Absolutism and Constitutionalism in early modern Europe

The civilization of the early modern Europe was shaped by absolutism and constitutionalism as Europe and the larger West was struggling to come out of periods of religious wars and political disintegration. It is notable that in the 16th and 17th centuries, most of Europe experienced religious wars and revolutions. For instance France experienced wars of religion whereas England underwent the English revolution. There also existed a thirty years war in the Hoy Roman Empire which comprised of Germany and Austria. The political disintegration and religious wars were an aftermath of aristocracy versus monarchy rule. Even amidst all the disintegration, the European states needed to unite thus initiating a modern society. To attain this end, absolutism and constitutionalism were the best options available.

The rise and fall of constitutionalism and absolutism
Under the constitutionalism political system, there is no need for a written constitution. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the government is arbitrary. Instead, there are laid down rules which are supposed to be respected by the government. Also notable about constitutionalism is that the government has equal powers with its subjects who are the parliament as was the case with Britain. Despite constitutionalism being an important governance system in early modern Europe, absolutism was more popular in most European states (Halsall, para 5).

Absolutism was a different form of governance from constitutionalism in that power was bestowed to the King exclusively contrary to the equal power between the government and the parliament according to constitutionalism. This was a real change of governance from the former medieval monarchies in Europe since centralized power was now available and with it came centralized governance both in the army and the tax system. Although it is recognized that it absolute monarch enabled the establishment of state administrations as well as a strong and large armies, this political system had shortcomings in that it did not address the social welfare of the people thus it did not emerge totalitarian. Absolutism was largely endorsed by states such as France, the Holy Roman Empire and to some extent in Spain (Halsall, para 6-8).

It is important to note that having either system of governance was important at this time as exemplified by Poland which ended up as a failed state due to failure to enact either absolutism or constitutionalism. In Poland, Kings would be elected and any King had the power to sanction any law. This was politically disastrous for Poland as the central government ended up collapsing and Poland vanished from the map of Europe (Halsall, para 9). Absolutism was also attempted in Spain and it showed prospects of succeeding until Spain declined its dominance post 1600s. The absolute monarchy of Spain was led by Philip II who acted as the King then and the country enjoyed prosperity and military power. The government had a central control and governance systems were set up as a result of absolute monarchy rule (Halsall, para 10). The best example of successful absolute monarchy was France. Absolutism was the pillar to the French Revolution despite the fact that it is constitutionalism that established the Revolution.

France under King Louis XIV emerges as the best example of absolutism. As a wealthy nation and rich in culture, France was definitely a country of interest. It is to be remembered that France required a revolution considering that it faced religious wars between the Protestants and the Catholics. The wars had brought down the country as the rulers of the time (e.g. Henry VI) were lax and incompetent. A revolution was therefore necessary to establish a stable France. The rise of Louis XIV between 1643 and 1715 initiated the revolution and formed the peak of absolute monarchy (Library of Congress, para 1). Richelieus rule which extended up to 1642 influenced Louis XIV reign as a king who led an absolute monarch form of governance. Richelieu has initially abolished the nobles power and established the Kings law as the only law. The oppressive rule of Richelieu was propagated by Cardinal Mazarin and when the determined Louis XIV go into power fully in 1661, he was determined to continue with absolutism as he perceived himself to be a King. Louis XIV was egotistical but nevertheless he was able to establish a government with established bureaucracies which made his government became a form of the earliest modern governments. There were intendants in the provinces who made it possible to control the country centrally. Louis XIV became a powerful king who was able to institute a stable army which was successful in several wars (Halsall, para 13).

To deprive the nobles of their power, Louis would make sure that the nobles were in his court and they lived an expensive lifestyle. Different from Richelieu, Louis moved the cultural vitality from Versailles to Paris. He introduced new manners such opening a door and this seemed to impress many. Louis was greatly popular in Europe due to his outstanding rule. With the support of Colbert who was the finance minister, Louis was able to establish a mercantilism policy which did not put much weight on direct taxes. It is notable that the tax system was flawed in that it pardoned the nobles from paying taxes. Trade (including international trade) was however an emphasis of this governance. In as far as religion is concerned Louis XIV regarded the Church highly, and upheld the principle of Divine Right. In France the church was like a state within a state. Absolutism denied people liberty of conscience (Halsall, para 21)

In Russia, Peter the Great helped propagate the absolute monarchy governance. Peter upheld the principle of the state being superior to any individuals interests and therefore his actions were based on this argument. To stress the allegiance to the state, he required that the nobles be sworn to bear allegiance to him as the king and to the state, thus two oaths would be administered. It is considered that Peter as a Czar influenced Russia to embrace modernity through the absolutism rule. He led Russia to acknowledge and practice the Western lifestyle and welcomed improved technology from the West. As Peter died in 1725, he left Russia a powerful and larger empire, many times larger compared to France (History Doctor, para 34-35). It is important to note that neither constitutionalism nor absolutism is being practiced in current Europe. Nevertheless, both systems of governance feature in the current systems with constitutionalism having an upper hand.

In conclusion it is important to identify that absolutism and constitutionalism formed the pillar of modernization in Europe as these political systems brought to and end the era of religious war and political disintegration. Despite the fact that absolutism did not prevail for long, it benefited France through the French Revolution while Russia become more established by borrowing technology from the West. Indeed, early modern Europe required such political systems otherwise all states would have collapsed like Poland which never embraced either.


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