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Absolute monarchy

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Absolute monarchy is a monarchical form of government in which the monarch exercises ultimate governing authority as head of state and head of government, his not being limited by a constitution or by the law. An absolute monarch thus wields unrestricted political power over the sovereign state and its subject peoples. In an absolute monarchy, the transmission of power is twofold; hereditary and marital.[citation needed] Absolute monarchy differs from limited monarchy, in which the monarch’s authority is legally bound or restricted by a constitution.

In theory, the absolute monarch exercises total power over the land and its subject peoples, yet in practice the monarchy is counter-balanced by political groups from among the social classes and castes of the realm: the aristocracy, clergy (see caesaropapism), bourgeoise, and proletarians.

Some monarchies have weak or symbolic parliaments and other governmental bodies that the monarch can alter or dissolve at will.


[edit] Historical examples

One of the best proverbial examples of an absolute monarch was Louis XIV of France. His alleged statement, L'État, c'est moi (The state, it is me), summarizes the fundamental principle of absolute monarchy (sovereignty being vested in one individual). Although often criticized for his extravagance, such as the Palace of Versailles, he reigned over France for a long period, and some historians consider him a successful absolute monarch. More recently, revisionist historians have questioned whether Louis' reign should be considered 'absolute', given the reality of the balance of power between the monarch and the nobility.[1]

Absolutism was underpinned in a written constitution for the first time in Europe in the 1665 Kongeloven ("King's Law") of Denmark-Norway, whose § 2 stipulates that the monarch shall from this day forth be revered and considered the most perfect and supreme person on the Earth by all his subjects, standing above all human laws and having no judge above his person, neither in spiritual nor temporal matters, except God alone.[2][3] This law consequently authorized the king to abolish all other centers of power. Most important was the abolition of the Council of the Realm.

The Swedish king Karl XI introduced absolute monarchy in Sweden during his reign. This he passed on to his son, Karl XII, but after his death in 1718, that system was ended. Absolutism was officially reinstated in 1789 during the reign of Gustav III of Sweden, and it lasted until 1809 when Gustav IV Adolf was deposed by a coup and a more liberal constitution put in its place.

Until 1905, the Tsars of Russia also governed as absolute monarchs. Peter I the Great reduced the power of the nobility and strengthened the central power of the Tsar, establishing a bureaucracy and a police state. This tradition of absolutism, known as the tsarist absolutism, was built on by Catherine II the Great and other later Tsars. Although Alexander II made some reforms and established an independent judicial system, Russia did not have a representative assembly or a constitution until the 1905 Revolution. However, the concept of absolutism was so ingrained in Russia that the Russian Constitution of 1906 still described the tsar as an autocrat. Still, Russia became the last European country to abolish absolutism and the only one to do it as late as in the 20th century (the Ottoman Empire drafted its first constitution in 1877).

Throughout much of history, the Divine Right of Kings was the theological justification for absolute monarchy. Many European kings, such as the Tsars of Russia, claimed that they held supreme autocratic power by divine right, and that their subjects had no rights to limit their power. James I and Charles I of England tried to import this principle; fears that Charles I was attempting to establish absolutist government along European lines was a major cause of the English Civil War. By the 19th century, the Divine Right was regarded as an obsolete theory in most countries in the Western world, except in Russia where it was still given credence as the official justification for the Tsar's power.

[edit] Prussia

In Brandenburg-Prussia, the concept of absolute monarch took a notable turn from the above with its emphasis on the monarch as the "first servant of the state", but it also echoed many of the important characteristics of Absolutism. Frederick William of Hohenzollern (r.1640–1688) known as the Great Elector, used the uncertainties of the final stages of the Thirty Years' War to consolidate his territories into the dominant principality in northern Germany, whilst increasing his power over his subjects. His actions largely start the militaristic streak of the Hohenzollern.

In 1653, the Diet of Brandenburg met for the last time and gave Frederick William the power to raise taxes without its consent, a strong indicator of absolutism. Frederick William enjoyed support from the nobles who enabled the Great Elector to undermine the Diet and other representative assemblies. The leading families saw their future in cooperation with the central government and worked to establish absolutist power.

The most significant indicator of the nobles' success was the establishment of two tax rates – one for the cities and the other for the countryside, to the great advantage of the latter, which the nobles ruled. The nobles served in the upper levels of the elector's army and bureaucracy, but they also won new prosperity for themselves. The support of the elector enabled the imposition of serfdom and the consolidation of land holdings into vast estates.

They became known as Junkers (from the German for young lord, jung herr). Frederick William faced resistance from representative assemblies and long-independent cities in his realm. City leaders often revolted at the imposition of electorate authority. The last notable effort was the uprising of the city of Königsberg which allied with the Estates General of Prussia to refuse to pay taxes. Frederick William crushed this revolt in 1662, by marching into the city with thousands of troops. A similar approach was used with the towns of Cleves.[4]

[edit] Contemporary monarchies

The popularity of the notion of absolute monarchy declined substantially after the French Revolution which promoted theories of government based on popular sovereignty.

Many nations formerly with absolute monarchies, such as Morocco, have moved towards Constitutional monarchy, although the monarch retains tremendous power, to the point that the parliament's influence on political life is negligible. In Bhutan, the government moved from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy following planned parliamentary elections to the Tshogdu in 2003, and the election of a National Assembly in 2008.

Nepal had several swings between constitutional rule and direct rule related to the Nepalese Civil War, the Maoist insurgency, and the 2001 Nepalese royal massacre. The Nepalese Monarchy was abolished on May 28, 2008.

Unusual in a time when many nations are moving towards decreased monarchical power, Liechtenstein has moved towards expanding the power of the monarch; the Prince of Liechtenstein was given expanded powers after a referendum amending the Constitution of Liechtenstein in 2004.

In Tonga the king has had majority control of the parliament until 2010.

Among the few nations where the monarch still claims full power (as head of both state and government) are Bahrain, Brunei, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

[edit] Scholarship

Anthropology, sociology, and ethology as well as various other disciplines such as political science attempt to offer explanations for the rise of absolute monarchy in particular cultures ranging from extrapolation generally, to Marxist explanations in terms of the class struggle as the underlying dynamic of human historical development generally and absolute monarchy in particular.

According to Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process, the reason why monarchs such as Louis XIV could enjoy such great power is to be found in the layout of the societies of that time, more precisely in the fact that they could play off against each other two rival classes, namely the rising bourgeoisie, who received growing wealth from commerce and industrial production, and the nobility, who lived off the land and administrative functions.

In the Middle Ages, the nobility served a useful function—fighting wars—which justified their wealth to some degree. The development of firearms made the heavy knight less useful than before, and the nobility's position became harder to justify.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Mettam, R. Power and Faction in Louis XIV's France, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
  2. ^ danskekonger.dk - Kongeloven af 1665
  3. ^ A partial English translation of the law can be found in Ernst Ekman, "The Danish Royal Law of 1665" pp. 102-107 in: The Journal of Modern History, 1957, vol. 2.
  4. ^ The Western Experience, Seventh Edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999.
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