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“What Animal is the Emperor?”: An Entrepreneur from Bohemia Goes Rogue

By Jonathan Singerton

The name Joseph Donath might not be familiar to you, but perhaps it ought to be. Donath became the second Habsburg representative in the United States after Baron de Beelen-Bertholff. His commercial mission came about through the machinations of several Viennese industrialists, spearheaded by Joseph Paul Reichsfreiherr von Weinbrenner.

Weinbrenner owned a textile business and wanted to have his own private representative in the United States. Mistrust of the Habsburg commercial liaison, Belgian-born Baron de Beelen-Bertholff, ran high in Vienna, so much so that the State Chancellor, Prince Kaunitz, had tried to convince Emperor Joseph II to select an Austrian instead. Kaunitz naturally allied himself with Weinbrenner’s plan, assuring that an imperial-born subject from the hereditary lands (that is modern-day Austria and Czechia) would guarantee this region’s trade interests were represented in the United States.

They settled on Donath, who they knew well from various social circles in Vienna. Although the exact nature of his business background in unclear, we do know that he was a freemason and attended the same lodge as Wolfgang Mozart, the Lodge of True Harmony.[1] This same lodge provided the Habsburgs with other candidates for North American mission such as Professor Franz Joseph Märter and Franz Boos, who both travelled on a botanic expedition to the United States in 1783.

Donath made his journey the same year but arrived in Philadelphia later than Märter, Boos, and Beelen-Bertholff, delayed by his circuitous route via Hamburg. Prior to Donath’s departure, Weinbrenner had contacted Benjamin Franklin, thanks to their mutual acquaintance with Dr. Jan IngenHousz in Vienna. Weinbrenner wanted Franklin to provide Donath’s mission with the all-important letters of introduction to businessmen in America but Franklin, after several chasing letters, declined to help. His absence in the United States during his diplomatic service in Europe had limited his knowledge of the relevant traders.[2]

Donath was flying blind then when he arrived in the United States in December 1783, but he quickly got to work. By New Year 1784, he had set up shop between Chesnut and Market Streets in Philadelphia. His business laid out the various textiles and carpets of Weinbrenner’s company, as well as Bohemian glassware, shoes, and hats. He and Weinbrenner were not content to merely ply Philadelphians with Habsburg products. They wanted to use their profits from the Philadelphia store to buy furs directly from Native Americans, hoping to cut out expensive American middlemen.

Donath met with Habsburg commercial agent Baron de Beelen-Bertholff to find out more about Native American trade. Beelen reported his conversation with Donath back to Brussels, noting how foolhardy Donath’s mission seemed to him. Not only was Donath paid very little, Beelen scoffed, but his arrival during winter meant he’d have to wait until the summer to able to travel out to the Native American lands in upstate New York. “For these reasons,” he concluded, “this is a lost year.” [3]

Months later, when the harsh winter snows had melted, Donath ventured to the Oneida Nation in 1784. His journey must have been successful since he returned again before the summer was out to trade for furs and dyes and planned further trips farther afield to the Midwest.

But one year later it was all over. Weinbrenner and his associates originally intended Donath’s mission to the United States to last only two years, supplying him with enough funds to last until 1785.  Facing the prospect of returning to the Habsburg Monarchy, Donath balked. It is uncertain exactly how he refused to return, but looking at his situation it’s clear to see why Donath might not have wanted to go back to Central Europe so soon. For the last two years, he invested considerable energy into forming a new and lucrative business, procuring discount furs by selling fashionable Bohemian goods. It is unlikely Donath wanted to give up this hard-earned business or his freer life in the United States.

Donath became a private merchant in United States, trying always to expand his earnings. In the mid-1780s, he dabbled in apiary and the honey business on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and may have influenced George Washington to do the same.[4] Around 1786, he started his own trading company Donath & Co., which specialized in Bohemian clothes and glassware. Over the next few decades his business thrived; he branched out to importing goods into Philadelphia from all over Europe.[5] He provided both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson with Hungarian wines, a particular favorite of the latter.[6] Jefferson also relied on Donath to procure the best Bohemian window-glass for the large cupola of his home at Monticello—it was the only variety that didn’t crack.[7]

Life in the United States suited Donath. He eventually married and had three children by the late 1790s. He became more of an American politically. Still in touch with many former associates in the Habsburg Monarchy, he began to question their position under the dynastic regimes of the Old World.

Thanks to a series of his letters preserved in Czech archives, his thoughts on his new home and his former one are abundantly clear. In one letter to his friend Professor Frantisek Steinsky of the Charles University in Prague (who was likely Donath’s tutor during his studies there), Donath wrote about the nature of enlightened despotism. He called out Steinsky, somewhat playfully, as being complicit in an intolerable regime. “As a public professor,” he declared, “it is your duty to keep out every ray of light, and darken even darkness itself” since “ignorance is the only bulwark of despotism.” Donath went one step further, Such disrespectful remarks would have been dangerous to commit to writing if Donath were still in the Habsburg Monarchy, but from the safety of Philadelphia, he could express his disillusionment with Habsburg rulers.

Donath felt immense pride at becoming an American. He boasted to Steinsky how he had begun to think more “freely,” which, he pointedly remarked, “is the birthright of every American.”[9] From his experience of freedom in the United States, Donath went politically rogue from his previous Habsburg affiliations; despot-ridden Europe, even the enlightened despotism of Joseph II, now seemed abhorrent to him. Donath never returned to the Habsburg Monarchy and he continued his business well into the 1800s. He died on 21st November 1829 and, as an ardent Catholic, was buried at St. Mary’s Church in Philadelphia. Though largely forgotten since then, Donath’s experiences in the early United States reminds us how easily newcomers became Americans and turned themselves away from their former homelands.

Jonathan Singerton is a specialist on the early connections between the Habsburg Monarchy and North America. He recently completed his PhD entitled ‘Empires on the Edge – The Habsburg Monarchy and the American Revolution 1763-1789’ at the University of Edinburgh. He is currently a Plaschka Fellow at the Institute for Modern and Contemporary History at the Austria Academy of Sciences, Vienna.


[1] Haus-Hof-und-Staatsarchiv, Kabinettsarchiv, Vertrauliche Akten, K. 70.

[2] Ellen R. Cohn et al, eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), Vol. 40, Franklin to IngenHousz, 16th May 1783, 8-13.

[3] Haus-Hof-und-Staatsarchiv, Belgien, DDB Rot, K. 182a, Add. P, April 25th 1784, fols. 65-66.

[4] See https://www.amphilsoc.org/blog/aps-and-central-europe-bumbling-beekeeper-bohemia

[5] Hagley Museum and Library, Acc. No. 38 and 480, Letterbooks of Joseph Donath & Co. 1801-1806, 2 Vols.

[6] Csaba Lévai, ““The Tokay is Much More Superior to What You Sent Me Last Year Under That Name” – Thomas Jefferson and his Hungarian Wines,” Hungarian Review, 6, No. 6 (Fall, 2002), 74-84.

[7] See https://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/joseph-donath

[8] Literární Archiv Památníku národního písemnictví, Fonds F. A. Steinského 1760-1811, Donath to Steinsky dated 20th July 1792.

[9] Ibid.

Further Reading:

James Boyd, “Merchants of Migration: Keeping the German Atlantic Connected in America’s Early National Period,” in Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 1, edited by Marianne S. Wokeck. German Historical Institute. Last modified February 12, 2015.

Csaba Lévai, ““The Tokay is Much More Superior to What You Sent Me Last Year Under That Name” – Thomas Jefferson and his Hungarian Wines,” Hungarian Review, 6, No. 6 (Fall, 2002), 74-84.

Václav Lukáš, “The Exportation of Bohemian Glass: A Historical Review,” Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 23 (1981), 56-63.

Leos Müller and Michal Wanner, “Bohemian textiles and glass in eighteenth-century global trade,” paper presented at the Third European Congress on World and Global History, 14th-17th April 2011, London School of Economics.

Miloslav Rechigl, Beyond the Sea of Beer: History of Immigration of Bohemians and Czechs to the New World and their Contributions (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2017).

Archival Sources:

American Philosophical Society, Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, No. 200, Donath’s ‘Journal of Bee-Keeping at Spring Mill.’

Haus-Hof-und-Staatsarchiv, Staatskanzlei, Belgien, DDB Rot, K. 182a.

Haus-Hof-und-Staatsarchiv, Kabinettsarchiv, Vertrauliche Akten, K. 70.

Hagley Museum and Library, Acc. No. 38 and 480, Letterbooks of Joseph Donath & Co. 1801-1806, 2 Vols.

Literární Archiv Památníku národního písemnictví, Fonds F. A. Steinského 1760-1811.

Learn More:

Digital version of Donath’s beekeeping journal: https://diglib.amphilsoc.org/islandora/object/journal-beekeeping-spring-mill#page/1/mode/1up

Detailed version of Donath’s apiary business: https://www.amphilsoc.org/blog/aps-and-central-europe-bumbling-beekeeper-bohemia

The gravesite of Joseph Donath and his family at St. Mary’s Church, Philadelphia: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/82846643/joseph-donath

Correspondence between Donath and Jefferson: https://founders.archives.gov/search/Correspondent%3A%22Jefferson%2C%20Thomas%22%20Correspondent%3A%22Donath%2C%20Joseph%22

Jefferson’s orders of glass through Donath: https://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/joseph-donath