Enlightened Monarchs: Crash Course European Historical past #19

published on July 2, 2020

Hi I’m John Green and this is Crash Course
European History So last week we discussed

the Enlightenment philosophers who challenged
the idea that kings and nobles were qualified

to be elites simply because of the families
into which they were born into

But still, monarchs were also interested in
Enlightenment ideals, and also understood

they needed to effectively adapt to the Enlightenment,
as they had adapted to previous changes in

theology and philosophy
For instance, Catherine II (or Catherine “the

Great”) of Russia corresponded often and
enthusiastically with Voltaire, even though

he criticized despotic rule And she also
offered to print Diderot’s Encyclopedia

in Russia when France censored it
We use the term “Enlightened Monarchs”

to refer to the rulers who supported and applauded
Enlightenment thinkers But were they in fact

Enlightened, or did they remain absolutist
despots? The answer will surprise you, unless

you have even a passing familiarity with despots

First let’s review what the philosophes
criticized in the practices of rulers and

aristocratic leaders They singled out torture,
censorship, and their arrogance and capriciousness

Like, kings and their nobility could have
ordinary people thrown into prison for just

about any reason—large or small And in
general most of the Enlightenment thinkers

believed that nobles, and the system that
supported them, were despotic from top to

French theorist Montesquieu, whom we met in

the previous episode as the author of the
satiric Persian Letters, also published The

Spirit of Laws in 1748 In it, he discussed
customs and types of government as they were

influenced by climate, and topography, and
other variables

To him, there was no God-given standard of
divine right rule Instead, Montesquieu focused

on three basic types of government: democracies,
suitable for very small states; monarchies

that ruled mid-sized kingdoms; and despotic
states such as empires that were governed

with an iron hand
Voltaire and other philosophes elaborated

on these theories: and many preferred Britain’s
post-Glorious Revolution type of law-based

monarchy, where courts and a parliament were
separate from the monarch’s power and a

Bill of Rights ensured certain protections
to citizens

All of this–the enshrining of rights, independent
courts, parliamentary representation–meant

that power was balanced among multiple institutions
Also, the multiplicity of religions in Britain

was seen as another assurance; it prevented
a despotic religious institution from gaining

control of the government
Now, we’ve seen from examples like Poland-Lithuania

that distributed power and diversity of belief
sometimes means internal conflict and political

gridlock that weakens a state, but in Britain,
Enlightenment philosophers saw an example

of a state that was strong without being despotic
And in part because they had an example to

point to, the Enlightenment philosophers were
difficult for those in the upper echelons

of government and society to ignore Let’s
go to the Thought Bubble

1 King Frederick the Great of Prussia was
renowned for his love of refinement and his

interest in music and design

2 Like his friend Voltaire, Frederick the
Great collected Chinese porcelain

3 He also wrote an opera about the Aztec
emperor Monteczuma,

4 which praised Monteczuma for religious

5 and seemed to agree with Enlightenment
activists who fought against religious bigotry

and torture
6 And Frederick also welcomed religious exiles

from less tolerant regimes as a way of building
the Prussian population

7 —again a policy in line with Enlightenment
He called himself “a servant of the people”

8 But all that said, Frederick built a massive
standing army,

9 increasing the armed forces to 200,000
men from his father’s army of 80,000ish

10 And he also forced the aristocracy to
serve the state,

11 either in the army or in the administration
of the kingdom

12 And while like a good Enlightenment thinker
he lightened the burden of serfs working his

own estates,

13 he also rewarded loyal aristocrats by
increasing their control over the serfs living

in their territories,

14 further disenfranchising the most vulnerable
of his subjects

15 These increasingly empowered landed aristocrats,
or Junkers to use the German term, that Frederick


16 were the very type that Voltaire and other
philosophes lambasted in their writings for

the aristrocrats’ pride and highhandedness

17 Frederick even blocked talented commoners
from achieving high positions in either the

bureaucracy or the army,

18 entrenching aristocratic power still further
Thanks, Thought Bubble At any rate, as a

result of the supposedly enlightened Frederick
the Great’s policies, men of aristocratic

pedigree in Prussia continued to have a major
say in politics and the army into World War

I and even beyond
And then there was another of Voltaire’s

friends, the aforementioned Catherine the
Great of Russia For someone who disliked

absolutism, Voltaire sure was pals with a
lot of absolutists

As Czar, Catherine sought to create standardized
codes of laws and regulations, which had an

Enlightenment-ish tinge, but was mostly an
attempt to ease the struggle between all the

groups that wanted to shape royal policy like
how new monarchs were selected

The people who fought over these decisions
included clans, factions of the Royal Guard,

groups of influential clergy, and cliques
among commercial traders and ordinary citizens

So, Catherine summoned representatives from
all social groups for their input

And she found that each only thought about
bettering their own privileges or lot in life—the

serfs seemed to have the most need for help,
while merchants wanted the right to own serfs,

and the nobility wanted more of everything
Ultimately, Catherine failed in getting representatives

to think first and foremost of the needs of
the empire as a whole

Now, like other enlightened monarchs, her
policies did aim to be rational, but this

was especially true when it came to consolidating
state power, which of course benefited her

So one could argue she was also focused on

her interests over those of the empire, but,
like other enlightened monarchs and like Peter

the Great before her, Catherine did emphasize
education She even founded schools for girls,

who were generally seen as not needing an
education The empress also created the first

Russian dictionary and appointed a woman to
head the project

She undertook the building of roads and the
fostering of trade to bring economic unity

to Russia
But, like some other Enlightened monarchs,

Catherine also boosted the importance of the
aristocracy and she consolidated their privileges

She professed to want to improve the status
of the serf population, again bowing to the

philosophes’ humanitarian concerns, while
imposing taxes that affected ordinary people

the most
Most of these monarchs wanted a more streamlined

and efficient royal administration, but not
necessarily for philosophical reasons

They benefited from well run armies and they
really benefited from taxes During this age

of ever-improving weaponry and higher costs
for larger standing armies, taxes needed to

be increased and also collected more efficiently
In other words, governments needed to operate

rationally–not according to the whims of
fate or individuals, but according to the

needs of the state
In 1770, for instance, Habsburg empress Maria

Theresa, who despite that portrait was not
twin sisters with Catherine the Great, deployed

soldiers to renumber the addresses of urban
housing and standardize them across culturally

diverse groups who didn’t even speak the
same language

The soldiers were told to count the empire’s
subjects but also to listen to their individual

reports on health and well-being And this
self-reporting served to unify the empire’s

wide-range of inhabitants by showing that
the state cared enough to count them and ask

them about their needs–that might seem minor
today, but consider being an 18th century

peasant who rarely if ever had meaningful
contact with the imperial government

Toleration was an Enlightenment ideal that
also served to increase the number of useful

citizens in an empire Like when Maria Theresa’s
successor Joseph II of Austria announced the

emancipation of the Jews in the Habsburg Empire
during his administration, he decreed that

Jews could not use their own language except
in religious services Which was a way to

better integrate them into the imperial workforce,
but the decree also said,

“there must be an end to the prejudice and
contempt which some subjects, particularly

the unintelligent, have shown towards the
Jewish nation”

The decree also noted the “deplorable”
and even “criminal behavior” towards Jews

and called for it to end as a way of strengthening
the empire[1]

Joseph II, was probably, like, the most actually
enlightened of the enlightenment monarchs,

also struck at ancient ideas in other ways,
like by diminishing the grip of the aristocracy

on serfs
He encouraged agricultural experimentation,

including the creation of a freer agricultural
work force So, under his reforms, serfs no

longer owed personal service to aristocrats,
whose lands they worked, and they could even

leave an estate to work as an artisan or in

“I have made philosophy the lawmaker of
my empire,” Joseph claimed, and in some

ways that was true[2] But the aristocracy
rebelled, and after Joseph’s death, his

brother and successor rolled back these Enlightenment

Around the same time that Joseph was ruling
Austria, in the French home of Enlightenment,

rulers like Louis the XV were also listening
to the voices of change and attempting to

follow them but, you know, without losing
power Then as now, everyone wanted change

so long as it did not affect them negatively
So, French rulers tried to reform taxation

and streamline government by getting rid of
the Parlements, which blocked the monarchy’s

attempts at making taxes a bit more equitable
The Parlements registered royal decrees and

their members could sell their jobs to the
highest bidder Royal advisors were like,

I don’t understand why those funds don’t
go to the government and they also questioned

whether there needed to be a bunch of people
whose job was to register royal decrees But

the members of the Parlement managed to rouse
ordinary people with cries of royal tyranny

So the king eventually backed down
Similarly another reforming minister lifted

tariffs and regulations on the grain market
in the name of free trade But the flow of

food was interrupted which caused a huge outburst
from people Reform might be good in theory,

but when actually enacted, reform often upset
social stability and clashed with vested interests

Good news for lots of people was still bad
news for some people Then as now

Last but not least were the Spanish, who with
their vast empire were especially eager to

streamline government and enhance revenue
To this end the royal administration enacted

policy changes known as the Bourbon reforms,
which made governmental administration more

effective, especially when it came to collecting

These reforms also allowed people of Spanish
descent born in the colonies to rise a bit

higher in the colonial bureaucracy and army,
but they were still prevented from reaching

the very top echelons, as of course were native

Also because the royal administration saw
the Catholic Church in the colonies as competing

for local people’s loyalty and siphoning
off funds, the administration outlawed the

Jesuits, alleged to be at the head of a corrupt
and influential pack of theologians who were

trying to get people to be loyal to Jesus
instead of the Spanish king

All right, the stained glass window is back,
which means it must be time for the conclusion

Enlightenment thought, which was rich and
wide-ranging in possibilities for change,

wasn’t universally popular, and all these
reforms had their detractors At times, urban

people objected as prices rose or as food
became scarce because of changes in trade

And in cases where aristocrats were losing

command over serfs or having to pay additional
taxes, like in the Habsburg monarchy, aristocrats

often protested Enlightenment reforms
Still, life was on average getting a lot better

for aristocrats As the eighteenth century
progressed, more of them lived in outsized

splendor that can still impress us today when
we visit the many chateaux across Europe that

remain from the 17th and 18th centuries
In many cases they had Chinese porcelain,

and lots of other luxury goods They had access
to inexpensive labor that provided them with

plenty of food, and also the chance to make
huge monuments to their luxury and privilege

And despite the massive destruction of twentieth
century wars, many of those monuments survive

today But little remains of the rising poverty
of the 18th century

that growing poverty occurred alongside growing
European know-how and productivity, and the

poor saw that the rich were getting richer
even as they were often eating bread cut with

As governments consolidated their administrations

and waged an almost unbelievable number of
wars, the poor would approach a breaking point

And beginning in France, they would rebel
against the aristocracy Changes were coming

that not even wily monarchs could adapt to
Thanks for watching I’ll see you next time

Thanks for watching Crash Course European
History is made in the Jaden Smith studio

here in Indianapolis, and is made with the
help of all these people Our animators are

Thought Cafe We have lots more CC available,
including our

[1] T C W Blanning, Joseph II and Enlightened

Despotism (London: Longman, 1970) 142-144
[2] Quoted in Jackson J Spielvogel, Western

Civilization 7th ed (Belmont, CA: Thompson
Wadsworth, 2009) 545

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