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Though extremely widespread in seventeenth-century Europe, absolutism existed elsewhere as early as 1500, when monarchs who were uncomfortable with too much political, religious, and social unrest aimed to pacify their subjects by claiming their divine right to the crown. Compared to modern totalitarian dictators, however, who have sophisticated means of surveillance and propaganda, absolute rulers were far less powerful.
European absolutism grew out of a need for order in the face of political and religious polarization. Absolute kings in Europe identified sectarian dissidents and aristocratic landowners as the primary culprits behind civil wars. They moved to confront these alleged villains by claiming to rule by divine right, insisting upon religious uniformity, constructing large civilian and military bureaucracies accountable only to the Crown, turning the nobility into dependent window dressing with much social but far less political power, and by exacting high excise taxes that failed to cover the escalating costs of bureaucratic spending and the social round at court. Absolutism was not unique to seventeenth-century Europe; absolute kings ruled in China, India, western Africa, the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia, and Tokugawa Japan between 1500 and 1800. Indeed, in Europe itself, the origins of absolutism appeared when kings in England and France tried to increase their power against feudal lords and the Church between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. These foundations began to strengthen when the “new monarchs” of Western Europe tried to stabilize and professionalize their governments in the spirit of the Renaissance. The Protestant Reformation both weakened and strengthened this tendency toward royal centralization. It unleashed popular discontent with traditional authorities (including those kings who did not share the reformers’ zeal), but it also confirmed the Erastian notion of the monarch, not the pope, deciding the spiritual matters of countries, even in those places that remained Catholic. Absolutism in seventeenth-century Europe was just the latest and most self-conscious effort in a long push to make the king supreme in both spiritual and, thus, temporal policy.
Divine Right and Religious Intolerance
By claiming to rule only by the grace of God, rulers gained credibility and confidence. For example, Louis XIV of France (1638–1715) overcame the treacherous Fronde (the civil war lasting from 1648 to 1653) of his childhood by invoking divine justification for leading without either the Estates-General or ecclesiastical surrogates. After his final accession as sole ruler in 1661, he became known as the Sun King, from whom all energy and power came. His rays extended to the provinces, where intendants carried out his wishes without his physical presence. Even after a long reign ending with disastrous wars and famines in the early 1700s, Louis still demanded and largely commanded universal respect because of the conventional belief in God’s will behind his blunders and whims. It would take the corrosive critical thinking of the Enlightenment, beginning with the next generation, to undermine slowly the passive obedience necessary for unenlightened absolutism to work. From a global perspective, however, Louis was neither original nor excessive in his claims for divine inspiration. A century before, Suleyman the Great of the Ottoman Empire had claimed that his deity Allah anointed him as the direct deputy, or caliph, of Muhammad, the prophet of his faith. A contemporary of Louis XIV, the Emperor Kangxi of China continued the age-old tradition of receiving the “mandate from heaven,” even though he was a Manchu outsider. The emperors of Benin and Dahomey wore shoes that stood very high above the ground so as not to dirty their semidivine feet with common earth. Their god or gods all insisted, according to the monarchs, that their way was the best way for their people to worship.
By insisting upon religious uniformity, rulers hoped to pacify through codified intolerance, a strategy used more often in Europe than elsewhere. In particular, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, exiling his Huguenot, or French Protestant, minority in the process. His grandfather Henry IV had issued the Edict in 1598, hoping to end thirty years of civil war by granting Huguenots limited autonomy in a largely Catholic France. Louis saw the Huguenots, however prosperous and assimilated, as a threat to national security largely because he saw them as a fifth column sharing the same faith as his Dutch and English rivals. To Protestants in England and Holland, Catholicism became intrinsically linked to absolutism. Yet Protestant monarchs claiming to be absolute in the German states and in Sweden could be just as insistent on their religion being the only religion of their people. In contrast, sixteenth-century Muslim rulers had tried religious tolerance as a cornerstone of their leadership. In Ottoman Turkey, Suleyman continued the early Islamic tolerance of monotheistic faiths such as Christianity and Judaism. Akbar the Great of Mughal India, a Muslim, tried to build bridges to his Hindu majority by trying to merge the two religions. This trend did not last, however. By the time Louis XIV came to power in France, later Ottomans were far more suspicious of their Christian subjects. Akbar’s great-grandson Aurangzeb, furthermore, viewed his merger as blasphemy and emphasized Islamic superiority, which doomed his dynasty before opportunistic British and French adventurers. Of all the absolute monarchs, the most tolerant and most successful outside of Europe was Kangxi of China, but even he drew the line on ethnocentric emissaries from the Pope.
To ensure religious uniformity and thus national security, monarchs needed professionals whom they could control and trust. By constructing large civilian and military bureaucracies accountable only to the Crown, rulers relied on loyal experts rather than on fickle vassals. For example, Frederick William of Prussia based his autocracy upon bureaucracy. Prussian armies and officials became synonymous with disciplined and reliable efficiency. Similarly, Peter the Great of Russia defeated Swedish and Ottoman adversaries by using uniformed soldiers paid by him rather than by individual boyars. From Spain through Austria to Sweden, agencies censored, and spies opened letters, in part to stay on the royal payroll. This feature of absolutism again was not unique to Europe. The Qing drew upon entrenched Confucian values of scholar-bureaucrats as heroes to combat the indigenous gentry. The Ottomans continued long-held Byzantine traditions of big government to rule their diverse dominions.
By turning the nobility into decorative dependents with much social but far less political power, monarchs became the major providers of patronage and hospitality at artificially ostentatious capital cities. Bureaucrats who could be fired did most of the work of local and central government by 1700, allowing aristocrats who could not be fired even more leisure time. Louis XIV’s Versailles provided the most notorious backdrops for elite partying, all done at taxpayers’ expense. At Versailles, nobles who had once fought over provinces now fought over who would attend the king’s next soiree. From Madrid to Vienna to Saint Petersburg, baroque and rococo palaces underscored the wealth and majesty of their monarchs. Indeed, Peter the Great created Saint Petersburg in 1703 as his answer to the pomp and theater of Versailles, announcing to the world that Russia was an absolutist European state with a gilded window to the West. Of course, the burden for funding this largesse fell hardest upon the poor with regressive tariffs and sales taxes. In France especially, nobles and clergy were exempted from most taxes, largely to gain their loyalty and their indifference to royal spendthrifts. From a global perspective, however, the most put-upon taxpayers living in an absolute state lived in Tokugawa Japan, where peasants paid almost one-half their incomes in taxes.
Monarchs limited the wealth of their nations by raising taxes on the poor to pay for the loyalty and comfort of the well connected. This was acutely true of the European variety of absolutism. Louis XIV left France destitute, despite the fact that it was the most populous country in Europe. His legacy of national indebtedness would grow into the nightmare that set the stage for the Revolution. Under the mercantilism of the financier and statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert, wealth was supposed to trickle down through the Sun King and his favored monopolies, particularly a domestic silk industry, to the common people. Unfortunately for him and his realm, Louis was as bad a businessman as he was a commander in chief. His protected industries were not protected from royal graft and bureaucratic inertia; they were no match globally against more entrepreneurial English and Dutch freelancers. Adam Smith’s caricature of mercantilists as craven incompetents was not far from the truth.
Limited Monarchies in the Seventeenth Century
At least three of the major exceptions to absolutist rule in Europe prospered largely because their rulers still had more limited executive power. While Poland did not last long because it lacked a strong central government and was partitioned into extinction by absolute monarchies by 1795, the Dutch Republic, England, and Scotland prided themselves on being both Protestant and relatively free of absolutism. After winning its long struggle for independence against Habsburg Spain in 1648, the Dutch Republic generated wealth that was put back into business and not back into a voracious, bloated bureaucracy. The kings of England and Scotland tried to become absolute during the seventeenth century, but their attempts failed, with one king beheaded in 1649 and one of his sons essentially fired by Parliament in 1688. England and Scotland then imported a Dutch king, William of Orange, to rule under limits, issuing the Bill of Rights of 1689. When Britain (the union of England and Scotland after 1707) economically eclipsed the Dutch Republic in the eighteenth century, the British used Dutch ideas about banking, insurance, and stock exchanges, all of which were slow to be reproduced in absolute monarchies such as Austria, Prussia, and France.
Absolutism and the Enlightenment
While more stodgy and less dynamic than their Dutch and British counterparts, absolute monarchies in most other parts of Europe did not remain static during the second half of the eighteenth century. This partial makeover was in contrast to Muslim and Chinese contemporaries who clung much more closely to hidebound tradition. Most significantly, enlightened absolutism in Europe recast the kings as devotees of the philosophes. Frederick the Great of Prussia, the son of Frederick William, learned from Voltaire to make his bureaucracy even more professional and less arbitrary than his martinet father. His government allowed some expressive freedoms and used fewer tortures, all in the spirit of the Age of Reason. He forced his people to adopt more rational ways of farming, even making them cultivate the American potato over traditional favorites. Nevertheless, Frederick’s devotion to reform was selective at best. He kept his own serfs despite rhetorical objections to the idea of serfdom, and he reserved bureaucratic positions and their accompanying privileges for the Junkers, the Prussian aristocratic landowners. Catherine the Great of Russia was even more timid in her pursuit of change. While she seemed to patronize the activities and agree with the intentions of the Enlightenment, she expanded serfdom into newly acquired territories and dropped all taxes on the nobility entirely in 1785. Other monarchs went much further than Frederick and Catherine in their embrace of directed progress for all of their people. Adhering to the Enlightenment’s economic views, Charles III of Spain encouraged free trade within his empire with his famous decrees of 1778 and 1789. He also ended the practice of selling high offices to the highest bidder, making his colonial bureaucracy more accountable and, unfortunately for his successors, more resented. Religious freedom under the Bourbon reforms paradoxically required a degree of religious intolerance: Jesuits were now seen as retrograde obstacles to progress rather than as purveyors of absolutist civilization and were expelled from the Spanish Empire in 1767. While Jesuits were also expelled from the Portuguese Empire in the name of enlightened despotism in 1759, Joseph II of Austria abolished discriminatory measures against Protestants and Jews in the 1780s without expelling the Jesuits. He even abolished serfdom in 1781 by royal edict.
Absolutism and Totalitarianism
Absolutism, however enlightened, should not be confused with modern totalitarianism. Absolute kings were far less powerful than modern dictators. Technologies of surveillance and propaganda used by Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Idi Amin were unavailable to Louis XIV, Frederick William, and Kangxi. Absolute monarchs claimed sovereignty from God, while totalitarian dictators claimed sovereignty from a majority of their people. The French Revolution’s most radical phase introduced a more efficient form of centralization. The most effective of the enlightened despots, Napoleon, acted as a transition between the two types, judiciously choosing the people as a more solid and credible foundation for power than God.
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