Sunday, October 26, 2008
Why did absolutism succeed in France while constitutionalism triumphed in England and Holland?
The biggest reason was because in France it was generally agreed upon that the king should be the top dog. It was during the French civil war that a group called the politiques got the idea that a supreme law giving force was necessary to maintain national order.
It does makes some sense, I mean if you are trying to put on a play and there's no director or there is one but they only direct a few actors, the play is going to be more difficult for the cast as a whole to perform than if there were a powerful leader in charge. And even if the directors ideas aren't always the best, the control that non-opposition gives to a single person allows for a beautiful sense of order and (if the director is a good organizer) organization in the performance; all the views are consolidated in one leader with complete control over his own actions and thus complete control over the theatrical body. This seems reasonable in theory, but a director must be sound and effective for his actors to consent to work under him/her; a director is useless without actors.
Anyways, the decision on an absolutist government was not made in England or Holland. In England, the Kings (primarily Charles I and James II) decided to act without consent from his people. Charles I decided to tax the people and make laws without their consent (not even representative consent). This was a particularly bad move in England where the people were well represented in a governing body called Parliament. Parliament was well organized, wealthy, mostly secular, and overall quite powerful. It represented England as a whole and not the separate states of England or provinces of England. The king didn't understand just how bad a move he was making and was outmatched by the strength of his own country. James II met the same odds when he decided to be Catholic; and that since he was king, he could decide that Catholicism was aloud in England even though there were members of the official Church of England and a number of Protestant Puritans in the country as well as in Parliament. These two groups made up the vast majority of Englishmen and they would not stand for a heretic king, nor did they. It was the single mindedness of the English kings that doomed absolutism in England; had they been more conscious of the will and opinions of their subjects who were obviously much stronger than them (they were not gods) they may have been able to win their consent and slowly bring about an absolutist government.
In the case of the Dutch it was the division of provinces and the strength of the bourgeois as aristocrats that prevented absolutism. In Holland, when William III, prince of Orange was elected as stadtholder he wanted to centralize the government. He couldn't do so simply because no one would let him, and he wasn't about to start civil war in Holland as there had been in England. His position was mostly for military leadership and protection; he ruled powerfully during times of war; but during times of peace the moneymaking bourgeois were the ones in command. This lack of consent and power was what kept William from achieving his goal, but unlike the English rulers he wasn't headstrong or money-hungry and understood the limitations of his position.
Not only was it the withstanding support for Louis XIV from his subjects (or at least the decisive ones) that kept France's absolutist government intact, but it was also the personal choices of Louis to maintain the support of the nobles and middle class (for the lower-classes were not powerful unless grandly amassed in a riot or having upper class support), who had given him his power in the first place and could just as well take it away from him, and to do all that he was able to do to gain personal power, like building up an army under his control and not under the control of self interested nobles and/or mercenaries, as well as creating a strong administrative political hierarchy with him at the top. The fact that Louis created these things meant that he was responsible for their maintenance and funding; without him they would lose their positions and paychecks, therefore they were given good reason to remain loyal to their king. With this personal power, and respect for the power of those under his leadership, Louis XIV gave himself the tools he needed to lead France with an effective absolutist government.
It basically comes down to the cast-director relationship of rulers and their people, neither one can work alone. (unless it's a one person play . . . but that is HARD!)