The Struggle against Absolutism

By Marshall, Michael | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

The Struggle against Absolutism


Marshall, Michael, The World and I


The twentieth century could accurately be described as the century of the totalitarian temptation. The greatest conflict of all time was waged in the middle of the century to crush the forces of fascism and national socialism. The other great totalitarian movement, communism, constrained from without by the democratic nations of the world, collapsed undeniably under the weight of its internal contradictions. As far as a political model with global appeal is concerned, democracy has been left holding the field. This did not seem the most likely result in the 1920s and '30s.

Indeed, from the middle of the millennium, with the appearance of nationstates in Europe in the sixteenth century, until the latter half of this century it seemed probable that some form of absolutism would be the dominant pattern for the most powerful and successful of those states. The triumph of societies based upon limited forms of government over their absolutist rivals is one of the most surprising and significant developments of the millennium.

The Anglo-American contribution to the development of the idea and forms of limited government has been immense. Most of the significant steps in that history were taken in Britain or the United States. In the main article of our millennium series, historian Bruce Frohnen gives an account of those steps.

In this essay, I want to set those developments in a wider context. In the first half of the millennium, absolutism was not a problem in Europe. The popes and the Holy Roman emperors made claims to a universal authority and quarreled both in the realm of ideas and in political practice over their relative positions in the universal scheme. But the reality was that neither they nor any other ruler had the means to systematically impose their will on their nominal subjects that the Roman Empire or the contemporary Chinese emperor enjoyed.

Europe in the first half of the millennium was decentralized, and effective power was, for the most part, wielded locally. Authority was underpinned by an amalgam of church teaching, local feudal customs, and the prowess in war of the local lord. Kings were primus inter pares, first among equals, not much more powerful than their barons and always at risk from an overmighty subject. Conflicts among feudal lords were endemic, and kings could not stand above that conflict.

Within this decentralized society were elements that later could become institutionalized to provide a bulwark against absolutist rule. The distinct character of western Europe originated in the marriage of Christianity and the Germanic tribes of northern Europe that flooded over the former boundaries of the Roman Empire.

The contribution of Christianity to the mix was profound and wide-ranging. Professor Frohnen writes about the limits placed upon secular power by the concept of divine law to which the ruler must be subject. The Germanic tribes, however, were not passive partners in the union. Their contribution came primarily in the form of the tribal customs that chieftains had to respect. These customs were the root of the common-law tradition that developed in England and from there influenced American approaches to law and government.

The appearance of nation-states in the sixteenth century was accompanied and made possible by the development of centralized bureaucracies and standing armies that gave rulers considerable power to enforce their will and collect taxes more effectively. The dominant states in Europe from this period on were run on more centralized and absolutist lines.

Louis XIV established a powerful monarchy in France in the seventeenth century. He famously declared: "L'etat c'est moi" ("I am the state"), starting an association of state power with the person wielding it that culminated in the cult of personality of a Hitler, Stalin, or Mao in this century. While Britain was laying the foundations of her powerful overseas empire, her main role in Europe was to act as a check upon the imperial ambitions of its most powerful state--first France and later Germany. …

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