[Revised 10/27/09 and 9/27/17]]
18th Century Rulers
I. Introduction: An
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
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
Yet despite the dramatic increases in human knowledge, plenty of
problems remained. War doesn't go away. Slavery (if
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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
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
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.
haven't been able to find online editions of Catherine's plays, but
nice article summarizing her dramatic works.]
Perhaps the best way to summarize is by looking at a list Cathrine
Governments create: 29
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.