Enlightened Despotism in Europe

Enlightened Despotism in Europe
Enlightened Despotism in Europe

Enlightened despotism represented one of the most enduring experiments before the old order was forever turned upside down by the forces unleashed by the French Revolution in 1789.

Ironically, enlightened despotism was fostered by the thoughts of French philosophers like Voltaire; Charles-Louis de Secondant, baron de Montesquieu; and Denis Diderot who would provide the ideological gunpowder that exploded with the revolution in 1789.

Embraced by rulers in 18th century Europe like Catherine the Great of Russia, Maria Theresa of the Austrian Empire, and Frederick the Great of Prussia, enlightened despotism provided a philosophy of government that motivated rulers to pursue political changes, forever breaking any ties with the monarchies of the past.


At its basis, enlightened despotism attempted to apply the rational spirit of the Enlightenment to guide governance, pushing them forward from the superstitions and sometimes barbarous practices of past centuries. It embraced not only what we would call now a progressive view of government but also the sciences and the arts.

General Welfare

Above all, enlightened despots began to see themselves as the first servants of the state, whose duty was to provide for the general welfare of their subjects. When Frederick II became king of Prussia after his father’s death on May 31, 1740, he wrote “Our grand care will be to further the country’s well-being and to make every one of our subjects contented and happy.”

A more mature Frederick later wrote in Essay on the Forms of Government, “The sovereign is the representative of his State. He and his people form a single body. Ruler and ruled can be happy only if they are firmly united.

The sovereign stands to his people in the same relation in which the head stands to the body. He must use his eyes and his brain for the whole community, and act on its behalf to the common advantage.

If we wish to elevate monarchical above republican government, the duty of sovereigns is clear. They must be active, hard-working, upright and honest, and concentrate all their strength upon filling their office worthily. That is my idea of the duties of sovereigns.”

Above all, it was Montesquieu in his The Spirit of Laws (1748) who had the most practical influence on the enlightened despots and the American Revolution of 1775.

Montesquieu wrote, “In every government there are three sorts of power; the legislative; the executive, in respect to things dependent on the law of nations; and the executive, in regard to things that depend on the civil law. By virtue of the first, the prince or magistrate enacts temporary or perpetual laws, and amends or abrogates those that have been already enacted.

By the second, he makes peace or war, sends or receives embassies; establishes the public security, and provides against invasions. By the third, he punishes criminals, or determines the disputes that arise between individuals. The latter we shall call the judiciary power, and the other simply the executive power of the state.”

A Say in Destiny

While none of the enlightened despots like Frederick, Maria Theresa, or Catherine would willingly accept limitations on their sovereignty, they all accepted at least in principle the idea that those they governed should have some say in their own destiny.

All used consultative assemblies, drawn from all the classes in society, at least several times during their reigns. In 1785, for example, Catherine issued two charters, one for the nobles, and one for the towns. The Charter for the Nobility inaugurated councils of nobles who could offer their opinions on laws that she proposed.

The Charter for the Towns created municipal councils whose membership included all those who owned property or a business within the towns. At the same time, the legal status of Russia’s peasantry continued to slip under the control of the landowning nobility until they were hardly considered as human beings.

The rationalization of government saw considerable progress in the Austrian Empire, where the Empress Maria Theresa reigned jointly with her son, as Joseph II, after 1765. Reforms during their reign centralized government, making political and monetary bureaucracy answerable to the Crown.

Reform of the legal codes provided a keystone for enlightened rule. In June 1767 Catherine gathered a Legislative Commission to hear her proposals for a new legal code for Russia. Although the code was never adopted, the document shows the direction of the political thought that guided her long reign (1762 – 96).

She wrote, “What is the true End of Monarchy? Not to deprive People of their natural Liberty; but to correct their Actions, in order to attain the supreme Good.”

For the sake of the subjects, perhaps the most important part of enlightened despotism was the general belief that the use of torture to extract information was a savage relic of the Middle Ages and had no place in the judicial system of any enlightened monarch. In Russia, Catherine’s refusal to use torture was put to the test in the 1773–74 rebellion of the Cossack Emilian Pugachev.

Although Pugachev’s revolt proved a distinct threat to her reign, after he was captured, Catherine refused to let his interrogators resort to the use of torture to find out if he acted alone or was the representative of some conspiracy hatched to overthrow and kill her. All the enlightened monarchs were influenced by the thought of the Italian Cesare Beccaria, the author of the historic Of Crimes and Punishments in 1764.

Enlightened despots attempted to improve their countries through advances in the sciences, industry, and agriculture as well. After Catherine II’s annexation of the khanate of the Crimea in 1783, she opened it to cultivation by German immigrants to improve agricultural production.

When the Treaty of Jassy ended a war with the Turks in 1792, large new areas were opened in what is now southern Russia for improved agricultural production. Significantly, one of the countries most resistant to the ideas of enlightened despotism was France, where the revolution that overturned the old order began.

Religious tolerance also saw great advances in this age. Most of the prohibitions against Jews, existing from the Middle Ages, were lifted throughout much of Europe.

In France, however, such a change would have to wait to take maximum effect in the reign of Napoleon I, after he crowned himself emperor in 1804, 11 years after Louis XVI of France had been sent to the guillotine in January 1793. M

uslims also benefited from the general enlightenment. After the conquest of the Crimea in 1783 and the Treaty of Jassy with the Ottoman Turks in 1792, large numbers of Muslims became Catherine the Great’s subjects.

It was perhaps the greatest irony of this age of enlightened despotism that it was brought to an end by the French king Louis XVI summoning to Paris in 1789 the Estates General, the representative body of French aristocracy, clergy, and the emerging middle class. The Estates General, having not been convened for over 150 years, had much to discuss with the king.

When Louis XVI refused to do so and threatened to dissolve it, the Third Estate refused to leave Paris. Instead, the Third Estate met in an old tennis court and swore to remain in session until its grievances were heard by the king and redressed by him. The French Revolution had begun.