Powers in the 17th and 18th Centuries
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Great Britain,
France, and the Hapsburg Empire were all competing for the fate of Europe.
France, in particular, was caught between
being a continental power or a world power; taking control of the Rhine
and most of Central Europe, or taking control of The New World. Frances
primary goal at the time was for control of the Rhine, but this goal was
not without obstacles. Great Britains main concern was to keep the
balance of power in Europe on their side, while expanding overseas.
The Hapsburg Empires goals were dealing with conquering the Holy Roman
Empire and the Germanic states, in turn taking over the entire continent
from the inside out. All 3 of these great powers were being opposed
from their pursuits, and survival was always the top concern. Also,
after 1660, a growing multipolar system of European states made decisions
within each state based more on national interest than before, when most
conflicts and militaristic decisions were based on religion.
Louis XIV(1661-1715) is responsible for
a considerable gain in the power of France. He had huge armies, (at
some points reaching up to half a million troops), that were organized
with barracks, hospitals, parade grounds, and depots to support them.
Along with an organized enormous fleet at sea, France became a true hybrid
power. Its energies were diverted between continental aims and maritime
and colonial ambitions. For two decades with no real competition,
France was successful, but other powers soon built up enough recourses
and power to challenge it. By 1713, and the Treaty of Utrecht, Frances
boundaries were established covering the Saint Lawrence River valley, the
Ohio and Mississippi river valleys, the West Indian islands of Saint Domingue,
Guadeloupe, and Martinique. Constantly defending these territories
with the navy, and wars on land with Italy and other states, split French
energy into the navy and military. Never putting enough effort into
just one of these two divisions, French strategy was described as a constant”falling between stools”, with no direction. If one of the two divisions
were solely concentrated on, French success within that division would
have been much more successful. Also, Frances economy was not strong.
France was much wealthier than countries such as England, but the weak
economical structure, tax strategy, interest policies, and lack of a proper
system of public finance in France made less money per capita than in than
most states. Each tax collector took a “cut” from whatever he collected,
then each receiver of that took a cut before passing it on to a higher
level, plus each person received 5 percent interest on the price he had
paid for office. Thus, much of the taxpayers money was going to private
hands. The system was greatly flawed, and it showed, in how much
money the government got to spend on the navy and military. Geographical
placement of France boxed it in to one big lowland, with openings to the
North, which was good for defense, but not as good for expansion and conquest.
France could have been much more powerful if it wasnt for their long list
of economical and strategic disadvantages.
Great Britain domestically “stabilized”
after James II was replaced by William and Mary in 1688. It fulfilled
its potential as being the greatest of the European maritime empires.
It showed very stable and fast-growing commercial and industrial strength,
and a flexible, while successful, social structure. The “financial
revolution” was a huge part in the role Great Britain played during this
time. The tax structure was much less resented by the public than
that of France, or any other country. Britain had a system of loans
and interest that increased their total income greatly. Three-quarters
of extra wartime funds used to help Britains troops came from loans, while
outgoing loans had an interest fee. The Bank of England in 1694 controlled
the national debt as well as much of the stock exchange, while growth of
paper money without much inflation helped the economy.
As a result of the organization of Englands
economy, foreign investors flocked to the British government stock.
Technological and other breakthroughs were constantly allowing the system
to better itself, and providing even more of an advantage for Britain.
For the entire 18th century, Great Britains economic system was the most
efficient in Europe. Credit for such a good system was “the principal
advantage that England hath over France.” The geographical location
of Great Britain also contributed to their success. It was described
as situated to neither be “forced to defend itself by land, nor induced
to seek extension of its territory by way of land”. This situation
led to concentration on building up their Royal Navy, which became the
best of Europe. This location was also very beneficial for trade,
because many countries were open to Britains navy to easily travel back
and forth from. Great Britain was one of the greatest powers in Europe,
and their only real competition was to be from France.
The militaristic Hapsburg Empire, an ally
of Great Britain, was constantly at war through this time period, be it
with Prussia, Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, France, or others. The
wars with the Turks off and on from 1663 to 1791, and the war with the
Ottomans, drained the Hapsburgs energy away from pursuing their goals.
The Hapsburgs were constantly fighting one war while defending from another,
or keeping an eye on another opponent. This is partly due to their
goal of completely taking over the continent. The sporadic placement
of Hapsburg territories across Europe was a disadvantage; it made defense
difficult and decentralized the government. This attribute, along
with an ethnically diverse and economically backward condition was holding
them back from completing their goals, with an anticipation of decline.
Its impressive military force was enough to hold back French attacks for
almost fourteen years, but not enough to survive constant attacks from
most of Europe.
Around 1685, Austria had overcome their
enemies the Turks, and began to once again turn their attention westward.
When the French king decided to invade Germany is 1688; all its continental
rivals were given a chance to strike. Therefore, from 1689, France
stood alone against the United Provinces, England, Spain, Savoy, the major
German states, and the Hapsburgs. French finances and trade were
not as good as they were 10 years earlier, and neither the Army nor the
Navy were ready for such gruesome and distant fighting. In the Treaty
of Ryswick in 1697, Louis kept some gained territory, but in most ways
saw a return into the prewar shape of France.
France was a first-class power in the mid-17th
century, but was finally knocked out of place by Britain and its strong
Navy. France built up a Navy of its own, and took the fight against
Britain to the Western Hemisphere, without much success. French victories
over the Dutch, Hanoverians, and the Prussians, made France even more powerful
in west-central Europe, and was now able to build up its Navy almost as
big as that of Britains. France was stronger than ever. Constant
attacks and a large seizure of corn ships off French ports during a bad
winter could not stop Louiss empire. In the Americas, French and
British merchants were constantly fighting over land such as Canada, and
the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys, but it never officially broke into
war. Attacks against Britains Navy did a great deal of damage, so
Britain had to think of a new way to oppose the growing French. Guided
by William Pitt the Elder, Britain aided enemies of France on the continent
to distract France away from the New World. Their theory was that
France would outdo them at sea when they have nothing to fear on land.
They aided Prussia by donating massive funds to be used against the French,
and sometimes launched a small attack at the French, just to keep their
military busy. This strategy kept the balance of Navy power on the
side of Britain, while eroding at their biggest threat, France.
France had greatly shrank in power since
the mid 17th century, so they were willing to end any conflicts.
The treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 settled differences between France
and Britain, even though clashes were still apparent in the New World between
their settlers into the 1750s. The “diplomatic revolution” of 1756
suprisingly allied Austria and France together to fight Prussia.
France had not completed its goals, mostly because of the horrific costs
of war, which had increased Frances total government debt sevenfold.
The Hapsburgs were falling in power, and their goals seemed no longer achievable.
The balance of power was secure on land, while Britain secured total power
over the seas, and into the New World. Britain was also the least
negatively affected by wars from this time period, and came out the Greatest
power of Europe. This time period was a lesson in how to succeed
in wars, and shows that you need a strong economic base to support a powerful