FC101: The Rise of the Modern State in Enlightenment Europe


FC101 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1855.
It appears that God has created me, pack horses, Doric columns, and us kings generally to carry the burdens of the world in order that others might enjoy its fruits. Frederick II, "the Great", of Prussia


Just as the Enlightenment philosophes saw a rational plan in the laws of nature and the universe, they also influenced rulers in building their states along rational lines.  For the first time in European history, there was a general realization of the relationship between economic, administrative, diplomatic, and military factors in state building.  Despite their vast differences, there was a general trend in both Eastern and Western Europe toward more tightly run bureaucratic states.  Public works projects, such as roads, bridges, dams, and canals, multiplied in the hope of building the economy of the mercantilist state.  New government departments also appeared in such areas as postal service, forests, agriculture, and livestock raising.  States also took censuses and kept statistics in order to plan out policies better.

In order to understand the evolution of the modern state, one needs to understand that the feudal state was patrimonial.  In other words, the kingdom was the patrimony (hereditary property) of a dynasty.  Likewise, the various judicial and administrative offices that ran the kingdom at the provincial and local levels were the patrimonies of privileged families.  The modern concept of kings and officials who were accountable for their actions and responsible for the welfare of their subjects was alien to the old feudal state.  This made the feudal state more a federation of separate principalities that, in theory, owed allegiance to a common monarch.  In the High Middle Ages, this concept of one monarch, among other things, provided at least some degree of order, helping lead to the rise of towns and feudal monarchies which supported each other and increased each other's strength.  Over the years, a common language and culture along with the spread of nationalism after the French Revolution united many of these states into what we would call nations.  The feedback between the rise of towns and kings produced two lines of development that would help each other in the rise of the modern state.

For one thing, the rise of towns and a money economy helped provide the basis for the Italian Renaissance and Protestant Reformation.  Calvinism, in particular, saw all believers as equal in God's eyes, which discredited Divine Right of Kings, helped justify religious/political revolution, and lay the foundations for modern democracy in the Dutch Revolt and English Revolution.  By the late 1600's the religious element was fading from theories of revolution.  Such political writings as John Locke's The Social Contract pushed the idea of the ruler being responsible for the welfare of his subjects.  Second, kings were building strong nation-states that, by the 1600's, were assuming greater control over all aspects of the state.  For example, the economic theory of mercantilism spurred rulers to work to develop the resources of their kingdoms.

Together these led to a growing realization of the interrelationships between administrative, economic, and political factors in the overall welfare of the state.  As a result, more and more royal officials were trained professionals.  They had to take competitive exams to gain their positions and did their jobs efficiently and impartially.  Kings and their officials also paid more attention to building and maintaining public works such as roads, bridges, and canals to improve the economy.  While the purpose of these reforms was to increase the tax base for the kings, they also benefited their subjects.  Higher standards of administration made people see their officials as a bureaucracy of service rather than one of privilege.  And since they were the king's men carrying out his will, people also saw their kings as public servants rather than as privileged owners of the state.  Frederick the Great's quotation at the top of the reading best represents this idea of the king as public servant.  As a result, in the 1700's the term absolute monarchy gave way to the term "enlightened despot", a monarch who ruled according to enlightened principles rather than the divine right of kings.

The eighteenth century state still had problems.  For one thing, it had a modern political administration superimposed upon a feudal social order.  Nobles were still the privileged social class, holding most of the important administrative and military positions.  Peasants in Central and Eastern Europe were still downtrodden serfs.  Even French peasants, who were otherwise free, had feudal obligations imposed upon them.

In spite of this, the centralized states emerging in the Enlightenment were important in the evolution of our own modern states in two ways.  First of all, the emergence of a professional bureaucracy, chosen largely for merit, not money or birth, provided the state with a modern administrative structure that continues today.  Second, the idea of the rulers and officials being servants, not owners, of the state was central to the revolutionary ideas that swept Europe starting with the French Revolution in 1789.  A closer look at several of the major states of eighteenth century Europe will give a better idea of their accomplishments and limitations.


 under Louis XV may at first glance have seemed like a strongly unified state.  But it had serious problems at the center of government.  First of all, the court at Versailles with its petty intrigues stifled the work of most capable officials.  Instead of tending to their appointed duties, officials spent more time defending their positions at court.  Under Louis XV there were 18 foreign secretaries and 14 controller generals, most of them eventually ruined by palace intrigue.  Their average terms of office were between two and three years.  At the center of this was the king, Louis, who was a somewhat intelligent, but weak willed and disinterested man who let others run the government for him.

Another problem for the central government was the intense competition between the council of state (from which all laws supposedly emerged) and the various ministers (justice, finance, war, navy, foreign affairs, and the king's household).  The ministers carried out and often formulated the king's policies.  However, we have seen what court intrigue did to many of the ministers, and one can imagine the confusion and lack of direction in the central government.

By contrast, the provincial government was fairly efficient.  The main figures here were the intendants that ran the 32 generalites (provinces) set up by Richelieu some 100 years before.  He was in charge of tax collection, justice, and policing his province, and he had a fairly free hand to carry out these duties as he saw fit.  The intendant was the king's agent in the province and was the man most Frenchmen saw as representing royal authority.  He also represented the interests of the people to the central government, and his opinion was generally respected by the king's ministers and councilors.  In contrast to the unfortunate officials close to Versailles, the intendants generally kept their positions for decades, which allowed them to know their territories and peoples more thoroughly and better rule them.  The intendants were often criticized for being too powerful and corrupt.  There certainly was some corruption, but in general, the intendants represented efficient and conscientious government.  Unfortunately, nobles, anxious to preserve and regain their ancient prestige, even took over more and more intendant positions as the 1700's progressed.

The intendants needed help at the local level.  These lower level officials fell into three categories.  The first category consisted of feudal officials who had bought or inherited their positions.  Such men had little training or care for their work and were a burden to the intendants that were stuck with them.  Next, there were subdelegates, who were poorly paid, poorly trained, and also of little use.  Finally, there were what we might call true civil servants.  These were specialists (engineers, architects, physicians, etc.) who had to take competitive tests to gain their positions.  These were the men who usually carried out the directives of the intendants and kept the French state running.  It was these officials who would survive the French Revolution and become the nucleus of the modern French civil service.

The Hapsburg Empire

 may have been an absolute monarchy, but it was a far cry from being a unified state.  The War of the Austrian Succession especially pointed out the need to organize an administration such as Richelieu and Frederick William the Great Elector had done for their respective states a century earlier.  The central government in Vienna had a number of governing bodies whose functions overlapped, which led to great confusion.  A full one-third or more of all taxes collected never made it to Vienna, so no effective budget could be made.  Local government consisted of noble estates (assemblies) that granted or refused the central government its taxes.  Nobles in Hungary owned 80% of the land and paid no taxes, leaving the full tax burden to the peasants.  The nobles also maintained jurisdiction over the peasants on their lands.  It was this mess that the Austrian minister, Count Haugwitz, set out to clean up.  He did it at the central, provincial, and local levels.  The central government was streamlined into five ministries: foreign affairs, commerce, war, justice, and internal affairs.  Typical of the prevailing mercantilist philosophy of the day, the minister of finance was deemed most important in both France and Austria.

At the provincial level, an administrative board known as the gubernium largely replaced the power of the noble estates.  In 1748, after the disasters of the War of the Austrian Succession, the estates recognized the need to reform the state and granted ten years worth of taxes to the central government.  This meant that the empress could rule without the estates for the next decade.  As their power withered, that of the gubernium increased.  Thus the feudal estates were gradually replaced by a more modern system.  Another important principle that took over here was that of the separation of powers within a government, specifically between the courts and the executive/legislative branches.  This principle was pushed by the French philosophe, Montesquieu, and has remained an important part of the modern state down to this day.

At the local level, a Hapsburg official, the kreishauptmann, interfered more and more in the affairs traditionally left to the noble estates.  The more such officials became involved in the daily affairs of the peasants, the more concerned they and the Hapsburgs were for their welfare and their ability to pay taxes.  Therefore, the kreishauptmann became the virtual champion of the peasants against the nobles, preventing them from evicting peasants and taking their lands or forcing them to do extra servile labor.

Maria Theresa's government also effected a major fiscal reform to raise revenue.  Even nobles and clergy had to pay regular property and income taxes.  This distributed the tax load more evenly, but there were still gross inequities.  The average peasant still paid twice the taxes that a noble paid.  And Bohemia was liable for twice the taxes that Hungary was.  Still, her reforms were a giant step forward for the Austrian Empire, and her system remained the basis for Hapsburg administration to the end of the empire in 1918.

Maria Theresa's son, Joseph I, carried the spirit of enlightened rule even further than his mother had.  He was an enlightened ruler who was determined to use his power to make his people live according to enlightened principles whether they liked it or not.  Joseph's reforms cut across the whole spectrum of the Hapsburg state and society.  In the judicial realm, he had the laws codified, tried to get speedier and fairer trials presided over by trained judges, and outlawed torture, mutilation, and the death penalty.  He ordered toleration for both Protestants and Jews and legalized interfaith marriages.  Along the same lines, he relaxed censorship, restricting it only to works of pornography, atheism, and what he deemed superstition.

Joseph was a devout Catholic, but saw the Church as a virtual department of state that needed some house cleaning.  Therefore, in 1781 he closed down many monasteries or converted them into hospitals and orphanages.  He also required a loyalty oath from the clergy to ensure tighter control of the Church.  He controlled and encouraged education, especially for the purpose of producing trained civil servants.  Through a combination of incentives for families who sent their sons to school and punishments for those who did not, Austria under Joseph had a higher percentage of children in school than any other state in Europe.

Joseph's reforms extended to trying to make his subjects' lives easier.  Although he failed to abolish serfdom, he did get the number of days per week that peasants had to work for their lords reduced from four to three and evened out the tax burden paid by peasants and nobles.  He tried to encourage trade and industry through high protective tariffs, tax relief, subsidies, loans, and the building of roads and canals.  He rewarded immigrants, but severely punished those trying to emigrate from his empire.  Sometimes, his decrees could interfere with the minutest aspects of people's lives, such as forbidding them to drink the muddy water of the Danube or to eat gingerbread and encouraging peasants to mix vinegar with their water.

By his death, Joseph had increased his empire's revenues from 66 million to 87 million florins, while virtually tripling the size of his army.  Unfortunately, no amount of reform probably could have solved the Empire's most serious problem: the large number of different nationalities and cultures forcibly held under Hapsburg rule.  German language and culture were imposed throughout the Empire.  But in the long run, the Hapsburg Empire was a virtual time bomb of nationalities waiting to explode and fragment into different states.


 was the state that most people saw as the epitome of the enlightened despotate.  At the center of this was Frederick II himself, whose incredible energy, drive, and intelligence were more than equal to what all the ministers and rulers of any other state in Europe were capable of.  Frederick clearly saw the interdependence of foreign, domestic, military, and financial affairs and was determined to direct all these affairs personally.  Therefore, he served as his own foreign minister, finance minister, and general staff.  (He even scouted enemy positions by himself, much to the worry of his officers.)

Frederick's workday started at 4 AM and extended to 10 PM.  The vast body of work and responsibilities he undertook required an incredibly organized schedule and work routine.  His civil servants in Berlin sent him details and data on specific matters, and he sent back orders he expected them to carry out punctually.  His court at Potsdam had neither family, court etiquette, religious holidays, nor other distractions to impair the government's efficiency.  The court and government resembled a barrack and were run with military precision.  If any one man gave us the idea of the state serving the people rather than the other way around, it was Frederick the Great.

Frederick had little faith in either his troops or bureaucracy and subjected them to severe surveillance and discipline to make sure they did their jobs.  Royal agents, known as fiscals, combined the duties of spies and prosecuting attorneys to keep the bureaucrats in line.  Any examples of corruption led to immediate dismissal.  Civil servants had virtually no civil rights (including that of a trial) and have been described as the "galley slaves" of the state.  Even with the fiscals, Frederick felt he needed better information about his government and kingdom.  Therefore, he had subordinates report to him about their superiors.  He also made an annual tour of the kingdom from May to August, personally examining officials, interviewing private citizens, inspecting local conditions, and gathering immense amounts of information.  There were few things of importance that escaped Frederick's notice for long.

Unlike the rest of Europe, where most public offices were either bought or inherited, Prussia required all of its civil servants to earn their positions by passing a civil service exam.  Most candidates had a college education in jurisprudence and government management.  All of them, regardless of class, also had to spend one to two years on a royal farm to familiarize themselves with the various aspects of agriculture, in particular the new scientific agricultural techniques being developed and the problems of lord-serf relations.

At the provincial level, there were 15 provincial chambers, each with 15 to 20 members.  Since the members were responsible for each other's actions, there was little corruption at this level.  The provincial chambers had two main duties: to collect taxes; and stimulate the economy to raise the tax base.  In true mercantilist spirit, they had sandy wastes reclaimed, swamps drained, and new settlements founded.  They went to England and Holland to study commercial and agricultural methods there, sought out markets for Prussian goods, and arrested any vagabonds they found, since laziness and indolence were public offenses in Prussia.

At the local level there were the steurrat and landrat, who administered towns and rural affairs respectively.  The steuerrat ruled from 6 to 10 towns, and left them little in the way of home rule.  In addition to collecting taxes, he fixed food prices, enforced government decrees, regulated the guilds, and kept the garrison properly housed.  The landrat had much the same duties in the countryside, but was not so closely supervised by the central government, largely because the king had too little money to closely control the Junkers (nobles).  The landrat was always a local noble and estate owner and was elected to his position by his fellow Junkers as often as he was appointed by the king.  The landrat exercised all the functions of local government: tax collecting, administering justice, maintaining public order, and conscripting recruits for the army.  As long as he did his job and did not abuse the peasants too severely, the central government largely left him alone.

To a large extent, poverty built the Prussian state of the 1700's.  It created a tightly run and loyal officer class by forcing impoverished nobles into service to the state.  It also forced Prussia's rulers to adopt the tight-fisted economic measures that became the basis of Prussian discipline and regimentation into this century.


Catherine the Great of Russia also strived to be an enlightened despot, at least in appearance.  However, Russia was too big and too far behind the West for it to be transformed into an enlightened society overnight.  The court, to be sure, reflected the fashions and manners of courts in the rest of Europe.  However, this was a mere facade to mask the still medieval nature of the rest of society in the countryside.  Symbolizing this facade was the series of fake villages stocked with healthy prosperous looking peasants that Catherine's prime minister, Potemkin, set up to fool Catherine into thinking her realm was indeed on a par with the West.  Unfortunately for Russia, parity with the West was far from the case, and Russia would pay a heavy price for its backwardness in the years to come.