Issue of Serfdom

Note : Peasantry in the Era of Absolutism - a differentiation of various groups of peasants, regional differences etc., are discussed in a separate chapter.

The Enlightenment philosophers, greatly influenced by the English experience, where, during the Agricultural Revolution, serfdom was tacitly given up by the landowners in order to increase their profits, were convinced that the institution of servitude was harmful to the general welfare of society, as free men would make the best decisions for themselves, their work would thus be more profitable.
Voltaire promoted the abolition of serfdom on moral grounds. The Physiocrats (or Economistes, Turgot, de Quesnay) and Adam Smith rejected the institution of serfdom on economic grounds. De Quesnay regarded agriculture the only sector of the economy really producing a net gain, and thus emphasized the position of the peasant farmer. Scientific Societies, such as the Free Economic Society of St. Petersburg invited writers to contribute essays to the topic "Is it beneficial to society, if the farmer owns the land he tills, or should he just own the tools he uses" (1765); 164 essays were sent in, many from western Europe, the vast majority favouring land-owning farmers.
Catherine the Great of Russia contemplated the abolition of servitude in Russia, which first met the resistance of the Russian nobility, and then, in the wake of Pugachev's Rebellion (1773-1774), the project was not only abandoned, but new legislation even increased the burden the serfs had to carry.
Maria Theresia of Austria, in the Robot Patent, had had the dues and mandatory services of the peasants fixed, thus enabling the administration to protect the peasants against unduly services forced upon them by nobles. Her son and successor, Joseph II., decreed the liberation of the peasants (1781); this was one of his many reforms which was boycotted by the nobility, and, in 1789, cancelled by the Emperor himself.
Louis XVI. of France, in 1779, freed all serfs living on royal land; the general liberation of the serfs, those serfs belonging to nobles, could not be implemented, due to the resistance of the latter.
Margrave Karl Wilhelm of Baden abolished serfdom in 1783.

Preisschriften der Freien Ökonomischen Gesellschaft zu St.Petersburg (Essays handed in to the Free Economic Society of St. Petersburg, since 1725), by M. Schippan, P. Brüne, in German
Markgraf Karl Wilhelm von Baden - Gründer der Stadt Karlsruhe (1679-1738), from aelk, in German
Free Economic Society of St. Petersburg, from Scholarly Societies
Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Who First Put Laissez-Faire Principles into Action, from Foundation for Economic Education
Biography of de Quesnay, from CEPA
DOCUMENTS The Abolition of Serfdom and Slavery, from David Hart's Home Page, Univ. of Adelaide
Catherine the Great, from Modern History Sourcebook

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on September 21st 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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