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350 Chapter 19




750 Kilometers




Habsburg dominions


500 Miles

Kingdom of Prussia



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of Prussia

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HOLY Prague

C a r p a thian

Sein Paris

















D o uro R. bro







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Balearic Islands
























D on

ets R

























Po R .







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At l a n t i c

Oc e a n

Boundary of the Holy

Roman Empire


N orth




MAP 19.1

— Europe in 1763 —


The Structures of Government:


The basic political characteristic of the Old Regime

was—as it had been for more than one thousand

years—monarchical government. In the strictest sense,

monarchy meant the rule of a single person who held

sovereignty (supreme power) over a state. The power

of monarchs was frequently challenged by the nobility,

disputed by provinces, or attacked in open rebellions.

But the concept of monarchy was almost universally accepted at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Even

the skeptical intellectuals of that era still supported it,

and only a few small states, such as the city-state of

Genoa in northern Italy, sustained governments without monarchs, usually called republics.

The forms of monarchy varied significantly: from

absolute monarchy (in which the monarch claimed unrestricted powers) to limited monarchy (in which clear

legal limits were placed on royal sovereignty, to the

benefit of the propertied classes). Absolutism remained

the predominant form of European monarchy. Most

monarchs wanted such power and aspired to emulate

the absolute monarchs of the seventeenth century, King

Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and especially King

Louis XIV of France, the exemplars of the era called the

age of absolutism. The theory of absolute monarchy

held that rulers received sovereignty directly from God.

They governed by divine right, representing within

their realm the sovereignty of God over all things. This

idea rested on the exegesis of such biblical statements

as “No authority exists unless it comes from God.”

Churches taught obedience to the monarch as a religious duty: God had given sovereignty, and “No one

but God can judge the king.” Resisting a monarch was

to attack God’s order. An anonymous poem of the eighteenth century entitled “The Vicar of Bray” summarized

the alliance of throne and altar in a succinct rhyme:

The Political Evolution of the Old Regime, 1715–89 351

Unto my flock I daily preached

Kings were by God appointed,

And damned was he that durst resist

Or touch the Lord’s anointed.

Despite such ideas, true autocratic monarchy—most often called despotism—was rare, but parts of central and

eastern Europe still lived under despotic rulers who

were unrestrained by laws. A despot might strangle an

opponent with his bare hands, have another torn apart

by dogs, or have his own son and heir flogged to death,

as Tsar Peter the Great of Russia did.

Most monarchs could not exercise such unrestrained powers. Their governments were limited

monarchies, limited by privileges that earlier rulers had

granted, a legal system enforced by independent courts,

the nobility, the powers of an established state religion,

rights delegated to an assembly, or financial dependency on others. The Braganza kings of Portugal were

limited by the power of the Catholic Church; the Bourbon kings of the Two Sicilies, by having to ask an assembly for the money to rule. The Bourbon kings of

France faced a resurgent aristocracy that used the law

courts (parlements) to thwart the royal will.

The most formal restrictions upon royal sovereignty were constitutional laws. Few states possessed a

constitution in the modern sense of a single written

document. Sweden adopted the strictest constitution of

the era in 1720. The Sweden nobility accepted the rule

of a queen on the condition that she accept a document

limiting her power. Most constitutions were less formal,

usually a set of customary privileges claimed by the

aristocracy as their national traditions. In Hungary, the

Magyar aristocracy held virtual autonomy. When the

Habsburgs incorporated Hungary into the Austrian

Empire, the Hungarians insisted upon their ancient

constitution and rebelled when they believed it to be

violated. The English constitution is the most studied

model of limiting monarchical power, but it, too, did

not exist in a single document stating these limits. It

was a body of constitutional law dating back to the

Magna Carta of 1215 in which King John had acknowledged limits to his power. An unusual form of limited

monarchy existed in Poland, where succession to the

throne occurred by election. A representative body (the

Sejm) of the Polish landowning gentry (the szlachta)

chose each new king and claimed traditional rights,

called “the five eternal principles,” including the right

to renounce allegiance to the king.

Republican governments held that sovereignty belonged to the citizens, usually to some privileged portion of them. Republicanism slowly evolved into the

modern sense of republic—in which sovereignty is held

by citizens who elect a government and delegate limited powers to it—but this form did not apply during

the Old Regime. Most of the republics of 1715 were

oligarchies—the rule of the few instead of the rule of

one—typically small city-states in Italy. The only great

power to attempt republican government during the

eighteenth century was revolutionary France during

the 1790s.

The Evolution of Government: Parliaments,

Ministers, and Cabinets

Most countries of the Old Regime, except autocratic

states such as Russia, possessed a representative assembly, typically called a parliament today but more often

called a diet (from the Latin diaeta, a place of assembly).

Diets had existed in Europe for centuries. The oldest

was the Icelandic Althing, founded in A.D. 930. In some

strong monarchies, such as France and Spain, assemblies existed in theory but not in practice. The French

Estates General had once been a powerful body, elected

by all classes of the population and able to limit taxation. However, it met only when convoked by the king,

and between 1614 and 1789 French kings never called

a meeting. In Württemberg, Duke Eberhard Ludwig

ruled for forty years, from 1693 to 1733, and permitted

only one meeting of the Diet during his entire reign.

That meeting opposed a standing army and the levying

of taxes, but the duke proceeded to raise an army, collect taxes, and prevent further meetings of the Diet.

Only the British Parliament and the Swedish Rikstag

had genuine legislative power.

The most powerful political figures of the eighteenth century were usually the advisers chosen by the

monarch to manage the government. Another important trend in political history was the slow evolution of

these royal advisers into a modern government. Advisers gradually became ministers of state, charged with

the direction of a bureaucracy, such as the Ministry of

Finance or the Ministry of War. In efficient governments, the advisers worked together as a cabinet of

ministers, pursuing a common policy. During the eighteenth century this evolved into the cabinet system of

government in Britain, culminating in the recognition

of one minister as the head of the government, or the

prime minister. Only the most energetic and able of

monarchs, such as Frederick the Great of Prussia,

served as their own prime minister, directing the bureaucracy. Instead, such strong leaders as Sir Robert

Walpole in Britain (served 1721–42) or Cardinal Fleury

352 Chapter 19

in France (served 1726–43), laid the bases of modern

ministerial government. The final stage of this evolution is known as ministerial responsibility, when the

prime minister and the cabinet no longer served at the

king’s pleasure but were responsible to parliament and

held office only as long as a majority supported them.

Signs of ministerial responsibility were evident in

eighteenth-century Britain, but the idea developed in

the nineteenth century and was not widely accepted

until the twentieth century.

Many ministers were selected by royal whim. The

most powerful adviser might be the king’s private secretary, as was Alexandrea de Gusmao, the strongest

statesman in midcentury Portugal. Or power might be

hidden behind a minor office. For example, the title of

Adam Moltke, who dominated the government of

Denmark for a generation, was master of the royal

household. The two most influential advisers to

King Louis XV of France were the man who had been

his childhood tutor and one of the king’s mistresses.


The Rise of Parliamentary Government

in Hanoverian England

The strength of parliamentary government in England

was the result of seventeenth-century revolutions that

limited the royal power of the Stuart kings. When it

became clear that the royal line was dying out, Parliament asserted its supremacy and selected a German

princess from the House of Hanover (a relative of the

Stuarts) as the heir to the throne. Thus, in 1714 the

throne of England passed to a German, the elector of

Hanover. He took the title of King George I, beginning

the House of Hanover. His heirs took the names

George II and George III, so eighteenth-century England is known as Georgian England as well as

Hanoverian England.

King George I did not speak English, and he never

bothered to learn the language of his new kingdom, although he had already learned Latin, French, and Italian. He preferred life in Germany and made long trips

to Hanover, where he kept a series of plump mistresses

whom the English press loved to satirize. The king

married his own cousin, then accused her of adultery,

divorced her, and imprisoned her for thirty years. This

monarch did not win the affection of the English people who generally considered him indolent and ignorant. One of the sharpest tongued Englishmen, Samuel

Johnson, summarized him simply: “George I knew

nothing and desired to know nothing; did nothing and

desired to do nothing.”

The character of King George I contributed to the

supremacy of Parliament. He showed little interest in

government, and because of the language barrier, even

his addresses to Parliament had to be read by someone

else. Parliament asserted itself with a coronation oath,

requiring each monarch to swear to obey parliamentary

statutes. It established a mandatory term of office for itself and gained tighter control over the budget and the

army. But the most important effect of George I’s disinterest in governing was that it allowed the development

of the cabinet system of government.

George I’s adviser Sir Robert Walpole became the

first prime minister in British history and the architect

of the cabinet system. Walpole did not come from the

titled nobility but was the son of large landowners with

nearly a dozen manors. His marriage to a merchant’s

daughter brought him a dowry of £20,000 and the independence for a parliamentary career. He championed

the Hanoverian succession and won the confidence of

the royal family, who allowed him independence to

shape the government. Walpole also had to win the

confidence of parliament and he did so through remarkable managerial skills. He won the backing of the

gentry by cutting the land tax from 20 percent to 5 percent. He gained the faith of others by restoring order

to British finances after a crisis that was caused by stock

speculation known as the South Seas Bubble. He got

the support of manufacturing interests with a policy favorable to foreign trade. The key to Walpole’s success,

however, was probably his patronage system in which

he tried to find a job or an income for everyone who

would support him. “ There is enough pasture for all the

sheep,” Walpole said. His opponents thought this scandalous. Jonathan Swift put it bluntly: “ The whole system of his ministry was corruption; and he never gave

bribe or pension without frankly telling the receivers

what he expected from them.” But in this way, Sir

Robert Walpole held power for twenty-one years

and laid the foundations of modern parliamentary


The British Parliament of the eighteenth century

(see illustration 19.1) was far from a modern, democratic legislature. The upper house, the House of Lords,

remained a bastion of the aristocracy where membership was inherited by the eldest son along with the

family title. The lower house, the House of Commons,

was elective, but voting was limited to adult males who

paid forty shillings a year in property taxes, on the theory that men of property had a vested interest in or-

The Political Evolution of the Old Regime, 1715–89 353

Illustration 19.1

— The House of Commons. Parliamentary government was the institution

that most distinguished the English

monarchy from the other great powers.

The lower house of Parliament, the elective House of Commons, effectively limited the power of the Hanoverian kings

in contrast to the absolute monarchies of

continental Europe. Note how the

physical arrangement divides parliament

into two sides (the government and the

opposition), encouraging a two-party


derly government. This meant that fewer than

250,000 voted—approximately 3 percent of the nation.

In addition to the poor, women, criminals, Catholics,

Jews, some Protestants (notably Quakers), and nonbelievers were barred from voting. A Qualification Act

required that to become a member of parliament (M.P.)

a candidate must own land worth £300, leaving a tiny

fraction of the nation eligible for office. Walpole,

however, encouraged the dominance of the House of

Commons and accepted that his cabinet stood collectively responsible to that body.

British voters typically deferred to the leadership of

a small elite of great landowners. According to a study

of British politics at the accession of King George III,

this pattern of deference meant that a few prominent

families controlled the House of Commons. The constituency of Wenlock in western England, for example,

had a few hundred electors. Throughout the eighteenth

century, they deferred to the leadership of the Forester

family, choosing eight members of that family to represent them in the House of Commons. Some constituencies, called pocket boroughs, were owned by a

single family, which had the seat in its pocket and

chose the M.P.; others, called rotten boroughs, had so

few votes that the seat could be bought. In 1761 the

borough of Sudbury openly advertised that its seat in

the House of Commons was for sale. The vast lands

owned by the duke of Newcastle included seven boroughs for which he personally selected the M.P. In such

ways, 111 wealthy landowners controlled more than

two hundred seats in Parliament.

Eighteenth-century England also witnessed the origins of a political party system. Members of Parliament

generally split into two large factions, not yet political

parties in the modern sense, called the Tory and Whig

parties. The Tories were somewhat more conservative

(in the sense of supporting royal authority) than the

Whigs (who were monarchists and defenders of the

Hanoverian settlement, but who spoke for parliamentary supremacy). The leaders of both factions typically

came from the aristocracy. Political parties did not yet

dominate elections. A famous study of politics in the

Georgian age concluded that party did not determine

the outcome of a single election in the voting of 1761.

Nonetheless, the Whigs—including Walpole—won a

majority in the first elections under King George I and

generally dominated British politics for the next two


The strongest of Walpole’s successors, William Pitt

the Elder, strengthened the position of prime minister

and the cabinet system of government. Like Walpole,

Pitt was not born to the aristocracy, but he managed to

die holding both the nickname “the great commoner”

and the noble title the earl of Chatham. He was the

grandson of a merchant who had made a fortune trading in India in illegal competition with the East India

Company. That wealth had bought Pitt’s marriage into

high society and his seat in Parliament representing a

famous rotten borough, Old Sarum. Pitt was polished

and Oxford educated; his rise in Parliament was largely

the result of exceptional oratorical skills. As prime minister during the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63, Pitt’s

354 Chapter 19

vigorous leadership helped to secure global victories

over France and demonstrated the strength of cabinet

government in times of crisis.

The evolution of parliamentary government in England was an important stage in the growth of European civilization, but it remained open to criticism. The

most radical voice came from the son of a distiller, John

Wilkes. Wilkes had an Oxford education and a helpful

marriage to a wealthy older woman, whose dowry financed his campaign to abolish rotten boroughs and redistribute seats in a fairer representation of the

population. Such reform won an important ally in 1783

when William Pitt the Younger (the son of Pitt the Elder) introduced a bill to disenfranchise thirty-six rotten

boroughs and to give seventy-two more seats to London and other populous areas. Pitt’s bill failed in 1785,

however, and fairer electoral laws had to wait for half a


George III was the most complex and important of

the Hanoverian kings. He was the first Hanoverian to

be born and educated in England. Although some

British historians have described him as “an unbalanced

man of low intelligence,” George began his long reign

(1760–1820) as a popular, hard-working king, considered a decent man of domestic virtues (in contrast to

his predecessors and many of his ministers) and high

patriotism. George III was also the first Hanoverian to

intervene deeply in politics, the first to try to rule. He

was stubborn and arbitrary, and he fought with his ministers, dismissing them from office; he tried to abolish

the emerging system of political parties; and for approximately a dozen years, he effectively ran the government through the choice of weak ministers and

lavish application of Walpole’s patronage system.

George III is often best remembered for the mental imbalance that began to afflict him in 1765—now

thought to have been caused by the metabolic disease

porphyria—and led to his being stripped of royal powers in 1811. But for many years he was a formidable political figure, strong enough to order the arrest of

Wilkes, who was expelled from parliament.

The political process did not stop with kings, parliaments, and radical reformers: The eighteenth century

was an age of turbulent protest. One study has identified

275 urban disturbances in Britain between 1735 and

1800. The most common problem that drew crowds

into the streets was hunger. Scarce or expensive bread

caused food riots because many people lived on the margins of survival. Labor riots were also common during

periods of high unemployment. Such protests in England frequently became anti-Irish demonstrations, such

as the 1736 riots of London construction workers fearful

Illustration 19.2

— The Gordon Riots. Urban riots were a recurring feature of

eighteenth-century Europe, even in the prosperous states of the

west. London suffered severe riots, of which the worst were the

Gordon Riots of 1780. Crowds attacked Catholic churches and

church property under the banner of “No Popery.” The illustration here shows the rioters setting fire to Newgate Prison in


that Irish immigrants were taking their jobs and driving

down the price of labor.

Religious hatred was a common cause of riots in the

eighteenth century, and English crowds regularly expressed their anti-Catholicism with “pope-burnings.”

When the House of Commons in 1778 voted to abolish

legal restrictions upon the seventy-eight thousand

Catholics living in England, the public uproar grew into

one of the largest riots of the century. A vehement defender of Protestant dominance, an M.P. named Lord

George Gordon, in June 1780 led sixty thousand militant

Protestants in a march on Parliament that precipitated

three days of anti-Catholic riots, known as the Gordon

Riots or the “No Popery Riots” (see illustration 19.2).

Mobs assaulted Catholic chapels, major prisons, and the

Bank of England. George III used the army to quell the

The Political Evolution of the Old Regime, 1715–89 355

3 TABLE 19.1 3

British War Finances, 1702–83




(in millions)



(in millions)


in loans

(in millions)



War of the Spanish Succession, 1702–13





War of the Austrian Succession, 1739–48





Seven Years’ War, 1756–63





American Revolution, 1776–83










Source: Adapted from data in Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York, N.Y.: Random House, 1987); p. 81.

riots, killing 285 members of the crowd.

Gordon was tried for treason and acquitted; his campaign delayed Catholic emancipation for fifty years.

Britain and the Struggles of Empire

The eighteenth century was an age of nearly constant

warfare for Britain; wars were fought in Europe, in

North America, in India, and on the high seas. The

British contested both French and Spanish power in

Europe—fearing the hegemony of either Catholic

power—and battled the French for global empire. And

British military policy was successful in both objectives.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) checked

the French pursuit of continental hegemony, and a simultaneous war in North America (Queen Anne’s War)

resulted in a significant growth in English power. The

War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718–20) seriously

curtailed Spanish power.

War was one of the few political questions that

deeply interested the Hanoverian kings. George I and

George II gladly left English domestic politics in the

hands of Walpole, but they resisted his policy of peace

and international commerce. Both kings felt that the

English army and navy represented the best defense of

their Hanoverian homeland, and they accepted costly

warfare to defend it. George II was the last king of England to take personal command of an army in the

field, fighting in the War of the Austrian Succession in

1743. George III thus inherited a huge national debt

(£138 million) along with the throne, the result of military profligacy. He, too, fought constant wars, however, and quintupled the English national debt to

£800 million (see table 19.1).

The immense war debt that King George III inherited was the cost of participation in the first true world

war—the Seven Years’ War in Europe (1756–63), and

its simultaneous theaters known as the French and Indian Wars in North America and the Bengal Wars in India. This global war produced a mixed blessing: The

British Empire won but wound up deeper in debt;

Britain became the dominant colonial power in the

world, but she thereby acquired even greater administrative costs. The British nation—like many others during the Old Regime—was loathe to pay the taxes

needed to repay war debts, support military expansion,

and meet the expenses of empire. In 1764 the Tory

government chose a compromise it thought safe: New

taxes would be imposed in the colonies, which were the

source of many imperial costs, but not in the British

isles. The issue of this policy was the Stamp Act of

1765, a tax on the American colonies, requiring that a

tax stamp be attached to official documents such as a

will, a liquor license, or a college degree. The furious

reaction in many colonies held that such taxes could

not be imposed under British law without the consent

of those being taxed. Representatives of nine American

colonies (Britain possessed more than thirty colonies in

the Americas) assembled in a Stamp Tax Congress and

adopted an angry resolution challenging the decision of

Parliament as subverting “the rights and liberties of the


The confrontation over taxation simmered for a

decade and led to the American Revolution of

1776–83. Parliament initially backed down in the face

of American protests and rescinded the Stamp Tax in

1766, but renewed protests led Parliament to adopt the

punitive Coercive Acts of 1774 and to quarter troops in

Boston. A few months later, in April 1775, the battles of

356 Chapter 19

Lexington and Concord began the military phase of the


Although the British had won a global war in 1763,

they were in a weaker position in 1775. They were deprived of the help that Americans had given them during the Seven Years’ War. There was now no continental

war to preoccupy and divide the European powers. One

by one, the European powers exploited Britain’s vulnerable position and declared war upon her. France entered

the war in 1778, Spain in 1779, and Holland in 1780.

The financial and military assistance of these states—

especially the French—plus the division of British opinion over the war, helped to decide the war. France sent

increasingly larger armies, such as the force of six thousand men that arrived with Count Jean de Rochambeau

in 1780. By the later phases of the war, French forces

were decisive. In the battle fought at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, the largest army was neither British nor

American but French. Facing such growing forces, the

British accepted the independence of thirteen of her

American colonies in 1783.

The American Revolution obliged the British to reconsider the situation in other territories. Both nearby

(in Ireland) and around the world (in India), Britain

faced problems. The Anglo-Protestant domination of

Ireland had grown steadily during English battles with

Catholicism at home and abroad in the seventeenth

and eighteenth centuries, especially after the Protestant

victory in the battle of the Boyne in 1690. One striking

consequence of these struggles could be seen in land

tenure. In 1603 Catholics had owned 90 percent of the

land in Ireland; in 1778, they owned 5 percent.

Catholics protested their execution, which had left

them at the mercy of absentee landlords who collected

extortionate rents. When Parliament considered improving conditions in Ireland, such as the Relief Act of

1778, the result was a Protestant backlash. Protestants

in the northern counties of Ulster founded the Protestant Volunteers, a paramilitary force of forty thousand

armed men to defend their privileged position. The

House of Commons capitulated to the Protestants by

creating a Protestant-dominated parliament in Ireland

known as Grattan’s Parliament, which survived until Ireland was merged into the United Kingdom in 1801.


The Vulnerable Monarchy

of Bourbon France

In contrast to the situation in England, the French

monarchy carried the powers of absolutism into the

eighteenth century: Louis XIV, le Roi Soleil (the Sun

King), the most powerful of the seventeenth-century

monarchs, died in 1715 after the longest reign in the

history of European monarchy, nearly seventy-three

years. Advocates of limiting absolutism had placed their

hopes in the heirs of Louis XIV, but within a single year

(1711–12), Louis’s son, grandson, and eldest greatgrandson all died. The death of Louis XIV consequently brought to the throne his five-year-old

great-grandson, Louis XV, who would reign for most of

the eighteenth century (from 1715 to 1774).

Louis XIV had practiced the distrustful but shrewd

administrative principle of fragmenting power near to

the throne, and he extended this policy after death by a

will dividing the powers of the regency to rule France

until Louis XV came of age. The regent of France during the childhood of Louis XV was his cousin,

Philippe II, the duke d’Orléans, a liberal and tolerant

man, although profligate enough to be considered dissipated even in the context of royal families. The duke

skillfully obtained full power by making a deal with the

chief judicial body in France, the parlement of Paris: The

parlement invalidated the will of Louis XIV, and in return, Philippe d’Orléans allowed the fifteen parlements

of France greater powers to review (and block) royal

decrees. Thus, when Louis XV reached age thirteen and

began to rule without a regent in 1723, he inherited a

streamlined government, but he faced well-entrenched

opposition from the aristocratic parlements.

Louis XV was an intelligent and capable young

man, amiable enough to be called Louis “the WellBeloved.” He was not interested in controlling the government as his great-grandfather had; he liked the idea

of absolutism but lacked enthusiasm for the daily

chores of governing. Consequently, at age sixteen

Louis XV entrusted the government of France to his

tutor, Cardinal Fleury, who served as the virtual prime

minister of France (without the title) between 1726 and

1743. Louis, who had been married at age fifteen for

reasons of state, amused himself with a variety of

women while Fleury used his long tenure, as Walpole

did in Britain, to stabilize and organize the government.

When Fleury died, Louis XV tried to restore the

system of Louis XIV—ruling personally instead of trusting a minister to govern. Like George II of England, he

took command of his army and led it into battle in

1744. Ministers who wanted too much power were reduced to the shadows, as was a finance minister of 1759

who left behind his name for that condition: Etienne de

Silhouette. Instead of trusting a prime minister and a

cabinet, Louis chiefly took advice from his official mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour. She exerted a gener-

The Political Evolution of the Old Regime, 1715–89 357

3 TABLE 19.2 3

The Cost of Royal Extravagance, 1760

The following bill was presented by a Parisian jeweller in

1760 for a single piece of furniture, a jewelled, lacquered

writing desk called an escritoire. To understand this level of

royal spending, compare it with the annual incomes and

prices in livres shown in Table 17.3.

Component of a lacquer desk with

flower vase, powder box, and

sponge case


Cost in livres




Labor (cabinet maker, joiner, and

lock maker)

Labor (sublet jewellery work)



Miniature portrait of the empress


Packaging box with copper mounts


Labor (packaging)






Source: Condensed from data in Nancy Mitford, Madame de Pompadour

(New York, N.Y.: E. P. Dutton, 1968); p. 276.

ally liberal and enlightened influence on French policy,

but she was not able to master the king’s greatest problem: Like George III of England, he found that he had

inherited a government deep in debt, with disordered

finances and no ready solutions.

The French Financial Crisis and the

Resurgent Aristocracy

The foremost problem facing Louis XV was the disastrous state of French finances created by high military

expenses and low taxation. The wars of Louis XIV left

France in debt and near bankruptcy. The debt amounted

to 36 percent of the government’s budget in 1739.

Royal opulence compounded the problem: The cost

of maintaining the royal family, splendid palaces such

as Versailles, and the life of the royal court exceeded

10 percent of the national budget, whereas all expenditures on social welfare, including royal pensions, got

only 8 percent of the budget. The extravagant spending

on luxuries could reach absurd levels. A single piece of

furniture for a royal palace, gilded and bejewelled, cost

more than the servant who dusted it could earn in two

thousand years (see table 19.2).

Cardinal Fleury established financial order in

France, but he could not resolve the underlying problems of inadequate taxation and therefore could not

eliminate the debt. The principal direct tax, the taille,

was collected on land and property, but it was inadequate because the aristocracy, the church, and some

towns had exemptions from it. Attempts to create an

income tax without exemptions, such as the dixième

(10 percent) of 1710, had been blocked by the aristocracy, the church, and the parlements. The right to

collect indirect taxes, such as tax stamps on documents,

had been sold to “tax farmers” for a fixed sum, while

they collected whatever excess they could. Many traditional taxes, such as the salt tax (gabelle), had been cut

for some regions and could not be increased.

The Seven Years’ War converted an intractable financial problem into a national crisis. France was

populous, rich, and powerful, but the government was

facing bankruptcy. The war cost most of the French

colonial empire and 50 percent of French world trade.

The national debt rose to 62 percent of the national

budget in 1763, and it was growing because of huge interest obligations and a rigid tax structure; new loans to

restructure the debt could reduce the percentage of the

budget consumed but perpetuate the problem. So finances became the dominant issue in France during the

twilight years of the Old Regime. Ultimately, neither

side won. The financial crisis led France to one of the

greatest revolutions of modern history.

King Louis XV, once beloved, was unable to handle

these problems. His indebted and ineffective government plus his life of luxury and debauchery produced

unpopularity and stately torpor. The death of Madame

de Pompadour in 1764 left the king in despair. He

slowly became an eighteenth-century stereotype, the

aging voluptuary. After a few years of entertaining himself with a royal brothel at Versailles known as Deer

Park, Louis selected another official mistress in 1769.

Unfortunately, Madame du Barry lacked the insights

and education of Madame de Pompadour.

The dominant figure in the French government after the Seven Years’ War was Duke Etienne de Choiseul,

a capable soldier-statesman who had been sponsored by

Madame de Pompadour. Choiseul effectively rebuilt

French military strength after 1763 but not French finances. To his credit, Louis XV attempted a solution.

He ordered that a wartime tax, the vingtième—“the twentieth,” a 5 percent income tax that fell on all classes—

remain in force. This provoked a virtual rebellion of

aristocrats who believed themselves exempt from such

taxes. The aristocratic lawyers and magistrates of the noblesse de robe, who controlled the parlements of the higher

358 Chapter 19

Illustration 19.3

— The French Parlements. The

French parlements, which were high courts

of appeal, were a different institution

from the English parliament, which was

a legislative body. There was a parlement in each of thirteen provinces in

eighteenth-century France, and the magistrates in each court were nobles (the

nobility of the robe) who owned their

office. The parlements resembled parliament in their mutual resistance to royal

power. In this illustration, however, a

parlement is seen deliberating an issue

involving the church, as the proud

princes of the church parade in the


court system, formed the center of the resistance (see illustration 19.3). The Parlement of Paris ruled that the

king’s decree was illegal. In the south of France, the Parlement of Toulouse even arrested the royal governor

who tried to enforce the tax law.

Louis XV capitulated to the parlements in 1764, rescinding the vingtième and changing his government.

This did not end his battles with the parlements. When

he tried to introduce a road building program in Brittany, relying upon a royal corvée to provide labor, Breton

nobles and the Parlement of Rennes protested. The

frustrated king ordered the arrest of the president of the

Parlement of Rennes, but this provoked a united protest

from all fifteen parlements, claiming that they represented the nation whenever the Estates General (which

had last met in 1614) was not in session. As the Parlement of Rouen stated, they considered themselves

“the custodian and the depository” of the French constitution, and the king must bend before the law.

This time the king stood firm. In 1766 he sent

royal troops to occupy the seat of the Parlement of

Paris, then personally appeared before the parlement to

express his anger. “I will not allow,” Louis told the magistrates, this usurpation of power. “ The magistrates are

my officers, charged with the truly royal duty of rendering justice to my subjects.” Louis insisted that the

duties of the parlements did not restrict his sovereignty:

“In my person only does the sovereign power rest. . . .

To me alone belongs legislative power, unconditionally

and indivisibly.” To underscore his claim to absolute

power, Louis XV named a new government, headed by

René de Maupeou, to fight the parlements. In 1771

Maupeou abolished the parlements and created a simpler court system in which the magistrates were salaried

state employees instead of owners of their office. He

hoped to create a new tax system, both fairer and sufficient for the fiscal crisis, without facing an aristocratic

veto. The aristocracy, backed by many philosophes

who detested royal absolutism, naturally raised vociferous opposition. But much opinion also supported the

king. Voltaire stood with Maupeou’s dismissal of the

parlements, saying that he would rather be governed by

a fine lion than by two hundred rats.

The aristocracy won the day in 1774, when Louis

XV died. His nineteen-year-old grandson, Louis XVI,

possessed generally good intentions, but he was too

timid and inexperienced to stand up to the nobility.

His first acts were to dismiss Maupeou and to restore

the parlements. Consequently, he faced a strengthened

aristocracy throughout his reign. In 1777, when

Joseph II of Austria visited his sister, Queen Marie

Antoinette, in Paris, he concluded that the government

of France was “an aristocratic despotism.”

Louis XVI also inherited the desperate financial situation. In the year of his coronation, the state’s revenues were 5 percent below its expenditures, increasing

a debt that consumed a third of the budget just in interest payments. Those problems soon worsened. Beginning in 1778, France was again at war, supporting—and

financing—the American Revolution. Other problems

were beginning. The foremost source of French wealth

was agriculture, and in 1774 an agricultural recession

began. Farm profits, which translated into tax revenue,

plummeted in 1775, and they never again during the

The Political Evolution of the Old Regime, 1715–89 359

Old Regime reached the levels of 1772–74. The decade

between 1777 and 1786 saw five harvests in which

the average farmer lost money, plus two other poor


The reign of Louis XVI did show signs of hope, as a

result of a reforming ministry led by the minister of finance, Robert Turgot, and the interior, Chrétien

Malesherbes. Malesherbes was a liberal who had defended the publication of the Encyclopédie. Turgot was

a minor aristocrat who had reached high office in a

typical way for a venal society: He bought his position

for 100,000 livres. He was also a free-thinker and a

leader of the enlightened economic school of the Physiocrats, whose doctrines he explained in the Encyclopédie.

In a series of decrees known as the Six Edicts (1776),

Turgot and Malesherbes laid the basis for economic recovery. The edicts abolished the monopoly of the

guilds to stimulate economic competition. They abolished the burden of the corvée on peasants and replaced

it with a tax on all landowners. And they eliminated

most internal tariffs on the grain trade to bring down

the price of bread. At the same time, Turgot cut government spending, especially in the portion of the budget devoted to royal pensions and the royal court.

The reforms of 1774–76 made many enemies. The

opposition of the parlements, pressure from powerful

guilds, and intrigues at court brought down Turgot in

1776 and Malesherbes followed him. The Parlement of

Paris, for example, claimed that the Six Edicts “imperil

the constitution.” The magistrates carried the day:

Guild monopolies, the corvée, and internal tariffs were all

restored. Another capable minister of finance, a Swissborn, Protestant financier named Jacques Necker, succeeded Turgot. Necker had made a fortune as a banker

during the Seven Years’ War. His home was one of the

most influential centers of the Enlightenment, where

his wife, Suzanne (a prominent writer and the daughter

of a Swiss pastor), and their daughter, Germaine (later

famous as the Baroness de Staël, also a distinguished

writer), directed a brilliant salon. Necker lived at the

center of a network of financial, political, and intellectual leaders, and they shaped a series of enlightened reforms during his ministry from 1778 to 1781. He

drafted a royal decree abolishing the limited form of

serfdom that survived in France, although it applied

only to royal lands. It condemned serfdom in principle

and urged aristocrats to follow the king’s lead; it did not

force abolition in respect for the principle of private

property. Few aristocrats followed the king, so serfdom

lingered in France, especially in eastern France, where

the parlement—most of whose members owned serfs—

refused to register the royal decree.

The successors of Turgot and Necker as ministers

of finance during the 1780s were utterly unable to

break the logjam by which the aristocracy blocked

meaningful tax reform. Charles de Calonne, a courtier

and less able financier, skirted the edges of bankruptcy

by continually increasing the debt. He, too, concluded

that a new tax was essential and proposed a land tax, to

be paid by aristocrats and the church as well as commoners. To win aristocratic support, an Assembly of

Notables (a body of uncertain constitutional basis) was

called in 1787; the assembly failed to agree upon anything except opposition to Calonne’s tax. This led to

Calonne’s ouster and yet another minister of finance,

who sought even bigger loans, asked the parlements to

approve new taxes, and met yet another rejection.

The consequence of the aristocratic rejection of

new taxes was that the French national debt reached

100 percent of the budget in 1789. A second consequence was that the aristocracy forced Louis XVI to call

elections for the Estates General. The Parlement of Besanỗon had proposed that solution in 1783 and others

had adopted the idea. Louis resisted, trying instead his

grandfather’s idea of abolishing the parlements in 1788.

He finally conceded defeat, however, and agreed to a

meeting of the Estates General in May 1789—which

led directly to the French Revolution.


The Habsburg Empire in the Age

of Maria Theresa

In contrast to Britain, where Parliament had broken the

power of the king, or to France, where the resurgent

aristocracy was restricting the power of the king, in

Austria the Habsburg family still held nearly absolute

power during the eighteenth century. The political evolution in Austria—known as enlightened despotism—

showed how monarchy could respond to new


The Habsburg Empire dominated Germanic central

Europe at the start of the eighteenth century, dwarfing

its rivals in size, population, and military might. Prussia

numbered only 1.6 million persons and Bavaria 2.0 million; the Habsburg lands held 11.0 million. In the first

decades of the century, Habsburg armies under the

skillful command of Prince Eugene of Savoy had fought

well in the War of the Spanish Succession, and the

peace treaties of 1714 gave the Habsburgs the Austrian

Netherlands (Belgium) and Lombardy. Wars with the

Ottoman Empire at the end of the seventeenth century

had acquired the Kingdom of Hungary, including vast

360 Chapter 19

territories in eastern Europe. Thus, in 1714 Vienna controlled lands from Brussels in the west to Milan in the

south, Belgrade in the east, and Prague in the north—

plus the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. This gave

the Habsburg emperor Charles VI, who reigned from

1711 to 1740, daunting political problems. The heterogeneous, polyglot realm was united only by the person

of the Habsburg monarch.

Hungary gave Charles the most difficulty. The

magnate class had been largely autonomous under the

Turkish sultan, and their diet expected no less from the

Habsburgs. Some Hungarian nobles even claimed a remarkable right, the jus resistandi, which legalized resistance to central authority. Charles VI realized that “[I]t

is very important that quiet should prevail in this country,” and he made numerous concessions to the Hungarians, such as promises to continue their Diet, to

tolerate religious minorities (many nobles were Protestants), and not to tax the magnates. Such concessions

to regional rights, however, meant that Austria lagged

behind rivals such as Prussia in the development of a

centralized authority and bureaucracy.

The second formidable political problem confronting Charles VI was the issue of his heir. His only

son died in infancy, and all Habsburg lands thus probably would pass to his daughter, Maria Theresa, who

could not become Holy Roman Empress (because the

Salic Law excluded women) but who could, under Austrian law, inherit the family dominions. Charles knew

that powerful men might challenge his succession if the

throne passed to a woman; he therefore devoted much

of his reign to guaranteeing Maria Theresa’s succession

and preventing a war of Austrian succession. For

Charles, the issue was not protecting his daughter or

defending the rights of women, it was the perpetuation

of the dynasty and the territorial integrity of the farflung Habsburg lands. For his subject peoples, however,

his death would open the prospect of independence or

enhanced autonomy. For the European powers, it suggested the dismemberment of the Habsburg Empire.

The solution Charles VI proposed was a document

called the Pragmatic Sanction. It proclaimed that the

Habsburg lands were indivisible, and it outlined the

Austrian succession through Maria Theresa. Charles

obtained the agreement of his family and published the

Pragmatic Sanction in 1719. For the next twenty years

he bargained within the empire and abroad, buying acceptance of the Pragmatic Sanction. Negotiations with

the Hungarian Diet produced its acceptance in 1723, at

the price of further weakening Viennese central authority over Hungary. A lifetime of diplomatic bribery

bought the consent (sometimes recanted and bought

again) of the European powers. Britain, for example, accepted the Pragmatic Sanction by a treaty of 1731;

Charles paid Britain by closing the Austrian trading

company (the Ostend Company) that competed with

the British in global commerce. The king of Spain

signed in return for the duchy of Parma.

Maria Theresa inherited the Habsburg dominions

in 1740 at the age of twenty-three, and she stayed on

the throne until her death in 1780. She possessed energy and determination but an empty treasury and a

weakened army. She began to reorganize the government, but the Pragmatic Sanction failed almost immediately. Her realm accepted her, and the Hungarians were

chivalrous in her defense, but the duke of Bavaria, the

king of Spain, and the elector of Saxony each claimed

the Habsburg crown for himself. The Holy Roman Empire sided with Bavaria, choosing the duke to be emperor. The king of Prussia demanded the province of

Silesia as his price for honoring the Pragmatic Sanction.

When Maria Theresa refused to surrender Silesia, the

Prussians invaded it, beginning a series of wars known

collectively as the War of the Austrian Succession


The war went poorly for Maria Theresa at first.

The Prussians occupied Silesia. France, Spain, and

Bavaria joined an alliance against her. The support of

Britain and Holland, however, prevented the partitioning of the Habsburg Empire. When the duke of Bavaria

died in 1745, the electors of the Holy Roman Empire

acknowledged the stability of Maria Theresa’s position

by choosing her husband, the duke of Lorraine, as Emperor Francis I. The belligerents reached the same conclusion about Maria Theresa in 1748, ending the War

of the Austrian Succession in a treaty that sustained the

Pragmatic Sanction except for permitting Prussia to retain Silesia.

The Habsburg Empire had survived the coronation

of a woman, but Maria Theresa’s empire remained internally divided and less efficient than her rivals. Conditions improved when she entrusted the government to

a strong chancellor, Count Kaunitz, but he could not

block the rise of a hungry rival for leadership in central

Europe, Prussia. Within a few years, Austrian armies

again found themselves engaged with the Prussians.

The Seven Years’ War devastated both countries, leaving no true victors. When peace came again in 1763,

the Austrian Empire remained firmly in the grip of

Maria Theresa, but even larger financial and administrative problems plagued her. She faced the problems of

recovery and reorganization, even establishing a national budget for the first time in her reign. The death

of her husband in 1765, however, plunged her into

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