoleonic Wars. The gymnastics associations (Turnverein) were intended to physically prepare German youth to defend the country and instill in them a sense of national pride. During this period, these gymnastics associations were as much political organizations as they were sports clubs, and many members actively took part in the Revolution of 1848-1849. For example, the aforementioned letter to Ruoff states, "The fighters were, as usual, workers and people from outside the city as well as many gymnasts." Given the gymnastics associations's involvement in the revolution, it is highly probable that Ruoff had to emigrate from Germany for political reasons.

Letter of recommendation for James F. Ruoff from the Munich Gymnastics Club, April 14, 1849. He went by Friedrich Ruoff in Germany, but used James F. Ruoff in the U.S.*
William J. Burnette Collection of Ruoff Family Papers

James F. Ruoff's Bavarian passport, March 1849.*
William J. Burnette Collection of Ruoff Family Papers


In 1850, Ruoff settled in Kingston, Tennessee, where he operated a lumber mill. During the Civil War, he served as a forage agent for the Union Quartermaster’s Office in Kingston, Tennessee. He was discharged from the position on January 25, 1865, and after the Civil War, he moved with his family to Chattanooga.

Two other Munich residents who came to Tennessee as a result of the Revolution of 1848-1849 were Dr. Augustin Gattinger and his brother-in-law, George Dury. Gattinger was a student at the University of Munich and attended a party in early 1849 to celebrate George Washington's birthday. Such public displays of democratic sentiments were frowned upon by the Royal Bavarian Court, and Gattinger was informed that he was expelled from the university and had seven days to leave the country. Dury, a painter to the Royal Bavarian Court, and his fiancé decided to accompany his sister and Gattinger to the U.S. Both couples married at Le Havre while en route and would settle in Tennessee.

Once in Tennessee, Gattinger became a prominent physician and botanist. He also served as State Librarian from 1864-1869. Dury settled in Nashville in 1850 and became a prominent artist. His portrait of Sarah Childress Polk still hangs in the White House. Dury's son opened one of Nashville's first photographic equipment supply stores in 1882, and Dury's would later sell the first Kodak camera bought in Nashville.

George Dury, ca. 1860-1870
Nell Savage Mahoney Papers

Portrait of Dr. Augustin Gattinger by George Dury[?], ca. 1870
Nell Savage Mahoney Papers



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*Transcriptions/translations of documents pictured are available upon request.



The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

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