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Great Political Leaders: The Short List – Part 1

Why a “short list?” Because conquerors such as Alexander the Great are excluded. I use the term to identify political leaders who significantly improved the lives of their people. As with any such list, decisions to include or exclude are, inevitably, somewhat arbitrary. Some were elected, some were not; none of them had unblemished records, but they accomplished more than most despots or even elected politicians. 

So here goes, until the year 1700,  and I hope you will add to the list in your comments. (or subtract if you know something absolutely dreadful about a leader.)  Stay Tuned for Part 2.

Ashoka – Emperor of India – (269-232 BC)

Horrified by the bloody results of his own conquest of Kalinga, Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism and became a benevolent ruler, building schools and generally fostering the education of his people. Perhaps his most remarkable accomplishment, inscribed on stone tablets, was the reform of the judicial system to make it fair to all. Even prisoners sentenced to death were allowed to make appeals. 

Public funds were used to improve roads to include rest houses, wells, and fruit and shade trees. Forestry and wildlife reserves were established and hunting of certain species banned. Ashoka went on regular inspection tours of public works and expected his district officers to follow his example.  He did not allow public petitions to be kept from him, no matter what he was doing at the time. He established a department of religious affairs in charge of supporting and protecting all religions.  

In his Outline of History, H.G. Wells wrote of Ashoka “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star.”

Frederick the Second of Sicily (1296-1337)

As the Holy Roman Emperor from his coronation in 1296 until his death, Frederick was king of Germany, Italy, and Burgundy. He became the leader of his nation after  opposing a humiliating treaty with Pope Boniface VIII negotiated by his brother, James. As one scholar notes, he was  “A man of extraordinary culture, energy, and ability… Frederick established …something very much like a modern, centrally governed kingdom with an efficient bureaucracy.” He and his advisors also wrote legal codices, many of which were copied by later generations.  Among his other legal reforms were an extension of the powers of the Sicilian parliament, which included barons, prelates and representatives of the towns

He spoke 6 languages and was an avid patron of science and the arts. Promoting literature through the Sicilian School of Poetry, he had a significant influence on literature and on what was to become the modern Italian language.

Although his major military adversary, Pope Gregory IX, called him the anti-Christ, Frederick’s policies and achievements were centuries ahead of his time 

Elizabeth the First – (1558 -1603)

Unlike her father  (Henry VIII), Elizabeth avoided violent religious persecution of Catholics, while her military and cultural achievements helped forge a national English identity. Her military victory against Spain in 1588 helped unify the country and her reign was relatively stable.  She supported and gave her name to one of the greatest literary and cultural eras in history, most notably in drama, led by William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

Although she believed in her father’s  supremacist view of the monarchy, she  refused to directly antagonize Parliament. Indeed, she worked with parliament and depended on advisers she could trust to tell her the truth. While her Advisement Council was frustrated by her habit of waiting until the last minute to make decisions, it was a tactic that she used to get warring factions, finally exhausted,  to come to her for resolution. None of these innovative styles of governance were picked up by her Stuart successors.

Elizabeth was also one of the first rulers to recognize that successful monarchies needed popular support. Despite pressures to marry,  Elizabeth always insisted she was married to her kingdom and subjects. In 1599, she spoke of “all my husbands, my good people.”

The dark sides of her reign were her long, violent suppression of Irish rebellion and the execution of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.

Henry IV of France (1589-1610)

As a Huguenot, Henry, ruler of Navarre, barely escaped assassination in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Despite converting to Catholicism on ascending the throne in 1589, he had to fight a four-year war with the Catholics to establish his legitimacy. His famous remark “Paris is worth a mass” reflected his essentially secular pragmatism. He issued  Edict of Nantes in 1598, which guaranteed religious liberties to Protestants, effectively ending the religious wars which had plunged France into chaos for more than fifty years.

Instead of waging wars to suppress opposing nobles, Henry paid them off. His policies aimed at improving the lives of his subjects made him one of the country’s most popular rulers ever. Henry is said to have originated the oft-repeated phrase, “a chicken in every pot.” As a promoter of the arts, he worked with all social classes, including hundreds of artists and craftsmen.

During his reign, Henry IV worked with his aide, the Duke of Sully, to rationalize state finances, promote agriculture, drain swamps, undertake public works, and encourage education. He also created the Collège Royal Henri-le-Grand in La Flèche, protected forests from devastation, built a new system of tree-lined highways, and constructed bridges and canals.

Henry also restored Paris as a great city, with the Pont Neuf, which still stands today, constructed over the Seine river to connect the Right and Left Banks. He also financed several North American expeditions and laid claim to Canada.

 Joseph the Second of Austria (1780 – 1790) 

After the death of his mother, Empress Maria Theresa, in 1780, Joseph immediately continued with measures she had initiated to emancipate the peasantry. In 1781–82 he ended serfdom on crown estates, transforming serfs into free peasants. and gave the former serfs full legal freedom. He also tried to regulate the obligations paid by peasants, although the opposition of nobles limited his success. 

Joseph also secularized church estates, and issued the Patent of Tolerance, providing some guarantees for the freedom of worship of both Protestants and Jews. He also promoted a uniform bureaucracy to bring order to his multi-ethnic empire. 

The emperor undertook a complete reform of the legal system, imposing the principle of equal treatment for all offenders. He also abolished brutal punishments and the death penalty in most instances. He also initiated freedom of the press and ended censorship of the theatre.

Joseph’s foreign and military policies were far less enlightened. Victories in the Ottoman War (1789-1791) proved pointless. Joseph, however, continued his aggressive policies of dynastic expansion, while using the secret police to enforce his domestic reforms.

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