When the Emperor Francis I died (August 18, 1765) Maria Theresa was for a time broken in body and mind. She joined his mistress in mourning him; “My dear Princess,” she said, “we have both lost much.”30 She cut off her hair, gave away her wardrobe, discarded all jewelry, and wore mourning till her death. She turned the government over to Joseph, and spoke of retiring to a convent; then, fearful that her impetuous heir should prove unfit to rule, she returned to public affairs, and signed on November 17 an official declaration of co-regency. She kept supreme authority over the internal affairs of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia; Joseph, as emperor, was to have charge of foreign affairs and the army, and, less fully, of administration and finance; but in foreign affairs he accepted the guidance of Kaunitz, and in all fields his decisions were subject to review by the Empress. His eagerness for power was tempered by his respect and love for his mother. When (1767) she nearly died of smallpox he seldom left her side, and astonished the court with the depth of his anxiety and grief. These three attacks of the disease upon the royal family at last persuaded the Austrian physicians to introduce inoculation.

The loving son troubled his mother with the urgency of his ideas for reform. In November, 1765, he sent to the Council of State a memorandum that must have startled its readers:

To retain more able men capable of serving the state, I shall decree—whatever the Pope and all the monks in the world may say—that none of my subjects shall embrace an ecclesiastical career before … the age of twenty-five. The sad results, for both sexes, often caused by early vows should convince us of the utility of this arrangement, quite apart from reasons of state. . . .

Religious toleration, a mild censorship, no prosecution for morals, and no espionage in private affairs should be maxims of government. … Religion and morals are unquestionably among the principal objects of a sovereign, but his zeal should not extend to correcting and converting foreigners. In faith and morals violence is unavailing; conviction is needed. As for the censorship, we should be very careful about what is printed and sold, but to search pockets and trunks, especially of a foreigner, is an excess of zeal. It would be easy to prove that, despite the now vigorous censorship, every prohibited book is now available at Vienna, and everyone, attracted by the veto, can buy it at double the price. . . .

Industry and commerce are to be prompted through the prohibition of all foreign goods except spices, through the abolition of monopolies, the establishment of schools of commerce, and an end to the notion that the pursuit of business is incompatible with aristocracy. . . .

Liberty of marriage should be introduced, even of what we now call mèsalliances . Neither the divine law nor the law of nature forbids it. Only prejudice makes us believe that I am worth more because my grandfather was a count, or because I possess a parchment signed by Charles V. From our parents we inherit only physical existence; thus king, count, bourgeois, peasant, it is exactly the same.31

Maria Theresa and the councilors must have smelled the breath of Voltaire or the Encyclopédie in these proposals. The young Emperor had to proceed slowly, but he advanced. He transferred to the Treasury twenty million gulden—in cash, shares, and property—bequeathed him in his father’s will, and he refunded the national debt at a charge of only four instead of six per cent. He sold the hunting preserves of the late Emperor, and ordered the slaughter of the wild boars that had served as targets for the hunters and as destroyers of peasant crops. Over the protests of nobles, but with the approval of his mother, he opened the Prater and other parks to the public.32

In 1769 he shocked Empress and court by going to Neisse, in Silesia, and spending three days (August 25-27) in friendly discussion with Austria’s most hated enemy, Frederick the Great. He had taken from the King of Prussia the conception of a monarch as “the first servant of the state.” He admired Frederick’s subordination of Church to state, and toleration of religious varieties; he envied the Prussian military organization and law reform. Both men felt that it was time to sink their differences in a protective accord against the rising strength of Russia. Joseph wrote to his mother: “After supper … we smoked, and talked about Voltaire.”33 The King, now fifty-seven, formed no high opinion of the Emperor, now twenty-eight. “The young prince,” he wrote, “affected a frankness which suited him well. … He is desirous of learning, but he has had no patience to instruct himself. His exalted position makes him superficial. … Boundless ambition devours him. … He has enough taste to read Voltaire and appreciate his merits.”34

The alarming success of Catherine II in Russia led Kaunitz to arrange a second conference with Frederick. King, Emperor, and Prince met at Neu-stadt, in Moravia, September 3-7, 1770. Joseph must have developed considerably during the year, for Frederick now wrote to Voltaire: “Brought up in a bigoted court, the Emperor has discarded superstition; reared in splendor, he has adopted simple manners; fed with incense, he is modest; eager for glory, he sacrifices his ambitions to filial duty.”35

These two meetings were part of Joseph’s education in politics. He added to it by visiting his dominions and examining their problems and possibilities at first hand. He went not as an emperor but as a common traveler, on horseback. He avoided ceremonies, and put up at inns instead of châteaux. Visiting Hungary in 1764 and 1768, he noted the extreme poverty of the serfs, and was shocked by seeing, in a field, the corpses of children who had died of hunger. In 1771-72 he saw similar conditions in Bohemia and Moravia; everywhere he heard reports, or saw evidence, of brutal landlords and starving serfs. “The internal situation,” he wrote, “is incredible and indescribable; it is heartbreaking.”36 Returning to Vienna, he fumed at the trifling improvements contemplated by the Empress’s councilors. “Petty reforms will not do,” he said; “the whole must be transformed.” He proposed, as a first step, to take over some ecclesiastical lands in Bohemia and build upon them schools, asylums, and hospitals. After much argument he persuaded the Council to issue (1774) an “Urbarian Law” reducing and regulating the amount of serf labor (which the Bohemians called robota) due to a feudal lord. The lords of Bohemia and Hungary resisted; the Bohemian serfs rose in disorderly revolt, and were put down by the military. Maria Theresa blamed her son for the turmoil. To her agent in Paris, Mercy d’Argentau, she wrote:

The Emperor, who pushes his popularity too far, has on his various trips talked too much … about religious liberty and peasant emancipation. All this has caused confusion in all our German provinces.... It is not only the Bohemian peasant that is to be feared, but also the Moravian, the Styrian, the Austrian; even in our section they dare indulge in the greatest impertinences.37

The strain between son and mother increased when (1772) Joseph joined Frederick and Catherine II in the first partition of Poland. She protested against this rape of a friendly (and Catholic) nation; she wept when Joseph and Kaunitz prevailed upon her to add her signature to the agreement, which gave a sector of Poland to Austria. Frederick commented cynically, “Elle pleure, mais elle prend” (She weeps, but she takes).38 Her regret was sincere, as we see from her letter to her son Ferdinand: “How often did I strive to dissociate myself from an action which sullies the whole of my reign! God grant that I shall not be held responsible for it in another world. It weighs upon my heart, tortures my brain, and embitters my days.”39

She contemplated the character of her son with fear and love. “He likes respect and obedience, regards opposition as distasteful and almost intolerable, … and is often inconsiderate. … His great and growing vivacity results in a vehement desire to get his way in every detail. … My son has a good heart.” Once she reproached him bitterly:

When I am dead I flatter myself that I will live on in your heart, so that the family and the state will not lose by my death. … Your imitation [of Frederick] is not flattering. This hero, … this conqueror—does he have a single friend? … What a life, when there is no humanity! No matter what your talents may be, it is not possible that you have already experienced everything. Beware of falling into spitefulness! Your heart is not yet evil, but it will become so. It is time to no longer take pleasure in all these bon mots, these clever conversations whose only aim is to ridicule others. … You are an intellectual coquet. You are only a thoughtless imitator where you think you are an independent thinker.40

Joseph revealed his side of the situation in a letter to Leopold:

Our uncertainties here have reached a pitch you cannot imagine. Tasks accumulate daily, and nothing is done. Every day till five or six, except for a quarter hour for a solitary meal, I am at work; yet nothing happens. Trifling causes, intrigues of which I have long been the dupe, block the way, and meanwhile everything goes to the devil. I make you a present of my position as eldest son.41

He scorned the men who had grown old in the service of his mother. Only Kaunitz supported him, but with irritating caution.

The aging Empress heard with trepidation the revolutionary ideas of her son. She told him frankly:

Among your fundamental principles the most important are: (i) the free exercise of religion, which no Catholic prince can permit without heavy responsibility; (2) the destruction of the nobility [by ending serfdom] … ; and (3) the so frequently repeated [advocacy of] liberty in everything.... I am too old to accommodate myself to such ideas, and pray to God that my successor will never try them. … Toleration, indifferentism, are precisely the means to undermine everything. … Without a dominant religion what restraint is there? None. Neither the gallows nor the wheel.... I speak politically, not as a Christian. Nothing is so necessary and beneficial as religion. Would you allow everyone to act according to his fancy? If there were no fixed worship, no subjection to the Church, where would we be? Fist law would be the result.... I only wish that when I die I can join my ancestors with the consolation that my son will be as great, as religious, as his forefathers, and that he will give up his false arguments, the evil books, and the contact with those who have seduced his spirit at the expense of everything that is precious and sacred, only to establish an imaginary freedom which could … only lead to universal destruction.42

But if there was one thing Joseph was eager for it was freedom of religion. He may not have been an atheist, as some have thought,43 but he had been deeply affected by the literature of France. Already in 1763 a group of Austrian intellectuals had formed an Aufklärungspartei, or Party of Enlightenment.44 In 1772 György Bessenyei, of Hungary, published in Vienna a play echoing the ideas of Voltaire; he accepted conversion to Catholicism to please Maria Theresa, but he returned to rationalism after her death.45Joseph doubtless knew the remarkable book, De statu ecclesiae et legitima potestate romani pontificis (1763), in which a prominent Catholic bishop, under the pseudonym of Febronius, had reasserted the supremacy of general councils over the popes, and the right of each national church to govern itself. The young Emperor saw in the entrenched wealth of the Austrian Church a principal obstacle to economic development, and in the ecclesiastical control of education the main barrier to the maturing of the Austrian mind. In January, 1770, he wrote to Choiseul:

As regards your plan for getting rid of the Jesuits, you have my complete approval. Don’t count too much on my mother; a close attachment to the Jesuits is hereditary in the Hapsburg family. … However, you have a friend in Kaunitz, and he does what he likes with the Empress.46

Joseph seems to have used his influence in Rome to bring Clement XIV to the final step, and he was well pleased by the papal abolition of the order (1773).47

Maria Theresa would have been shocked to see, from her son’s letters, how far he had strayed into the camp of the philosophes. She did her best to prevent the dissolution of the Society of Jesus, but Kaunitz persuaded her to yield to the view of all the other Catholic powers. “I am disconsolate and in despair about the Jesuits,” she wrote to a friend. “I have loved and honored them all my life, and have never seen anything in them but what was edifying.”48 She delayed enforcement of the papal bull by appointing a commission to study it. The Austrian Jesuits had time to remove their cash, valuables, and papers from the country. Jesuit property was confiscated, but the Empress saw to it that the members of the order received pensions, clothing, and diverse gifts.

Joseph’s obvious satisfaction over the suppression of the Jesuits widened the gap between mother and son. In December, 1773, he broke under the strain, and begged her to release him from all share in the government. She was dismayed by so startling a proposal, and wrote him a touching appeal for reconciliation:

I must admit that my abilities, face, hearing, and skill are rapidly deteriorating, and that the weakness which I have dreaded all my life—indecision—is now accompanied by discouragement and lack of faithful servitors. The alienation of yourself and Kaunitz, the death of my loyal advisers, the irreligion, the deterioration of morals, the jargon that everybody uses, and which I do not understand—all this is enough to overwhelm me. I offer you my whole confidence, and ask you to call attention to any mistakes I may make. … Help a mother who … lives in loneliness, and who will die when she sees all her efforts and sorrows gone to waste. Tell me what you wish and I will do it.49

He was reconciled, and for a time the woman who had once fought Frederick to a standstill agreed to co-operate with Frederick’s admirer and pupil. Together they applied the confiscated property of the Jesuits to educational reform. In 1774 they issued an “Allgemeine Schulordnung” which effected a basic reorganization of both primary and secondary schools. Grade schools provided compulsory education for all children; they admitted Protestants and Jews as students and teachers, gave religious instruction in each faith to its adherents, but placed control in the hands of state officials; these Volkschulen soon came to be ranked as the best in Europe. Normal schools were established to train teachers; Hauptschulen specialized in science and technology, and Gymnasientaught Latin and the humanities. The University of Vienna was devoted largely to law, political science, and administration, and served as a nursery for the civil service. Control of education by the Church was replaced by equally rigorous control by the state.

Collaboration of mother and son went on to abolish torture (1776). But the entente was shattered by the events of the following year. Joseph had long thought of visiting Paris—not to see the philosophes and bask in the salons, but to study the resources, army, and government of France, to see Marie Antoinette, and to strengthen the ties that so loosely bound the ancient enemies in their frail entente. When Louis XV died, and France seemed about to fall apart, Joseph wrote to Leopold: “I am anxious for my sister; she will have a difficult part to play.”50 He arrived in Paris April 18, 1777, and courted privacy by pretending to be Count von Falkenstein. He advised the gay young Queen to abandon extravagance, frivolity, and rouge; she listened impatiently. He tried and failed to win Louis XVI to a secret alliance for checking the expansion of Russia.51 He moved quickly about the capital, and “in a few days he learned more about it than Louis XVI would learn in all his life.”52 He visited the Hôtel-Dieu and did not conceal his astonishment at the inhuman mismanagement of that hospital. The people of Paris were charmed, and the courtiers at Versailles were alarmed, to find the loftiest monarch in Europe dressed like a simple citizen, speaking French like a Frenchman, and meeting all classes with the most unassuming manners. Of literary lights he sought out especially Rousseau and Buffon. He joined a soiree at Mme. Necker’s, and met Gibbon, Marmontel, and the Marquise du Deffand; it is a credit to him that he was more embarrassed by her poise and fame than she by his exalted state; blindness is a leveler, for dignities are half composed of garb. He attended a session of the Parlement of Paris and a sitting of the French Academy. The philosophes felt that here at last was the enlightened ruler whom they had hoped for as the agent of a peaceful revolution.—After a month in Paris Joseph left for a tour of the provinces, traveling north to Normandy, then along the west coast to Bayonne, then to Toulouse, Montpellier, and Marseilles, then up the Rhone to Lyons and east to Geneva. He passed through Ferney without visiting Voltaire; he did not wish to offend his mother, or too openly ally himself with a man who seemed a devil incarnate to the people of Austria and the King of France.

He was anxious to appease his mother, for during his absence some ten thousand Moravians had abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism, and Maria Theresa—or the Council of State—had reacted to this catastrophe with measures recalling the anti-Huguenot dragonnades under Louis XIV. The leaders of the movement were arrested, Protestant assemblies were dispersed; persistent converts were drafted into the army and assigned to hard labor, and their women were sent to workhouses. When Joseph returned to Vienna he protested to his mother: “To reconvert those people you make soldiers of them, send them to the mines, or use them for public works.... I must positively declare … that whoever is responsible for this order is the most infamous of your servants, who deserves only my contempt, for he is both a fool and shortsighted.”53 The Empress answered that not she but the Council of State had issued the decrees; however, she did not retract them. A delegation of Moravian Protestants came to see Joseph; Maria Theresa ordered their arrest. The crisis between mother and son was reaching an impasse when Kaunitz persuaded her to withdraw the decrees. The persecutions were stopped; the converts were allowed to practice their new worship provided it was done quietly in their homes. The conflict of the generations paused.

It was resumed when, on December 30, 1777, Maximilian Joseph, elector of Bavaria, died childless after a long and prosperous reign. In the contest for the succession to his power the Elector Palatine, Charles Theodore (Karl Theodor), was supported by Joseph II, on condition of ceding a part of Bavaria to Austria; and Charles, duke of Zweibrücken, was supported by Frederick the Great, who announced that he would resist any acquisition of Bavarian territory by Austria. The Empress warned her son against challenging the yet invincible King of Prussia. Joseph ignored her advice, Kaunitz upheld him, and an Austrian force was sent into Bavaria. Frederick directed his troops to enter Bohemia and take Prague unless the Austrians evacuated Bavaria. Joseph led his main army to the defense of Prague; the hostile hosts approached each other, and another Austro-Prussian war seemed about to shed fratricidal blood. Frederick, violating precedents and expectations, avoided battle, content to let his soldiers consume Bohemia’s crops; and Joseph, knowing Frederick’s reputation as a general, hesitated to attack. He had hoped that France would come to his aid, and he dispatched pleas to Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI sent him fifteen million livres, but could do no more, for France had signed (February 6, 1778) an alliance with the revolting American colonies, and had to be prepared for war with England. Joseph fretted in camp, while hemorrhoids agitated him at one end, and an enormous boil at the other.

Maria Theresa, with a last flurry of will, took matters into her own hands, and secretly sent Frederick an offer of peace (July 12). Frederick agreed to negotiate; Joseph submitted to his mother; Louis of France and Catherine of Russia mediated. The Treaty of Teschen (May 13, 1779) solaced Joseph with thirty-four square miles of Bavaria, but allotted all the rest of that electorate to Charles Theodore, so uniting Bavaria and the Palatinate; Prussia was to receive Bayreuth and Ansbach at the death of their childless ruler. Everyone claimed victory.

This third crisis between the aging Frederick and the aging Empress exhausted her life. She was only sixty-three in 1780, but she was stout and asthmatic, and two wars, sixteen pregnancies, and incessant worry had weakened her heart. In November she was caught in a heavy rain while driving in an open carriage; she developed a bad cough, but insisted on spending the next day at her desk, working; she had once remarked, “I reproach myself for the time I consume in sleep.”54 Finding it almost impossible to breathe while lying down, she spent her final illness in a chair. Joseph summoned his brothers and sisters to her side, and attended her lovingly. The doctors abandoned hope for her, and she resigned herself to the last sacrament. In her final hours she rose and stumbled from her chair to her bed. Joseph tried to make her comfortable, saying, “Your Majesty lies in a bad position.” She answered, “Yes, but good enough to die in.” She died on November 29, 1780.

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