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A History of World Societies, Sixth Edition
McKay/Hill/Buckler/Ebrey
Web Exercises
Chapter 17: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Europe, ca 1589-1725

During the seventeenth century, strong central government returned to Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. Europe, however, was not united. Political power was divided up among competing nation–states (peoples with a common culture united by a strong central government). In several of these nation–states, new experiments and philosophies led to the growth of organized and wealthy governments that were each able to impose order throughout their realm, project their power abroad, and develop a national culture and identity. Whether this process took the form of absolutism or constitutionalism, the broad implications for the nations involved were similar. Complete the following activities to further your understanding of these developments.

Helpful Hints:
  • You may want to begin by printing this page. As you explore different sites, use the printout to refer back to the instructions and questions detailed in each activity.
  • On many web sites you can increase the size of the images by clicking on them. Whenever possible, use the larger images to examine fine details in photographs.
Activity One:
  • Review Map 4 from Chapter 15, Activity Eight. Go over your list about emerging nation–states in Europe. Now go to Western and Central European Chronology: Absolute Monarchies 1598–1689. Analyze Map 4 in terms of the developments shown in your chronology. Why were France and England developing into strong nation–states, but not Germany? Where else were strong nation–states appearing during this time? What areas were not undergoing this transition?
Activity Two:

As the first activity demonstrates, absolutism and constitutionalism were competing systems of government that were both capable of producing a strong central government. To understand this process, complete the following exercises.
  • Go to Absolutism and Constitutionalism. What is the goal of both systems of government? In other words, what role do they see for government? Should government be strong and capable of bringing about change and reform? Or should it be weak? How do the two systems differ in trying to achieve this goal?
  • There are many antecedents for both these philosophies in European history. For example, review Chapter 5, Activity Four. Which seventeenth–century philosophy of government most closely resembled the democratic city–states of ancient Greece? Now review Chapter 6, Activities Three. Which seventeenth–century philosophy of government most closely resembled the reigns of the Roman emperors Augustus and Trajan? Considering the histories of ancient Greece and Rome, which model of government — Greek democracy or Roman imperialism — do you think was better suited to the problems that European nation–states faced in the seventeenth century?
  • As you can see, neither model — absolutism or constitutionalism — was perfect. Yet each tried to bring about order and stability by creating a strong central government. Where they disagreed was over how strong that government should be. Indeed, it's remarkable how similar the actions of absolutist and constitutionalist governments were. For example, go to Discourses Upon Trade and On the Financial Disorders in France. What are these authors' views of the role of central government in promoting economic stability? What methods do they suggest? What government institutions would be necessary to carry out these duties? Why was it possible for governments to create these institutions during this period?
Activity Three:
  • One consequence of the growth of strong central governments was the promotion of a common culture and identity. Go to Letters Patent Establishing the French Academy in 1635 and The Rise and Fall of the Absolute Monarchy Make a list of ways in which the French government promoted a common culture and identity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Why were such policies advantageous to the French monarchy? What problems might they have caused? Record your reflections in a few paragraphs.
Activity Four:

Another consequence of the growth of strong central governments was the ability of some European nation–states to project their power abroad. France, England, and the Netherlands all created large global empires in the seventeenth century. Despite their different systems of government, all three countries used a similar practice to promote their overseas influence: mercantilism. To better understand the significance of mercantilism, complete the following exercises.
  • For an overview of mercantilism, go to Mercantilism. What was the overall goal of mercantile policies? What specific policies did the philosophy entail? Why did most European nation–states resort to it during this period? Considering what you have studied in this course, which country do you think was most successful in achieving the goals of mercantilism?
  • To understand the impact of mercantilism outside Europe, read about British mercantilism and French Expansion in North America. What specific laws or policies did the English and French use to govern their colonies in North America? How did these laws or policies reflect the goals of mercantilism? What impact did these laws or policies have on the economic development of these colonies? How did colonists circumvent mercantilist restrictions on trade? What other economic policies in addition to mercantilism were employed in the colonies? Overall, how successful do you think mercantilism was as an economic policy?
Activity Five:

In this age of emerging nation–states, you can also see the continuation of a broader European culture. Despite differences in religion and government, this common culture made Europe a distinct civilization in the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the arts. McKay, A History of World Societies (Sixth Edition), calls the artistic flair of Europe in the seventeenth century "baroque." To better understand this trend, complete the following exercises.
  • According to WebMuseum: Baroque, what characteristics defined this artistic period? What trends in European history did it reflect? (See The Baroque Era for clues.)
  • Take a virtual tour of Versailles and the Schönbrunn Palace. What were these two palaces used for? How do they reflect the values of absolutism? How do they reflect baroque sensibilities?
  • Take a tour of Amsterdam and St. Petersburg. How does the architecture and city  planning in these two urban landscapes reflect the baroque mood in the seventeenth century?
  • Read about the lives and view the paintings of Caravaggio and Rubens. Where was each man from, and where did he live? What do their paintings have in common? What does their work say about a common European culture in the seventeenth century?


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