This was the name given to the monarchs who in mid-18th century Europe took inspiration from the French Enlightenment and decided to loosen the reins of absolutism and improve the lot of their subjects. “Enlightened Despot” sounds like a contradiction in terms but that is because we are looking at it through a rear-view mirror and with today’s eye.
In their day, this was quite a novel idea. They sincerely wanted to institute reforms without in any way undermining their absolute power. They were familiar with the writers of the day and their ideas about religious tolerance, improved education and a measure of uncensored expression. This was political change from above, benevolent paternalism, which could be undone at their whim. They were also acting selfishly because they wanted to lessen the power of the landed aristocracy and that of the Church.
Maria Theresa of Austria (who reigned from 1740-1780) instituted some religious, economic and educational reforms and her son Joseph II (reigned 1776-1790) extended them, codified laws, abolished serfdom and sponsored cultural activities.
Catherine the Great of Russia (pictured above) reigned from 1762-1796 and corresponded with Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu regarding progressive changes. These philosophers also visited her at the Russian Court. She encouraged education and made some administrative improvements. But, as she explained to Diderot, she was constrained by having a vast empire to govern whereas he had the freedom to write about changes in the abstract.
Frederich the Great of Prussia (reigned from 1740-1786) was the epitome of the Enlightened Despot and embodied the Platonic ideal of the “Philosopher King” He was an accomplished flutist, composed music that is still played today, wrote poetry and history and was an enthusiastic patron of the arts. He reformed the justice system, banned torture, liberalized control of the press and supported the sciences.
Our own Founding Fathers were also a product of the Age of Reason, and the ideas of the Enlightenment were the foundations of the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. The despotism they feared was that of majority rule. They distrusted too much democracy and tried to avoid the extremes of tyranny and mobocracy. Unlike Rousseau, they did not believe that man was naturally good and therefore a constitution was necessary to provide control. Hence they created powers that neutralized each other, checks and balances . They did not trust direct elections by universal suffrage and believed that representatives of the people were wiser than the people themselves.
Much of what they built is still standing today.