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Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Early European History
By Lindsey Lake
History 102

The absolute monarchy and the constitutional monarchy were the two prevalent monarchies in early European governments. The two have vast and numerous differences, but they do share some common factors.

An absolutist state, or absolutism is a form of government where the king had the entire control of the government. Absolutism emphasized the glory of the king and the sovereignty of the state and the king’s rights to stand above the interests of its subjects. The absolutist state “ . . . tried to rule ‘absolutely’ (complete, unrestricted powers due to their divine right), unchecked by councils, legislatures, guilds or representatives of the people”(450, King). The king had complete control over everything, the people, churches, businesses and much more. In the absolutist state permission was needed to do almost anything. Armies were enlarged and given more training and professionalism. People were allowed to further their intellect, as long as it did not contradict the king, and they said what the government wanted to hear. Most of the absolute monarchies were established in the late 1600’s thru the 1700’s. France is one of the most powerful and renown examples.

While Louis XIV may be credited with crafting the absolutist state, and becoming the source of all power (388,Perry), the grounds for absolutism started before him with Louis the XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. With Richelieu’s raison d’etat (reason of state), “in which he placed the needs of the nation above the privileges of its most important groups”(544, Kishlansky). The central bureaucracy gained power and limited the nobles power of advising the king. When Louis XIV finally came into power in 1661 was when the French government transformed into the complete absolutist state. Officials were expected to look to the government for everything and armies were enlarged. Aristocrats power in government dwindled, but they still received generous presents from the government and king. Louis XIV levied taxes during his role also, to support the costs of his large estate and costly wars. With all the power in his hands and a powerful army and government behind him, France became one of the most powerful contenders in Europe at the time.

Constitutionalism or and constitutional monarchy on the other hand, is everything that the absolutist state is not. In the constitutional monarchy the aristocracy had a say in what went on in the government. The parliament helped the subjects have a say in their government. In the constitutional monarchy “ . . . rulers shared power, in varying degrees, with other institutions of the state . . . [the] power was shared between the ruler and a representative of subjects . . .”(540, Kishlansky). In the constitutional monarchy a constitution arose that held “ . . . unwritten and written precedents, laws and royal acts . . .”(393, Perry). The most renowned example of a constitutional monarchy of the time was England.

During the same time France was emerging as an absolutist state the English were embracing constitutionalism. The parliament was the advisors to the king. They were the powerful subjects such as the archbishops, bishops, earls and barons. They consulted with the kings on government issues. The parliament became known as a form of self-expression for the people of all classes. The parliament was “ . . . entirely subservient to the crown, but its right to question the government had been established”(393, Perry). Soon the parliament provided a place for the aristocracy all the way down to the peasants as a place to voice their grievances.

Absolutism and constitutionalism have a great many differences. Some are the amount of power the king hold in the government, the amount of power the subjects hold in the government and the emphasis on the armies of both. In the absolutist state the power was snatched away from the nobles and aristocracy, although they still did receive the monitorial benefits of pre-absolutism. In England however, the aristocracy and nobles enjoyed a surge of power, where they had a direct say in what was going on in their government. The amount of power each monarch retains is reflected in this. In the absolutist state where it is believed the king is the source of all power and the subjects must abide by his ruling, no power is shared with the people. Contrary in the constitutional state the people had a say and place in their government, where they could voice their opinions, grievances and wishes.

With such vast differences between these two forms of monarchies, one does not believe there can be much similarity. There are similarities however vague. Both monarchs in these governments basically hold all the power. While in the absolutist state the king made all his own decisions without the consultations of the people, the constitutional monarchy did employ advisors. But overall the kings in both retained the overall power. Another similarity is that in both the monarchs both had their nations best interest at heart. Both wanted to progress and strengthen their nation as much as possible using different ways.

The absolute monarchy and the constitutional monarchy were the two prevailing monarchies in the seventeenth century in Europe. They both had different ways of ruling their governments, but had the same overall interests of their nations at heart. While one did not include the people into the government, they both were affective on their respective countries in good and bad ways. While being rich in differences, they do have their similarities.

Works Cited

King, Margaret L. Western Civilization: A Social and Cultural History. New
York, 2000

Kishlansky, Mark, Geary, Patrick and O’Brien Patricia. Civilization in the West.
New York: Longsman, 1998

Perry, Marvin, et al. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

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