Absolutism As A System

Absolutism As A System

L'Etat, C'Est Moi

Date: 1998

Absolutism As A System

Unlimited royal authority, as advocated by Bossuet and Hobbes, was the

main characteristic of absolutism. It was demonstrated most obviously in

political organization but also served to integrate into government most

economic, religious, and social institutions. In this section, we will preview

this general pattern of absolutism before assessing its development within

specific European states.

Government And Religion Under Absolutism

Theoretically, the ruler made all major decisions in a typical absolute

state. Although this was not actually possible, chief ministers were

responsible directly to the monarch, and all of their actions were taken in

the sovereign's name. The monarch was officially the supreme lawgiver, the

chief judge, the commander of all military forces, and the head of all

administration. Central councils and committees discussed policy, but these

bodies were strictly advisory and concerned primarily with administrative

matter. All authority originated in orders coming down from the top and going

out to the provinces from the royal capital.

In conducting foreign policy, monarchs identified their personal dynastic

interests with those of their countries. They usually considered the

acquisition of foreign territory to be legitimate and pursued their objectives

in a competitive game of power politics with other monarchs. This competition

required a large military establishment, sometimes involving naval forces.

Rulers sought to form alliances against the most dominant foreign state,

giving little consideration to moral or religious principles. A concern for

the "balance of power" exemplified the new secular spirit in foreign


Local government was a concern to all aspiring absolute monarchs.

Wherever possible, they replaced traditional local authorities, usually feudal

nobles, with royal governors from other places. Where that could not be done,

local nobles were rewarded so they would support the crown. Sometimes, new

nobles were created and old land grants reassigned. Town governments were

often brought under royal authority through contacts between urban guildsmen

and the king's middle-class servants. Using such means as monopoly grants,

political favors, or bribery, monarchs extended their control over local law

and revenues.

Organized religion remained important under absolutism but lost its

independence of government. Instead of dominating politics, as they had done

earlier, churches - Protestant and Catholic alike - now tended to become

government agencies. Even in Catholic countries, such as France, the king

exerted more political control over the church than did the pope. Although

this had been true of earlier secular rulers, they had faced much more

religious opposition. After Westphalia, monarchs could deliberately use their

clergies as government servants, to enlist and hold popular support. Such

controlled churches exerted tremendous influence in support of absolute

monarchies, not only in the formal services but also in their social and

educational functions.

Mercantilism In The Structure Of Absolutism

In typical absolute monarchies, the regulation of state churches was

accompanied by a system of national economic regulations known as

mercantilism. Although it had originated earlier, with the emergence of modern

states, mercantilism was not adopted generally by European governments until

the late seventeenth century. The expansion of overseas trade, expenses

incurred in religious and dynastic wars, and the depression of the middle

1600s accentuated the trend toward mercantilism as states hoped to promote

prosperity and increase their revenues.

The system attempted to apply the capitalistic principle of

profit-seeking in the management of national economies. "Bullionism" was the

fundamental maxim of mercantilist theory. Proponents of bullionism sought to

increase precious metals within a country by achieving a "favorable balance of

trade," in which the monetary value of exports exceeded the value of imports.

The result, in a sense, was a national profit. This became purchasing power in

the world market, an advantage shared most directly by the government and

favored merchants.

Mercantilists believed state regulation of the economy to be absolutely

necessary for effecting a favorable balance. Absolute monarchies used

subsidies, chartered monopolies, taxes, tarriffs, harbor tolls, and direct

legal prohibitions in order to encourage exports and limit imports. For the

same purpose, state enterprises were given advantages over private

competitors. Governments standardized industrial production, regulated wages,

set prices, and otherwise encouraged or restricted consumer purchases.

Governments also built roads, canals, and docks to facilitate commerce.

Because mercantilists viewed the world market in terms of competing

states, they emphasized the importance of colonial expansion. They regarded

colonies as favored markets for home products and as sources of cheap raw

materials. Colonial foreign trade and industries were controlled to prevent

competition with the parent countries. In pursuing such policies, absolute

states needed strong military and naval forces to acquire colonies, police

them, and protect them from foreign rivals. Thus mercantilist policies often

extended beyond commercial competition to international conflict.

Class Structure Under Absolutism

The class structures of absolute monarchies were marked by clear

distinctions, precisely defined by law. Hereditary feudal aristocrats lost

status unless they acquired an official appointment from the monarch. Such

state nobles owed their privileges to their political service rather than

birth. They often came from merchant families; indeed, the state often sold

titles to wealthy commoners to provide income for the monarch. State nobles

served in public administration, inthe army, the church, or as attendants at

court, where they accented the royal magnificence. They usually received tax

exemptions, pensions, titles, and honors. Their legal rights, dress, and way

of life differed markedly from even wealthy non-nobles.

In contrast, commoners, including middle-class townspeople, paid most of

the taxes required by frequent wars and extravagant royal courts. Peasant

landholders usually owed fees and labor dues to local aristocrats. The poorest

peasants in western Europe were hired laborers or vagabonds; in eastern

Europe, they were serfs. Slavery was rare in western Europe, but provided a

major labor force on overseas plantations.

[See Noble And Peasant: The oppression of the peasantry is the subject of this

engraving, which compares the noble and the peasant to the spider and the fly.

The poor peasant brings all he has to the rich noble, who sits ready to

receive all the produce. From J. Lagniet, Recueil de Proverbes, 1657-63]

While tightening legal class distinctions, absolute monarchies also

further downgraded the status of women. The Reformation had offered some

opportunities for self-expression among women, and before 1650 many women had

assumed temporary positions of leadership. The situation changed after

Westphalia. Although a number of queens and regents were able to rule as

absolute monarchs, most aristocratic women could find recognition only as

Catholic nuns, writers, artists, salon hostesses, court gossips, or royal

mistresses, the latter gaining official status in this era. The status of

commoner women did not fall as much or as quickly, but the advent of early

capitalism and the decline of domestic economies was already excluding them

from many industries and enterprises in the latter seventeenth century.

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