Great 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 army.