The American Revolution Revisited or Do We Owe It All To a Woman?

Two years after the War of the Austrian Succession starts, the satiric political cartoonists see Maria Theresa, Empress of the Austrian Empire, losing her clothing just like she lost her richest provinces: Silesia, Parma, and Piacenza to Frederick the Great.

It all started when Charles VI (Karl VI), Holy Roman Emperor, and the last of the male Habsburg line changed the rules.  With only two offspring surviving into adulthood, and both being female, Charles needed a change in the Salic laws going back to the first Frankish King, Clovis I (466- 511 CE), which forbad female inheritance.  Charles VI reformed this, and female succession became sanctioned. He now felt secure that a Habsburg would succeed him.  When he died (reported to be from mushroom poisoning by Voltaire), his eldest daughter, Maria Theresa, became the Empress of Austria at the ripe old age of 23 (much like Elizabeth II did in England). Maria Theresa had married for love, and proved it by having 16 children, with Duke Francis Stephen of Lorraine, France.  She and her husband ruled the Austrian Empire jointly until his death when she became the sole sovereign.

The Salic laws, however, continued to receive partial enforcement at various times in history, and it prevented  Queen Victoria from becoming the Empress of Germany in addition to Great Britain, as she was descendent from the Hause of Hanover. Had she been male, she could lay claim to the throne of Prussia, as Kaiser Wilhelm II did in 1888.  He was Queen Victoria’s eldest grandson.

Despite the fact that Maria Theresa’s education was, as most aristocratic girls, in frivolities of the wealthy and leisure class, which meant religion, music, and art, but not much current history, sciences, or mathematics, and especially not the fields of knowledge that would help her reign one of the great empires of the world.   Because she was intelligent and also handpicked competent advisers, she became a successful and enlightened ruler.  She had the reputation of being feisty, yet she ruled with wisdom and maternal instincts for the benefit of her subjects. She introduced reforms in economics, education, public health, taxation, and eliminated torture to extract confessions.  She made education mandatory for both genders, something very much against the tenure of the times. She introduced smallpox vaccinations for the population, and personally attended the children who lined up at Schönbrun Palace for immunization, the palace she converted from a small hunting lodge to a grandiose palace, the equal of Versailles. She added policies that allowed for population growth with economic and health reforms that improved life.  One of her advisers, her personal physician, was instrumental in improving infant mortality and in determining the cause of death in adults, thus preventing their premature demise.  Maria Theresa ordered all deaths in the city of Graz (which a couple of centuries later was the hometown of Arnold Schwarzenegger and also for the first few years of my father’s life) to undergo an autopsy to that effect.  She and her oldest son, whom she made co-regent after her husband’s death, streamlined the military to make it a much more powerful and effective strike force.  Another reform was to create a civil service of professionals that replaced the old guard aristocrats who ran the country by favoritism and nepotism.  She ruled as an absolute monarch but was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment and its reforms, even though she claimed to despise it, using the principle expressed by her son and co-regent Joseph II,  “Everything for the people, nothing from the people!”

The power brokers of Europe who had initially agreed to the Charles VI Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 that would allow women to succeed now reversed their position.  When Maria Theresa first ascended to the throne, they did not accept a woman monarch, especially Frederich the Great of Prussia.  He marched into Silesia, one of Austria’s most valuable lands, and with that, the War of the Austrian Succession started. It spilled over to North America. There the combatants were France and Great Britain over the mastery of the Ohio River Valley.

In 1748 the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) ended all the hostilities, and Maria Teresa remained Empress of Austria.  But peace did not last more than eight years.  Frederick the Great just could not leave it alone and attacked Austria again.  France, Austria, Russia, Spain, and Sweden were now fighting Britain,  Prussia, and Portugal.  This was the Seven Years War. Churchill much later called it the First World War.  But in North America, they called it the French and Indian War.  This would eventually lead France to intervene in the American Revolution on the side of the  Revolutionaries, who sent Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to the court of Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, the daughter of Maria Theresa.  Without France’s military and diplomatic support, it is likely that we would still be paying a tax on tea to England.

Without Maria Theresa and her daughter Marie Antoinette, it is doubtful that an American Revolution would have gotten off the ground nor have had the results it achieved.  The revolution followed too soon after the War of the Austrian Succession and after the Seven Year War for George III to fully recover. Those wars sapped the strength of the British Empire.  Even with the help of the 29,875 Hessian auxiliary troops sent from Prussia to help, George III did not have his former manpower at his disposal to crush the revolution.  So we have much to be grateful for Maria Theresa, and should give her the credit she deserves.