Matthew Price, writer and book critic
1688 and All That: The First Modern Revolution
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 has long been consigned to the revolutionary B-list, dismissed as a bloodless back-room deal. A new history proves the event worthy of its name.
By Matthew Price. The National, December 24, 2009

1688: The First Modern Revolution, by Steve Pincus1688: The First Modern Revolution
Steve Pincus, Yale University Press

On the calendar of modern revolution, three great dates are marked: 1776, 1789, and 1917. From these three revolutions — American, French and Russian — the shape of the modern world seemed to have been formed; each proclaimed a new vision of state and society, made a radical break with the past, and claimed to stand at the forefront of history. America’s founders established a republic and tested the viability of democracy; France’s revolutionaries beheaded a king and promoted the rights of man, unleashing a revolutionary cycle that transformed Europe; Russian Bolsheviks proclaimed the dictatorship of the proletariat and the end of capitalism.

The English Revolution of 1688, which saw the Catholic James II overthrown by his son-in-law, the Dutch Protestant William of Orange, would seem to have no place in this datebook of social upheaval. This “revolution” founded no new state; it did not resound with slogans like Liberte, égalité, fraternité; and it certainly ran with less blood than did the streets of Leningrad. England’s Glorious Revolution simply saw the swap of one king for another — hardly an unusual transaction in 17th century Europe.

This is not to say that King James II failed to provoke the discontent of his subjects: he was a heavy-handed ruler who placed Catholic allies in important posts, ran roughshod over Parliament and deployed a standing army across England, forcing his subjects to board them in pubs and inns. But whether his overthrow was worthy of the word “revolution” remains a matter of some debate. It has been described as a provincial happening, a back-room deal hashed out between aristocrats, a mild constitutional kerfuffle with a pleasantly bloodless resolution.

Edmund Burke — who in his Reflections on the Revolution in France contrasted the sweet reasonableness of 1688 with the violent chaos of 1789 — helped establish the template by which the Glorious Revolution would be judged: a peaceable affair, even by English standards. Later historians buttressed Burke’s contention that what really happened in 1688 was really no revolution at all. The locus classicus of a Glorious Unrevolution was put forth by Thomas Babington Macaulay: “To us who have lived in the year 1848,” he wrote in his History of England, “it may seem almost an abuse of terms to call a proceeding, conducted with so much deliberation, with so much sobriety, and with such minute attention to prescriptive etiquette, by the terrible name of revolution.”

Yet this apparently uneventful transfer of power concealed profound alterations in the relationship between the English crown and its subjects, and set into motion the formation of a new kind of modern state, whose characteristics — vigorous promotion of economic development, broad religious tolerance, and free competition among political interests — still define liberal democracies today.

In his magisterial new book (for once, this overused adjective is warranted), the historian Steve Pincus takes aim at the traditional narrative of the Glorious Revolution, and sets out to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it was more than worthy of the name: a revolution that was contentious, sometimes violent and even bloody, that pitted two radical factions against one another and transformed England.

1688: The First Modern Revolution is one of the most ambitious works of history to appear in recent years — a radical reinterpretation of events that intends not merely to update and improve prior accounts but to vanquish them conclusively. The book is a marvel of scholarship: Pincus’s footnotes bristle with references to a vast range of archival material alongside the latest research in European economic, religious and political history. His focus — too much so at times — is on how history is written, as much as on the events in question, and the result reads at times more like a dense work of political sociology than a narrative history in the mould of Macaulay. But Pincus, evidently obsessed with our need to rethink the events of 1688, has fired an invigorating shot into the otherwise docile realm of Stuart history. Though he too often abandons the subtlety of argument for the force of harangue, his deep learning, and his fearless questioning of received wisdom, more than redeem the book’s flaws.

Pincus demonstrates that by the second half of the century, England was already a land in flux: commerce was booming, foreign trade was on the rise; the English were moving to cities, where coffeehouses buzzed with the latest intelligence from abroad. The country was modernising at a rapid clip, and the revolution, as Pincus describes it, was in essence a battle — a fierce one — over the terms of that modernisation. James II, who in the accounts of Macaulay and many other historians appears as nothing more than a mad Catholic tyrant, was in fact a forward-looking ruler with his own vision for England’s future, one drawn from the absolutist rule of his cousin, France’s Louis XIV. James, Pincus writes, “did everything he could to create a modern, rational, centralised Catholic state” — and he was ruthless in its implementation, cracking down on dissent and spying on his enemies, in effect creating “a very modern surveillance state”.

When James first took the throne in 1685, he had the widespread support of the English people. What eventually roused his enemies, Pincus argues, was not simple anti-Catholicism, but opposition to his aspirations for a “universal monarchy” along absolutist lines. The origins of the Glorious Revolution, in Pincus’s account, lay in a broader European debate over the meaning of liberty. “The struggle that did so much to define the thinking of the revolutionaries in 1688-89,” he writes, “was a struggle to protect European and English national liberties against an aspiring universal monarch, not a war of religion.” Rather than a provincial tussle over monarchy and religion in England, this was a conflict with a secular and international dimension, a revolution whose central plank was liberty for mankind, not merely for the English.

Alongside the lofty banner of liberty — or driving it forward — was a concurrent struggle over the economic direction of England, whose results would prove even more definitive for the shape of the world to come. England’s dynamic economy drove new political concerns into the open. “The political economic programme of the revolutionaries privileged urban and commercial values,” Pincus writes, and gave rise to Lockean notions about the social contract, religious toleration, and a belief in the free circulation in information. James’s opponents, as Pincus notes, came from a variety of backgrounds — from peasants to aristocrats — but it was the country’s burgeoning commercial classes that played the strongest role in shaping the economic agenda after the revolution, pushing for “the possibilities of unlimited economic growth based on the creative potential of human labour.” This was not a revolution against the state but one determined to harness state power in the pursuit of economic expansion. In place of the Gallic absolutism pursued by James, England’s growing merchant classes and their political spokesmen turned their eyes to Holland and a “Dutch model” of economic innovation, commercial prosperity and political openness.

If what ensued in the Glorious Revolution was not quite an apocalyptic confrontation between world views, the clash of these rival programs was divisive and actually quite bloody. (In one skirmish between Williamite and royalist forces, more troops were killed than in the massacre of the Champs de Mars, one of the bloodiest episodes of the French Revolution). But that neglected violence is not what makes 1668 qualify as a “real” revolution in Pincus’s mind. What justifies the term are the ramifications that unfolded in the decades to come, in which the Whigs and Tories jockeyed for position and contested the implications of the changes they had wrought, further reiterating one of the underlying principles of the revolution — the free competition of political interests.

A recognisable outline of the modern liberal state took shape in the aftermath of 1688. England fashioned a kind of parliamentary monarchy, enshrining explicit checks on the line of royal descent (no more Catholic kings) and controls on royal income. The ground was also laid for England’s rise as a commercial superpower, with the establishment of the Bank of England, which expanded credit for the growing mercantile classes and financed England’s wars against France.

“The Revolution of 1688-89 was the culmination of a long and vitriolic argument about how to transform England into a modern nation,” Pincus writes. He suggests that later generations took the achievements of the Glorious Revolution for granted. With the passage of time, it boomed less louder, and its effects were perhaps subtler. But the argument had hardly ended. The Glorious Revolution inaugurated a new phase in history, in which commerce supplanted landed wealth as the ultimate guarantor of economic success, and the “Dutch model” became the way of the world. Though the later revolutions in America and France would revise the terms of the liberal state — the first toward democracy, the second toward equality — the world made by 1688, as Pincus so adroitly demonstrates, is the one in which we still live today.

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