JOSEPH II. Roman emperor, eldest son of the empress Maria Theresa and her husband Francis I., was born on March 13, 1741, in the first stress of the War of the Austrian Succession. Maria Theresa gave orders that he was only to be taught as if he were amusing himself ; the result was that he acquired a habit of crude and superficial study. He derived his real education from the writings of Voltaire and the encyclopae dists and from the example of Frederick the Great. Government officials instructed him in the mechanical details of the administra tion of the Austrian hereditary lands. In 1761 he was made a member of the newly constituted council of State (Staatsrath) and began to draw up memoranda (Reveries) for his mother to read. These papers contain the germs of his later policy. He was a friend to religious toleration, anxious to reduce the power of the church, to relieve the peasantry of feudal burdens, and to remove restrictions on trade and on knowledge. So far he did not differ from Frederick, Catherine of Russia or his own brother and successor Leopold II., all enlightened rulers of the 18th century stamp. Where Joseph differed from great contemporary rulers was in the fanatical intensity of his belief in the power of the State when directed by reason, of his right to speak for the State uncontrolled by laws, and of the reasonableness of his own reasons.
After the death of his father in 1765 he became emperor and was made co-regent by his mother in the Austrian dominions, but until his mother's death his activity was limited to the army, foreign affairs, and a limited jurisdiction in the administration of justice. Maria Theresa was resolved that neither husband nor son should ever deprive her of sovereign control in her hereditary dominions. Joseph, by threatening to resign his place as co regent, could induce his mother to abate her dislike to religious toleration. He could, and he did, place a great strain on her pa tience and temper, as in the case of the first partition of Poland and the Bavarian War of 1778, but in the last resort the empress spoke the final word. During these wars Joseph met Frederick
the Great privately at Neisse in 1769, and again at Mahrisch Neustadt in 1770. On the second occasion he was accompanied by Prince Kaunitz, whose conversation with Frederick may be said to mark the starting-point of the first partition of Poland. To this and to every other measure which promised to extend the dominions of his house Joseph gave hearty approval. Thus he was eager to enforce its claim on Bavaria upon the death of the elector Maximilian Joseph in 1777. In April of that year he paid a visit to his sister the queen of France (see MARIE ANTOINETTE), travelling under the name of Count Falkenstein. His observations led him to predict the approaching downfall of the French monarchy, and he was not impressed favourably by the army or navy. In April 1780 he paid a visit to Catherine of Russia, against the wish of his mother.
The death of Maria Theresa on Nov. 27, 1780, left Joseph free. He immediately directed his Government on a new course, full speed ahead. He proceeded to attempt to realize his ideal of a paternal despotism acting on a definite system for the good of all. He completed the emancipation of the serfs begun by his mother. Other changes were the spread of education, the secular ization of church lands, the reduction of the religious orders and the clergy to complete submission to the lay State, and the pro motion of unity by the compulsory use of the German language. He established asylums, hospitals, orphanages, and training insti tutions. He settled German colonists in Hungary and on the Slav lands of the Empire. Joseph also sought to realize large reforms in taxation and in the administration of justice. His anti-clerical innovations (Josephiomus) induced Pope Pius VI. to pay him a visit in July 1782. Joseph received the pope politely, and showed himself a good Catholic, but refused to be influenced.