Austria Table of Contents

Baroque Absolutism and Enlightened Despotism

Although her husband was emperor, Maria Theresa ruled the Habsburg lands. However, when her son Joseph became Holy Roman Emperor after the death of her husband in 1765, she made her son coregent. Following Maria Theresa's death in 1780, Joseph II reigned in his own right until his death in 1790. The Counter-Reformation's political and religious goals had largely been accomplished by the time Maria Theresa came to the throne, but maintaining Austria's great-power status urgently required broad internal reform and restructuring to strengthen the central authority of the monarchy and curtail the power of the nobility.

Maria Theresa began administrative and economic reforms in 1749, drawing on mercantilist theory and examples provided by Prussian and French reforms. In addition, she undertook reforms in the social, legal, and religious spheres. During the coregency and after Maria Theresa's death, Joseph continued the reforms along the lines pursued by his mother. But mother and son had sharply different motivations. Maria Theresa was a pious Catholic empress working within the structure of a paternalistic, baroque absolutism and was unsympathetic to the Enlightenment. Joseph, in contrast, gave the reforms an ideological edge reflecting the utilitarian theories of the Enlightenment. Because his reforms were more ideologically driven and thus less flexible and pragmatic, they frequently were also less successful and disrupted the stability of the Habsburg Empire.

Although the statist religious policy that evolved in this era became known as Josephism, Joseph's policy was largely an extension of his mother's, whose piety did not exempt the church from reforms designed to strengthen state authority and power. Joseph's utilitarianism, however, contributed to two important divergences from Maria Theresa's policy: greater religious toleration and suppression of religious institutions and customs deemed contrary to utilitarian principles. The Edict of Tolerance, issued in 1781, granted Protestants almost equal status with Catholics; other decrees lifted restrictions on Jews and opened up communities, trades, and educational opportunities previously barred to them. The utilitarian principles behind religious toleration, however, also inspired Joseph to dissolve Catholic monasteries that were dedicated solely to contemplative religious life and to suppress various traditional Jewish customs he viewed as detrimental to society and a hinderance to the Germanization of the Jewish population.

The reforms created an administrative, fiscal, and judicial bureaucracy directly responsible to the monarch. As the seat of the new centralized institutions, Vienna grew from merely being the sovereign's place of residence to a true political and administrative capital. Hungary, however, was not included in these centralizing administrative reforms. In appreciation for the support Austria had received from the Hungarian nobles during the War of the Austrian Succession, Maria Theresa never extended her reforms to that kingdom.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress