Although Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor and archduke of Austria, was perhaps the best-intentioned of all enlightened despots, he was less than successful as a ruler. The son of Francis I and Maria Theresa, who was the great matriarch of the Hapsburg dynasty and with whom he ruled jointly, Joseph II became sole ruler of the Holy Roman Empire in 1780 after the death of his mother. This sole rulership gave him the opportunity to implement his own ideas, which were influenced by the Enlightenment philosophy in fashion among European intellectuals, by instituting a sweeping series of reforms concerning trade, law, education, and taxation. Joseph II also established hospitals and granted of freedom of worship to his subjects. He abolished capital punishment in an age when it was still the common form of punishment for over a hundred crimes under the legal systems of other European nations. All people became equal before the law, including both the nobility and the church.
Perhaps the most significant of Joseph's reforms was the liberation of the serfs from the confines of the Feudal System. However noble his intentions may have been, Joseph II's methods for eliminating serfdom caused serious unrest. His radical reforms threatened stability due to their hastiness; he governed simply by personal decree. This often meant that his reforms were made without setting up the means to carry them out. This autocratic governing style caused other problems as well. Joseph II believed that change could only be achieved through rule by an absolute monarchy, since commoners were unprepared for political participation, and the aristocracy was too resistant to change. However, the aristocracy was upset by his despotism and they were further shocked by his freedom of the serfs. The agnostic Joseph II also outraged the strongly Catholic population by his affection for the writings of Voltaire, by his accommodation of Protestantism, and by his harassment of Pope Pius VI.
Joseph II also engaged in a series of ill-advised military campaigns, which disrupted the economy that had previously flowered under his auspices. By the end of his reign, his war against Turkey had taken a turn for the worse, Hungary and Belgium were in rebellion, the Church denounced him as an infidel, the peasantry demanded more land, and the urban poor were starving.
Upon the death of Joseph II in 1790, his brother Leopold II, the grand Duke of Tuscany, ascended to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Though Leopold II shared his brother's aims, he used more caution in continuing his reforms, managed to preserve most of them in Bohemia and Austria, and was able to end the war with Turkey and bring Belgium back into the Empire. Though Joseph II was a military failure, he brought the Enlightenment to Austria and transformed it from a medieval state to a modern one without violent revolution.
- ^ Swyrich, Archive materials