Catherine II (1729-1796),
also called Catherinethe Great, empress of Russia,
was born Sophia Augusta Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbstat
Stettin, in Prussian Pomerania on May 2, 1729. She
was the daugtherof Christian Augustus, ruler of the
petty principality of Anhalt-Zerbst,and Johanna
Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp.
Though brought up in the
simplest manner,she was well educated by French
governesses and tutors. In 1744 she wasbetrothed to
the Grand Duke Peter Feodorovich, nephew of the
Empress Elizabethof Russia and heir presumptive to
the Russian throne. This match was arrangedby the
families of the betrothed but was particularly
encouraged by Frederickthe Great of Prussia, who
saw in it a means of improving his relationswith
Russia and the weakening of Austrian influence. To
ingratiate herselfwith Elizabeth, the young princess
adopted the name Ekaterina (Catherine)Alekseevna before
her marriage on Sept. 1, 1745, and renounced Lutheranism
for Greek Orthodoxy.
Catherine soon became alienated from herhusband, whose education had been neglected and who had a very limitedknowledge of men and public affairs; also, he displayed a marked tendency toward madness. After the birth of her son Paul in 1754 she became activein politics, opposing Peter's pro-Lutheran and pro-Prussian policy, andusing to advantage the disaffection caused among the military caste byhis introduction of Prussian tactics in the Russian army. The Grand Dukesucceeded to the throne as Peter III on Jan. 5, 1762. He was impoliticenough to threaten Catherine with a divorce on the grounds of infidelity.Six months later, Peter was with his Holstein troops at the castle of Oranienbaum,30 miles (48 km) from St. Petersburg. A group of conspirators, led by Gregory Orlov, Catherine's current lover, took advantage of Peter's absence fromcourt to issue a pronunciamento in the name of the regiments of the ImperialGuard, which removed Peter from the throne and made Catherine empress.She was crowned by the archbishop of Novgorod. Peter was secluded in a country house at Ropcha, where he was murdered in the middle of July, probablywith the approval of Catherine.
An able ruler, Catherine transformed Russiainto a great power and gained for herself a place among the "enlighteneddespots" of the eighteenth century. Her foreign policy represents perhapsthe most spectacular side of her reign. Catherine took an active part inthe three partitions of Poland (1772-1773, 1793, and 1795) and broughtwithin the fold of the Russian empire millions of Orthodox and Russian-speaking subjects, thereby almost completing the dream of Ivan III of the reunionof all the Russian lands under the scepter of the tsar. The Russian shareof Poland included Lithuania and Kurland, which established the extent of the Russian-controlled Baltic coast almost to the Niemen River. In herwars with Turkey (1769-1774 and 1787-1791) Catherine carried through thepolicy inherited from Peter the Great and obtained a firm hold on the BlackSea coast from the Kerch Straits to the Dniester River, giving Russia anatural frontier in the south and another outlet to the sea. The last remnantof the medieval Mongol empire, once a powerful enemy of Russia, the Khanateof Crimea, became a Russian possession. During the reign of Catherine,Sweden attempted to reconquer the part of the Baltic coast which had beentaken away from her by Peter the Great, but after the war (1788-1790) theRusso-Swedish frontier remained unchanged. Catherine played a conspicuouspart in European affairs. In 1779 she acted as mediator between Prussiaand Austria and became a guarantor of the Treaty of Teschen. In 1780, duringthe War of the American Revolution, Catherine issued the "Act of ArmedNeutrality" supported by many European states. In 1796 death interruptedher plans of intervention in France.
Proposed New Laws
The internal policies of Catherine were acompromise between her "enlightened" inclinations and the necessity toappease the nobility, which was her main support on the throne. Findingthe state of governmental affairs in Russia in a rather disorderlycondition, Catherine started her reign with an attempt to give the countrynew, modernized laws. To prepare these laws, in 1767 she convened a legislative commission composed of 565 representatives of the nobility, towns, freepeasants, and the government institutions. The enserfed peasants were notrepresented among the deputies. For the guidance of the commission, Catherineherself prepared an elaborate "Instruction," consisting of more than 500articles and based on the ideas of Montesquieu, Beccaria, and other writers of that period. After a year and a half of deliberation, the commission was dismissed by Catherinewithout having accomplished any legislative work.
Having failed in her grandiose plans to present Russia with a new code of laws, Catherine launched a number of administrativere forms. After making some slight changes in the central government, Catherine,in 1775, came forth with a reform of the provincial administration. The need of such a reform became apparent during the huge peasant rebellion led by Pugachev (1773-1774) when the local administration proved to be totally inefficient and impotent. Catherine changed the number of the gubernias¾thelarge territorial units into which Russia was divided¾from twentyto fifty-one. The administrative machinery within each gubernia was reorganized and, in accordance with Western ideas, the administrative, financial, and judicial functions of the government were separated. On the lower level,separate courts for the nobility, the townsmen, and free peasants were introduced, whose judges were elected from the class over whom they had jurisdiction. The judges of the superior courts were appointed by the crown.On the whole, the reform greatly favored the nobility because all the high crown officers came from this class, and the local gentry acquired complete control of the rural administration.
The Nobles' Charter
In addition to granting the nobles a large share of government functions, in 1785 Catherine granted the nobles a charterconfirming and amplifying the privileges given to them by Peter III. Thischarter gave the nobles organization as a class enjoying special rightsand represented before the throne by their elected marshals; it freed thenobles from their obligations to the state and definitely transformed theserfs into their private property. Simultaneously Catherine issued a charterto the cities, granting them a degree of self-government, limited by thepresence of an appointed crown officer with police and supervisory duties. Although Catherine defined the civic status of the noble and middle classes,she did nothing for the enserfed peasants whose position during her reign was worse than ever before. In the beginning of her reign she played with the idea of at least the gradual emancipation of the serfs. Faced with the hostile attitude of the nobility toward such projects, Catherine abandoned them and ended by enserfing more than a million hither to free state peasants, who were distributed among her various favorites. She also legalized serfdom in the Ukraine.
In her economic policies Catherine followed the tendencies of her age and adopted the doctrine of laissez-faire. Without attempting any regulation, she was interested in the development of industry and trade, especially export trade. The Black Sea grain trade was made possible after the colonization of southern Russia, the building of several towns, and the foundation of the Russian naval base in Sevastopol. Among her economic measures were the establishment of the Loan Bank, the introduction of paper currency, the reduction of the burdensome salt tax, and the encouragement of the Free Economic Society, founded through private initiative for the dissemination of information about agriculture.
The enlightened ideas of Catherine were particularly noticeable in her cultural activities and educational and humanitarian reforms. A friend, correspondent, and sometimes patron of many contemporary philosophers, Catherine encouraged the translation of their works into Russian. She permitted private printing of books, stimulated literary efforts among her subjects, and herself wrote articles and plays in which she introduced progressive ideas of Western culture to Russian readers. The results of Catherine's efforts soon became evident. A number of magazines made their appearance; in 1783 the Russian Academy of Letters was founded and thefirst private bookstore was opened. The Academy of Sciences started publication of Russian chronicles, and on private initiative twenty volumes of ancient Russian documents were published. Several scientific expeditions for the study of the Russian borderlands were organized, and the Scientific Society at the University of Moscow was started. Although Catherine failed to put through her plans for an extensive school system, many schools were opened during her reign, including the first schools for girls. In 1763 Catherine founded a medical commission to look after public health. She established many hospitals and asylums for foundlings and incurable mental cases. She tried to increase the number of physicians and pharmacists in the country and, as an example to her subjects, had herself and her son Paul inoculated against smallpox.
During Catherine's reign, Russian national prestige as well as the fear of Russia greatly increased in Western Europe. The internal organization of the empire became improved and modernized, although chiefly in the interest of only one class of the Russian people. The social conditions, in so far as the tightening of serfdom was concerned, had a backward trend, making the solution of the peasant question more difficult for Catherine's successors. Culturally, Russia advanced considerably with the influx of new ideas, the growth of national literature, and the progress of science.
With the death of his father in
1713, theson, known up to then as M. de la Brède,
advanced to the positionof counselor or judge of the Parliment
of Bordeaux. Shortly thereafter he married, was elected a
member of the Bordeaux Academy, and, throughthe death of his
uncle in 1716, inherited the title of Baron de Montesquieu and
the post of president of the Bordeaux Parlement. Before the
Revolution in France, a Parliment was a high judicial court,
not a legislative body as in England.
Montesquieu, however, had little interest in law as a day-to-day profession. What he sought, as he later remarked, was the spirit behind existing laws, the slow growth of social institutions,and the foundations of justice. Hence it was that, ten years later in 1726,he gladly sold his post as president of the Bordeaux Parliment, a practice entirely sanctioned by the customs of the time.
The young man made some early experiments in the newly developing field of natural science, summarizing their results in paperspresented before the Academy of Bordeaux. They revealed, among other things,his interest in the effect of cold in contracting, and of heat in expanding, animal tissue. Later these experiments were a factor in his conclusions about the profound influence of climate upon human beings and hence upon their social institutions.
After winning a large reading public in 1721 with a vivid satire of French society in Les Lettres persanes (The Persian Letters ), Montesquieu was elected after some hesitation to the French Academy in 1727. In 1728 he set out on an important tour of Austria, Italy, Switzerland, the small German states along the Rhine, Holland, and finally England. His stay of about a year and a half in England was particularly significant. Here he attended sessions of the House of Commons, observing with pleased astonishment the open criticism of government policy which was permitted to opposition parties in Parliament and in the newspapers. Such freedom was impossible under the absolute monarchy of his native France, as indeed it was nearly everywhere else in the world at the time.
The rest of Montesquieu's life was devoted almost entirely to wide reading, reflection, and the slow, careful shaping of his literary work. In his great 40-by-60-foot library at La Brède, he sat regularly before the fireplace, busy with his many books or thoughtfully dictating to a secretary his brief, incisive sentences. Of a reserved temperament except when among close friends, he sometimes appeared at Paris salons,standing willingly aloof, studying the varied human types, and listening to the light conversation around him. Worn out finally by many years of intense application to study and writing, nearly blind from cataracts, but already firmly established in his fame and with his great work accomplished, Montesquieu died in Paris on Feb. 10, 1755, at the age of 66.
The Persian Letters were publishedin 1721. For this first important work, Montesquieu found entertaininglocal color in Antoine Galland's recent translation of the Arabian Nights and in accounts of Near Eastern travel by J. B. Tavernier and Jean Chardin.C. R. Dufresny's fictional Amusements of a Siamese at Paris at least calledMontesquieu's attention to the valuable device of the foreign observer.But Montesquieu surpassed all his predecessors in this type of work. "Writeme some more Persian Letters ," exclaimed a Paris publisher to hopefulauthors. In spite of all efforts, new Turkish Letters, Peruvian Letters,Iroquois Letters , vainly tried to emulate Montesquieu's extraordinarysuccess. In his imagined letters, the traveling Persians satirized thediverting follies and foibles as well as the more serious political andreligious abuses of 18th-century France. These strangers from the Orientcould plausibly be astonished at what to a Frenchman at home would seemonly natural.
Montesquieu's wit and irony were often biting.Already he had learned to write with characteristic vigor and sharp concision."It is by sitting on chairs that nobility is acquired," remarked the PersianRica, satirizing the fashionable idleness of European aristocracy (Letter78). "A great noble," wrote Usbek, "is a man who sees the king, speaksto his ministers, and who has ancestors, debts, and pensions." (Letter88). The Persian Letters attacked also religious wars, the Inquisition,the pope, the absolutism of Louis XIV, and John Law's fiasco of speculationand inflation, the so-called Mississippi scheme. Montesquieu, observedVoltaire, "always thinks, and makes others think."
The Considérations sur les causesde la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (Considerationson the Causes of the Grandeur of the Romans and of their Decadence) comprisea small book, but one of great import. It was published in 1734. The keyword in this long title is "causes." Why did Rome rise, why did it finallyfall? There are causes in history, Montesquieu believed, and by studyingthese causes, he implied, the reader may perhaps acquire wisdom to avoidthe grievous errors of the past.
The Spirit of Laws. De l'Esprit des lois (TheSpirit of Laws ) appeared in 1748. This was the major work of Montesquieu'slife¾the result of more than 20 years of reading, meditation, andslow, careful writing. With it, the field of political and social scienceentered into literature and reached the general public. What are laws?"Laws," says the author at the beginning of his book, "in their widestmeaning, are the necessary relationships which derive from the nature ofthings." These relationships are therefore inherent. They can be foundand studied. They must be related to the type of government, whether tyranny,monarchy, or democracy. They vary with the physical characteristics ofthe country, its cold, hot, or temperate climate, its size, the natureof its terrain, flat or mountainous, the religion, numbers, manners, morals,and customs of its inhabitants.
The idea of the "relativity" of human beliefsand institutions is consequently fundamental to Montesquieu's outlook.Hence comes the attitude that the world is not uniform and that differencesare to be expected. The home country is not always right. A broad cosmopolitanismdevelops naturally from this emphasis upon "relativity." Among Montesquieu'sgreat admirations also was the separation of the three powers, legislative,executive, and judicial, which he found in the English government of thetime¾wrongly, say some political writers; rightly, said the Englishlegal scholar, Sir Frederick Pollock, in rejoinder to his American friend,Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. In his explanation of his system ofthe separation of powers and of the use of checks and balances in government,Montesquieu was clearer and more definite than the English political theoristJohn Locke. Unlike Locke, he did not favor legislative supremacy.
The Persian Letters , admitted the Italianpenologist, the Marchese di Beccaria, were an important influence uponhis treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), in which he opposedtorture and called for a more humane judicial procedure. These Lettersundoubtedly helped shape the form of some of Voltaire's cogent sentencesin Candide and elsewhere. It is certain that they had a great impact upona wide reading public. They can still be read with pleasure and profittoday.
The Considerations on the Romans were animportant inspiration for the work of the great English historian, EdwardGibbon, on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788),even though he took issue with some of Montesquieu's views. Later historiansof Rome have also often followed in the general path which Montesquieuset.
The Spirit of Laws in its turn becamefor many years a fundamental guide to political thinking. It was respectedby the moderate leaders in the early days of the French Revolution, and,if Louis XVI had been the strong and able ruler whom those stern timesdemanded, it might have led at once to a limited monarchy in France modeledafter that in England. In the United States the Spirit of Laws waswidely read in French or in English translation.
This was particularly true of Montesquieu'sanalysis of the English government. During the debates of the ConstitutionalConvention in Philadelphia throughout the summer of 1787, "the celebratedMontesquieu" was often cited as a convincing authority. On the vital questionof the separation of powers, wrote James Madison in the Federalist (no.47), "the oracle who is always consulted and cited ¼ is ¼Montesquieu. If he be not the author of this invaluable precept [separationof powers] in the science of politics," continued Madison, "he has themerit at least of displaying and recommending it most effectually to theattention of mankind."
Montesquieu's influence in the United Statesjoined with the tradition established in some degree by Aristotle, theGreek historian Polybius, and the French parlements. John Locke and thepractice of the English government in part supported it. The existing colonialgovernments in America tended also in a similar direction. But Montesquieu,so widely read, so often quoted with respect, remained a strong and determininginfluence, as the records of the Constitutional Convention and many passagesin the Federalist clearly indicate.