Enlightened Despotism characteristics reforms Representatives

Enlightened Despotism

Form of government that consisted of the adoption of some ideas of the Enlightenment by the European kings of the eighteenth century. In this article we will provide you the information about the Enlightened Despotism.

An enlightened despotism or enlightened absolutism is called a form of government that consisted in the adoption of some of the ideas of the Enlightenment by the European kings of the second half of the 18th century

The main representatives of enlightened despotism were Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, José II of Austria, Carlos III of Spain and José I of Portugal. These monarchs incorporated into their cabinets ministers and advisers who were imbued with the new ideas of the Enlightenment , such as Pombal in Portugal, Campomanes in Spain or von Kaunitz in Austria. They also invited renowned philosophers of the time (including Voltaire) to settle in their courts and propose reforms of all kinds.

Enlightened despotism began to decline after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. The fear of the monarchs that revolutionary ideas would spread in their territories led them to stop the reforms and to separate from their cabinets the ministers most inherent to the program of illustration.

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Characteristics of enlightened despotism

The main characteristics of enlightened despotism were the following:

  • It was based on the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment , according to which human decisions should be guided by reason .
  • He tried to reconcile the strengthening of royal power with economic progress and the orderly and balanced development of society .
  • The State was conceived as an artificial entity  created by men to guarantee their coexistence and delivered to the sovereign through a revocable contract.
  • The king was the one who held all the power, but not for his own benefit, since he had to be the first servant of the State. Its main function was to provide happiness and prosperity to its subjects , although this did not imply the participation of the people in political life. This idea was synthesized by the well-known phrase: “Everything for the people, but without the people.”
  • He argued that a better future could be achieved  not through radical or violent change, but gradually and peacefully, through patient educational and legislative work.
  • It was translated into political , social , religious , cultural and economic reforms that reached varying intensity, depending on the case.

Reforms of enlightened despotism

The main reforms undertaken by the enlightened despots were the following:

  • Administration bureaucratization : through the creation of centralized administrative bodies. In Prussia, for example, Frederick II created new ministries (Justice, Mines, Construction, etc.) and improved the methods for selecting officials.
  • Reorganization of the tax system : through the abolition of some tax exemptions that benefited the clergy and the nobility. The objective was to distribute tax obligations more equitably.
  • Modernization of the economy : giving impetus to agricultural development and the expansion of trade.
  • Reform of the judicial system : thanks to the drafting of new legislative codes. In Austria, for example, Joseph II had a penal code enacted that abolished torture and limited the death penalty.
  • Extension of education and culture : through the creation of schools and libraries and the development of academies and scientific societies.
  • Religious tolerance : which benefited the subjects because they could profess the religion of their choice, but which had the ultimate goal of affirming the primacy of the State over the Church.

The measures taken by the enlightened despots contributed to economic progress , the extension of education and social renewal , especially in those countries with not very developed bourgeoisies . However, the political structures remained practically intact, although no longer justified in a divine origin of power, such as in the seventeenth century , but in the use of reason to govern.

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Representatives of enlightened despotism

The main representatives of enlightened despotism were the following:

  • Frederick II the Great (1740-86) : King of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg. Known as the philosopher king, he supported the arts and philosophy and promoted various reforms, such as the modernization of the bureaucracy, the public administration and the opening of the judicial career to men of non-aristocratic origin.
  • José I de Braganza (1750-77) : King of Portugal, known as “The reformer”, had as its main minister the Marquis of Pombal, of enlightened ideas. He promoted important reforms, such as the expulsion of the Jesuits, the confiscation of Church lands, and the extension of public education.
  • Carlos III de Borbón (1759-88) : King of Spain, Naples and Sicily. He surrounded himself with a team of ministers and enlightened collaborators such as Esquilache, Aranda, Campomanes and Floridablanca. He launched a series of political, administrative, ecclesiastical and economic reforms known as Bourbon reforms , which were aimed at strengthening royal power.
  • Catherine II the Great (1762-96) : Russian empress of German origin. He established fluid contacts with the kingdoms of Western Europe, from which he imported philosophy, art, culture and education. He maintained epistolary communication with the great French illustrated philosophers, such as Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu.
  • Joseph II of Habsburg (1765-1790) : Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor . He governed supported and influenced by Chancellor Wencel von Kaunitz, of enlightened ideas. He modernized the functioning of the public administration, encouraged the development of agriculture, unified the tax system, abolished peasant servitude, established religious tolerance, subordinated the Church to the State, and created several universities.

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