Enlightened Monarchs: Crash Course European History #19


Hi I’m John Green and this is Crash Course
European History. So last week we discussed the Enlightenment philosophers who challenged
the idea that kings and nobles were qualified to be elites simply because of the families
into which they were born into. But still, monarchs were also interested in
Enlightenment ideals, and also understood they needed to effectively adapt to the Enlightenment,
as they had adapted to previous changes in theology and philosophy.
For instance, Catherine II (or Catherine “the Great”) of Russia corresponded often and
enthusiastically with Voltaire, even though he criticized despotic rule. And she also
offered to print Diderot’s Encyclopedia in Russia when France censored it.
We use the term “Enlightened Monarchs” to refer to the rulers who supported and applauded
Enlightenment thinkers. But were they in fact Enlightened, or did they remain absolutist
despots? The answer will surprise you, unless you have even a passing familiarity with despots.
[Intro] First let’s review what the philosophes
criticized in the practices of rulers and aristocratic leaders. They singled out torture,
censorship, and their arrogance and capriciousness. Like, kings and their nobility could have
ordinary people thrown into prison for just about any reason—large or small. And in
general most of the Enlightenment thinkers believed that nobles, and the system that
supported them, were despotic from top to bottom.
French theorist Montesquieu, whom we met in the previous episode as the author of the
satiric Persian Letters, also published The Spirit of Laws in 1748. In it, he discussed
customs and types of government as they were influenced by climate, and topography, and
other variables. To him, there was no God-given standard of
divine right rule. Instead, Montesquieu focused on three basic types of government: democracies,
suitable for very small states; monarchies that ruled mid-sized kingdoms; and despotic
states such as empires that were governed with an iron hand.
Voltaire and other philosophes elaborated on these theories: and many preferred Britain’s
post-Glorious Revolution type of law-based monarchy, where courts and a parliament were
separate from the monarch’s power and a Bill of Rights ensured certain protections
to citizens. All of this–the enshrining of rights, independent
courts, parliamentary representation–meant that power was balanced among multiple institutions.
Also, the multiplicity of religions in Britain was seen as another assurance; it prevented
a despotic religious institution from gaining control of the government.
Now, we’ve seen from examples like Poland-Lithuania that distributed power and diversity of belief
sometimes means internal conflict and political gridlock that weakens a state, but in Britain,
Enlightenment philosophers saw an example of a state that was strong without being despotic.
And in part because they had an example to point to, the Enlightenment philosophers were
difficult for those in the upper echelons of government and society to ignore. Let’s
go to the Thought Bubble. 1. King Frederick the Great of Prussia was
renowned for his love of refinement and his interest in music and design. 2. Like his friend Voltaire, Frederick the
Great collected Chinese porcelain. 3. He also wrote an opera about the Aztec
emperor Monteczuma, 4. which praised Monteczuma for religious
toleration 5. and seemed to agree with Enlightenment
activists who fought against religious bigotry and torture.
6. And Frederick also welcomed religious exiles from less tolerant regimes as a way of building
the Prussian population 7. —again a policy in line with Enlightenment.
He called himself “a servant of the people.” 8. But all that said, Frederick built a massive
standing army, 9. increasing the armed forces to 200,000
men from his father’s army of 80,000ish. 10. And he also forced the aristocracy to
serve the state, 11. either in the army or in the administration
of the kingdom. 12. And while like a good Enlightenment thinker
he lightened the burden of serfs working his own estates, 13. he also rewarded loyal aristocrats by
increasing their control over the serfs living in their territories, 14. further disenfranchising the most vulnerable
of his subjects. 15. These increasingly empowered landed aristocrats,
or Junkers to use the German term, that Frederick rewarded 16. were the very type that Voltaire and other
philosophes lambasted in their writings for the aristrocrats’ pride and highhandedness. 17. Frederick even blocked talented commoners
from achieving high positions in either the bureaucracy or the army, 18. entrenching aristocratic power still further.
Thanks, Thought Bubble. At any rate, as a result of the supposedly enlightened Frederick
the Great’s policies, men of aristocratic pedigree in Prussia continued to have a major
say in politics and the army into World War I and even beyond.
And then there was another of Voltaire’s friends, the aforementioned Catherine the
Great of Russia. For someone who disliked absolutism, Voltaire sure was pals with a
lot of absolutists. As Czar, Catherine sought to create standardized
codes of laws and regulations, which had an Enlightenment-ish tinge, but was mostly an
attempt to ease the struggle between all the groups that wanted to shape royal policy like
how new monarchs were selected. The people who fought over these decisions
included clans, factions of the Royal Guard, groups of influential clergy, and cliques
among commercial traders and ordinary citizens. So, Catherine summoned representatives from
all social groups for their input. And she found that each only thought about
bettering their own privileges or lot in life—the serfs seemed to have the most need for help,
while merchants wanted the right to own serfs, and the nobility wanted more of everything.
Ultimately, Catherine failed in getting representatives to think first and foremost of the needs of
the empire as a whole. Now, like other enlightened monarchs, her
policies did aim to be rational, but this was especially true when it came to consolidating
state power, which of course benefited her office.
So one could argue she was also focused on her interests over those of the empire, but,
like other enlightened monarchs and like Peter the Great before her, Catherine did emphasize
education. She even founded schools for girls, who were generally seen as not needing an
education. The empress also created the first Russian dictionary and appointed a woman to
head the project. She undertook the building of roads and the
fostering of trade to bring economic unity to Russia.
But, like some other Enlightened monarchs, Catherine also boosted the importance of the
aristocracy and she consolidated their privileges. She professed to want to improve the status
of the serf population, again bowing to the philosophes’ humanitarian concerns, while
imposing taxes that affected ordinary people the most.
Most of these monarchs wanted a more streamlined and efficient royal administration, but not
necessarily for philosophical reasons. They benefited from well run armies. and they
really benefited from taxes. During this age of ever-improving weaponry and higher costs
for larger standing armies, taxes needed to be increased and also collected more efficiently.
In other words, governments needed to operate rationally–not according to the whims of
fate or individuals, but according to the needs of the state.
In 1770, for instance, Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, who despite that portrait was not
twin sisters with Catherine the Great, deployed soldiers to renumber the addresses of urban
housing and standardize them across culturally diverse groups who didn’t even speak the
same language. The soldiers were told to count the empire’s
subjects but also to listen to their individual reports on health and well-being. And this
self-reporting served to unify the empire’s wide-range of inhabitants by showing that
the state cared enough to count them and ask them about their needs–that might seem minor
today, but consider being an 18th century peasant who rarely if ever had meaningful
contact with the imperial government. Toleration was an Enlightenment ideal that
also served to increase the number of useful citizens in an empire. Like when Maria Theresa’s
successor Joseph II of Austria announced the emancipation of the Jews in the Habsburg Empire
during his administration, he decreed that Jews could not use their own language except
in religious services. Which was a way to better integrate them into the imperial workforce,
but the decree also said, “there must be an end to the prejudice and
contempt which some subjects, particularly the unintelligent, have shown towards the
Jewish nation.” The decree also noted the “deplorable”
and even “criminal behavior” towards Jews and called for it to end as a way of strengthening
the empire.[1] Joseph II, was probably, like, the most actually
enlightened of the enlightenment monarchs, also struck at ancient ideas in other ways,
like by diminishing the grip of the aristocracy on serfs.
He encouraged agricultural experimentation, including the creation of a freer agricultural
work force. So, under his reforms, serfs no longer owed personal service to aristocrats,
whose lands they worked, and they could even leave an estate to work as an artisan or in
trade. “I have made philosophy the lawmaker of
my empire,” Joseph claimed, and in some ways that was true.[2] But the aristocracy
rebelled, and after Joseph’s death, his brother and successor rolled back these Enlightenment
reforms. Around the same time that Joseph was ruling
Austria, in the French home of Enlightenment, rulers like Louis the XV were also listening
to the voices of change and attempting to follow them. but, you know, without losing
power. Then as now, everyone wanted change so long as it did not affect them negatively.
So, French rulers tried to reform taxation and streamline government by getting rid of
the Parlements, which blocked the monarchy’s attempts at making taxes a bit more equitable.
The Parlements registered royal decrees and their members could sell their jobs to the
highest bidder. Royal advisors were like, I don’t understand why those funds don’t
go to the government and they also questioned whether there needed to be a bunch of people
whose job was to register royal decrees. But the members of the Parlement managed to rouse
ordinary people with cries of royal tyranny. So the king eventually backed down.
Similarly another reforming minister lifted tariffs and regulations on the grain market
in the name of free trade. But the flow of food was interrupted which caused a huge outburst
from people. Reform might be good in theory, but when actually enacted, reform often upset
social stability and clashed with vested interests. Good news for lots of people was still bad
news for some people. Then as now. Last but not least were the Spanish, who with
their vast empire were especially eager to streamline government and enhance revenue.
To this end the royal administration enacted policy changes known as the Bourbon reforms,
which made governmental administration more effective, especially when it came to collecting
taxes. These reforms also allowed people of Spanish
descent born in the colonies to rise a bit higher in the colonial bureaucracy and army,
but they were still prevented from reaching the very top echelons, as of course were native
people. Also because the royal administration saw
the Catholic Church in the colonies as competing for local people’s loyalty and siphoning
off funds, the administration outlawed the Jesuits, alleged to be at the head of a corrupt
and influential pack of theologians who were trying to get people to be loyal to Jesus
instead of the Spanish king. All right, the stained glass window is back,
which means it must be time for the conclusion. Enlightenment thought, which was rich and
wide-ranging in possibilities for change, wasn’t universally popular, and all these
reforms had their detractors. At times, urban people objected as prices rose or as food
became scarce because of changes in trade policies.
And in cases where aristocrats were losing command over serfs or having to pay additional
taxes, like in the Habsburg monarchy, aristocrats often protested Enlightenment reforms.
Still, life was on average getting a lot better for aristocrats. As the eighteenth century
progressed, more of them lived in outsized splendor that can still impress us today when
we visit the many chateaux across Europe that remain from the 17th and 18th centuries.
In many cases they had Chinese porcelain, and lots of other luxury goods. They had access
to inexpensive labor that provided them with plenty of food, and also the chance to make
huge monuments to their luxury and privilege. And despite the massive destruction of twentieth
century wars, many of those monuments survive today. But little remains of the rising poverty
of the 18th century. that growing poverty occurred alongside growing
European know-how and productivity, and the poor saw that the rich were getting richer
even as they were often eating bread cut with sawdust.
As governments consolidated their administrations and waged an almost unbelievable number of
wars, the poor would approach a breaking point. And beginning in France, they would rebel
against the aristocracy. Changes were coming that not even wily monarchs could adapt to.
Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next time. Thanks for watching Crash Course European
History is made in the Jaden Smith studio here in Indianapolis, and is made with the
help of all these people. Our animators are Thought Cafe. We have lots more CC available,
including our… ________________
[1] T. C. W. Blanning, Joseph II and Enlightened Despotism (London: Longman, 1970) 142-144.
[2] Quoted in Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization 7th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thompson
Wadsworth, 2009) 545.

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