THE monarchs of the middle eighteenth century are known as the enlightened despots. They sometimes owed a reputation for enlightenment to their ministers, as did Joseph of Portugal to Pombal, and Philip V. of Spain to Alberoni, and as Louis XVI. of France to a lesser degree did to Turgot. But, on the other hand, Frederick II. of Prussia, Joseph II. of Austria, and Peter the Great of Russia were certainly the fountain-heads of their own policies. These despots founded new towns and villages, built roads and bridges, gave subsidies to industry, drained marshes, simplified the laws, abolished torture, made imprisonment less horrible, abolished tolls and other barriers to internal trade, destroyed the influence of nobles and priests, and established elementary schools in the villages; then they employed the strength of their reformed countries to gain territory and prestige. Before the century was out, the work they had left unfinished was accelerated by the French revolutionary reformers.
Even despots are open to suggestion. They all owed something to the writers commonly known as the French philosophers, whom we shall describe more fully later. Politically, though these writers prepared the way for the Revolution, most of them proposed to carry out reforms through the agency of enlightened despotism.
The eighteenth century is full of wars, fought in slow time by small well-drilled armies; but national feeling, at any rate among educated people, was not acute. Foreigners ruled in England, Russia, and Spain; Irish Catholic exiles and Scottish Jacobites made careers in several continental countries, and civilians could reside unmolested in war time in " enemy " countries. All people of rank talked French, and French books, dress, and manners held them together in a kind of freemasonry.
The chief importance of the wars of this period lay in the struggle between England and France for the control of India and North America, a conflict that will be described more fully later. In Europe the wars showed a common tendency for a group of strong powers to partition a weaker one, often on the pretext of disrupted succession to the throne. Sometimes the thing was an elaborate plot, sometimes one power took the lead and the others intervened in the name of the Balance of Power. After the war which determined the succession in England (1689-97), we have seen the war over the partition of Spain, and there was a smaller war over Sweden.
After 1739 an Anglo-Spanish trade war merged into the War of the Austrian Succession (1741-48), the least successful contestants in which (Austria and France) fell on a too successful rival, Prussia, in the epic Seven Years' War (1756-63). Great Britain, having in her turn done too well, three continental powers assailed her during her American War (1775-83). Meanwhile the partition of Poland began. The War of the Austrian Succession (1741-48) began with a scramble to divide the dominions of which a woman had just succeeded to the throne. The tendency grew stronger as the century wore on: its most famous example was in the almost bloodless partitions of Poland. In modern times we have seen Africa and the Pacific partitioned with more justification.