In this lesson we explore the term ‘Enlightened Despotism’ and how it pertains to the domestic politics of several 18th-century Western and Central European nations.
‘Politics makes strange bedfellows’ is a truism that has sustained the test of time. Whether it’s Republicans and Democrats making deals in Congress, or Joseph and Pharaoh ruling Egypt in the Old Testament, the nature of politics and the needs of the state can often require an odd mix of characters. Such was the case in the 18th-century, when several monarchs of Central and Western Europe adopted and implemented ideals of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement which by and large denied that monarchies were the basis of political power!Enlightened despotism and its equal, enlightened absolutism, are terms historians use to describe the policies of several 18th-century European monarchs. They are despots (or absolutists) because they continuously worked to centralize all the power within their nation in the monarchy at the expense of provincial nobles and national or provincial assemblies.Somewhat paradoxically, many of these despots also embraced the Enlightenment, an 18th-century intellectual trend that espoused rational thought, empiricism, and individual rights and liberties.
These monarchs attempted to improve their states through the personal implementation of Enlightenment ideas while at the same time maintaining, or even enhancing, monarchical-control over the affairs of the state.
Attempts in France
In France, government was influenced by enlightenment ideals, though what few measures Louis XV (and his grandson, Louis XVI) took, failed. Some Enlightenment ideals percolated into French government during their reigns, though this was chiefly achieved by their able administrators and advisors. For example, Louis XV entrusted the affairs of the French state to his former tutor, Hercule de Fleury. It was because of Fleury’s fiscal reforms that the French economy recovered and the monarchy was further empowered after being deeply in debt following the wars of Louis XIV.Louis XV, while not having much taste for politics, did entertain some Enlightenment ideals. Regardless of these minor achievements, Louis XV still forbade the first publication of Diderot’s Encyclop;die in the 1750s, and his refusal to curb his expensive tastes and opulent court life left the French monarchy nearly ruined financially upon his death in 1774.
Louis XVI took the throne in 1774 under inauspicious circumstances. The deleterious policies of his grandfather Louis XV had caused relations between the crown and the French public to become highly acrimonious. Louis XVI attempted reforms by reinstituting the old parlements, which Louis XV had done away with and consulted public opinion in matters of foreign and domestic policy. Louis XVI’s attempted reforms, however, were unpopular and failed to resolve the fiscal crisis in which France found itself. Louis XVI, in the course of the French Revolution, was eventually executed in 1793.
Frederick the Great
Whereas halfhearted attempts at enlightened rule failed in France, wholesale embrace of the Enlightenment succeeded wildly in Prussia. Frederick II of Prussia, often referred to as Frederick the Great, was King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786.
He gained his moniker largely due to battlefield successes; he invaded Silesia in 1740 and retained the territory throughout the War of Austrian Succession and the ensuing Seven Years’ War despite facing a larger, better funded alliance of France, Russia and Austria.In addition, he was also an avid reformer. Though he demanded absolute power in affairs of the state, he famously proclaimed himself the ‘first servant of the state’ and tried to rule with a mind toward what was best for Prussia and not just himself.Indeed, Frederick embraced Enlightenment ideals by granting Prussians further freedoms. He granted universal religious toleration throughout Prussian territory, and even granted the press a degree of freedom of speech.
In addition, Frederick expanded individual rights within his realm, abolishing torture and speeding up legal proceedings, granting his citizens a certain amount of due process. He further improved the legal system through increasing the training and knowledge required to become a judge.Frederick enhanced the country’s infrastructure as well, building roads and bridges and enriching the provincial backwaters through agricultural reforms meant to improve crop yield and farm organization. His reforms of the Prussian educational system were not only intended to improve the quality of Prussian schools, but also expand enrollment. When Frederick died after 46 years on the throne, he left his beloved Prussia as arguably the strongest nation in central Europe.
The enemy of Frederick the Great’s lifetime was Hapsburg Austria and the first female monarch of the line, Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa’s father, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI had left Austria reeling financially and militarily upon his death in 1740 – the same year Prussia invaded Silesia.
Though defeated in 1748, Maria Theresa did not give up on regaining Silesian territory, and began domestic reforms to strengthen the state, first by centralizing power throughout Austrian lands back into the monarchy and consolidating the territorial armies into one, centrally-commanded force. Maria Theresa put the country back on good financial footing through increasing tax revenue and simultaneously decreasing the troublesome meetings of the provincial assemblies from every year to once every ten years.Though Maria Theresa attempted to retake Silesia from the Prussians during the Seven Years’ War, her efforts were spoiled once and for all when Austria’s main ally, Russia, pulled out of the war in 1762. Despite Austria losing territory under Maria Theresa, the centralization of power and enriching of the monarchy likely saved Hapsburg Austria from declining into irrelevancy and set the stage for the enlightened reforms of her son.
That son, Joseph II, formally took the Austrian throne in 1780 upon Maria Theresa’s death, although he had been ruling the Holy Roman Empire and portions of Austrian affairs since his mother appointed him Holy Roman Emperor and co-regent of Austria in 1765. Joseph’s series of reforms in his ten years of personal rule until his death in 1790 have been termed Josephism by historians. Josephism embraced several ideals of the Enlightenment, but only so far as they strengthened the crown and state authority.
The utilitarian mindset with which Joseph approached the Enlightenment ideals have caused some historians to question Joseph’s status as an enlightened monarch, but regardless of Joseph’s motives in his policies’ institution, they were tolerant and forward-thinking.For example, his 1781 Edict of Toleration granted Protestants virtually equal status with Catholics, which Joseph enacted despite his personal, fervent Catholicism. It also lifted nearly all restrictions on Jews, and oppressive religious institutions, including many Austrian monasteries, were dissolved and their lands and finances forfeited to the crown.
Administratively, Joseph continued the centralizing of power in the monarchy and streamlining of the bureaucracy that his mother had begun. Despite Joseph’s success in strengthening the state, his radical progressiveness in social matters provoked unrest and his younger brother, Leopold II, was forced to reverse many of Joseph’s reforms after his death.
In closing, Enlightened Despotism had a checkered record in 18th-century Europe. In Prussia, the enlightened policies of an absolute monarch improved both the power of the state and the well-being of the people, whereas in France, it achieved neither. Perhaps the most important lesson one can gain from Central and Western Europe’s 18th-century political experiments is the incredible impact an intellectual movement, such as the Enlightenment, had on the reigns of several powerful monarchs – encouraging greater civil liberties, religious toleration, and responsible government.
When this lesson is complete, you should be able to:
- Define enlightened despotism (enlightened absolutism)
- Recognize the attempts of Louis XV and Louis XVI at enlightenment in France
- Identify the reforms of Frederick the Great in Prussia
- Recall the work of Maria Theresa and Joseph II in Austria