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9-08-2015, 17:31

Enlightened rulers

Catherine was not the only ruler to consider herself, or be considered, “enlightened.” Beginning in the 1760s, rulers in Russia, Prussia, Austria, Spain, Sweden, and some of the smaller states in Germany and Italy began programs of reform that were based in part on the desire to continue concentrating authority in their own hands and expanding the military might and economic base of their states, but also on a desire to improve the lives of their subjects. They increasingly regarded these aims as integrally related. The reforms of “enlightened” monarchs shaped many realms of life. In government and administration, they often reorganized bureaucracies in an attempt to make them more coherent and speed up the implementation of state policy. Many of them set up an examination system for civil servants, so that at least some state offi ces were held by men who had obtained them through their merits and abilities rather than by simply purchasing them. They tried to unify and codify the body of laws in their dominions and make the judicial process shorter and simpler. The use of judicial torture was restricted, and cruel methods of execution such as death by drowning were abolished, though penalties for crimes remained harsh; in fact, those for property crimes such as theft grew harsher, sometimes involving deportation or hard labor in a workhouse. In economics, enlightened rulers developed protectionist policies in regard to imports and invested in some industries, with an eye to building up the manufacturing capacity of their own states. They tried to reduce the ability of independent groups such as guilds to regulate production, or of cities or provinces to charge tolls on trade within the country. They were very concerned about agriculture, promoting projects that would increase the amount of land under cultivation or introduce new crops, such as the potato. They tried to reform the tax structure; in many places this meant taxing the clergy or taking over church lands. Occasionally they even taxed the nobility, though this generally happened only as a last resort, not as a matter of policy. They supported the establishment of schools, especially those that were oriented toward vocational and technical education, though they also supported elementary schools that taught basic reading and writing; the fi rst legislation regarding compulsory schooling in Europe was in Prussia in 1763. Rulers also supported institutions that cared for orphans, invalids, the elderly, and military veterans, and tried to curtail the harassment of peasants by their landlords. They generally did not end serfdom as a labor system, but attempted to limit those aspects that reduced agricultural productivity or made peasants completely unfi t for military service. In the 1780s Joseph II of Austria-Hungary did abolish serfdom, though the obligations of the peasants to their landlords – which were primarily paid in cash by this point, not labor services – were simply transformed into tax obligations to the state. State-sponsored schools competed with those of the church, and rulers limited the independent powers of the church in other ways as well. In Catholic countries, rulers asserted greater control of church appointments or restricted the special privileges of the clergy, such as being tried for crimes in separate courts. In Austria, Joseph II dissolved many of the monasteries, arguing that their residents were idle parasites, and that their property would be better used to support secular schools and charitable institutions. In many countries, rulers abolished the Jesuit order. Religious minorities were accorded at least limited formal toleration, which was even extended to Jews in some places at the very end of the century. Such measures were often fi nancially advantageous, as they boosted the economy by encouraging the immigration of skilled workers. They were also a clear sign that the church was to be simply one institution among many whose purpose was to support the state, not a separate body with powers that rivaled those of the ruler. Late eighteenth-century absolutist rulers were better able to achieve their aims than those a century earlier, though their plans still far exceeded their abilities to bring them about. In their reforms, enlightened rulers were motivated by humanitarian concerns about the welfare of their subjects, but even more by pragmatic considerations about the strength of the state as a military and economic unit and the preservation of the political integrity of monarchical absolutism. They did not see these goals as antithetical, however, but as closely linked, for healthy, prosperous, contented subjects would work more, have more children, and be able to pay more taxes.

 

 

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