She had entrusted his education to the Jesuits, but, anticipating Rousseau, she had asked that he be taught as if he were amusing himself.22 When he was four years old she complained that “my Joseph can’t obey”;23 obedience was not amusing. “He has already a high conception of his station,” reported the Prussian ambassador when Joseph was six. Maria Theresa resorted to discipline and enforced piety, but the boy found religious observances irksome, and resented the importance attached to the supernatural world; this one, being in part his patrimony, sufficed. He soon tired of orthodoxy, and discovered the fascination of Voltaire. Otherwise he cared little for literature, but he took eagerly to science, economics, history, and international law. He never outgrew his boyhood haughtiness and pride, but he developed into a handsome and alert youth, whose faults did not yet alienate him from his mother. On his travels he wrote to her letters of warm filial tenderness.
At the age of twenty he was made a member of the Staatsrath, or State Council. Soon (1761) he drew up, and submitted to his mother, a paper outlining his ideas on political and religious reform; these remained the essence of his policies to the end of his life. He advised the Empress to extend religious toleration, to reduce the power of the Church, to relieve the peasantry of feudal burdens, and to allow greater freedom in the movement of goods and ideas.24 He asked her to spend less on the court and its ceremonies, and more on the army. Every member of the government should work for his salary, and the nobles should be taxed like anybody else.25
Meanwhile he was learning another side of life. Louis XV, as part of the reversal of alliances, had offered his granddaughter Isabella of Parma as a fit bride for the Archduke. Joseph seemed fortunate: Isabella was eighteen, beautiful, and of good character except for a turn to melancholy. In June, 1760, she came across the Alps in a caravan drawn by three hundred horses; the marriage was celebrated with a sumptuous feast, and Joseph was happy to have so fair a creature in his arms. But Isabella took to heart the theology she had learned; dowered with all the gifts of life, she found no joy in them, but longed for death. “Death is beneficent,” she wrote to her sister in 1763. “Never have I thought of it more than now. Everything arouses in me the desire to die soon. God knows my wish to desert a life which insults Him every day.... If it were permitted to kill oneself I would already have done it.”26 In November, 1763, she was stricken with smallpox; she gave no encouragement to the physicians who tried to cure her; in five days she was dead. Joseph, who loved her deeply, never recovered from this blow.
A few months later he was taken by his father to Frankfurt-am-Main to be crowned King of the Romans—the traditional step to the Imperial throne. There, March 26, 1764 (young Goethe in the crowd), he was elected, and on April 3 he was crowned. He did not enjoy the prolonged ritual, the religious services, the orations; he complained, in a letter to his mother, of the “trash and idiocies which we had to listen to all day.... It costs me great efforts to refrain from telling these gentlemen to their faces how idiotically they act and talk.” Through it all he kept thinking of the wife he had lost. “With my heart full of pain I must appear as if enraptured.... I love solitude, … and yet I must live among people.... I have to chatter all day and say pretty nothings.”27 He must have concealed his feelings well, for his brother Leopold reported that “our King of the Romans is always charming, always in good humor, gay, gracious, and polite, and he wins all hearts.”28
On his return to Vienna he was informed that he must marry again; the orderly continuity of the government seemed to require the continuity of the Hapsburg family. Kaunitz chose a wife for him, Josepha of Bavaria, for Kaunitz was hoping to add Bavaria to the Austrian realm. Joseph signed the proposal of marriage that Kaunitz had composed for him, sent it off, and wrote to the Duke of Parma (father of Isabella) a description of Josepha as “a small squat figure without the charm of youth; pimples and red spots on her face; … repulsive teeth. … Judge for yourself what this decision has cost me. … Have pity on me, and do not fail in your love for a son who, although he has another wife, has eternally buried in his heart the image of his adored.”29 Joseph and Josepha were married early in 1765. She tried to be a good wife, but he abstained from her publicly and privately. She suffered in silence, and died of smallpox in 1767. Joseph refused to marry again. Now, with a tragic mixture of coldness and devotion, of idealism and arrogance, he gave the remainder of his life to government.