Enlightened Absolutism

During the Enlightenment, the educated public came to regard political change as both possible and desirable. There was no unified position, however, as enlightenment thinkers often disagreed vociferously with each other on the best form of government. Until the American Revolution, most political thinkers believed that political change could best come from above—initiated by the ruler, for several reasons. Absolutism was a way of life in Europe. European rulers were not about to give up their power; therefore the best approach would be for a benevolent form of absolutism. If the monarch could be "enlightened," he would then make good laws and promote human happiness.

One of the primary influential thinkers of this era was Cesare Bonesana, Marquis of Beccaria. (1738-1794. He wrote a volume entitled On Crimes and Punishment in which he argued that the state’s task was to protect society but at the same time protect the dignity of all people, including the rights of those who were accused of crime. He argued that punishment should not be linked to the religious concept of sin, but rather to an assessment of the damage done to society. He opposed the use of torture, stating that it only encouraged disrespect for the law and hence more serious crimes, and also rejected the death penalty except in extreme cases, such as treason.

Another factor is that the enlightenment thinkers had the ears of many of the crown heads of Europe. Many rulers contacted them for advice and consulted with them frequently. Also, the philosophes distrusted "the people." They believed that the masses were driven by passion and superstition, that they were basically little children in need of guidance from above.

A number of monarchs in eastern and Western Europe proclaimed themselves "enlightened." In Denmark, an extensive land reform program was instituted that practically abolished serfdom. However, the most extensive influence of the enlightenment was in Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Oddly, France, the home of many enlightenment thinkers, was influenced least.

Prussia under Frederick the Great: Frederick II, son of Frederick William I rebelled against his family’s wishes early on. He rejected barracks life, and embraced culture and literature. He even wrote poetry and prose in French, a language his father despised. Although his father had been Calvinist, he dabbled a bit with atheism. In 1730 at age eighteen, he attempted to run away from home, but was captured. Part of his punishment was to watch his male companion beheaded at the command of this father. He later reconciled with his father and when he inherited the throne in 1740 at age twenty eight, he was determined to use the army his father had left him.

When Maria Theresa, daughter of Charles VI inherited the Habsburg throne in 1740, Frederick invaded the province of Silesia without warning, a clear violation of Prussia’s promise to respect the Pragmatic Sanction. Other European powers soon joined in what became the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). At the end of the war, which became a major war between France and Britain, Maria Theresa was forced to cede Silesia to Prussia. Prussia thereby doubled its population and was the greatest of the German states. Maria Theresa did not take the loss lightly, and new fighting broke out, largely a result of renewed warfare between France and Britain. This was the Seven Years War, known in America as the French and Indian War. (1756-1763). An alliance of Austria, France, and Russia aimed to destroy Prussia and divide up its territory. Frederick fought brilliantly, but was outnumbered. He was only saved by the ascension of Peter III as Czar of Russia, an idiot who didn’t care for the war, and withdrew his troops.

It was Frederick who first coined the admonition to his troops, "don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes."

The Seven Years War tempered Frederick’s thinking somewhat, and he began to embrace enlightenment ideas; specifically how more humane policies for his subjects might also strengthen the state. As a result, became considerably more tolerant in religious matters, allowing his subjects to believe as they wished. (Compare this with the strict Catholicism practiced in France.) He promoted improvement in the country’s schools, and permitted scholars to publish their findings. He cultivated a friendship with Voltaire, and once wrote to him, "I must enlighten my people, cultivate their manners and morals, and make them as happy as human beings can be, or as happy as the means at my disposal permits."

Frederick simplified Prussia’s legal system and abolished torture. He also promoted the reconstruction of agriculture and industry after the Seven Years War. He also provided a good example himself, calling himself "only the first servant of the state." He never relied on Divine Right to justify his reign. Even so, his reforms had their limits. Although he spoke against serfdom, he did not abolish it. He catered to the nobles, whom he considered his best defense in the event of war, so that a middle class citizen had no chance of rising in government service. The Junker class remained the dominant force in the government and in the army. His religious reforms did not extend to Prussia’s Jews, who were forced to live in ghettos and excluded by law from most businesses and professional occupations, and could be ordered out of the country at a moment’s notice. Frederick said the Jews "injure the business of Christians and are useless to the state," although he continued to borrow money from them.

Russia under Catherine the Great: Peter the Great had removed the hereditary system of succession in Russia, but left no male heirs. The son whom he hoped would succeed him, Peter II, died at a very young age, and his oldest son, Alexis, was executed at Peter’s own command. He was succeeded in turn by two of his daughters, Anna and Elizabeth. Both were smart, but both rather crude in their own way. Anna had a gigantic palace of ice constructed for her own amusement, and entertained Boyars there by forcing two dwarfs to make love on a bed of ice while the company watched. His second daughter, Elizabeth, who succeeded in 1741, was not much better. She never married, but kept an illiterate shepherd boy for her lover.

Elizabeth named as her heir, Peter III, her nephew. She also chose for his wife Sophia Augusta Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst a German princess as his bride. She converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and was re-baptized Ekaterina ("Catherine") Catherine’s mother was related to the Russian Romanovs, which made her eligible to marry the future Czar. Catherine was only fifteen at the time of the marriage, Peter was an idiot, and apparently badly scarred from smallpox. An example of his stupidity is illustrated by a comment from one of his courtiers that "His Imperial Highness must be taught not to make ugly faces at people, not to hold indecorous conversations with his inferiors, and not to empty his wine-glass over the heads of the footmen who wait at table." Neither Catherine nor Peter were old enough to understand the ramifications of sex, let alone have the physical ability, and he ignored his wife completely, such that after eight years of marriage, she was still a virgin. Catherine studied Russian, read Enlightenment writings, especially those of Voltaire, took a number of male lovers, and plotted. When the Empress Elizabeth died and Peter was proclaimed Czar and Catherine moved to depose him. She and her lover, Grigori Orlov, had Peter arrested, and forced him to sign his abdication. Peter had generated widespread opposition when he withdrew from the Seven Years War, and restored the privileges of the Boyars. While in custody, Peter was murdered. There has been abundant speculation as to Catherine’s involvement in his murder; heightened by the fact that the guilty parties, Orlov’s brothers, were never punished.

An example of the stupidity of Peter III and the mockery he made of his marriage is illustrated by the following anecdote: it was discovered that all Peter did at night in bed with Catherine was play with wooden soldiers, miniature cannons and toy fortresses. Peter would make little cannon-firing noises with his mouth and shout orders to the inanimate armies on the bed, beg Catherine to join him, and hurriedly stash the playthings under the sheets whenever members of the court happened by to check on the odd assortment of noises emanating from behind their chamber door. "Often I laughed," Catherine wrote, "but more often still I was exasperated and even made uncomfortable. The whole bed being covered and filled with dolls and toys, some of them quite heavy." The Great Duke took his toy soldiering very seriously. Later in their marriage, Peter executed a large rat in their bedroom for devouring two toy soldiers made of starch. Peter claimed that the rat was clearly guilty according to military law, and that, after one of his dogs broke its back, he had hanged it in public view "for three days, as an example." Catherine, thinking he was joking, burst into hysterics. Peter's face darkened. He was twenty-five.

There is some evidence that Peter’s problem was that he badly needed to be circumcised to make it possible for him to conceive, in short he was "wrapped too tight." When Catherine turned up pregnant by one of her lovers, (Elizabeth had in fact consented for Catherine to keep a lover) Peter’s aides got him drunk so that he passed out, and the operation was performed, which made it possible for him to have relations with his wife, and the child, who later became Czar himself, was for all intents and purposes the child of Peter.

When Catherine became Empress, she set out to rule in an enlightened manner. She wanted to bring European culture to Europe, institute domestic reform, and expand Russian territory. To those ends, she imported Western architects, sculptors, musicians, and intellectuals, and corresponded with the philosophes, especially Voltaire. She wrote soppy letters to him, inviting him to come to St. Petersburg so that she could "worship at his feet." When he took the bait, she was cool and formal to him. He took a carriage back to France, somewhat miffed. She also offered to publish the Encyclopedie in Russia when it was banned in France. She also restricted the use of torture and allowed limited religious toleration, attempted to improve education, and strengthen local government, which won her praise from the philosophes and good press in Western Europe. It was Catherine who instituted the use of French in the Russian court as the language of polite society.

However, things took a bad turn. In 1773, a common Cossack soldier named Emelian Pugachev led a gigantic revolt against Catherine. He claimed that he was Peter III, who had been released from Prison, and intended to reclaim the throne which was rightfully his. Pugachev issued "decrees" abolishing serfdom, taxes, and army service. Thousands of peasants joined his campaign, slaughtering landlords and officials right and left. Catherine’s army was too much for the disorganized peasants, however, and her forces cruelly crushed the rebellion. Pugachev was carried to St. Petersburg in a cage, where he was executed by quartering.

Pugachev’s rebellion put an end to Catherine’s reform movements. She was then convinced that the peasants were dangerous and that her empire depended on the support of the nobility. As a result, she extended serfdom into areas where it had not hitherto existed, freed nobles forever from paying taxes, confiscated lands of the Orthodox Church, and gave them to her favorite officials. As for expansion, Her armies scored victories against the Turks, and threatened to disturb the balance of power between Austria and Russia. Frederick the Great proposed that to restore the balance, she let the Turks off easy, and join him and Austria in taking slices of Poland for themselves. As a result, in three separate partitions, the three countries sliced off portions of Poland. By the end of the third partition, Poland ceased to exist, and did not re-emerge until the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. By the time of her death, Catherine left Russia’s peasantry in worse shape than when she gained the throne.

Catherine was known for an active and promiscuous sex life. She often chose lovers from the palace guard, but first had them "tested" by her ladies in waiting. When she was in her sixties, and morbidly overweight, she kept a twenty two year old lover, commenting to a former lover, "I have come back to life like a frozen fly. I am gay and well." Catherine’s seeming nymphomania resulted in rumors that she died while attempting sex with a horse. The rumors are untrue. In fact, she died of a stroke while sitting on the commode. Another rumor which spread from her death was that the commode collapsed under her great weight, and she died from the injury. This is also untrue.

The Austrian Habsburgs: Major reforms occurred in Austria due to the enlightened attitude of two monarchs Joseph II (r. 1780 – 1790) and his mother, Maria Theresa (r.1740 – 1780). After the loss of Silesia in the War of the Austrian Succession, Maria Theresa was determined to make her state stronger and more efficient. She worked to bring relations between church and state under government control thereby limiting the influence of the papacy. She revamped the entire governmental system and the taxation structure, even taxing nobles. Also, she reduced the power of landlords over serfs thereby improving the lot of agricultural workers.

Joseph II ruled as co-regent with his mother from 1765 until her death in 1780, when he ruled as sole monarch. Joseph instituted even tighter controls on the Catholic Church than had his mother. He also granted freedom of worship to Protestants and Jews, a remarkable step at that time, and also abolished serfdom. In 1789, he issued a decree stating that all peasant obligations to their landlords would be in the form of cash payments, thereby freeing them from the obligation to work on the landlord’s fields, bridges, etc. Sadly, this move was violently opposed by both the landlords and the peasants, who used a rather primitive barter system that lacked large amounts of cash. When he died in 1790, his brother, Leopold II was forced to rescind most of Joseph’s decrees in order to prevent a major rebellion. The peasants lost most of their gains under Joseph, and were once again required to perform forced labor for the landlords.

Absolutism in France: Louis XIV was not interested in enlightenment ideas, and ruled France as a powerful absolutist until his death in 1715. He was succeeded by his great grandson, Louis XV, who was only five at the time. His regent was Louis XIV’s nephew, the Duke of Orleans. Orleans was not the sole regent, and in an attempt to secure that position, he restored to the Parlements (the high courts in France) the ancient right to evaluate royal decrees publicly in writing before they were registered and given the force of Law. Louis XIV would never have stood for such. Seats on the Parlement were held by nobles and soon became inheritable. In this fashion, a check on the power of the king was sanctioned, whether intended or not.

The War of the Austrian Succession had been very expensive for France, and a financial crisis was at hand. Louis XV appointed a finance minister in 1748 who decreed a five percent income tax on every individual regardless of social status. Since the clergy and nobility had long been exempt from taxes, a vigorous protest resulted. The Parlement of Paris denounced the proposed tax law and rallied public opinion against it, as a result of which Louis backed down and the tax was rescinded.

The financial crisis re-emerged following the Seven Years War. The government attempted to levy emergency taxes, but the Parlement of Paris again protested, even challenging the right of the crown to levy the tax. Their argument was that the king’s power had to be limited to protect liberty. When Louis backed down, the Parlement insisted that the king could not levy taxes without the consent of the Parlement of Paris acting as the representative of the entire nation.

At first, Louis XV showed more interest in his many mistresses than in affairs of state. However, he finally reacted, stating that "The magistrates are my officers….In my person only does the sovereign power rest." He appointed René de Maupeou as chancellor and told him to crush the Parlements. Maupeou abolished the Parlements, exiled the more outspoken members, and created a new Parlement more amenable to the king’s wishes. A few philosophes actually applauded Louis’ actions, because they believed that Louis was using his power to institute badly needed reforms. Most however, as well as the educated public, opposed his actions. A stream of pamphlets were issued attacking the king and his officials, many quite pornographic Many historians believe that this torrent of scandalous attacks weakened the authority of the throne, and changed the image of the king from God’s appointed ruler to that of a degenerate. Louis would probably have prevailed in the long run, however he died in 1774, and was succeeded by Louis XVI, then twenty six, and well intentioned, but shy. He reportedly stated upon being crowned, "What I should like most is to be loved. He fired Maupeou, and reinstated the old Parlements, which the enlightened public loved. Many thought that this would represent a move towards more representative government, but Louis had no such intention. He tried to maintain as much of the power of the monarchy as possible while the Parlements opposed him and claimed to speak for the French nation. The government was in a stalemate with financial crisis continuing to recur. It was only a matter of time until the entire situation erupted in a terrible way.

Late Enlightenment Influence: During the late enlightenment, British economists applied the concept of freedom for the first time to the workings of the economy. Adam Smith (1723-1790) wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) in which he argued that each person should be "free to pursue his own interest his own way." This doctrine came to be known as laissez-faire, French for to "leave alone." Smith contended that the British economy would thrive naturally if it were left alone, and that supply and demand would determine the price of market items. Smith’s writing gave rise to capitalism, a free enterprise system where the means of production are owned by private individuals.

In Germany, Immanuel Kant, (1724-1804) became the foremost tenet of the idea that one perceives and understand the world through the medium of ideas, not through the application of the senses. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued that rational inquiry into nature leads to knowledge. Reason, he said, is like a judge who "compels the witness to answer questions which he himself has formulated." He argued that each person understands the world through concepts that cannot be separated from his/her own unique experience. Kant’s ideas invited subjectivity rather than the "cold light of reason" supported by earlier enlightenment thinkers, and led to early nineteenth century romanticism.