[Revised 10/27/09 and 9/27/17]]

18th Century Rulers

I.  Introduction: An Enlightened Age?

The 17th century began on the brink of chaos--but it did not end that way.  By the end of the 17th century, order had been restored to many areas of European life. In England, an agreement on limited government brought an end to political strife, while in France the development of absolute monarchy brought an end to instability. In the intellectual arena too, men like Kepler, Newton, Pascal, Descartes, and Bacon had helped establish solid foundations for the advancement of knowledge.

Building on these foundations, the people of the next century (the 18th century) were able to make tremendous strides in the intellectual arena--and the were quite aware of their achivements.  In looking back over his century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant said it hat been an age of "Aufklarung," enlightment--and modern scholars typically agree.  Textbooks call the 18th century "The Englightenment" or "The Age of Reason." 

In many ways, this is an excellent way to remember this period.  Knowledge increased dramatically in this period, the kind of knowleged that fills encylopedias.  Sciences like chemistry (which had hardly existed before the 18th century) began to take off with the work of men like Lavoisier and Priestly.  Knowlege of history improves dramatically with the rise of historians like Gibbon and Voltaire. 

Yet despite the dramatic increases in human knowledge, plenty of problems remained.  War doesn't go away.  Slavery (if anything) increases during this period.  Supersititions abound.  All the ills that plagued mankind persisted and sometimes even intensified.  Even Immanuel Kant admitted that, while the 18th century was in some ways an age of enlightenment, it was not a very englightened age.  One can see clearly the mixture of enlightenment anf folly when one looks at the rulers of this period.

II.  France

For the first years of the 18th century, France was still ruled by Louis XIV (1643-1715).  You already are familiar with some of the postives and negative associated with this man.  He is the one who made absolute monarchy work for France, reducing the chances of civil war.  He made France the strongest country in Europe in both military and economic terms.  However, he took away French religious liberty, revoking the Edict of Nantes and persecuting Calvinists.  Even Catholics were in trouble if they were not the right sort of Catholic. 

Louis created further problems for France by being a bit too ambitious.  He wanted to make sure that a member of his family, the Bourbons, held the throne of Spain rather than one of the Hapsburgs--and was willing to fight to make sure this happened.  On the other hand, other European nations felt this would make France too strong, and they were prepared to fight to make sure the Hapsburgs continued to rule Spain.  The result was the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), a long, bloody war that cost thousands of French lives and the equivalent of millions of French dollars.  At the battle of Blenheim alone, France lost 20,000 men, and at Malpaquet they lost 12,000.  Total casualties on all sides: perhaps 400,000 killed.  Not as bad as the 30 Years' War, perhaps, but still pretty miserable.  France lucked out at the end, and the Peace of Utrecht (1713) the war did provide for a Bourbon on the Spanish throne.  But  the war was a near disaster for France.

Louis XIV was at least competent, and there were postitives to make up for some of the negatives.  France wasn't so fortunate in its next ruler, Louis XIV's great grandson, Louis XV (1715-1774).   Louis' reign began when he was five years old, and one might have expected that the French nobles would once again use the opportunity to get back some of the power they had lost.  But this time it was clear that, once Louis XV did rule himself, he would rule as an absolute monarch, one with no check on his authority [Phillippe II, Duke or Orleans, served as regent until 1723 when Louis XV directly took power.  This would make Louis only thirteen when he rules without a regent.]  Unfortunately, Louis used his power, not for the benefit of France, but for his own pleasures.  He paid more attention to his mistresses than to running the country.  The most famous of his mistresses was Madame de Pompadour.  For a time, this woman had Louis wrapped around her little finger, and Louis would do whatever she said.  Not necessarily a bad thing, because, most of the time she pushed Louis in a positive direction.  The problem was, however, that no mistress is going to maintain her influence forever.  Louis eventually moved on to a new mistress--and now a new woman had Louis wrapped around her little finger--for a time.  What happens, then, is that every time the king changes his mistresss, there will be a major change in who holds the positions of power and influence in France.  Thus what should have been a very stable system has become completely unstable.  As a result, France doesn't do so well.  France loses the Seven Years War (and its American phase, the French and Indian War) and, as a result, loses its possessions on the New World--a bad blow to France economically.  Further, domestic affairs were becoming unstable, and France was headed toward a bloody revolution.  Louis saw it coming, and did nothing about it.  "Apres moi, le deluge." said Louis.  "After me, the flood." 

And the flood did come: Louis XVI, the weak, indecisive successor of Louis XV ended up losing his throne and his life--and poor France ended up going through a horrible period of turmoil we'll talk about later--the French Revolution.

Absolute monarchy wasn't working out for France as well as one might have hoped.  But woe to those nations that didn't have strong kings!  Spain has two weak monarchs in a row--and ends up losing its New World colonies and its importance in European affairs in general.  A short time earlier, Spain had been wealthy and powerful!  For Poland, things were even worse.  In earlier European history, Poland had been the heart of a powerful empire.  In the 18th century, though, limitations on the Polish king prevented him from acting in an emergency...and Poland ceases to exist, carved up by aggressive neighbors, Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

So what's the answer?  Most Europeans thought they needed strong leaders, but strong leaders who would use their powerful to the benefit of their people.  One needed an "enlightened despot" as some textbooks put it.  But can their be such a thing?  Can a despot, an absolute ruler ever use their power well?  Well, maybe.

III.  Prussia

Two rulers of Prussia show the possible advantages of strong rulers--but also the negative side of absolute monarchy as well. Frederick William I (1713-1740) made clear his claim to absolute authority.  "One must serve the kin with life and limb, with goods and chattels, with honor and conscience, and surrender everything except salvation.  The latter is reserved for God.  Everything else is mine." 

Frederick William in some ways used his power well.  He created a more effective bureaucracy for Prussia.  Like Louis XIV, he recruited members of the rising middle class for government service.  He also made sure they attended to business, putting together 35 chapters of regulations for bureaucrats.  Miss a metting, and you lose six months pay.  Miss another meeting, and you are fired.  Frederick William also improved the Prussian army, making it the 4th largest army in Europe.  But he was proud of this army, and didn't want to see it damaged.  And so, unlike many other 18th century rulers,  Frederick William *did not* use his army too much--rather enlightened in his approach.

An all around good guy?  Well, in some ways.  But Frederick William knew that if his reforms were to last, he needed a properly prepared successor.  And , unfortunately, it didn't look like his son, Frederick (later called Frederick the Great) was going to be the time of man  who could do the job.  Frederick William was a big man (270 pounds), and he carried himself like a military officer.  He wanted his son to be like him.  But young Frederick wasn't so interested in miltary affairs.  He was more interested in poetry, and playing the flute.  Trying to dive this sissy stuff out of Frederick's life, Frederick William became abusive, so much so that, a the age of 16, Frederick decided to run away from home, taking a trusted friend with him.   But, when your dad is king of Prussia, you don't get far.  Frederick and the friend are caught and brought back.  And since both young men had junior officer commissions, their running away was dessertion.  While Frederick watched, his best friend was executed. 

Generally, experiences like this leave lasting psychological scars--and Frederick the Great (Prussian King 1740-1786) was in fact scarred for life in many ways.  But he was still quite an effective ruler for Prussia.  He reformed the schools, giving Prussia the best educational system in Europe.  He reformed the courts, eliminating bribery and torture.  He moved toward religious toleration.  He encouraged the arts, continuing to play the flute and corresponding with leading intellectual figures like Voltaire.  And, on top of that, he made the Prussian army even more effective than it had been--the best trained army in Europe: for, as it turned out, Frederick was a much more capable military figure than his father, a man who Napoleon himself called a military genius.  He was also tremendously brave: he had several horses shot out from under him, and yet he continued to lead his men into battle himself.  He strengthened Prussia greatly, annexing Silesia, Saxony, parts of Poland, and other territory critical to Prussian success.  The trouble was, Frederick didn't know where to stop: his aggressive policies provoked a coaltion against him, and, had it not been for a tremendously lucky chain of events, every good thing he had done for Prussia might have been for nothing with Prussia left helpless at the hands of victorious enemies.  Also, Frederick's reliance on the military meant that his reforms were less far-reaching than they might have been.  He needed the support of the Junkers, the old landed aristocracy of Prussia, and the backbone of his officer core.  Because of this, Frederick did little to improve condiditions for the peasants of Prussia.  The Junkers were allowed to treat the peasants any way they liked.

IV. Austria-Hungary

Perhaps the two most enlighted rulers of the 18th century were two members of the Hapsburg family, the rulers of Austria-Hungary, Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II.  Maria Theresa took the Austrian throne in 1740 at the age of 23 and continued to rule until her death in 1780.  She was particularly adept at the old Hapsburg strategy of strengthening her dominions through diplomacy and strategic marriages.  Maria had 16 children--lot of extra princes and princesses running around--including 11 daughters--all of whom she named "Maria"!  Maria Theresa arranged marriages for her children that would help Austrian diplomacy.  One daughter, Marie Antoinette, was married off to the future king of France, Louis XVI, thus helping smooth over potential conflicts with the Bourbon's. 

Maria Theresa  did what she could to help the peasants of Austria, and, for the first time, she made sure nobles would pay their fair share of taxes.  Maria Theresa also maintained the most moral court in Europe, making sure that, both in terms of personal life and public conduct, those around her set the proper tone for her people as a whole.   She encourage the arts, and particularly music.  Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart all products of Maria Theresa's Austria--a sign that something very right was goin on.  But probably the most enlightened thing Maria Thereas did was her handling of the succession problem.  In 1765, she associated her son, Joseph II, with her on the Austrian throne.  For 15 years, Joseph worked alongside his mother, and so, when Maria Theresa died, her place was taken by a man as prepared as he could possibly be to build on his mother's achivements.

Joseph II certainly did continue where his mother had left off.  He improved the educational system of Austria.  He instituted complete religious toleration, the first ruler in Europe to do so.  He liberated the serfs of Austria.  He moved toward a policy of free tried, thus stimulating the Austrian economy.  He made sure that nobles who committed crimes would be punished just as severely as anyone else.  Altogether, he issued mover than 17,000 laws and decrees, trying to improve every aspect of life in Austria.  Nevertheless, he was not nearly as effective as he might have been.  His own people fought him every step of the way.  Even the serfs complained about being liberated!   So discouraged was Joseph that he asked for this epitaph.  "Here lies Joseph II who was unfortunate in everything he undertook."

V.  Russia

I have note yet talked about Russia much in this class for very good reason.  For all it's potential power, Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries was a backward country, not very important in European affairs--scarcely a European country at all.  Russia became an important player in European affairs largely thought ht work of two important leaders, Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century, and Catherine the Great at the end of that century.

Peter the great became sole ruler of Russia in 1689 and ruled until his death in 1725.  His main focus was to Westernize Russia.  He wanted his people to look like Western Europeans, forcing them to shave off their old-fashioned Orthodox -style beards and to adopt the European fashion of being clean-shaven.  He forced his people to adopt Western European clothing styles likewise.

Peter also wanted his Russians to think like Europeans.  He created the first secular schools for Russia.  He also simplified the Russian alphabet, making it easier for people to learn to read and write.  This also made possible the introduction of the printing press, and, under Peter the Great, Russia gets its first printed books and newspapers.

Peter wanted his Russians to organize like Western Europeans.  He divided Russia up into 50 administrative districts, each with an administrative headquarters authorized to organize local affairs.  He created for himself a new capital, the westward-looking St. Petersburg, in place of the backward-looking Moscow. He also opened up careers in Russian civil service to people of talent, regardless of birth.  And he opened up these positions to talented foreigners as well, looking particularly to the German speakers of Europe for help in bringing about the reforms he wanted.

Peter wanted his people to adopt Western technology.  He started the Russian shipbuilding industry, and soon Russia had both a merchant marine and a navy--both sources of great long-term benefit fo Russia.  He likewise improved the Russian infrastructure, building roads, canals, harbors, etc.

An all around good guy?  Not quite.  One problem was he was enormously impatient.  If he wanted a change, it was made overnight, regardless of the difficulty.  In building St. Petersburg, he worked thousands of people to death, not giving the workers adequate food or clothing, and just replacing the workers with new recruits when the old ones died. 

An example of Peter's impatience:

"In Leyden, Peter visited the famous Dr. Boerhaave ... He also visited Boerhaave's dissection theater, where a corpse was lying on a table with some of its muscles exposed. Peter was studying the corpse with fascination when he heard grumbles of disgust from some of his squeamish Russian comrades. Furious, and to the horror of the Dutch, he ordered them to approach the cadaver, bend down and bite off a muscle of the corpse with their teeth."

Source: Peter the Great: His Life and World, by Robert K. Massie, Ballantine New York 1980.

He was an enormously cruel man as well.  He was big and strong--no bad thing  sometimes. Peter used his strength to good effect as an amateur dentist.  But he also used his strength to beat people to death.  And sometimes, he would take red-hot iron pincers and pull out the nostrils of anyone who made him mad.

He discovered a conspiracy among the streltsy regiment, the palace guard.  He rounded up 1000 members of the regiment (not caring if they were guilty or not) had them killed, and then refused to let the bodies be buried.  When his wife protested, he sent her away to a convent and never saw her again.  His son was not so lucky.  After an argument, Peter had his son throne into prison, and beaten with knotted ropes--a beating so bad, the young man didn't survive.

For his people as a whole, there were worse problems.  Peter was constantly at war: only 13 months of peace in the 26 years of his rule. While Russian territory expanded as a result, the price was enormous.  Taxes went up 500% during his reign. Peter taxed everything: beards, coffins, bees, etc.

And on top of all that, Peter died without naming a successor.  What could be more foolish than to make all these changes and not make sure there was someone to continue those changes when you were gone?After Peter's death, there was a period of some confusion in Russia.  But, much later in the century, another great ruler set about finishing the task Peter had begun, the task of Westernizing Russia.

Catherine the Great (1762-1796) was a German princess, married at the age of 15 to the future Peter III.  Peter took over as Czar toward the end of the Seven Years' War against Frederick the Great and the Prussians.  Russia had essentially won the war, but Peter III made himself very unpopular by simply calling the whole thing off: he admired Frederick the Great, and wasn't going to take advantage of the Russian victories.  Catherine and her lover (a man named Grigory Orlov) staged a coup,and, since Peter III had made himself so unpopular, this was applauded by the Russian people.

Catherine proved in some ways a very capable ruler.  She sponsored theatrical and musical events, and deserves credit for starting Russia toward greatness in theater and music.  She started free schools and free hospitals, and much more.

[I haven't been able to find online editions of Catherine's plays, but here's a nice article summarizing her dramatic works.]

Perhaps the best way to summarize is by looking at a list Cathrine herself compiled:

Governments create:       29
Cities built:                     144
Victories                        78
Treaties                         30
State edicts                    88
Other edicts                  123
Total:                            492

This list highlights things Catherine really did do well.  Russian forces did win many victories in battle, and, unlike Peter the Great, Catherine new when to negotiate rather than fight.  Also, Catherine really did do much to reform Russian laws.  We have one copy of Catherine's laws that's 1200 pages long--with 600 pages in her own hand!  Very different from our lawmakers who don't even read the bills they pass, much less write them out word for word!

But notice the strangeness of this list.  Catherine totals up all sorts of unrelated things, and comes up with a total: 492.  But 492 what?  Apparently, "492 good things that I have done."  Now who compiles such a list?  An egotistical person?  I would suggest that it's more likely someone with a real self-image problem.  Why would Catherine have had such a problem?  Well, there's her role in the death of her husband Peter, and the likelihood that her first-born son and heir to the Russian throne wasn't Peter's kid at all.  And then there are the 21 lovers we know of, and the probably dozens more we don't know about.

We know that Catherine felt bad about her promiscuous lifestyle (her letters to her lovers show this), and it seems that Catherine has fallen into a terrible pattern that (unfortunately) is becoming more and more common.  She takes a lover, gets a temporary high from the new affair, but when that wears off, has to move on.  She takes a new lover, getting a temporary high and, once again, when that wears off, moves on.  The lows get lower and lower, and she finds herself desparately needing that new lover to make her feel good about herself.  Or, perhaps something else.  Maybe she can prove that she is a good human being by being the best ruler she can be.  Catherine does  seem to have been trying to make up for her unhappy private life by throwing herself into her work as ruler.

But there is a problem with this type of personality.  Typically, these kind of people have very fragile egos and can't abide criticism.  So it was with Catherine.  The barest hint of criticism from a newspaper, and the paper was closed down.  Only one paper was still publishing at the end of Catherine's reign.  Also, people of this personality type tend to be focus more on appearance than reality.  Catherine wanted to appear to be a champion of the serfs, sponsoring an essay contest on how best to improve conditions for them.  But shed didn't actually do anything to help the serfs, and when there wasn't a revolt among the serfs, she crushed it perhaps even more harshly than another ruler would have done.

And then there's the very strange relationship with Potemkin.  Potemkin, one of Catherine's many lovers, still played an important role in Catherine's government even after she had moved on to other lovers.  Potemkin knew Catherine wanted to think Russia was doing well, and so, whenever Catherine toured the country, he would go on ahead of her, setting up model villages (Potemkin villages) so that Catherine would see only what she wanted to see: healthy peasants, healthy animals, good crops, well-maintained farms.  Such a trick wouldn't have worked unless Catherine wanted to be deceived--and here's the problem with a person like Catherine.  They so want to believe they are doing a marvelous job, that they just don't want to look at the true conditions of their people.

On top of all this, Catherine's immoral lifestyle completely, alienated her from her son Paul.  So much did Paul come to hate his mother, that, when he took over in 1796, he was determined to undo everything his mother had done.  Only the fact that Paul died young prevented him from erasing his mother's achievements entirely.  A great mistake on Catherine's part to so alienate her son and heir that he was determined to reverse everything she had done.