The King Incorporated: Leopold II in the Age of Trusts

The King Incorporated: Leopold II in the Age of Trusts

The King Incorporated: Leopold II in the Age of Trusts

The King Incorporated: Leopold II in the Age of Trusts

Excerpt

In the evolution of monarch monarchy, Leopold II of the Belgians occupies a special position. Like one of those last dinosaurs at the end of the saurian age whose very size or length of fang or desperate elaboration of armour sought to postpone the general decline of their race, Leopold developed in his own person a most formidable type of King, designed for the environment of the late nineteenth century, which used the new forms of economic growth to strengthen and extend royal authority. Other monarchs watched the birth of modern trust capitalism with mixed feelings of suspicion, incomprehension and contempt. Leopold understood that the private fortunes of a King remained as much a measure of his power to act freely as they had been in the Middle Ages.

New sources of money provided a new way of escape from the control of Cabinets, now firmly in charge of the King's official allowance through Civil Lists. The Belgian Constitution gave the Kings considerable powers, but little freedom of action beyond those specified duties; Leopold wanted to endow the Belgian Coburgs with a great private fortune to be used for the nation's good as they would see fit, and to liberate them from the control of penny-conscious politicians. To achieve this, he proposed that the King should himself become a grand financier, a tycoon who could offer his creditors the incomparable security of a Crown. Leopold had discovered a way to reverse the historical victory of the middle classes over their kings: a new path to absolutism.

The attempt failed. Leopold made himself one of the richest men in Europe, but he failed either to transmit the body of his wealth to his descendants or to exercise freely the power it gave him. With the rise of international trust capitalism came the parallel growth of Socialism, and by the end of his reign the Belgian Left, inside and outside Parliament, was strong enough to block his way and even to strip him of his greatest private acquisition--the Congo. After his death, the nation and his disinherited daughters tore down the fabric of trusts and endowments which he had created to last for centuries, and fought over the fragments.

Leopold II is best known as the founder and owner of the ill-

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