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Enlightened Despots in France, Austria & Prussia: Reforms & Goals

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  • 0:05 Enlightened Despotism
  • 0:54 Attempts in France
  • 2:49 Frederick the Great
  • 4:27 Maria Theresa
  • 5:37 Joseph II
  • 7:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

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.

Enlightened Despotism

'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 Encyclopédie 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.

Maria Theresa

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.

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