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“ Enlightened Despotism ”. Do you think a king or queen and be both Enlightened and a strong 18 th century ruler?. Definition .

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“Enlightened Despotism”

Do you think a king or queen and be both Enlightened and a strong

18th century ruler?

  • enlightened despotism, also called benevolent despotism,  a form of government in the 18th century in which absolute monarchs pursued legal, social, and educational reforms inspired by the Enlightenment. They typically instituted administrative reform, religious toleration, and economic development but did not propose reforms that would undermine their sovereignty or disrupt the social order.
the enlightened despots absolutists
The Enlightened Despots / Absolutists:
  • Philosophes don’t agree on politics
    • Many thinkers concerned with political reform and some politicians concerned with thinking
  • Most “Enlightened” think reform better from above than below
  • Praise “benevolent absolutism”
    • “Enlighten” the monarch!
how did absolute monarchs get enlightened
How did Absolute Monarchs get Enlightened?
  • Many of them read the works of the philosophers of the “Age of Reason” or were advised by councilors who had.
    • Who were the philsophers?
      • Locke
      • Hobbes
      • Montesquieu
      • Voltaire
      • Rousseau
      • The Physiocrats



enlightened despots
Enlightened Despots
  • Some monarch’s embraced the new ideas and made reforms that reflected the enlightenment ideals
  • However, they had no intention of giving up any power
  • The changes they made were motivated by two desires:
    • to make their countries stronger
    • to make their own rule more effective

Frederick the Great of Prussia (r. 1740-1786)

  • 1712 – 1786.
  • Succeeded his father, Frederick William I (the “Soldier King”).
  • He saw himself as the “First Servant of the State.”
  • Rejects “military” for culture, poetry… Rejects Calvinism --- tries atheism
prussia frederick the great
Prussia: Frederick the Great –
  • Promotes education
    • (Realschule/universal primary schools)) / Promotes free press = very little / no censorship!!
  • Legal Reform
    • Abolishes torture (except for treason & murder) – Judges impartial (single code of law established after his death)
  • Officials noted for honesty / hard work / efficiency
    • Prussian Civil Service Commission values merit over birthright
  • Religious toleration (even for Catholics and Jews)
  • Reconstruction of agriculture / industry
    • But….then again…serfdom continues, privileges of nobility / Junkers still strong
frederick and voltaire
Frederick and Voltaire
  • Voltaire began a correspondence with Frederick in August 1736. Frederick greatly admired Voltaire and invited him to come to Prussia many timesIn 1750 Frederick offered Voltaire the position of Chamberlain and 20,000 francs a year if he would come to Prussia. Voltaire accepted and spent three years at Frederick's court from 1750 to 1753.
frederick the great
Frederick the Great

Painting titled “Frederick the Great and Voltaire.”

prussia frederick the great enlightened
Prussia: Frederick the Great – Enlightened???
  • “Of all states, from the smallest to the biggest, one can safely say that the fundamental rule of government is the principle of extending their territories…The passions of rulers have no other curb but the limits of their power. Those are the fixed laws of European politics to which every politician submits.”
  • “I must enlighten my people, cultivate their manners and morals, and make them as happy as human beings can be…”
frederick the great1
Frederick the Great
  • Fredrick believed that serfdom was wrong but did nothing to end it since he needed the support of the wealthy landowners
  • As a result, he never tried to changed the existing social order
  • This demonstrates the limitations of his devotion to Enlightenment ideals
austria maria theresa b 1717 1740 1780
Austria: Maria Theresa(b. 1717) 1740-1780
  • Charlie VI’s daughter *Pragmatic Sanction
  • Mary Theresa’s husband Francis Stephen I [of Lorraine (1745-1765)] – Holy Roman Emperor
  • Son, Joseph II (1765-1790): co-regent with mother in Austria
  • But Mary Theresa = “The Power” over 40 years
    • (16 children – culture, morals, prayer)
    • Joseph II, Leopold II, and Marie Antoinette!
    • Motto: “Clemency and justice’
austria maria theresa 1740 1780
Austria: Maria Theresa, 1740-1780
  • Reforms
      • Church / State relations govt. controlled
        • Devout Catholic – BUT limits Pope’s power in Austria
      • Administrative reforms – tax all (even nobles!)
      • Improve agriculture – reduce lords / begins to free serfs!!! (but she proceeds cautiously)
      • Compulsory education!
        • state supported public primary education for all male peasants, secondary education for selected students, and teacher training institutions
joseph ii
Joseph II
  • Joseph ruled as co-regent with his mother beginning in 1765. Like other “enlightened” monarchs, he believed in the power of reason; however, the measures he undertook once he became sole ruler in 1780 were much more radical than those instituted by other monarchs.
  • his most controversial measure, was abolishing serfdom and decreeing that peasants be paid in cash for their labors. This cash proviso, however, infuriated the nobles and was even rejected by the peasants, who preferred a barter economy.
  • Joseph’s power and health both waned in succeeding years, and his reforms didn’t last long after his death in 1790.
joseph ii austria 1765 1790
Joseph II Austria (1765–1790)
  • Legal reforms
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom of worship
    • He encouraged religious toleration of Protestants and Jews; he reduced the power of the Catholic Church in Austria and brought it more firmly under his control;

Joseph’s power and health both waned in succeeding years, and his reforms didn’t last long after his death in 1790.


RUSSIA: Remember Peter the Great (1682-1725) --- who loved England and opened up Russia to Westernization --- who made all men shave and wear “German clothes” when he returned from England?

Then there were the others…

Catherine I:1725-27 (Peter’s 2nd wife – he sent the 1st to a convent)

Peter II: 1727-30 (grandson of Peter)

Anna: 1730-40 (dominated by advisors)

Ivan VI: 1740-41 (overthrown)

Elizabeth: 1741-62 (youngest daughter of Peter the Great – golden age of aristocracy)

Peter III: 1762 (mentally unfit: deposed and killed-- -by his wife???)

But finally…an “enlightened” monarch appears…his wife…


Catherine the Great (r. 1762-1796)

  • German Princess Sophie FriederikeAuguste of Anhalt-Zerbst.
  • 1729 -– 1796.
catherine ii the great 1762 1796
Catherine II “the Great??”1762-1796
  • Sophia Augusta Fredericka – a German princess
  • Unlike Peter the Great: love for West not merely pragmatic
    • An “enlightened despot” – cultured, learned Russian, corresponded w/ Voltaire and Diderot
    • The philosophes loved her! BUT was she hoodwinking them?
    • Art, architecture, literature, music, education
  • Like Peter the Great: strong – ambitious – rebuilt roads and schools – aggressive foreign policy of expansion

Catherine the Great

  • Russia
  • Catherine II became ruler, 1762
  • Dreamed of establishing order, justice, supporting education, culture
  • Read works of, corresponded with Voltaire, Diderot
  • Reforms
  • Drafted Russian constitution, code of laws
  • Considered too liberal, never put into practice
  • Limitations
  • Intended to free serfs, but would lose support of wealthy landowners
  • Catherine had no intention of giving up power
  • Became tyrant, imposed serfdom on more Russians than ever before
but then what happens
But then what happens???

Legislative Commission (summer 1767)– consultation…

Catherine realizes “Enlightenment philosophy” not practical – especially in Russia!

  • peasant class = completely bound/unfree class
    • Pugachev’s Rebellion 1773: peasant (Cossack) insurrection – Pugachev claims to be Tsar & declares peasants freed from military and tax obligations, comes with 100,000 men, rebellion over by 1774
  • 1775 made “convenient friends with her nobles”
    • Charter of Nobility, 1785 = gentry accepts government and government gives full authority over rural masses to gentry
  • Economic reform: limit internal tariffs; expand urban middle class; increase agricultural exports
catherine the great
Catherine the Great
  • She did little to improve the lives of the Russian peasants
  • Her views about enlightened ideas changed after a massive uprising by serfs in 1773
  • After the revolt, she was convinced she needed the support of the nobles to maintain her throne
    • She gave the nobles absolute power over the serfs, who lost all freedom
catherine the great1
Greatest contribution was land expansion

Controlled the northern shore of the Black Sea

Gained access to the Mediterranean sea through the Ottoman controlled straights

Expanded westward in to Poland

Catherine the Great
enlightened despots1
Enlightened Despots
  • Gustav III of Sweden (r. 1771-1792)
    • Forced Parliament to accept new constitution
    • Stimulated literature
  • Charles III of Spain (r. 1759-1788)
    • Bourbon family
    • Improved life for Spanish
    • Suppressed Jesuits
limitations of enlightened despotism
Limitations of Enlightened Despotism
  • authoritative action from above
  • state more completely sovereign
  • old, established systems and rights questioned


  • Joseph II incites revolt
  • Catherine the Great & Frederick still repress the masses
  • Frederick abandons religion personally
    • Helps to trigger growing religious revival
  • Aristocratic resurgence in all 3 countries
changing relationship between ruler and state
Old Idea

As Louis XIV reportedly said “I am the state.”

The state and its citizens exist to serve the monarch.

New Idea

As Fredrick the Great said, a ruler is only “the first servant of the state.”

The monarch exists to serve the state and support citizen’s welfare.

Changing Relationship Between Ruler and State

The Legacy of the Enlightenment?

The democratic revolutions begun in America in 1776 and continued in Amsterdam, Brussels, and especially in Paris in the late 1780s, put every Western government on the defensive.

Reform, democracy, and republicanism had been placed irrevocably on the Western agenda.


The Legacy of the Enlightenment?

New forms of civil society arose –-- clubs, salons, fraternals, private academies, lending libraries, and professional/scientific organizations.

19c conservatives blamed it for the modern “egalitarian disease” (once reformers began to criticize established institutions, they didn’t know where and when to stop!)


The Legacy of the Enlightenment?

It established a materialistic tradition based on an ethical system derived solely from a naturalistic account of the human condition (the “Religion of Nature”).

Theoretically endowed with full civil and legal rights, the individual had come into existence as a political and social force to be reckoned with.