The Age of Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Europe: ap world History

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The Age of Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Europe:

AP World History:



·  Karl Marx noted that all history is cyclical and a response to a previous period, this dialectical notion teaches us to examine patterns and trends with the purpose of predicting future events. According to Marxist thought history responds logically and materially to the flaws of the previous period. Using our knowledgebase of the previous section…it is clear that the previous age faced great challenges that led to new trends in the following era, trends that included Absolutism and the liberal response; constitutionalism. In dealing with the political, religious, economic, and climatic problems of the day the leaders of state sought more power to deal with problems. The response was a new political philosophy that had been in the works for a millennium; Absolutism. Absolutism gives a monarch absolute or total authority in dealing with the state. This power is absorbed by the Monarch and takes liberties away from elected representatives and citizens. The response (dialectally) is constitutionalism, a system that seeks to enumerate the rights of citizens by limiting the rights and powers of the State.

·  These political ideas will manifest themselves in several locations; France, Russia, Austria, and Prussia.


France: The Model of Absolute Monarchy


·        The French Monarchy had been in a constant state of evolution since the fall of Rome. Great monarchs had appeared, ideas solidified during the Renaissance, and conflict during the age of religious wars. Henry IV revived the monarchy and laid the framework for the reign of the Great Monarch Louis XIV.

·        Henry IV: Huguenot turned Catholic king; ended the French Religious wars by granting his former group the Huguenots religious freedom and toleration with the Edict of Nantes. Henry laid the groundwork for Absolutism in France. The king took the following initiatives: denied influence to the royal council of the nobility, ended feudalism, lowered taxes on the peasantry, encouraged trade for economic strength. Unfortunately his assassination will institute a crisis. His successor Louis XIII was not yet ready to rule and was substituted (Hathesput) by Marie de Medici. Henry’s initiatives suffered under the rule of a substitute without a mandate and as a result the nobility surged in authority.

·        However, this dominance would be short lived after her appointment of Cardinal Richelieu who will be the lead minister on the royal council. He will use incredible influence over the feeble minded Louis XIII to rule absolutely as a member of the royal councilor for 14 years. He commanded total subordination of all groups and institutions in French society. He used relentless energy and quick executions to quell any noble uprisings. He refused to call a session of the legislative body the Estates General, due to the aristocratic tendencies of the nobility. He combined federalism with the system of local intendants to control society at the local level and answer directly to him. He viewed the Huguenots as a religious group with political ambitions and siege their walled city at La Rochelle and forced its submission. They were allowed to practice their faith but were no longer to hold armed strongholds, which was synonymous with political strength. His foreign policy was designed to crush Hapsburg influence in and around France. Taxation was a complex web in France and could not be solely responsible for raising revenue so in its stead Richelieu commanded economic allegiance from local elites, the only form of political compromise allowed by Richelieu. One problem that his intolerant attitude faced was the conflict between his religious inclinations as a cardinal and his desire for social control. Thus, he came up with the political philosophy of “Reason of State” which is a Machiavellian philosophy of social control that states: “what is done for the state is done for by God…actions if privately committed would be a crime”. Thus, giving him a blank check for control as God established states and they must be run to ensure his interests. Richelieu’s legacy will continue as his protégé is appointed by Louis XIII to rule in the place of the young Louis XIV, Jules Mazarin will be a dominant power and dominant influence on the young king. However, a response movement known as the Fronde arose in response the policies of Mazarin and caused a period of civil wars beginning in 1648.

·        Monarchy of Louis XIV: under the long reign of Louis XIV the absolutist state reached its zenith. He dominated all aspects of French life, culture, politics, religion, and economics. His philosophy was that god had put kings on earth to rule, to rule the earth. Kings were a race apart and had to obey God’s laws and rule for the good of the people. His experiences during the Fronde uprising led him to a policy of seclusion and secrecy, which became powerful political tools at his disposal. Established the legendary royal palace at Versailles. This former hunting lodge has become the world’s most elegant palace. It was a tremendous symbol of the power of the state and was a powerful force unifying France under Louis’ rule. The key to his centralizing control was his ability to over awe and dominates the nobility in France. He did subjugate them but certainly involved them and often collaborated with them on matters of state. Louis had kept the principals of Absolutist federalism established by Cardinal Richelieu. As was the case he never called a meeting of the Estates General giving his critics no means of discourse on his policy initiatives.

·        France had a long-standing policy to avoid taxation of the nobility allowing for taxation of the poor! The poor peasants/laborers were forced to bear a heavy burden. Gradually the French moved towards a policy of Mercantilism: or a collection of government policies for the regulation of economic activities especially those commercial by and for the state. Involved things like a balance of trade, accumulation of gold, and self-sufficiency. New industries were developed and cultivated through state support to ensure French economic independence. Overall his impact was very positive, however…the merciless taxation of the farming class eventually led to the downfall of the French economy.

·        Louis XIV complicated matters with his revocation of the Edict of Nantes that had granted Huguenots religious tolerance. This new practice called for the destruction of their schools and churches and immediate conversion to Catholicism. Those who chose not to were exiled. This was a poor move but was done to promote unity within the empire; it backfired leaving him open to criticism and without valuable citizenry.

·        The art and literature of the day is characterized as “French Classicism”. French Artists imitated Renaissance Italy. Art was a mandated act by the state to promote the state. Those expressions of creativity that were favored by the King were those that have endured. Plays of Moliere (Humor) and Racine (tragedy), the music of Lully and Charpentier.

·        One other method of exalting himself above others was Louis almost constant state sponsored warfare. The military was reorganized, highly organized with the impression of a military machine. He had gained modest territory but considering the expenditures, they must be considered unimpressive. (Map 564) War of Spanish Succession: who was to succeed Charles I? Charles I gave his Spanish empire to Louis XIV’s grandson Phillip of Anjou. Phillip being Louis grandson would give France a favorable position economically and militarily. This had violated a previous agreement, which would have not favored France so heavily; Louis was to split the Spanish empire with Holy Rome. For the purposes of a balance of power the rest of Europe could not accept Louis and France possessing this kind of strength. Thus, the Grand Alliance was formed led by the Dutch and the English to combat the acquisition by France. The war was lopsided and Louis was forced to admit defeat in the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the glory of Hapsburg Spain and the dream of a dominant France. (Map 564)


The Decline of Absolutist Spain In The Seventeenth Century


·                    Spain had developed absolutist tendencies well before France in the kingdom of Castile. The glory of conquest had added to the credibility of the Spanish absolutists had vanished as Spain had fallen into economic ruin, political chaos and intellectual isolation. Once the gold and silver stopped flowing in the wake of expansion, chaos emerged. The demise of the Spanish Armada and the defeat at the ends of England damaged national pride and perspective. The fake confidence spurred by the metallic wealth of the new world created a miniscule middle class that was losing confidence in the state. Inflation produced the gold produced a major lack of confidence in the economy. Yet spending and aristocratic tendencies remained high. The monarchs were dwarfed by these problems as Absolutism works well when problems are solved! Territorial wars and losses such as the Mantua conflict further complicated the loss of imperial confidence. The inability to remove itself from the past (16th century) inspired the brilliant story Don Quixote.


Absolutism in Eastern Europe: Austria, Prussia, and Russia:


·                    Built on much different foundations than the situation in the West. The East possessed a much different socio-economic situation and as a result Absolutism evolved much differently east of the Danube River. The societies remained more feudal in nature, industrialization was far less advanced, the ideas of the Renaissance were non-existent, and society had not endured the religious tensions that had occurred in the West. The major players were Austria, Russia and Prussia.

·                    Lords and Peasants: the role of peasants had been diminished by 1300, but the black death and the economic troubles to follow forced the Eastern Europeans to migrate back towards Feudal principles. The Lords had used political contacts to force the subjugation of peasants. Punishments for attempted movement were very harsh. It got so bad that peasants were forced to work without pay! In places like Poland and Russia, hereditary serfdom was implemented giving Serfs no rights or motivation. This coupled the growth of estate (deep south US) agricultures. This type of society places little emphasis on idea distribution or technological/industrial growth. As a result the eastern version of Absolutism was vastly different due to the weak political and economic structure of the day.


Austria and the Ottoman Turks:


·        The Habsburgs of Austria emerged from the 30 years war period a battered entity. They were the leaders of vast lands torn apart by war, lands with tremendous diversity religiously and economically. Their ally the Holy Roman Empire was destroyed, something needed to happen to reassert their power.

·        Bohemian Czechs provided the answer, their revolt against the Habsburgs was crushed by the Habsburgs, and their nobility restructured to ensure loyalty for the Habsburgs. The re-conquered nobility thrived economically and gave unyielding support as the peasants suffered unbearably. The first stages of Absolutism were in place. This practice became widespread in the Habsburg Empire. They also turned their attention to conquering the eastern empire of Hungary in opposition of the regions other powerful force; the Ottomans.

·        Ottomans were an Islamic empire of Turks stationed in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. They had had eyes on conquering Christian Europe through Vienna and Austrian Habsburg lands. In 1683 they launched a massive siege on Christian Europe at Vienna. The Viennese held out and the Habsburgs forced the Turks to defeat in the process conquering Hungary and Transylvania.

·        Despite the conquest, not all was well. The Habsburg lands were incredibly diverse and did not fit well into an absolutist scheme. The three parts (Austria, Bohemia and Hungary) all had unique needs and leaders. The Hungarians for example never embraced the principles of Absolutism. They resisted in large part due to their protestant roots, the Habsburg rule was in stark contrast to the tolerant nature of Islamic rule under the Turks, which recognized the virtue of all Christians. Constant revolts by the Hungarians forced the Habsburgs to yield power to the Hungarians in terms of religion, politics, and culture.


The Emergence of Prussia:


·              As peasants suffered in German lands, the princes suffered great losses of power. As a result a new group of landed nobility; the Hohenzollern in particular gained authority. The Hohenzollern who ruled as elected dukes, officials in Prussia were the largest landowners who extended their influence to politics. The seat of their authority was the great city-state/province of Brandenburg (present day Berlin). The damages of the thirty years war enabled the family to assert absolute control under Frederick William (The Great Elector). Frederick who had inherited the lands at 20 had a daunting task to attempt to bring the lands to order, vast wars with the nobility and provincial lands were fought. His first initiative was to establish a system of taxation that could not be challenged and was distributed without consent! Order was established by a series of warriors in his military class. He was able to establish total control due to the chaos of the period and the appeal to the narrow self-interest of the ruling nobility.

·              His predecessor the neurotic Frederick William I, he of the obsession for tall soldiers. Had a dog-eat-dog philosophy, outlook on society. Military strength the key to society. He established a strong clean bureaucracy that gave him total control through its effective administration. Trend was set; give the nobles power in the form of $$$$ and you can establish a military absolutist state while taxing the Peasants into submission.


The Rise of Muscovy: Moscow


·                          Established initially by the invading Vikings, the great leader Oleg established the famous center city Kiev. Ruled to a zenith by Iaroslav the Wise until his death in 1054. Following his death, Russia degenerated into a feudal state in the European tradition. Society divided into two classes: Boyars (nobles) and Serfs (everyone else). The Mongol invasion, conquest and rule put an end to the bickering Boyars for a period of 200 years. The threat of death unified Russia. The princes of Moscow found great power in pleasing the Mongols (Alexander Nevsky among them), and became a hereditary class of ruling princes. Eventually they became so powerful that they were able to replace the Mongol Khans themselves.

·                          Ivan the Moneybags became an example of the power of these powerful new “opportunistic” princes. He led a combined Russo-Mongol force against a neighboring prince and his forces operating against the Mongols. His reward for victory was the title/honor of supreme taxpayer. This title gave him the purse strings to control. With each passing generation the princes gained control in Moscow.

·                          Ivan III stopped acknowledging the Khan as supreme ruler in 1480. At least in the Mongol form, they ruled similarly and as absolutely as the Khan. They had obtained most of their religious influence from the Byzantine empire so following the fall of Constantinople in 1453 they viewed themselves as the leaders of the 3rd Rome. Intermarriage with the daughter of the Byzantine emperor solidified this status. Russian rule was so absolute and Mongol in nature that even the Boyars, the landed saw huge tracts of their land absorbed by the King and redistributed amongst a newly created elite.

·                          Ivan the Terrible: Ivan IV ascended the throne at age 3. He was insulted and neglected by the Boyars as he matured. But at age 16 he pushed everyone aside and ruled with an absolute ferocity for a period of 40 years. He defeated the last of the Mongols by 1556 giving him tremendous credibility. However, his greatest move of strength was to eliminate all Boyars, and make all landed nobility that of the service nobility. Meaning you own land, you owe allegiance and service to me, or you can be a peasant! Not all was well however, an attempt to conquer Poland/Lithuania to gain land he was unsuccessful becoming increasingly unstable and demented. After the death of his wife he became a hardened man dependent on violence to crush anyone in his way. Ruling via terror with a powerful secret police.

·                          Peasants began fleeing to the newly conquered areas to form militant armies known as Cossacks. His solution ties the serfs to the land by giving the nobles the authority to hold them there. He controlled the nobles so it was a hierarchy he controlled.

·                          His death in 1584 led to a period of chaos and confusion over who was to control the giant nation. The period between his death and the death of his son Theodore were known as the time of troubles. Relatives stumbled over their murdered relations to gain control of the throne. The Cossacks proved most troublesome as they marched northward towards Moscow. Not until a Polish Invasion in 1613 did the Nobles crush the disunity and unite under Michael Romanov, Ivan’s 16 year old grandson.

·                          Michael restored much of his grandfather’s autocratic principles. His one mistake was relaxing the military tendencies of his grandfather leading to revolt after his death. Religious disunity spurred Cossack revolts by 1670, the results were horrifying for Boyars, murder and mayhem were common tactics.


Peter the Great:


·                    Peter is often portrayed as some grandiose westernizer who wanted nothing but to unify the region under the principles of the enlightenment. His reforms were military in nature in response to threats from Western Europe and The Cossacks. He was also interested in continuing the territorial expansion that had yielded the Ukraine and Siberia. 43 years of Peterian rule yielded 1 year of peace!

·                    Peter viewed Russia’s army as an extension of their societal problems…backward and lagging behind the powers of the West. He envied a highly sophisticated, trained infantry. He required every noble to serve in his military or bureaucracy-for life. Schools and universities were created to foster education not for the western purposes of learning, but to create a nation poised for warfare and conquest. He tried to bring the Western spirit of advancement to Russia with the purpose of learning for military conquest. He studied abroad, (sailing and shipbuilding) cut his beard, made others, brought foreigners to his court to study. He made serfs more important to his court mandating membership and military commitment. Taxes were very high and serfs were commissioned to work in western style factories. His efforts returned only modest gains with conquest over Sweden bringing him Estonia and Latvia. Russia was the dominant force in the Baltic Sea. They lacked something that he coveted; a warm water port for constant commercial growth.

·                    Peter’s innovations and advancements brought growth regardless of their intentions.


Absolutism and the Baroque:


·                    The grandeur and splendor of the absolutist rulers can be seen in their marriage with Baroque architecture. The unification has given us some of the worlds most extravagant and grand structures. Palace building became an undeniable symbol of the power of the day.

·                    Examples: Schonbrunn, and Wurzburg are great examples.

·                    St. Petersburg, redesigned for Peter on some water logged islands in the Baltic Sea. He wanted a city of grandeur built there, as it was to bear his name. The city was built with a great plan to be the window of Europe and reflect his dedication to European principles. Class segregated the city.


England: the Triumph of Constitutional Monarchy


·        England’s success and growth as a constitutional nation stood in stark contrast to the development of her peers.

·        Queen Elizabeth represented a zenith of Absolutist power in England. But a century after her reign the constitutional nature of England had drastically limited the power of the Queen. 1 king had been executed, a bloody civil war, a murdered kings son restored, all illustrating great instability in England.

·        Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan. An enlightened age text that defeated the vigorous approach of Absolutism, pointing to the status of society in the absence of such a sovereign. However, this power must be transferred to the king via the people and a social contract to rule effectively in their interest. (Lord of the Flies).

·        James I succeeded Elizabeth and proved her greatness by his lack of. Believed in divine right of kings and paid little attention to reform or performance. His view and embracement of Absolutism did not blend with his results. Attempted to undermine the influence of Parliament and Commons in particular. Commons had the control of the purse strings of England. They refused to give him the funding he requested for grandeur and circumstance—traits of absolutist kings like Louis XIV. In this nature, Commons began to assume sovereign of its own. The body was vastly different from its historical self, a group of loyal pushovers to the king. They had become sovereign, reform, fiscal, and articulate leaders. Social mobility was more common in England, thus expanding the power of the Commons.

·        Religious conflict also shaped England, protestant reform had spread wide but how “deep” was it? James and his son Charles I gave the impression of being highly sympathetic to the policies and institutions of the Papacy and Roman Catholicism. The reform movements initiated by Charles and his Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud operated against the principles of the Scottish Presbyterians. In order to suppress a revolt by the Scots Charles was forced to convene Parliament for the first time in 11 years. Charles had gone around Parliament by finding alternative sources of revenue and not needing their approval to tax. The policy had worked in the absence of a crisis the magnitude of the Presbyterian Revolt of 1640. Their convening brought about the worst possible results for the King. He saw a “Long Parliament” a session of 20 years with results that hampered the powers of the monarch. Triennial Act: compelled the King to (Commons power through Magna Carta) call the Commons once per 3 years. They impeached Laud, and abolished the House of Lords, and the ecclesiastical court of the high commission. Civil War continued, as Commons would not trust him with an army all to himself.

·        Ireland: a huge problem almost 1000 years after its acquisition by King Henry II in 1171. The English Reformation of Henry VIII only made the divide between the staunchly Catholic Irish and their English rulers wider. Charles could not put down rebellion in either Ireland or Scotland in the 1640’s as Commons would not put an army under his control. Charles thus recruited an army of his loyalists as Parliament controlled the national army. The result an English Civil War in 1642. The question, who controlled England? The Civil War will not resolve this problem. It did end the problem that was Charles as he was executed in 1649. Along with him, the monarch was abolished in favor of a commonwealth.

·        However, the commonwealth controlled by Oliver Cromwell did not meet its expectations. The expectation was that Cromwell would not have assumed the power he had. However, given his high profile role as the leader of the army that defeated the monarchal forces he was the obvious choice. He was a devout Puritan who motivated his army on their convictions making them an efficient fighting force. His army had drawn a constitution, which Cromwell will tear up after disputes. The constitution had implemented the changes that had been called for in the Triennial Act. Cromwell established a “protectorate” with himself a protector.

·        Cromwell’s age was one of tolerance with regards to everyone but Irish Catholics whom he considered seditious. He crushed the rebellion of the Irish in 1649 with savagery leaving a legacy of hatred that has continued in to the second millennium. He censored the Press, forbade sports, and closed theatres…sounds like the Taliban! His government will collapse in 1658 after his death. The experiment in the absolutism of one man was a mistake they would not forget.

·        Restoration: the restoration of 1660 re-established the Stuart dynasty by inviting Charles II the son of Charles I to return and rule with limits from Parliament.

·        During his reign the Commons attempted to promote religious unity by tying economic and political virtues with religious conformity. (Protestant)

·        Politics: Commons was determined to be superior over Charles who at first was cooperative. He appointed a council of five men (ministers) to be his segue way between the monarch and parliament. The council of five would pave the way for cabinet government; they were responsible to both Parliament and the King.

·        Harmony was based on cooperation, the Commons being called and voting the king revenue and the King recognizing the vast power of the Parliament. This was the case until a secret agreement leaked out promoting religious tolerance for all Catholics if Louis XIV would pay him 200, 000 pounds annually. This corruption was viewed as an attempt to re-catholocize England. Given Charles lack of an heir, England freaked over the fact that his brother James I was a devout Catholic! Fear spread on several levels, England’s possible Catholicism and the role of Louis XIV in England. This was unacceptable. Commons attempted to pass a law forbidding succession to a Protestant, Charles II dissolved Parliament.

·        James II was allowed to succeed his brother. Tension was at an all time high. James appointed Catholics to high offices, granted religious freedom to all. He imprisoned church officials (Anglican) amidst great fan fare. His wife produced an heir, which illustrated that a catholic dynasty was in the mix. The Bloodless revolution (Glorious Revolution) occurred after eminent persons offered the throne to his eldest daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange both devout Protestants. The King learning of this and the potential violence fled England to France and abdicated the throne. In addition to the religious implications the new King and Queen recognized the supremacy of Parliament. The document supporting this the Bill of Rights established a constitutional monarchy, a direct result of Stuart Absolutism. The absence of a standing army and the writings of the brilliant philosopher John Locke put England in stark contrast with Europe. Locke’s writings supported the initiatives of life, liberty, and property. His writings establishing a series of natural rights and a social contract are the cornerstones of modern democracy. England evolved into the current system (see government notes for specifics) of a constitutional monarchy with a prime minister heading a cabinet, chosen from Parliament.


The Dutch Republic in the 17th century:


·                    Following their ousting the Spanish Habsburgs the Netherlands charted a strong course for success.

·                    A period of prosperity, cultural flourishing and intellectual exploration followed.

·                    The political system of the region had no conformity in the region, no model. It was a republic based on the oligarchic reign of the individual provinces merchants called Regents. The estates as the regents were called held all the power and authority. They controlled domestic policy where as the Federal Assembly the higher office at the national level controlled the foreign policy. It was an odd power sharing initiative that has found home in the many recent governments of France. (5 in the last 60 years).

·                    Naval supremacy, colonial dominance, and commercial excellence added to the prestige of the Netherlands. The nation functioned so well due to the incredible size and power of their middle class. They stood in stark contrast to Louis XIV France, middle class, religiously tolerant, with political freedoms, and a political structure outside of one man. Their tolerance made Amsterdam the financial capital of the world. They controlled the fishing industry of Europe, bought forests for ships and controlled trade in the Baltic region. See map 588. They pursued colonial interests through the Dutch East India Company, capitalizing on their tremendous naval skills, the Dutch traded all over the world. Economically, politically, and socially they were as free, prosperous and stable as any society Europe has seen. Their utopia will come to an end with long drawn out wars with France and England.





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