Absolutism was a form of government that enjoyed unlimited and complete power. A centralized sovereign individual held this power. He was not to be under any checks or balances from any arm of government or nation. It meant that the individual enjoyed absolute power with no electoral, legal, or any other challenge to that power. The absolute kings still had to recognize lower offices and laws but had the authority to change or overrule them to the benefit of the kingdom. Absolutism also meant that central governments could alter different structures and laws of different territories that acquired either through inheritance or through war as a way of maximizing revenues and control of these lands.
King Henry IV had laid the foundations of absolutism together with his minister Sully. They developed enlightened policies, which benefited the people. After his death, he was succeeded by King Louis XIII and together with his minister Cardinal Richelieu, established dominance over the landed nobility. They also improved the central administration. France absolutism can, however, be divided into three phases from Louis XII accession to the throne to Louis XIV personal assumption to power. The first phase is up to the death of Henry II in 1559 when France looked to Italy as a land rich for conquest and as a way of widening its territory. The second phase of 1562-1598 was a time riddled by civil wars of religion (Spielvogel 320-325). France fought with the protestant reformation, which was a dispute about the practice and understanding of Christianity and as well as a political controversy concerning the status of the new Reformation Churches. It further took a political dimension when members of the nobility tried to take over power from the king. The situation was so dire that the weakened monarch drove out the Spanish from the kingdom in 1597 after capturing Paris in 1594. Henry IV later reestablished the legitimacy of the Monarchy when he acknowledged the legitimacy of the French Protestants and gave them the freedom of worship. However, his conversion to Catholicism in 1594 brought a new era of French kings called the Bourbons. Through the military and absolutists hardliners, he censored writers and preachers as an excuse for the public peace. After nineteen unsuccessful attempts on his life, he was assassinated in 1610 falling victim to the same violence and religious passion he had tried to defeat. The next half a century that followed, Cardinal Richelieu orchestrated the re-conquest of internal control by the royal government. During the time, the government toughened the monitoring of printing henceforth strangling and crippling the emerging press. The French language became a subject of concern, which was Richelieu way of controlling politics and culture. When the last rebellion of feudal nobility was defeated, the mechanisms of absolute were in place and only needed the entrance of Louis XIV.
The entrance of King Louis XIV from 1643-1715 marked the third phase and the apex of absolutism. Born on September 5, 1638, he ascended to the throne on May 14, 1643 after the death of his father. He was only four years old. He inherited a highly unstable government. Under the guidance of Cardinal Mazarin, Richelieu successor as minister to the king, he received practical education in the handling of the affairs of the state. Mazarin was also tasked with educating him on matters history, politics, and arts. Throughout his childhood, he was under the mentorship of Mazarin who went on to establish a detailed administration as Louis stood by and watched. Mazarin died when Louis was twenty-three years old, and a day later Louis XIV declared his determination to be the real king and the sole ruler of France. He declared himself as the State. Under his proclamation, every business of the government was to be executed only by him and no one else (Spielvogel 363-367). He controlled everything in France from church appointments to the signing of passports. He surrounded himself with all the trappings of power and majesty by playing the role of all superior and all-powerful monarchs.
King Louis XIV failed France in many ways. The significant failure in the system was economic. Elite groups and wealthy farmers were exempted from taxation. Tax collectors kept large shares of taxes to themselves. The inadequate tax base strained France economy, which mostly relied on agriculture, poor farmers were heavily taxed that the sector was always in crisis. In addition, France engaged in imperialist wars with its European neighbors (Doyle 19). This drained its resources and brought untold misery to the peasants. At the time of his death, France was bankrupt, exhausted, and war-weary.
His successors Louis XV and Louis XVI inherited the problems he left but continued following his footsteps. However, it was during Louis XVI that things took a turn. Among a growing revolt among the nobles and the peasants, Louis reluctantly approved a new constitution that stripped him much of his powers. The nobles wanted to be included in government decision making for accountability. A year later in 1789, food shortages, and economic crises triggered the French Revolution. Empowered by the new constitution, a new form of governance, the Convention was established. It suspended the monarchy and in 1792 imprisoned Louis together with his queen for acts of treason. In January 1793, he was condemned to death by a narrow majority. On January 21, he was executed via the guillotine. This was the death of a monarchy (Doyle 52-58).
Between the reigns of Louis XIV to the last King Louis XVI, France was grappled by incessant wars with other European countries as it sought to enlarge its territories. This caused diplomatic lifts with its neighbors resulting in economic depreciation and financial crunch. The centralization of power also caused incessant internal conflicts due to the control of ways of worship. The era of absolutism created a medium of change concerning philosophy, change, and culture. There were significant strides made technologically like the creation of the steam engine and other advances in the medium of oil canvas. However, the most interesting changes that occurred were political. Rebellions were fought, and Nations created. The Dutch, Americans, and the French revolted during this period. The rebellions fought for democracy. It was a time for enlightenment. This movement stressed freedoms of expression, thought, and scientific experiments (Spielvogel 427-428). One of the cornerstones was the belief in tolerance of religion. That religion should be based on believing and reasoning what ones, senses told him. The belief in freedom of thought and government by consent gave birth to democracy. There was reasoning that if people were to pay taxes, then they should have the right to be represented in parliament, an example of government by consent. This collected that fatal flaw that absolute monarchies posed where rebellion could only remove incompetent kings. During the age of absolutism, people would do, think, and believe what they were told but after enlightenment, empiricism was born (Doyle 75). People started testing ideas and theories for themselves and realized that the people whose words they relied on were either lying or downright wrong. The common man realized that a king is not flawless. That one incompetent ruler can ruin a state. Because of this they resorted to democracy and got rid of the old system of governance.
Absolute monarchies operated a system of mercantilism as a way of trade. Mercantilism in the absolute monarchies involved policies of monopolies (Magnusson 129-131). It was a system designed to support large royal and government spending including financing of wars. It meant special privileges were given to selected people or territories that supported the crown to produce or sell a certain product or trade in a certain area. These privileges were conferred to wealthy businessmen at the expense of their competitors and to those groups who would help the king in tax collection. The system also controlled imports and exports by offering differing taxation guides as well as prohibitions to benefit domestic merchants. Mercantilism also included high taxation to those unfriendly to the crown. This was done by keeping prices high of lower- quality products, which meant consumers, were not allowed to pay less for low-standard consumables.
Doyle, William. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2001.
Magnusson, Lars. Mercantilist Economics. Boston: Kluwer Acad. Publ., 1993.
Spielvogel, Jackson. Western Civilization: A Brief History. Cengage Learning, 2016.