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Sylvester Jordan

Sylvester Jordan (b. in 1792 near Axams in Tirol, d. in 1861 in Kassel). Professor of jurisprudence at the University of Marburg, the state university of Hesse-Kassel, from 1821 to 1839, reinstated in 1848. Jordan represented the university in the meeting of the estates-general of Hesse-Kassel, called by Elector Wilhelm II in 1830 to cushion the impact of the French July revolution. As chairman of this assembly's constituent committee, Jordan became the principal architect of Hesse-Kassel's constitution of 1831, at the time considered to be among the most progressive in the German Confederation. But within two years it became apparent that the Elector's government--now under the direction of Ludwig Hassenpflug (1794-1862), a determined and skilled reactionary--had no intention of interpreting this constitution in favor of the legislature or, for that matter, of even abiding by it. In fact, Jordan's seat in the estates, to which he was re-elected seven times between 1832 and 1834, ignited one of the first controversies between government and legislature: the Hassenpflug ministry maintained that Jordan, as a state employee, needed to secure its consent before taking the mandate--an endorsement which the government was unlikely to give. Jordan ultimately resigned the seat in return for a financial indemnification. In 1839, Jordan was accused of subversion--for allegedly abetting the Frankfurt riots of 1833, the so-called Frankfurter Wachensturm, which had aroused the particular ire of the Diet of the German Confederation. Imprisoned while the investigation dragged on, Jordan was sentenced in 1843 to an additional four-and-a-half years of incarceration. Although the verdict was overturned by a court of appeals in 1845, Jordan's six years in prison had depleted his energies and left him in poor health.

By early March 1848, the news of the overthrow of the Orleanist monarchy in France unleashed a torrent of pent-up demands in all three Hessian states, including Hesse-Kassel. Fearing for law and order--and probably its own safety--the new government in Kassel sought to identify and shore up those moderates which it could find, if only to stave off more radical elements. Acting on this policy, it gave in to the demands of the Marburg faculty and student body and reinstated Jordan to his professorship on March 17, 1848. In the same week, Jordan returned to the legislature (albeit not to the university seat) and received a tumultuous welcome in Kassel. Clearly the man of the hour, Jordan participated in the founding of the "Pre-Parliament" (Vorparlament) in Frankfurt--the preparatory body for an all-German National Assembly--which elected him as one of its four vice-presidents. The government of Hesse-Kassel, eager to profit from Jordan's evident popularity, now appointed him as plenipotentiary to the Diet of the German Confederation in Frankfurt.

Because of this appointment, Jordan's popularity soon waned. Many of his erstwhile supporters found it unforgiveable that Jordan, himself a victim of the repressive policies of the German Confederation, would now consent to be associated with this body. In his own defense, Jordan argued that, as a result of the March revolutions throughout Germany, the Diet of the Confederation had become a different institution: it was now representative of governments which were responsive to the popular will. According to Jordan, it was imperative from a legal point of view that there existed a legal continuity between the institutions of the old and the new Germany. Jordan thought it equally imperative that a new constitutional framework for Germany was based on the existing German states rather than the decrees of an assembly sprung from revolution. He thus advocated a federation or confederation of states for Germany rather than the unitary state sought by the vast majority of the Frankfurt Parliament.

On July 12, the Diet of the German Confederation suspended its work and delegated its authority to the all-German ministry under Archduke John of Austria, created by the Frankfurt national assembly on June 19. Jordan now sought (and received) accreditation to the new executive. Within the same month, Jordan was elected to the parliament to fill a vacant seat from Hesse-Kassel; he now found himself in the curious position of being both the representative of a German state to the Frankfurt Parliament as well as a member of it.

Primarily because of his flagging health, Jordan's career in the Frankfurt Parliament was undistinguished. His only major speech, delivered on September 15, was a commentary on Prussia's armistice with Denmark at Malmö: Jordan argued that Germany at this critical juncture required cohesion and not further discord; the armistice, though unpopular, had to be upheld for legal as well as pragmatic reasons. To a chorus of disapproval from the benches on the left, Jordan roundly condemned the fickleness of the masses and castigated those politicians who sought to profit from this state of affairs: "One knows well that the masses can be energized by slogans, which, like lightening bolts, will bring them to a frenzy; that the masses can be easily persuaded to go in this direction or that."

Jordan's acquiescence in Prussian policy was again demonstrated in May 1849. When the Prussian government ordered all members of the Frankfurt parliament elected from Prussian districts to withdraw, Jordan--though he represented a Hessian and not a Prussian district--followed suit. His pro-Prussian sympathies, and his notion that the authority for a reorganized Germany should emanate from its member states, stood him in good stead after Hesse-Kassel joined the Prussian-sponsored Three Kings' Union (Dreikönigsbündnis) in August 1849. The union provided for a court of arbitration for its members and Jordan was designated to be Hesse-Kassel's representative. Alas, the Kassel government--as of February 1850 again headed by Jordan's old nemesis, Ludwig Hassenpflug--abandoned the union in May 1850, and Jordan found himself unemployed. Jordan remained uninvolved in the constitutional crisis which gripped Hesse-Kassel that autumn, nor did he play a role in the constitutional flare-ups of the mid- and late1850s. He died in obscurity in 1861.

Jordan's views, very much in the avant-garde of German constitutional thinking in the 1830s, seemed hopelessly outmoded in the context of the Paulskirche of 1848. His aversion to the masses and to revolutions, his trust in legal continuities and in the Rechtsstaat , mirrored the prejudices of the German intellectual middle class ( Bildungsbürgertum) of the Vormärz. Initially idolized as a popu lar hero, Jordan soon became a target for politicians of a more democratic-radical stripe. He was roundly denounced as a reactionary by Carl Theodor Bayrhoffer (1812-88), a politician of a younger generation and leader of the democratic left in the Kassel legislature, who, like Jordan before him, had taught at Marburg. Bayrhoffer's ability to give effect to his own high principles, however, was shortlived: swept away by the Hassenpflug ministry in the fall of 1850, Bayrhoffer emigrated and took up farming in Wisconsin.
Ralph Menning


Norbert Achterberg, "Sylvester Jordan: Leben und Werk des Schöpfers der Verfassungs-Urkunde für das Kurfürstentum Hessen von 1831," Hessisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte XXXI (1981), 173-84 [with bibliography of works by Sylvester Jordan]

Rudolf Bovensiepen, "Sylvester Jordan," in Ingeborg Schnack (ed.), Lebensbilder aus Kurhessen und Waldeck,1830-1930 (Marburg, 1950), IV. 163-86

Günter Kleinknecht, Sylvester Jordan (1792-1861): Ein deutscher Liberaler im Vormärz (Marburg, 1983)

Hellmut Seier (ed.), Akten und Briefe aus den Anfängen der kurhessischen Verfassungszeit, 1830-1837 (Marburg, 1992)

Hellmut Seier, Sylvester Jordan und die kurhessische Verfassung von 1831 (Marburg, 1981).

Franz Wigard (ed.) Stenographischer Bericht über die Verhandlungen der deutschen constituierenden Nationalversammlung, (Frankfurt, 1848), 3:2063-2066 [September 15, 1848]

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