After sincerely mourning a mother whose greatness he now realized, Joseph felt free to be himself, and to put into operation his burgeoning ideas for reform. He was absolute monarch over Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and the Southern Netherlands; his brother Leopold obeyed him in Tuscany, his sister Marie Antoinette would serve him in France. He felt deeply the opportunities that had come to him at the zenith of his life and power.

What was he like? Forty years old, still in the prime of life, he was quite handsome when he covered his bald head with a wig. He had an alert, almost feverishly active mind, abreast of his time, but insufficiently steadied by a knowledge of history and human character. Always feeling the stinginess of time, he erred only through haste, rarely through ill-will. Many stories tell of his sensitivity to the misfortunes of others, of his readiness to remedy remediable wrongs.55 He made himself as accessible to the people as his tasks allowed. He lived simply, dressed like any sergeant, and shunned the purple robes of kings. He was as free from mistresses as Frederick, and had no “Greek friends”; his work was his absorbing love. Like Frederick, he worked harder than any of his aides. He had prepared himself conscientiously for his responsibilities; he had traveled not for amusement and display, but for observation and study; he had examined the industries, arts, charities, hospitals, courts, naval and military establishments of many countries; he had looked with his own eyes at the peoples, classes, and problems of his realm. Now he resolved, so far as one man could, to realize the dreams of the philosophers. “Since I have come to the throne, and wear the foremost diadem in the world, I have made philosophy the lawgiver of my empire.”56 Philosophers everywhere in Europe looked at the great enterprise with eager expectations.

The first difficulty was to find aides who would share his dream. Those whom he had inherited were nearly all of the upper classes whose privileges would be clipped by his reforms. Kaunitz and van Swieten supported him; two privy councilors, Qualtenburg and Gebler, and two professors in the University of Vienna, Martini and Sonnenfels, encouraged him; but below these men were bureaucrats mortised in habit, comfortable in tradition, and automatically resisting change. Joseph, too hurried to be courteous, treated these servitors as servants, confused them with a cloud of orders, asked them to report on any serious fault in their associates,57 clogged them with questionnaires, and demanded of them labor as unremitting as his own. He promised them, and their widows, pensions after ten years of service; they thanked him, resented his methods, and nursed their pride. Joseph’s confidence in the justice of his aims led him to impatient intolerance of criticism or debate. He wrote to Choiseul (now in easeful retirement): “Live happier than I can be. I have hardly known happiness, and before I complete the course that I have set out for myself I shall be an old man.”58 He never lived to be old.

He put aside all thought of democracy. His people, he felt, were unprepared for political judgment; with a few exceptions they would adopt whatever opinions were handed down to them by their masters or their priests. Even a constitutional monarchy appeared unpromising; a parliament like England’s would be a closed society of landlords and bishops defying any basic change. Joseph took it for granted that only an absolute monarchy could break the cake of custom and the chains of dogma and protect the simple weak from the clever strong. So he took up every problem personally, and issued directives covering every phase of life. To promote compliance with his orders he set up a system of espionage that soured his benefactions.

It was part of his absolutism to raise by conscription a large standing army independent of territorial magnates, manned by universal conscription, and hardened by Prussian discipline. That army, he hoped, would give strength to his voice in international affairs, and would keep Frederick at a distance; perhaps (for our philosopher was somewhat acquisitive) it would enable him to absorb Bavaria and drive the Turks from the adjoining Balkans. He named a commission of jurists to reform and codify the laws; after six years of labor it published a new civil code of judicial procedure. Penalties were lightened, and capital punishment was abolished. (In contemporary England a hundred crimes were still considered capital.) Magic, witchcraft, and apostasy were no longer punishable by law. Dueling was forbidden; to kill in a duel was classified as murder. Marriage was made a civil contract; marriages between Christians and non-Christians became legal; divorce could be obtained from the civil authority. Magistrates were to be appointed only after specific training and after passing difficult examinations. Many ecclesiastical courts were abolished. All persons were to be held equal before the law. Aristocrats were shocked when one of their number was exposed in a pillory and another was sentenced to sweep the streets.

Serfdom was abolished by a series of decrees, 1781-85. The right to change residence or occupation, to own property, and to marry by mutual consent was guaranteed to all, and special attorneys were provided to protect the peasants in their new liberties. The barons lost criminal jurisdiction over their tenants, but, lest baronial manors remain unproductive, the lords could require some customary services from their former serfs.

Convinced that guild regulations hampered economic development, Joseph encouraged capitalist industry, but he opposed the multiplication of machines for fear “it would deprive thousands of their livelihood.”59 He exempted industrial workers from conscription, but they grumbled at his reduction of workless holydays. He elevated merchants, manufacturers, and bankers to aristocratic titles and national honors. He abolished or reduced internal tolls, but retained high protective tariffs on imports. Domestic manufacturers, so shielded from foreign competition, raised prices and produced shoddy goods.60 Resenting the tariffs, Prussia, Saxony, and Turkey closed their gates to the products of the Empire; the Elbe, the Oder, and the Danube lost some of their trade. Joseph tried to increase overland traffic with Adriatic ports by cutting a new road, the Via Josephina, through the Carniolan Alps; he set up an East India Company, and hoped to develop commerce with the Orient, Africa, and America through the free ports of Fiume and Trieste. In 1784 he negotiated a commercial treaty with Turkey, but three years later his war with Turkey closed the Danube’s exits to the Black Sea, and the Danubian merchants followed one another into bankruptcy.

To promote the circulation of capital he removed from the statutes the old prohibition of interest, legalized loans at five per cent, and raised a Jewish banker to the baronetcy. He offered state loans and temporary monopolies to new enterprises. He adopted the physiocratic idea of a single tax falling only upon land, varying with location and fertility, and paid by landowners great or small. The proposal required a survey of all the lands of the Empire; this was carried out at a cost of 120,000,000 gulden, paid by the proprietors. The new law decreed that the peasant was to keep seventy per cent of his produce or income, give twelve per cent to the state, and divide the remainder between feudal dues and ecclesiastical tithes; previously he had paid thirty-four per cent to the state, twenty-nine per cent to the landlord, and ten per cent to the Church, keeping only twenty-seven per cent for himself.61 The nobles protested that this new division would ruin them; in Hungary they rose in revolt.

The population of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia rose from 18,700,000 in 1780 to 21,000,000 in 1790.62 A contemporary reported that brick cottages were replacing the old rural hovels, and that brick was replacing wood in urban housing.63 Poverty remained, but an Imperial rescript of 1781 established Armeninstitute (Institutes for the Poor) where any person unable to earn a living could claim support without sacrificing his self-respect.

Though Joseph was officially “Vicar of Christ,” “Advocate of the Christian Church,” and “Protector of Palestine … and the Catholic Faith,” he set about, soon after his rise to absolute power, to reduce the role of the Church in his “hereditary” lands—i.e., Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia. On October 12, 1781, he issued an Edict of Toleration: Protestants and Greek Orthodox were to be free to have their own temples, schools, and conventions, to own property, enter the professions, and hold political or military offices. The Emperor exhorted the people to “forbear all occasions of dispute relative to matters of faith, … and to treat affectionately and kindly those who are of a different communion.”64 In a directive to van Swieten Joseph frankly revealed the sources of his inspiration: “Intolerance is banished from my Empire, [which can be] happy that it has not made victims like Calas and Sirven. … Toleration is the effect of the propagation of the enlightenment [les lumières ] which has now spread through all Europe. It is based on philosophy, and on the great men who have established it. … It is philosophy alone that governments must follow.”65

There were limits to this toleration, as there had been in Voltaire’s Treatise on Toleration (1763). Some councilors warned Joseph that if all restraint were removed there would be a rank growth of wild creeds, even of outright atheism, and that this would eventuate in warring sects, social disorder, and the breakdown of all authority. So when he was told that several hundred Bohemians had publicly declared themselves deists (1783), he ordered that any man so professing “should, without further investigation, be given twenty-four lashes on his buttocks with a leather whip, and then be sent home,” and that this operation was to be repeated as often as such public profession was renewed.66 Some persisting deists were transported to military colonies. We shall see later how far Joseph went in his efforts to liberate the Jews.

One result of the Edict of Toleration was a rapid rise in the number of professing Protestants in the realm, from 74,000 in 1781 to 157,000 in 1786. Free thought grew, but remained confined to private circles. The Freemasons, who had long been established in Austria, organized in Vienna (1781) a lodge which was joined by many prominent citizens, and (despite its implicit deism) was protected by the Emperor himself. “The aim of the society,” said one member, “was to give effect to that freedom of conscience and thought so happily fostered by the government, and to combat superstition and fanaticism in the … monkish orders, which are the main supports of these evils.”67 Masonic lodges multiplied to the number of eight in Vienna alone; it became fashionable to belong; Masonic emblems were worn by both sexes; Mozart wrote music for Masonic ceremonies. In time Joseph suspected the lodges of political conspiracy; in 1785 he ordered the Viennese lodges to merge into two, and allowed only one lodge in each provincial capital.

Joseph appointed a commission to revise the laws of censorship, and in 1782 he promulgated its results in a new code. Books systematically attacking Christianity, or containing “immoral utterances and unclean obscenities,” were prohibited; but so too were books “containing fabulous miracles, apparitions, revelations, and such things, which would lead the common man to superstition, [and] arouse disgust in scholars.”68 Criticisms and lampoons were allowed, even if they assailed the Emperor, but they must bear the author’s real name, and were subject to the law of libel. Books listed in the Roman Index Librorum Prohibitorum were to be open to the use of scholars in libraries. Scientific works were to be entirely exempt from censorship; so were learned works, provided some recognized authority vouched for their scholarly character. Books in a foreign language might be imported and sold without hindrance. Academic freedom was enlarged. When fourteen students at the University of Innsbruck denounced their teacher to the authorities for contending that the world was older than six thousand years, Joseph handled the matter summarily: “The fourteen students should be dismissed, for heads so poor as theirs cannot profit from education.”69—The new regulations elicited indignant protests from the hierarchy; Joseph responded by allowing Vienna complete liberty of publication (1787). Even before this liberation the Viennese printers took advantage of the lax enforcement of the 1782 code: pamphlets, books, and magazines flooded Austria with semiobscenities, “revelations” of nuns, and attacks upon the Catholic Church, or upon Christianity itself.

Joseph felt that he should also regulate ecclesiastical affairs. On November 29, 1781, he issued a decree that closed a great number of monasteries and nunneries, such as “neither operate schools, nor care for the sick, nor engage in studies.” Of 2,163 religious houses in the German dominions (Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola) 413 were closed; of their 65,000 inmates 27,000 were freed with pensions; and a similar reduction was effected in Bohemia and Hungary. “The monarchy,” said Joseph “is too poor and backward to allow itself the luxury of supporting the idle.”70 The wealth of the dismantled institutions—amounting to some sixty million gulden—was declared a patrimony of the people, and was confiscated by the state. The surviving monasteries were declared ineligible to inherit property. The mendicant orders were commanded to cease begging, and were forbidden to take novices. Religious brotherhoods were abolished. All ecclesiastical possessions were to be registered with the government, which prohibited their sale, alienation, or exchange.

Joseph proceeded to bring the Catholic episcopate under state control. New bishops were required to take an oath of obedience to the secular authorities. No papal regulation or decree was to be valid in Austria without the government’s permission. The papal bulls of 1362 and 1713, condemning heretics or Jansenists, were to be ignored. On the other hand Joseph organized new parishes, built new churches, and provided stipends to support candidates for the priesthood. He opened new seminaries, and prescribed for them a curriculum stressing science and secular knowledge as well as theology and liturgy.

These measures aroused the Catholic clergy throughout Europe. Many prelates begged Joseph to rescind his anticlerical decrees; unheeded, they threatened him with hell; he smiled and kept his course. Finally the Pope himself, Pius VI, handsome, cultured, kindly, vain, took the unusual step of leaving Italy (February 27, 1782), crossed the Apennines and the Alps in winter, and arrived in Vienna (March 22) resolved to make a personal plea to the Emperor; this was the first time since 1414 that a pope had set foot on German soil. Joseph, with his fellow skeptic Kaunitz, went out from the city to escort the pontiff to the apartments that had been used by Maria Theresa. During the Pope’s stay in Vienna immense crowds gathered almost daily before the royal palace to seek the papal blessings. Joseph later described them:

All the passages and stairs of the court were crammed with people; despite redoubled sentries it was impossible to protect oneself from all the things they brought him to be blessed: scapularies, rosaries, images. And for the benedictions which he gave seven times daily from the balcony he had a throng of people so great that one can form no idea of it unless one has seen it; it is no exaggeration to say that at one time there were at least sixty thousand souls. That was a most beautiful spectacle; peasants and their wives and children came from twenty leagues around. Yesterday a woman was crushed right beneath my window.71

Joseph was moved less by the Pope’s eloquent exhortations than by this evidence of religion’s power on the human mind; nevertheless he continued to close monasteries, even while Pius was his guest.72 The Pope warned him prophetically: “If you persevere in your projects, destructive of the faith and the laws of the Church, the hand of the Lord will fall heavily upon you; it will check you in the course of your career, it will dig under you an abyss where you will be engulfed in the flower of your life, and will put an end to the reign which you could have made glorious.”73 After a month of honors and failure Pius returned sadly to Rome. Shortly afterward the Emperor appointed as archbishop of Milan a Visconti unacceptable to the Curia; the Pope refused confirmation, and Church and Empire neared a break. Joseph was not ready for so drastic a step. He hurried to Rome (December, 1782), visited Pius, professed piety, and won papal consent to the appointment of bishops—even in Lombardy—by the state. Prince and prelate parted amicably. Joseph scattered thirty thousand scudi among the Roman mob, and was hailed with grateful cries of “Viva nostro Imperatore!”

Back in Vienna, he continued his one-man Reformation. Having defied the Pope like Luther (with whom many Protestants gratefully compared him), and having attacked the monasteries like Henry VIII, he proceeded like Calvin to cleanse churches by ordering the removal of votive tablets and most statuary, and by stopping the touching of pictures, the kissing of relics, the distribution of amulets … He regulated the length and number of religious services, the clothing of the Virgin, the character of church music; the litanies were hereafter to be recited in German, not Latin. Pilgrimages and processions were to require the consent of the secular authorities; ultimately only one procession was allowed—for Corpus Christi Day; the people were officially informed that they need not kneel in the streets before a procession, even if it carried a consecrated Host; it was enough to doff their hats. University professors were told that they need no longer swear belief in the immaculate conception of the Virgin.

No one could question the humanity of Joseph’s aims. The wealth taken from dispensable monasteries was set apart for the support of schools, hospitals, and charities, for pensions to displaced monks and nuns, and for supplementary payment to poor parish priests. The Emperor issued a long series of ordinances for the promotion of education. All communities containing a hundred children of school age were required to maintain elementary schools; elementary education was made compulsory and universal. Schools for girls were provided by convents or the state. Universities were supported at Vienna, Prague, Lemberg, Pest, and Louvain; those at Innsbruck, Brünn, Graz, and Freiburg were made into lycées to teach medicine, law, or practical arts. Medical schools were established, including the “Josephinum” at Vienna, for military medicine and surgery. Vienna began to be one of the most advanced medical centers in the world.

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