Enlightened despots believed that political change could best come from above; from the ruler. However, they were encouraged by the philosophers to make good laws to promote human happiness. How did these monarchs differ from earlier unenlightened monarchs of the past? The difference lay in tempo. These new despots acted abruptly and desired quicker results. They were impatient with all that stood in the way of their reforms. In addition, they justified their authority on the grounds of usefulness, not divine right. These new monarchs were rational and reformist and they regarded political change as possible and desirable. Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, and Joseph II are good examples of Enlightened Despots.
Frederick II (Frederick the Great), the most famous Prussian absolute monarch and a military genius, pursued an aggressive foreign policy. In 1740 he seized from Austria the province of Silesia. His action culminated in a major European conflict, the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), in which he was pitted against a powerful European coalition of Austria, Russia, and France. Frederick, aided only by England, barely managed to retain Silesia. In 1772 Frederick shared in the first partition of Poland by annexing western Poland.
Frederick the Great was an almost perfect example of the enlightened despot. He was familiar with the ideas of the eighteenth-century reformers and a friend of Voltaire. Many of the philosophers, including Voltaire, felt progress could come faster if the government were directed by a reasonable, benevolent, enlightened despot, who would make his state’s welfare his/her highest aim. Frederick the Great was just such a man.
Frederick the Great was a dazzling military and administrative success. His passion for military victory and his concern for his subjects provide the (almost) perfect example of the Enlightened Despot.
Catherine the Great was the German wife of Peter III. She corresponded actively with Voltaire and other prominent eighteenth-century thinkers, and paid lip service to their liberal ideas; but she did little to reform or modernize Russia. She introduced such western ideas as pleased her, at the same time increasing Russian autocracy and military power. In addition, she extended Russia’s boundaries southward and westward. Catherine joined with Austria and Prussia in three partitions that completely eliminated independent Poland.
On the death of Charles VI (1740), the Habsburg dominions passed to his twenty-three year old daughter Maria Theresa. The German princes ignored the Pragmatic Sanction (1713) guaranteeing her succession, and looked forward to partitioning the Habsburg’s lands. Frederick the Great, who had just inherited the Prussian throne, was first to strike. He invaded Silesia and won solid victories. Maria Theresa soon demonstrated that she had a strong mind and will of her own. She went to Hungary’s Magyar nobles and appealed for support. In exchange for her promise of sovereignty within the Habsburg Empire, the Magyars offered her loyalty and the troops necessary to resist the invaders. With Hungarian troops and British and Dutch financial aide she was able to fight Prussia to a standstill, but she did not regain Silesia.
The Empress Maria Theresa believed in the need for reform. She increased taxes on the nobility, and strengthened the central government. She subjected the Roman Catholic Church to heavier taxes, confiscated monastic property, and expelled the Jesuits. In addition, she took the first steps toward the eventual abolition of serfdom by placing a ceiling on the amount of taxes and of labor service that the peasants could be compelled to render. Maria Theresa accomplished more to alleviate serfdom than any other ruler of the eighteenth century in Eastern Europe, with the single exception of her own son, Joseph II.
Joseph II sought to govern in the spirit of enlightened despotism, initiating a far-reaching program of reform. He was a good man who sensed the misery and hopelessness of the lower classes. He believed serfdom to be bad. He would not compromise with evil, therefore he abolished serfdom. Joseph II insisted on equality of taxation. Where Maria Theresa collected taxes from nobles, it wasn’t equal. In addition, Joseph II insisted on equal punishment for equal crimes. Nobles and commoners received the same punishment for the same crime. And, he insisted that legal punishments be made less cruel. Joseph II was a model Enlightened Despot, but few of his reforms were long lasting.