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Early Modern Governments: Absolutism Versus English Constitutionalism

I. Absolutism
II. The Birth of English Constitutionalism
Additional Resources

Early modern Europe witnessed a revolution in the nature of government from the style of earlier medieval monarchies. A medieval government lacked centralized political power, a centralized tax structure, and a large-scale army. As the need for large-scale armies increased, a new method of governance was necessary in order to support the government, specifically requiring centralized political control, a pacified nobility, and new sources of revenue. This new political system can be described as an "absolutist" form of government, and it became the model for governments in France, Spain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. However, the solutions adopted by the monarchs in those countries failed to take root in England, where a different style of government developed - constitutionalism - in which political power was shared between the monarch and a legislature.

1. To understand the primary features of an absolute monarchy: centralized political power, a pacified nobility, increased revenue, and a new army.

2. To understand the failure of absolutism in England and the structural differences between an absolute monarchy with centralized political power in one person (the king) and a constitutional form of government with shared political authority between a king and a legislature.

Preclass Preparation
All of the students should prepare a short biography of one of the various absolute monarchs of Europe to share with the class. Suggested monarchs include Louis XIV of France, Peter the Great of Russia, Philip II of Spain, Charles VI or Maria Theresa of Austria, Frederick William the Great Elector of Prussia, or Charles XII of Sweden.

For the discussion of the English Civil War and the birth of constitutionalism, the students should prepare a timeline of the major political events from the reign of James I to that of William I.

I. Absolutism
The purpose of this section is to have students comprehend the primary features of an absolute monarchy. For that goal, it is best to first present the four major features as concepts before discussing specific countries and/or monarchs. These features are centralized political power, pacified nobility, increased revenue, and a new army. Once the concepts are covered, discuss one or two concrete examples to ground the abstract concepts. Louis XIV in France and Peter the Great in Russia work best.

Discussion Questions
As a whole class, discuss the four primary features of an absolute monarchy. What was the purpose or the necessity of reforming a medieval monarchy into an absolute monarchy? What advantages were gained by absolute monarchs? Did anyone lose political authority as a result? What conflicts could arise?

As a class, discuss the success or failure of Louis XIV and Peter the Great in achieving an absolute monarchy in their country. Was absolutism in France the same as absolutism in Russia?

Have the students discuss the other absolute monarchs they have prepared for the Preclass Preparation. Did these monarchs succeed in fulfilling the four goals of an absolute monarch? How did their absolute monarchies resemble or differ from that style in France and Russia?

Divide the students into small groups to discuss either Peter the Great or Louis XIV. There are three different types of sources available for this purpose, each of which conveys different information: documents by the monarchs or their advisors, documents about the monarchs written by foreigners or people outside the government, and portraits of the monarchs or pictures of their residences. (Recommendations for all of these sources can be found in the Additional Resources section.) Assign one of these types of documents to each group to discuss how the evidence supports or rejects the principles of absolutism already discussed.

Have a spokesperson from each group report back to the entire class. Why do the sources portray these individuals from such different perspectives?

II. The Birth of English Constitutionalism
The purpose of this section is to understand the alternate political developments in England while absolutism was established throughout Europe.

Provide a brief chronological summary of the political leadership of England beginning with James I and continuing up to William and Mary, tracing out the evolution of the British government from a monarch attempting to establish an absolutist monarchy (James) to one who accepted rule with the participation of a legislature (William).

Divide the class into small groups, assigning each of the important documents of the period. These can include "Trew Law of Free Monarchies," "Petition of Right," "Bill of Rights," "The Grand Remonstrance," or sections of Leviathan or Two Treatises on Government; these documents can be found on some of the Web sites referenced in the Additional Resources section. Each group should discuss how their document supports or rejects the ideas of absolutism.

Have a spokesperson for each group report back to the class.

Discussion Questions
As a class, discuss the differences between the ideas discussed in England and the principles of absolutism. What are the possible reasons absolutism failed in England? Does this reveal something about why absolutism succeeded elsewhere in Europe?

Additional Resources
Beik, William. Louis XIV and Absolutism: A Brief Study with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 2000.
A classroom reader that can be used as an alternative to the documents from the Web. This reader is especially good at presenting reactions from all levels of society toward Louis XIV, with particular attention to rebellions against his rule.

Henshall, Nicholas. The Myth of Absolutism: Change and Continuity in Early Modern European Monarchy. London and New York: Longman, 1992.
An important reevaluation of absolutism and its role in the development of the early modern monarchies.

Upton, Anthony F. Europe, 1600-1789. London: Arnold, 2001.
A recent survey of European political history with a general description of the forms of absolutism, specific discussion of individual countries, and an examination of English constitutionalism.

Web Sites
Internet Modern History Sourcebook at Fordham University: "Absolutism"
A variety of documents covering absolutism, including material for countries other than France and Russia. It also contains documents supporting English absolutism, including "Trew Law of Free Monarchies" and Leviathan.
  Internet Modern History Sourcebook at Fordham University: "Absolutism"

Internet Modern History Sourcebook: "Peter the Great"
Documents written about Peter the Great and his court at Saint Petersburg.
  Internet Modern History Sourcebook: 'Peter the Great'

Internet Modern History Sourcebook: "Constitutional States"
Documents pertaining to the English Civil War and constitutionalism, including the "Bill of Rights."
  Internet Modern History Sourcebook: 'Constitutional States'

Hanover Historical Texts at Hanover College
Descriptions of Louis XIV and the court at Versailles.
  Hanover Historical Texts at Hanover College

Chateau de Versailles
360-degree images of Louis XIV's Versailles.
  Chateau de Versailles

Hermitage Museum
360-degree images of Peter the Great's St. Petersburg.
  Hermitage Museum

University of Wales: English Civil Wars Resource Pages
General material covering the English Civil Wars, including a chronological outline, discussion of individual battles and tactics, and brief biographies of the persons involved.
  University of Wales: English Civil Wars Resource Pages

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