Alternatives to Absolutism

(1.) Nobles' Republics - formally kingdoms, the king being elected. Real power lay with parliament. Prime example Poland; here parliament was dominated by the magnates, the more powerful of the noblemen. They enjoyed the LIBERUM VETO - every signe member of parliament had the right to veto any issue debated in the Sejm. The extraordinary status enjoyed by the Polish nobility in the 16th century was envied by the nobles in neighbouring countries; the nobles of Lithuania and of Livonia voted for unification with Poland in order to acquire the same rights, the Lithuanian nobility even assimilated into Polish culture. In the 18th century, the privileges of the nobles, and the magnates' intention to preserve them, made Poland incapable of political reform. When the Sejm finally was dominated by progressives, most of the Polish magnates joined the Confederation of Targowice and invited Catherine the Great to take over the country (1793).
Transylvania had a similar constitution; the princes were elected; the parliament was the most powerful institution. Next to ethnic Hungarian nobles, the (nomadic) Szekler and the (mainly city inhabitants) Germans were represented. When Transylvania recognized Habsburg rule in 1688, they retained their traditional constitution, which included religious toleration.

(2.) Traditional Maritime Republics - ruled by city councils. Examples include Venice, Genova, the Hanseatic cities (Lübeck, Hamburg etc.), Danzig (nominally Polish, autonomous), the larger free imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire (Cologne, Nürnberg, Augsburg, Frankfurt, Ulm).
The city councils were exclusive; they were not elected by the populace, but - if a fellow councilman was deceased - the council elected a representative from the family of the deceased, for lifetime. Thus an oligarchy of the leading merchant families. Many of these city states lacked control over the hinterland and suffered from mercantilist policies adopted in their hinterland. The policy was determined by the interests of the leading families; attempts by 'new' families, by the guilds, to join their ranks, were usually fought. There have been cases of entire city councils appealing to the Emperor for being ennobled (Groningen).

(3) Federal States - the Netherlands, Switzerland, both having weak central institutions. While nobility existed in both countries, the nobles (except for the house of Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands) played a subordinate role; it was the regents in the Dutch Republic (the leading merchant families), their pendants in Geneva, Bern, Basel and Zürich, the Landsgemeinden (free peasant communities) in the mountain cantons and Graubünden wo determined the policy.
Between independence and the Revolution of 1787, the Dutch Republic oscillated between a situation referred to as the Era of Liberty - a period without a stadholder - and a situation with a stadholder, thus a (relatively) strong central authority. The main issue was money; the merchant cities of Holland had to finance the policy of a Great Power. The Netherlands was the highest taxed nation in Europe; when the regents refused to continue financing such a policy, the Dutch Republic entered another era of liberty.

(4.) Constitutional Monarchies. The prime example would be England, since 1707 the United Kingdom (of England and Scotland). During the 17th century, King and Parliament had established a balance of powers; in 1740 Robert Walpole convinced King George I. to accept the principle of Parliamentary Rule - the king would always appoint the parliament majority leader prime minister. Thus, the English parliament was not only able to discuss reforms, but also to pass them. Sweden, between 1718 and 1772, followed that model.

The 4 alternatives to absolute rule introduced here have in common, that political decisions involved more than one person. Reforms were difficult to pass; Poland is an example of an 18th century state which, because of the predominance of one 'special interest group' (in a modern expression) paralyzed the parliament. In other countries the situation may be described as a partial paralysis.
It should be noted that parliaments in those days did not function as they should. Representatives at the Polish Sejm, in Sweden's Riksdag, in the 1760es were accustomed to accepting bribes, often handed out by foreign ambassadors. In the English parliament, a combination of pressure and incentives was used to get bills pass today.
The United Kingdom would provide the most successful alternative to the absolute kingdom, being capable of limited, slow-paced (by comparison) political reform. Poland and Venice were erased from the map by the end of the century, the Netherlands (and Poland, before being erased) experienced revolutions.


This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on September 27th 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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