top of page

Immanuel Kant, Joseph Green, Robert Motherby and the Americans

Gerfried Horst


The merchant Joseph Green (1727-1786), who came from Hull in England, had "already come over from England at a young age"(1) and built up a flourishing trading business in Königsberg. He looked for a young man in his home town to help him in his business and found Robert Motherby (1736-1801), who is said to have "come to the city on the banks of the Pregel  from Hull around 1750 at the age of 14."(2) A recent Kant biography states that he came to Königsberg at the age of 18, i.e. in 1754.(3) Evidence of the exact date of his move from Hull to Königsberg has not yet become known. On 30 August 1763, under Kant's name (who signed as "Emanuel Kant M.A."), they both carved their names along with a few others as friends on a champagne glass that was passed down through Robert Motherby's son William and is still in the broader family today. The inscription reads:


Secrecy in love and sincerity

In Friendship

Emanuel Kant M.A.

Anthony Schorn

Joseph Green

Robert Motherby

all Happy together notwithstanding what happened in the World

August of 30th 1763


Three more names follow, including two Englishmen. Simon Wain-Hobson has paid detailed tribute to the glass in an essay.(4)

Since they were apparently already well acquainted with each other on 30 August 1763 and called each other friends, Immanuel Kant, Joseph Green and Robert Motherby must have met some time before this date. Kant's student and biographer Reinhold Bernhard Jachmann has reported what happened at Kant‘s and Green's first meeting: 


   At the time of the English-North American War Kant went walking one afternoon in the Dänhofschen Garten and halted in front of an arbour in which he discovered one of his acquaintances in the company of several men he did not know. He agreed to join in the conversation with the rest of those present. It did not take long until the conversation turned to the unusual current affairs.  Kant took the side of the Americans by warmly championing their just cause and bitterly criticised the behaviour of the English. Suddenly one of the company jumped up angrily, stepped up to Kant and, informing him that he was English, declared that Kant had insulted both his whole nation and him personally. Heatedly, he challenged Kant to a bloody fight. Kant did not let the man’s rage unsettle him in the least, but rather continued his discourse. He started to explain his political principles, opinions, and views - which he claimed any cosmopolitan citizen could safely apply to judge world events without his patriotism coming to harm - with such eloquence that Green – the above mentioned Englishman – being utterly amazed offered him his hand in friendship, expressed his agreement with Kant’s high ideals, requested Kant’s forgiveness for his hotheadedness, before finally accompanying Kant to his apartment that evening and inviting him to a friendly visit. The merchant Motherby, a companion of Green‘s who has since died, witnessed this incident and often assured me that Kant, who seemed to all those present, including Motherby himself, to have been inspired by some heavenly power, gripped their hearts forever.(5)


This account has been understood by later Kant biographers as if Kant and Green had argued about the conduct of the English in the North American War of Independence (1775-1783) and Kant had sided with the Americans. Since Kant and Green were demonstrably friends much earlier, the Kant biographer Vorländer was of the opinion that Jachmann's account could not be true.(6) Manfred Kuehn wrote in his Kant biography:

   It has been said that Green and Kant first met each other at the time of the Amer­ican Revolution, and that their relationship started with a heated dispute about it. Kant took up the side of the Americans and Green that of the English. This cannot be true, of course, though it may well be that their dispute was about an earlier episode that ultimately led to the American Revolution, namely the Stamp Act of 1765. It led to riots in Boston and elsewhere in August of that year, which forced the British Parliament to revoke the act later that very same year. This would mean that Kant’s friendship with Green dates back to the summer of 1765. (7) 

The American Kant Biographer J. H. W. Stuckenberg stated:


   Jachmann … makes the conversation refer to the American Revolution. But Kant and Green were acquainted long before that time … Jachmann’s account must therefore refer to some other circumstance than that revolution.(8)


As can be seen, these three biographers assumed that by the "English-North American War" Jachmann meant the US War of Independence and that by the "Americans" whose just cause Kant embraced, he meant the settlers in the English colonies who fought for their independence from 1775 onwards. They could therefore not explain Jachmann's account. For Kant, however, the word "American" had a different meaning. In all his writings, he only ever referred to the indigenous people of America as "Americans", i.e. the Indians, but not the English settlers. In a similar way, today we only refer to black Africans as "Africans", but not the Arabs and Berbers living in North Africa or the white South Africans. Thus Kant wrote in his essay Von den verschiedenen Racen der Menschen (1775):


   However, the foremost case, namely, the derivation of the Americans as a people that has inhabited the northern most part of the earth for a long time but which has not yet fully acclimated itself to this region as would a distinct race, is confirmed completely by the suppressed growth of hair on all part of their body except the hand and by the reddish, iron rust color that marks this people when they live in the colder regions of this part of the world and the dark copper color that marks them when they live in the hotter regions.(9)


In an essay ten years later Kant wrote:


   We know with certainty no more hereditary differences of skin colour than those: of the whites, the yellow Indians, the negroes and the copper-coloured red Americans.(10)


In his 1802 work Physical Geography, edited by Rink, it is stated:


Some Americans make many such holes in their skin to stick coloured feathers into.(11)


Kant never referred to the English settlers as "Americans", but wrote of their settlements:


   The E n g l i s h  c o l o n i e s in this part of the world are flourishing.(12)


In the dispute with Green, Kant thus took sides against the English and for the indigenous people of North America, whom we call "Indians", who had been increasingly pushed back, robbed of their land and killed by the English immigrants since the first half of the 17th century.


The English-North American War mentioned by Jachmann can only be the war that England waged against France in North America at the same time as the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) in Europe. In America, however, the war already began in 1754 and was called "the French and Indian War" in the English colonies; this is how it is still called today in US historiography. It was about supremacy in the whole world. In Europe, England was allied with Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, and supported him in waging war against France, Russia and Austria. Another way of putting it is that Prussia waged its war against France in England's interest, thereby making it easier for England to defeat France in North America. France and Britain ended the war in North America on 10 February 1763 with the Treaty of Paris; Austria and Prussia ended the war in Europe on 15 February 1763 with the Peace of Hubertusburg. The world victor was Great Britain. The British Prime Minister William Pitt (Lord Chatham) made the fine remark about this: "France lost America in Germany.“(13)


Some Americans, Indian tribes, had also fought alongside the French against the British in North America, e.g. the Ottawa Indians under their chief Pontiac. The French did not take the land away from the natives like the English, but traded with them, mediated in disputes between individual tribes and adapted to the Indian way of life. In this way, the French, with the help of the Indians, managed to hold their own against the numerically much superior English for decades.(14) After the defeat of the French, the Indians alone were faced with the task of defending their tribal territories, way of life and culture against the advance of the English. Chief Pontiac attempted to unite all the Indian tribes in the border area with the British colonies and led a series of attacks against the British troops in the years from 1763 onwards, only defeating him in 1766.


It is against this background that Jachmann's report is to be understood: "Kant took the side of the Americans by warmly championing their just cause", namely the right of the Native Americans to defend their land, and that he expressed himself with some bitterness about the behaviour of the English, who took their land from the Indians by force.


A passage from his writing Observations on the feeling of the beautiful and sublime shows how thoroughly Kant studied the indigenous peoples of North America:


Among all the savages there is no people which demonstrates such a sublime character of mind as that of North America. They have a strong feeling for honor, and as in hunt of it they will seek wild adventures hundreds of miles away, they are also extremely careful to avoid the least injury to it where their ever so harsh enemy, after he has captured them, tries to force a cowardly sigh from them by dreadful tortures. The Canadian savage is moreover truthful and honest. The friendship he establishes is just as adventurous and enthusiastic as anything reported from the oldest and most fabulous times. He is extremely proud, sensitive to the complete worth of freedom, and even in education tolerates no encounter that would make him feel a lowly subjugation. Lycurgus probably gave laws to such savages, and if a law-giver were to arise among the six nations, one would see a Spartan republic arise in the new world; …(15)


Kant submitted this writing for censorship to the Dean of the Philosophical Faculty of the Albertina on 8 October 1763 (16), i.e. shortly after that 30 August 1763 on which he and his English friends carved their names into the champagne glass. It was published in Königsberg in 1764. How precisely Kant knew about conditions in North America is shown by his reference to the Six Nations of the Iroquois League, which consisted of the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora tribes.(17) Kant's ideal for the New World was apparently for the "Americans", i.e. the Native Americans, to organise themselves into a republic on the basis of their own laws. He apparently championed their right to do so in the conversation described by Jachmann and expressed himself with some bitterness about the conduct of the English who conquered America “as ownerless territories; for the native inhabitants were counted as nothing“.(18)  


Kant did not attack Green because he was English, so he did not insult him, but explained to him his political principles and opinions and the point of view from which every man as a citizen of the world, regardless of his patriotism, must judge the same world events.

He thus conceded to everyone the right to be a patriot of his country, but reminded everyone that he was at the same time a citizen of the world and as such had to judge certain world events from a common point of view with the other citizens of the world. In this way he made Joseph Green and his younger companion Robert Motherby his friends and captivated their hearts forever. Knowing this background, it becomes understandable what the English and Germans, who had become friends, had in mind when they engraved their names in a champagne glass on 30 August 1763 under the words: "Secrecy in love and sincerity in Friendship" and added: "all Happy together notwithstanding what happened in the World". They were explaining that friendship requires sincerity and that political conflict should not overshadow friendship. Christine Battersby used this friendship glass to explain "Kant's dialectics of friendship".(19)


When exactly did the first meeting of Immanuel Kant, Joseph Green and Robert Motherby, described by R. B. Jachmann, take place? The scene is said to have taken place "at the time of the English-North American War", in other words: the French and Indian War which began in mid-1754. Although the exact time of Robert Motherby's arrival in Königsberg is not known, biographers agree that he moved to Königsberg in 1754 at the latest and initially had no knowledge of German. Whether he understood what Kant was saying during the scene described by Jachmann, or only afterwards had Joseph Green explain the details of the exchange of words he was following, is an open question. The first encounter between Kant, Green and Motherby could  possibly date back to 1754.   


© 2021 Gerfried Horst



1 Karl Vorländer, Immanuel Kant – Der Mann und das Werk, Wiesbaden 2003, Erstes Buch, p. 121

2 Ibidem, p. 122

3 Manfred Kuehn, KANT – A Biography, Cambridge University Press 2001, p. 156

4 Simon Wain-Hobson, The Königsberg Kant Glass, © Glass Society, Glass Matters 10, January 2021 (

5 Reinhold Bernhard Jachmann, Immanuel Kant geschildert in Briefen an einen Freund, Königsberg 1804, Achter Brief, pp. 77-79

6 Karl Vorländer, op. cit., p. 122

7 Manfred Kuehn, op. cit., p. 155

8 J. H. W. Stuckenberg, The Life of Immanuel Kant, London 1882, Reprint 1986, pp. 459-460, Note 88

9 Immanuel Kant, Von den verschiedenen Racen der Menschen, in: Kants Werke, Akademie Textausgabe (Ak.), Band II, S. 427 ff., 437. Source: Immanuel Kant, “Von der verschiedenen Rassen der Menschen” (1777), translated by Jon Mark Mikkelsen and published in Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, edited by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1997).

10 Immanuel Kant, Bestimmung des Begriffs einer Menschenrace, in: Ak. Band VIII, pp. 89, 93; translated by the Author.

11 Immanuel Kant, Physische Geographie. Physische Erdbeschreibung. Zweiter Theil. § 5, in: Ak. Vol. IX, p. 318; translated by the Author.

12 Ibidem, p. 434; translated by the Author.

13 Friedrich von Martens, Völkerrecht. Das internationale Recht der civilisirten Nationen. Deutsche Ausgabe von Carl Bergbohm. 1. Band Berlin 1883, p. 109, Note 11

14 George Brown Tindall, David Emory Shi, America – A Narrative History, Brief Fifth Edition, New York 2000, p. 119

15 Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, in : Kant: Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings, Part of Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Editors and Translators: Patrick Frierson, Paul Guyer, First published: February 2011, p. 59

16 Note by Paul Menzer, in: Ak., Anmerkungen der Bände I-V, p. 482

17 George Brown Tindall, David Emory Shi, op. cit., pp. 52-53

18 Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace. A Philosophical Sketch, in: Kant, Political Writings, edited by Hans Reiss, translated by H. B. Nisbet, Second, enlarged Edition, Cambridge University Press 1991, p. 106

19 Christine Battersby, Cavarero, Kant, and the Arcs of Friendship, in: Adriana Cavarero, with Judith Butler, Bonnie Honig, and Other Voices, Toward a Feminist Ethics of Nonviolence, New York 2021, pp. 109-120

bottom of page