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Holy Roman emperor Joseph II tried to strengthen the Habsburg empire with his enlightened reforms, but the changes he made were met with fierce opposition.
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Future Holy Roman emperor Joseph II was born in Vienna, Austria, on March 13, 1741. He became co-regent with his mother, Maria Theresa, in 1765, and sole ruler in 1780. During his time in power, Joseph issued decrees that promoted equality and education, but the speed and scope of his reforms led to problems for him and his empire. Joseph died in Vienna on February 20, 1790, at the age of 48.
"I do not need your consent for doing good."
"The idea of being able to do good and render one's subjects happy is undoubtedly the finest and the only flattering aspect of power..."
On March 13, 1741, in Vienna, Austria, Habsburg heir Joseph (baptized as Joseph Benedict Augustus Johann Anton Michael Adam) was born. His mother, Maria Theresa, was the ruler of the Habsburg empire. His father, Francis I, held the title of Holy Roman emperor. As the firstborn son, Joseph spent his childhood knowing he would grow up to take the reins of power. In 1765, after his father died, Joseph became Joseph II, Holy Roman emperor.
With his father's death, Joseph also became his mother's co-regent, and took over the handling of the army and foreign affairs. In foreign matters, Joseph's attempt to exchange part of the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria was undermined by Frederick II of Prussia.
Although Joseph was co-regent, Maria Theresa maintained control of the empire. His mother made some changes that Joseph supported, such as an expansion of elementary education in the 1770s. But Maria Theresa objected to the idea of religious tolerance and refused to institute reforms that Joseph, a disciple of the Enlightenment, desperately wanted.
When Maria Theresa died in 1780, Joseph became the absolute ruler of the Habsburg domains and enacted many reforms that his mother had refused to consider. During his reign, Joseph put forth an average of 690 decrees a year. (Maria Theresa had made fewer than 100 each year.) Joseph's reforms included abolishing serfdom, ending press censorship and limiting the power of the Catholic Church. And with his Edict of Toleration, Joseph gave minority religions, such as Protestants, Greek Orthodox and Jews, the ability to live and worship more freely.
Joseph was considered an "enlightened despot," and his reforms were open-minded, to a point. However, Joseph's main aim was to make the empire more efficient and financially secure. Believing that he was doing what was right and necessary, Joseph did not bother to smooth the way with nobles or clergy who felt threatened by his changes.
Joseph's reforms convinced people in the Austrian Netherlands that their historical privileges were not being respected. Hungarian nobles tried to reject Joseph's decrees on the grounds that he had not gone through an official coronation there. Even peasants were often more concerned with the taxes that the empire demanded than with their new freedoms.
Joseph also encountered difficulties outside his empire. To counter Prussia's strength, Joseph forged an alliance with Catherine II of Russia, which brought the empire into a conflict in Turkey. This stretched the empire's resources and also opened the door for more unrest.
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