The Enlightened Absolutists might be one of those AP European History concepts that seems vaguely familiar, but you can’t quite put your finger on why or how. You may be asking yourself, was it part of The Enlightenment? Or, was it a form of absolutist governance? You’d be right to ask such questions, since the Enlightened Absolutists were a mixture of both. Its proponents represent an important shift in European History. And the AP Euro exam loves to ask questions about historical shifts.
We’ve created this AP European History Crash Course with the AP Euro exam in mind. That means we are not only going to cover the main events, dates, and people associated with Enlightened Absolutism, but we are going to highlight the ways that the term itself is most likely to appear on your upcoming AP Euro test. By doing this, our AP Euro review on Enlightened Absolutism will show you the historical context that helped to define and shape the movement, providing you with the best information to help you get that 5 on your upcoming AP Euro exam.
What is Enlightened Absolutism?
As we stated above, the definition of Enlightened Absolutism is actually built into its name. Easy to remember for the AP Euro exam, right? All you need to do is keep in mind that this was a philosophical and government related concept that mixed the values of the Enlightenment into ideas about absolutist monarchies.
FYI, it’s also been called Enlightened Despotism and Benevolent Absolutism.
More specifically, during the 18th and 19th centuries, kings and queens were starting to justify their total control over society and politics by incorporating Enlightenment ideas about democracy, liberty, the social contract, the arts, and education into their power regimes.
Many of these Enlightened Absolutists actually believed in the power of social participation in the government, implementing laws that benefited “the people,” and starting state-funded education facilities. They turned to modern bureaucracies of the state as a way to manage these many projects, helping start the growth of modern governing apparatuses like schools and courts.
This may sound great, but these rulers implemented these policies according to their own ideas about control. They were often paternalistic, distrusting of the lower classes, and defended their own authority with absolute power.
Frederick the Great actually provided great insight into the Enlightened Absolutist movement in a letter to Voltaire:
Let us admit the truth: the arts and philosophy extend to only the few; the vast mass, the common peoples and the bulk of nobility, remain what nature has made them, that is to say savage beasts.
As you can see, even though these leaders wanted to help their subjects and better their lives, they did so with a certain amount of malice. But before we delve too deeply into key historical figures like Frederick the Great, let’s put the Enlightened Absolutists into context.
Enlightened Absolutism in Historical Context
As you may be aware from your other AP Euro studies, absolute monarchies were all the rage before the 18th century. This type of all-encompassing political authority was embodied in kings and queens like James VI of Scotland, Peter I the Great of Russia, and King Louis XIV of France. In fact, King Louis XIV once said, “L’état, c’est moi!” Or, “I am the state!”
In other words, the monarch ruled all and did so without question. In particular, they had the backing of the Church to help maintain their power and control over everything from politics to morality to economics. They even believed that they were chosen by God to rule.
But this started to change in the 18th century. The Enlightened took on both religious and absolutist authority head on. Philosophers like Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Thomas Hobbes began spreading new ideas about social control, spreading notions about the freedom of expression, liberty, and the social contract (that the state was obligated to care for the citizens as long as those citizens supported the authority of the state).
So, in order to keep justifying their own sense of power over their subjects, monarchs and other rulers started to incorporate these values into their policies.
Who Were the Enlightened Absolutists and What Did They Do?
You may actually recognize some key Enlightened Absolutist figures from your other AP Euro studies. Hopefully names like Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Prussia, and Napoleon Bonaparte of France all ring some sort of bell. Indeed, they were all Enlightened Absolutists, justifying their own power with policies that implemented liberal rationalism and the support of Enlightenment thought.
Catherine the Great ruled over Russia between 1762 and 1796, an era that has been fondly remembered as a peak period in Russian history. Much of this had to do with the Enlightenment principles that Catherine tried to have put in place. For one, her support of the arts and education helped to usher in the Russian Enlightenment. She even created the first state-funded higher education institution for women in all of Europe.
She also cut the Church’s power and influence by using their land as a way to provide taxes for other programs. She even tried to implement newer laws to protect the serf class. But not all was successful. Despite some legal changes, the serfs were still getting short-changed by her policies, resulting in a series of rebellions throughout her tenure.
Frederick the Great’s (ruled between 1740 and 1786) story was very similar to Catherine’s. He encouraged religious tolerance, allowed for the freedom of the press, encouraged the arts, and supported scientific endeavors. He also tried to modernize Prussia’s state bureaucracies as a way to properly distribute his new policies across his lands. He even befriended one of the Enlightenment’s most influential figures: Voltaire. They both commiserated on how a modern monarch should rule their people, thinking up notions that would have frightened the absolutist generation before.
Napoleon should also be included in any Enlightened Absolutist, especially for the ways he combined his liberalist Napoleonic Code with being an all-powerful leader. Napoleon actually implemented a number of progressive and modern policies during his tenure as the Emperor of France, but his 1804 Napoleonic Code takes the cake. The Code itself granted new legal rights to various parts of the population.
What made it so impressive, though, was that it traveled with him into every country he conquered, Almost all of Europe soon fell under the code, creating a massive legal bureaucracy that unified diverse populations under the values of Enlightenment rationalism and the social contract. But at the same time, this all happened as he was conquering half of Europe, declaring everyone a subject of his French Empire.
Enlightened Absolutism and the AP European History Exam
Now that this AP European History Crash Course has covered who the Enlightened Absolutists were, when they were around, and how they were important, we want to turn to the AP Euro exam.
It may seem a little complicated that the Enlightened Absolutist movement spanned a decent chuck of time during the Enlightenment era and stretched across Europe, but there are a few things you are going to want to pay attention to for your upcoming AP European History exam.
First, you need to figure out the patterns here. The AP Euro exam is not all that likely to test you on what year the Napoleonic Code was created. Instead, the examiners are most likely going to ask you to think about the term as a historical concept in transition, like we’ve covered throughout this AP Euro review.
Always remember the words of the term: Enlightened Absolutism. These people represented the transition between the absolutist monarchists of pre-18th century Europe and the newly formed ideas about religious and political authority taking place in the Enlightenment Era. Political leaders like kings and queens were basically forced to start accepting ideas about freedom and the modern state as a way to hold onto their power.
Another big picture concept that you need to remember from this AP European History Crash Course is the big themes of the Enlightened Absolutist movement. Remember, that these authority figures generally turned to Enlightenment-era values to challenge religious authority in their governments. They all also attempted to modernize their state bureaucracies, so the laws and policies that they passed could affect more people. They almost all supported education, the sciences, and philosophical rationalism. This often resulted in the creation of new legal systems and state-funded schools like those in Catherine’s Russia.
And lastly, remember that Enlightened Absolutism didn’t fully work out in the end. The era of liberal revolutions (the American Revolution, the French Revolution, etc.) dethroned a number of monarchs, despite their efforts to better their state affairs. Enlightenment values never fully sat well with despotic absolutism.
Let’s end this AP European History Crash Course review on Enlightened Absolutism with an analysis of from an actual Free-Response Question from the 2003 AP European History Exam:
“Describe and analyze the influence of the Enlightenment on both elite culture and popular culture in the eighteenth century.”
Right off the bat, we cannot say too much about popular culture, since that was not really the topic of this AP Euro review. But we do know quite a bit about elites at this point. Kings, Queens, and Emperors were definitely in the elite class during this era in European history.
We also know that before the Enlightenment elite leaders like King Louis XIV believed in their absolutist authority over their territories and peoples. But thinkers like Voltaire helped to shift this belief toward liberalism and rationalism.
No longer was religion seen as the most important influence in state affairs, freedoms of the press were encouraged, individual liberties were slowly granted, and the arts and sciences were supported even if they did sometimes challenge the authority of the Church and the State.
The list can go on. So, take everything you have learned from this AP European Crash Course review on Enlightened Absolutism, think about the ways it represented a very important time of transition in European history, and go score that 5 on your upcoming AP Euro exam!
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Enlightened Despotism During The 18th Century In Austria, Prussia And Russia
Enlightened Despotism was the form of government adopted by absolute monarchs who were influenced by the Enlightenment, mostly in Central and Eastern European powers, during the 18 and 19 centuries. Their reigns were marked by a general modernization of their countries' economical, social and military polices and also by an overall rationalization of the entire ruling system, not only that of the king but the entire governing apparatus.
The main reason for the shift in policy from a form of absolute government to a enlightened absolutism (despotism), which consisted of the modernization of the economy, the military, the legislative system and stretched as far as the acceptance of new ideas about the social contract and even war itself; emerged in Central and Eastern Europe mainly due to the advances made by: France, Spain, Portugal, England and Holland in acquiring colonies in Africa, Asia and especially the Americas. These Western European countries were forced to look for a new link to the Far East for their trading and natural resources after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. In order not be overtaken by the oceanic powers; both economically and military, the interior powers of Central and Eastern Europe had to modernize. Therefore monarchs ruled with the intent of improving the lives of their subjects, centralize and improve decision making and increase production in order to strengthen and reinforce their authority and the power of their kingdoms.
The three heavy weights that supported this form of government were Catherine II of Russia, Frederick II of Prussia and Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire. Although their polices varied somewhat; for example Joseph's high acceptance of Rousseau's social contract was dismissed by Catherine which choose to base her government more on Montesquieu; and so shape the Russian law system; their main polices were fairly similar. The enlightened despots distinguished themselves from...
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