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Maria Theresa's Political Testament (1749-50)

The extraordinary nature of this document justifies its being reproduced here at length. The document amounts to a political autobiography of Maria Theresa. Upon the unexpected death of her father Charles VI in 1740, an ill-prepared, 23-year-old Maria Theresa ascended to the Austrian throne only to be faced immediately with Frederick II (“the Great”) of Prussia’s ruthless military assault on the Habsburg state. Austria survived the ordeal, but at the cost of surrendering Silesia, one of its richest lands, to Prussia. Here, Maria Theresa offers her seasoned views on the strengths and weaknesses of her chief ministers and the errors her Habsburg predecessors made in ceding excessive power to the Catholic Church and the noble-dominated provincial estates. This document shows that rulers in early modern Europe walked along a knife-edge, with the abysses of bureaucratic, churchly, and aristocratic self-interest on one side and those of popular discontent and fiscal weakness on the other. In military crises like the one that exploded in 1740, a state ill-balanced between these domestic forces risked collapse. According to the pious empress, it was only through divine mercy that such a situation was averted in the Austrian case.

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First Memorandum

Instructions drawn up out of motherly solicitude for the especial benefit of my posterity. I have thought well to divide these in sections according to their importance.

The first describes the situation of the Monarchy, both internal and international, as I found it when I began my reign.

The second, the abuses which had gradually crept into the said Monarchy under my predecessors.

The third, the measures introduced during the nine difficult years of the recent war, and the reasons which induced me to take them.

The fourth, the changes effected after the conclusion of general peace in the internal constitution of the Ministries and the Provinces, in accordance with the system established for the preservation of the Monarchy.

The fifth, the benefit that will accrue to my posterity from this reorganization, this being the only means of consolidating the Monarchy and preserving it for my posterity.

The sixth, the necessity of maintaining the institutions so established, to avert ruin, and what maxims my successors must follow to achieve this end.

When the unexpected and lamentable death of my father of blessed memory occurred, this being especially painful for me because I not only loved and honored him as a father, but, no less than the least of his vassals, looked on him as my lord, and thus felt a double loss and grief, and was at the time the more devoid of the experience and knowledge needful to rule dominions so extensive and so various because my father had never been pleased to initiate or inform me in the conduct of either internal or foreign affairs, I found myself suddenly without either money, troops, or counsel.

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