by Scott Mehl
Karl August was the first Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, reigning from 1815 until 1828. He wa born in Weimar on September 3, 1757, the eldest son of Ernst August II, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. He had one younger sibling:
- Friedrich Ferdinand (1758) – unmarried
When his father died in May 1758, Karl August became Duke of Saxe-Weimar and Duke of Saxe-Eisenach at just nine months old. His mother served as regent, and is recognized for having built up the resources and strength of the duchies during her son’s youth. Meanwhile, Karl August was educated privately by several tutors, and then made a grand tour of Europe along with his younger brother. It was on this trip that he met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who would become a close friend, confidante and advisor.
Shortly after reaching his majority and taking control of the government of the two duchies, Karl August married Luise of Hesse-Darmstadt in Karlsruhe on October 3, 1775. Luise was the daughter of Ludwig IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt and Caroline of Zweibrücken. They had seven children:
- Princess Luise Auguste (1779) – died in childhood
- stillborn daughter (1781)
- Grand Duke Karl Friedrich (1783) – married Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, had issue
- stillborn son (1785)
- Princess Karoline Luise (1786) – married Hereditary Prince Friedrich Ludwig of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, had issue
- stillborn son (1789)
- Prince Bernhard (1792) – married Princess Ida of Saxe-Meiningen, had issue
One of his first official acts was appointing Goethe to his privy council. It is perhaps through Goethe’s influence and support that Karl August worked to promote education and the arts. He established the Weimar Princely Free Drawing School in 1776, and was instrumental in reforming the education system and promoting the University of Jena.
A firm supporter of a unified Germany, Karl August was one of the leading forces behind the establishment of the League of Princes in 1785. Two years later, he was offered the Hungarian crown, but refused. He took up service with the Prussian Army, serving as major-general and leading his regiment into several battles in 1792. After the disastrous Battle of Jena in 1806, Karl August was forced to join Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine, to avoid losing his territories.
In 1809, the two duchies were united as one, and Karl August became Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Six years later, following the Congress of Vienna, Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach was elevated to a Grand Duchy with Karl August as its first Grand Duke. Much more liberal than many of his contemporaries, Karl August was the first German prince to grant a liberal constitution, and promoted the freedom of the press.
Grand Duke Karl August died in Graditz, Saxony on June 14, 1828, and is buried in the Weimarer Fürstengruft in the Historical Cemetery in Weimar.