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Chapter

Absolutism and Constitutionalism


Department
History
Course Code
HIS103Y1
Professor
Vasilis Dimitriadis

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Absolutism and Constitutionalism
I. Absolutism
Much of the history of 17th and 18th century Europe is the history of the struggle for control between Great Britain and France.
oGreat Britain and France not only represented two different systems of government, with Britain being a constitutional monarchy and
France an absolutist state.
oThere were several other differences
issue of religious freedom
the role of the gentry and nobility
the role of the army and navy
oMoreover, France faced a constant threat from the Hapsburg countries around her:
Spain
the Spanish Netherlands
Milan in northern Italy
Luxembourg
and the Austrian empire (including the old Holy Roman Empire)
oThese foreign threats kept France busy until the war of Spanish Succession made Spain an ally, and finally broke the Hapsburg
encirclement, leaving France free to try to dominate the continent and spurring on Great Britain to stop her at any cost.
Idea of Divine Monarchy
oMonarchs are God's chosen ones on earth
oIdeas of James I of England -- discuss
othe power of these monarchs was seen to be absolute (at least by the monarchs themselves)
"L'état ç'est moi" -- Louis XIV as the absolute monarch
oLouis XIV came to the throne in 1643 as a young boy (5 years old), firmly believing in the divine right of kings.
oBy the time he was in his early 20s, he had gained nearly absolute power as King of France
owhen asked about the limits of his power, Louis replied, "L'état ç'est moi" (I am the state)
oAs a result he continued the advancement of the French monarchy which had begun in earnest under Francis I.
oTo do this, he needed to domesticate the French nobility which had long squabbled with the French kings for dominance
He did this by building his palace at Versailles and obliging the nobility to come to him, instead of himself traveling around
France to preserve order with his very presence
The palace cost him one-half year's royal revenue to build
The magnificant system of palaces and grounds at Versailles had numerous Sun emblems all around--which helped
give Louis the nickname the "Sun King"
Here the nobility was crammed into tiny rooms, with little sanitation--even the drinking water froze at night in winter
But all social and political advancement was at Versailles, and so they came
Versailles is an example of the secular Baroque style of architectur, designed to overawe people with the monarch's
strength and wealth
as the Catholic church had desired to overawe when it created the Catholic Baroque a century before, and Americans
would try to do with Washington, DC 150 years later.

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Here at Versailles, the nobility wasted its time playing cards, engaging in dances, and spending money lavishly on fripperies
Louis' idea was so successful in taming or defanging the French nobility, that the palace idea was adopted by other monarchs
in Europe interested in creating a true absolutist state
from Peter the Great of Russia to the Hapsburgs in Vienna, monarchs tried to imitate Louis' court at Versailles
oTo pay for all this, Louis employed Jean-Baptiste Colbert, his chief financial minister, to vigorously pursue a policy of mercantilism to
increase the wealth and power of the state.
Although Colbert did not invent the theory, he used it to provide Louis with the robust economy his plans demanded.
The wealth of a nation according to the 18th century was based on the nation's gold supply, and to acquire more gold, a
country would need a favorable balance of trade (selling more overseas than it bought), making the country more self
sufficient.
High tariffs were used to keep out foreign competition, colonies were sought to produce what France could not, and a powerful
merchant marine was constructed to ferry goods back and forth across the seas.
All this, however, presented a direct threat to Great Britain, who had already staked out the position as premier force of the sea
and who, since the Navigation Acts, had employed mercantilism to produce the thriving British economy.
oRevocation of the Edict of Nantes
Colbert's success with the French economy was undone by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685
The Edict of Nantes had been passed during the wars of religion and had guaranteed religious toleration for the French
Protestants, known as Huguenots
Despite the edict, these Protestants had been the victims of government harassment throughout the 17th century, but
even more so after 1679 when Louis decreed there would be but one law and one religion--his Catholicism.
When the Edict of Nantes was revoked, 300,000 Frenchmen left, carrying with them their skills, their money, and their hatred
of Louis XIV and absolutism, feeding into the ears of British Anglicans the thought that Catholics once in power, like James II,
could not be trusted to preserve religious toleration (which had repurcussion in the British government)
oLouis XIV and the French military
The Sun King was not content with mere economic domination of the Europe
To further dominate the continent, Louis improved his army
Now the army would be employed directly by the king, not the nobles whom he distrusted, and the officers would be
French even though many of the men would be mercenaries
He found a way to feed the army rather than have it live off the land, so the French armies rarely plundered the
countryside, although to avoid doing so they sacrificed valuable speed as they dragged their supply wagons behind
them
Louis even built a hospital for the injured soldiers, called Les Invalides, in Paris, on the premise that soldiers who knew
they would be cared for would fight more energetically
But the area of most advance was artillery and engineers where one actually had to know what one was doing, and it is
here that the sons of the middle class and lowest of the low nobility rose rapidly, the most famous example being
Napoleon in the next century
But the army was huge, never falling below 200,000 and at full fighting strength it was 400,000, all of whom would
have to be paid as mercenaries, fed and housed, creating a huge drain on French tax receipts
Louis' army does not live up to expectations--The War of Spanish Succession
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During the War of Spanish Succession, 1701-13, this huge army failed to distinguish itself and France lost the war.
As part of his drive to break out of his Hapsburg encirclement, Louis schemed to have a relative of his named to
the Spanish throne when the insane and ailing Spanish king died
This robbed Austria of a throne she believed belonged to the family and would have secured peace along the
Pyrenees to give France one area she would not have to worry about Hapsburg attack
Thus, the war pitted France and Spain against Austria and Great Britain, who saw the opportunity to damage
France by supporting Austrian claims
England continually organized coalitions to keep first France (and later Germany in the 20th century) from dominating
Europe, and here she fought with Austria, but in a few years she dropped Austria as an ally and embraced Prussia
France lost the war because the army was poorly financed and badly equipped (despite the money that Louis
poured into it), and France was also hurt by the terrible famine of 1709
John Churchill led the armies of the English coalition to a resounding victory at Blenheim in 1704, whereupon a
grateful nation built him Blenheim palace outside Oxford, and made him the Duke of Marlborough
The war ended with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which was less of a victory than Britain had won on the battlefield
Philip, Louis' relative, became king of Spain on the condition that the Spanish and French crowns were never
united
But France was obliged to give up Newfoundland which Britain would then use as a staging area for the later
war on Canada, and Spain gave up Gibraltar, the only entrance into or exit from the Mediterranean until the
creation of the Suez canal in 1869
This war (which was far different than the 30 Years War) was fought as were most 18th century wars, by professional
armies, not the masses as would occur later in the French revolution
thus, most people were involved in the war only indirectly
As a result of the war, the long-standing rivalry between France and Spain was replaced by a strong Spanish-French
alliance, and the two most powerful countries in Europe, France and Great Britain, struggled for the control of the
continent.
oImpact of Louis XIV on France
Louis XIV died in 1715
He had unified France as she had never been before, but he left her demoralized and debilitated by costly wars which
he lost
He also sold many offices, thus exempting more people from taxation and raising the tax rates on those still left in the
system, those who were least able to pay
In the long run, he may have discredited absolutism
Indeed, the later Seven Years war displayed French weakness to the rest of the world, showing France would need
more than mere political and administrative reform--and thus helped usher in the French revolution.
The Seven Years War (1756-1763)
oBy the middle of the 18th century, England moved to neutralize France as a dominant force on the European continent.
To this end, she subsidized allies in Europe, first Austria and then Prussia, to keep France busy fighting in Europe while she
concentrated on conquering colonies overseas and destroying French commerce
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