The Revolutionary Emperor, Joseph the Second, 1741-1790

The Revolutionary Emperor, Joseph the Second, 1741-1790

The Revolutionary Emperor, Joseph the Second, 1741-1790

The Revolutionary Emperor, Joseph the Second, 1741-1790

Excerpt

Joseph II was the eighteenth century's epitome of political reform as Voltaire was of polemical literature. He was the most significant of the 'enlightened despots', the final effort of absolute monarchy to save its existence and prove its usefulness.

All the currents of the epoch converged in the revolutionary Joseph, making him an idealist and cynic, a reformer and despot. He conversed about mankind with Rousseau and planned political schemes with Catharine II of Russia; he discussed administration with Turgot and fought a war with Frederick the Great.

No ruler of his time was more conscientious than Joseph. The tasks he set himself -- one realizes to-day -- were impossible of achievement. He strove to bring wealth to his state, to modernize the administration, to make his empire powerful, to destroy the privileged classes, to free his people from feudal burdens, to give them equality, opportunity, education, and justice. He failed heroically.

A man of simple tastes and habits, Joseph loathed the clergy as obscurantists and despised the nobility as idlers. 'The good gentlemen,' he sneered at the aristocracy, 'believe they have achieved everything when they have produced a statesman, when their son officiates at the mass, when he fingers his beads, confesses every fortnight, and knows nothing more than what the limited intelligence of his father confessor tells him.'

The emperor had few illusions about the enormous difficulties that confronted him, but he made the unfortunate mistake, as his rival Frederick the Great . . .

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