The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800: The Challenge

By R. R. Palmer | Go to book overview

XII
THE LIMITATIONS OF ENLIGHTENED DESPOTISM

THE forces of aristocracy, which in some countries in the 1780's prevailed over democratic movements, prevailed in others over monarchy itself. This chapter takes up a thread left hanging at the close of Chapter IV. It was shown there that, by the middle 1770's, or just before the American Revolution, the Kings of France and of Sweden, and the Queen of Hungary and Bohemia (to which titles the Hapsburg monarchy owed most of its stature), had asserted royal authority and put the constituted bodies of their several realms under restraint. In France, Chancellor Maupeou abolished the old parlements, in Sweden the Freedom Era came to an end, in Hungary no central diet met after 1764, and in Bohemia none met after 1775. Victory at the moment went to enlightened despotism. Rulers forced through programs of reconstruction by suppressing institutions that had or claimed a representative character. Maupeou and Terray initiated important reforms in tax assessment and judicial organization, while Maria Theresa labored persistently at the alleviation of serfdom.

The following fifteen years made clear the limits beyond which enlightened despotism could not go. However held down, the constituted bodies -- estates, diets, parlements, and the like -- had strong powers of survival and resurgence. In France, a resistance to government begun by the two higher orders soon developed a more democratic phase. The result was the French Revolution. In Eastern Europe, though demands of a democratic character within the definitions used in this book were by no means wholly absent, the serf-owning aristocracy was the only really important political class, and to this class royal governments had to make concessions. The result was a reaction against the Enlightenment, or a new understanding between throne and nobility, which was in general to last until the beginning of the twentieth century in Eastern Europe.

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