Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Reviewed by John Bedell

This volume is one of those strange double books, combining an impressive, thoroughly researched account of England’s “Glorious Revolution” with a maddening argument about how the event should be interpreted. Pincus has worked himself into a rage over the contempt that, he thinks, the rest of the historical world feels toward his chosen subject of study. He is determined to convince his readers both that the revolution of 1688 is the most important event in the history of the world, and that everyone who has ever written about it before is utterly and completely wrong. There is, he says, a “scholarly consensus” that the overthrow of James II was a sort of non-event, not a “real revolution” but merely a change of regimes engineered by an aristocratic cabal. “This book,” he writes, “challenges every element of this established account.” (5) This matters more than your average historical spat because, to Pincus, 1688 was a sort of pivot on which the whole history of the modern world turns:

All of these interpretations derive their power from a deeply held and widely repeated narrative of England’s Revolution of 1688-89. Unfortunately, that narrative is wrong. Replacing that historical narrative with a new one will necessarily force us to revise many of the basic historical, political, moral, and sociological categories we use to make sense of the modern world. (3)

Pincus’ denunciations of every other historian on the planet are so shrill that I kept hearing maniacal supervillain laughter in the background: You fools! You fools! Only I understand the vast power of my ideas, and I will make you all pay!

Moral categories?

Pincus doesn’t just aim his blows at the old-school Whigs who gave us the textbook account of 1688, but lashes out at in a dozen directions. Even more than the consensus Whigs he despises the “revisionists,” who seem in his account to think that James II was a good guy persecuted by intolerant Anglicans. He also takes in his sights ecclesiastical historians who fail to appreciate the transforming effect of 1688 on the church of England, political scientists who think 1688 created new constitutional rights, and so many others that I lost count long before the end.  So much of the books takes the form of protesting how wrong everyone else is that it is hard to follow the narrative, and sometimes hard to tell what Pincus himself thinks. His angry protestations against his enemies sometimes undercut each other, as if he were so determined to prove everyone else wrong that in attacking hapless scholar A he forgets that he pretty much agreed with A in the last chapter when he was attacking hapless scholar B. For example, he spends much of the book trying to convince the world that 1688 was a stupendous event that transformed everything, but when he gets around to attacking those poor political scientists who think the Revolution led to new rights for English property owners, he argues passionately that the Revolution created no new rights at all. One can only scratch one’s head and move on.

James IIFor those who have forgotten this watershed event – no surprise, given how under-appreciated and misunderstood it was in our textbooks – I will give a quick summary. James II was the younger brother of Charles II, the king whose restoration to the throne in 1661 gave us the name of a historical epoch and the setting of the average romance novel. James converted to Catholicism as an adult. This led to a political struggle in England over whether to exclude James from the succession, but in the end he did become king on his brother’s death in 1685. As a Catholic James came to the throne with at least one strike against him, or possibly two, and his coronation was greeted by widespread rioting and one serious rebellion, led by Charles II’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth. At the time the mass of the nobility and gentry supported the king, so James held onto power. But over the next three years it became clear that James wanted to turn England into an absolutist monarchy modeled on that of France, and although he had promised to keep his religion a private affair he began to push for wider acceptance of Catholicism in English public life. Among other things, he forcibly converted Merton College, Oxford into a Catholic seminary. By these measures James turned most of the English elite against him, and they invited James’s nephew William, the Prince of Orange to invade and replace him. In late 1688 William arrived with an army of 20,000 men, about half Dutch and half English exiles. The whole country rose on his behalf and James fled to Ireland. (Although, as I said, most of England was against James, he still had much support in Ireland and Scotland.) In early 1689 Parliament declared William and his wife Mary to be England’s sovereigns and published a Declaration of Right which summarized the constitution of England as the revolutionaries understood it. Something similar happened in Scotland a few months later. James’s attempt to rule as an absolute monarch failed, and Britain remained a hybrid state where Parliament was the most important seat of power.

Since Pincus is so determined to prove that 1688 was a “modern” event, a “revolution,” even in some sense the beginning of the modern world, I would like to point out that in some ways it was a very medieval affair. A relation of the king arrives from abroad with a small army of mercenaries and exiles, sets up his standard, hoping that discontented people will rally to him, and announces that he will respect the “rights and privileges” of his subjects as the current king does not – these exact events had transpired at least six times in English history going back to 1328. William’s insistence that he had not come to change anything in England but only to affirm the old liberties of his subjects is particularly traditional. Take away the emphasis on Protestantism, and William’s promises could have been made by Henry Tudor, Henry Bolingbroke, Roger Mortimer, or any of the other great medieval rebels.

By this I do not mean to say that the events of 1688 were just a repetition of those of 1485, or that they were not important. The world changed a great deal in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The revolution of 1688 was accompanied by ideological ferment and some very sophisticated thinking about how to reorder the government to protect the people from tyranny. The great virtue of Pincus’s book is that because he is so well versed in the pamphlet literature of the 1680s and 1690s he is very enlightening about the development of ideology, the rise of political parties, and the beginning of real political debate about government economic policy, some of which does indeed seem quite modern. But when it comes to evaluating whether 1688 was a “modern revolution,” it is worth keeping in mind how traditional it was in form.

After the polemical introduction, in which he lashes out at the rest of the scholarly world and argues for the supreme importance of his subject, Pincus turns to the social and economic development of seventeenth-century England. The economies of England and the Netherlands developed greatly in this period. Manufacturing surged, trade increased, and the first exchanges for the trading of stock and insurance certificates were set up. The driving force behind this change seems to have been trans-Oceanic trade. Not that the trade with America and the Indies was in itself so large, but it was so enormously dynamic and led to such huge profits for a few merchants that it drove commercial capitalism forward at an unprecedented rate. Pincus is quite good on these changes, and he is even better on the changes in thinking that the new trade inspired. Before 1600 European economic thought, such as it was, focused on land and tended to assume that there was a fixed amount of wealth in the world. By the 1690s many thinkers with ties to trade had realized that wealth could be created by new ways of organizing labor, and they glimpsed a future of unlimited economic growth. Where I differ from Pincus is in his insistence that all of this was “revolutionary” and that everything and everybody was “transformed.” The new English economy of trade and manufacturing grew very slowly in the seventeenth century. Pincus seems to think that it sprang up overnight and “transformed” (his favorite word) England. I take the view of Sir Edward Hales, an advisor to James II who commented on “the great increase in trade since Henry VIII’s time.” (88) Not only were these changes slow to develop, they did not “transform” many lives until much later. Well into the 1700s if not the 1800s most people in England did the same sort of work as their grandparents, with the same sorts of tools, lived in the same sorts of houses and ate the same food. The changes that Pincus points to – the origin of stagecoach lines with regularly scheduled runs, the penny post, the drinking of coffee and tea and the eating of sugar – are very interesting but hardly transformative.

Pincus has very strong opinions about James II and his policies, and in the main I agree with him. Pincus makes it clear that James was not just a Catholic, but a French-style Catholic and a great admirer Louis XIV. James would have liked to convert all of England to Catholicism but realized that this was beyond his power, at least in the short term. But he did all he could to promote Catholicism, and the big, public crises of his reign all stemmed from his attempts to force acceptance of his faith. For example, he tried to make it illegal for Protestant preachers to attack Catholicism from the pulpit and eventually put seven bishops of the Church of England on trial for failing to discipline anti-Catholic preachers. This trial, combining as it did arbitrary state power with an attack on Protestantism, became the rallying point for opposition to James. James was also trying to build up a bureaucratic government that would respond directly to his orders, and he enlarged the navy and army. Pincus sees James’ policies, not just as the pursuit of royal power, but as “modernization.”The coherence and sophistication of James II’s modern style of governance,” he tells us, “has frequently been obscured by historians.” (143) Certainly bureaucracy and standing armies are regular parts of modern life, but on the other hand they were hardly new in 1685. The Romans, I seem to recall, had a fairly impressive standing army, and it strikes me that as a general rule nothing that was well known to the Romans can necessarily be taken as a sign of modernization. Pincus is particularly enraged by any accusation that James’s actions were irrational:

James’s actions were not insane, stupid, or perverse. Nor did James pursue policies typical of later seventeenth-century monarchs. Instead he carefully, methodically, and above all bureaucratically promoted a series of centralizing policies that were both modern and proven to be successful. (162)

Pincus searches the historical literature for slights on James’s sanity like an eager duelist strutting through Shakespearean Verona, his hand on his rapier, seeing insults everywhere: You laughed, Sir. But while James’s policies were rational in the sense that they were modeled on measures that worked for Louis XIV, James was king of England, and in England the result of these policies was that James was chased into exile by an armed rebellion led by almost the entire political elite of the realm. I am not sure what words Pincus thinks are appropriate for such a policy, for me insane, stupid, and perverse work quite well.

Pincus also has strong views about James’s opponents. In order to establish that 1688 was a “modern” revolution, he thinks he must convince us that the rebels were not motivated by religion. Religion, he thinks, was somehow pre-modern, whereas objections to James’s arbitrary state power, rigged trials, and standing army were modern. I doubt whether it makes any sense to separate James’s Catholicism from his royal absolutism in this way. I have noticed that many of my own contemporaries readily believe that everything they oppose is at its root the same, so that, for example, gay marriage is a kind of socialism. I suspect that the average opponent of James II did not really distinguish between his Catholicism and his power grab. The English elite accepted James because he promised to respect their liberties and their religion – “to support the government in church and state as by law established” – and when he began asserting his authority they decided that, what do you know, tyranny and popery really were the same thing. One of the rebels swore that he would not “sacrifice the religion and laws of his country to the arbitrary lust of a priest-ridden tyrant,” which hardly suggests a clear distinction between religion and politics. (205) James himself certainly believed that Protestantism tended toward rebellion and Catholicism toward royal authority. John Locke and his intellectual friends may have had a more subtle understanding of the part played by religion in these matters, but it was not the intellectuals who overthrew James.

Who did overthrow the king? Pincus thinks the question is important because he wants 1688 to be a popular revolution, not just an aristocratic power grab. The problem with Pincus’s analysis is that he seems not to grasp what aristocracy means. He presents evidence that most of those who rioted in favor of William and Mary, or took up arms on their behalf, were common people, and he asserts that this means the revolution was not aristocratic. But, honestly, has there ever been in human history either an army or a mob that was made up mainly of aristocrats? In an aristocracy, aristocrats lead, and commoners follow. The make-up of the mobs and armies says nothing one way or the other about whether the overthrow of James came from above or below. That depends on who led and inspired the rebels. My reading of events is that while some people rioted against James without direct aristocratic leadership, what made the difference between 1688 and Monmouth’s failed revolt of 1685 was that in 1688 a majority of the aristocracy supported William and Mary. One of the things that struck me most in Pincus’s narrative was that still in 1688 a great English lord could set up the standard of revolt and raise an army of thousands from among his own supporters:

From his base of Derbyshire the Earl of Devonshire had no trouble mobilizing an armed force to oppose James II and support a free Parliament. He arrived in Derby on 21 November with five hundred men who declared ‘that they would, to their utmost, defend the protestant religion, the laws of the kingdom, and the rights of liberties of the subject.’ Though Derby itself proved cautious, more Derbyshire men poured into augment Devonshire’s force that day. . . . (239)

To Pincus the readiness of the “Derbyshire men” to join the Earl’s force means that the revolution was “popular.” To me it means they were happy to be led by aristocrats against a popish tyrant. Not only does Pincus seem oblivious to the aristocratic nature of seventeenth-century society, he also seems not to understand the historians he wants to argue against. The Marxists who dismiss 1688 as a counterfeit revolution are not going to be impressed by these accounts of aristocrats raising the countryside against the king. If your idea of a real revolution is the Russian or the Chinese – the entire ruling class slaughtered or sent to Siberia – then you will never believe that a rebellion led by Lord Lovelace and the Earl of Devonshire, bent on restoring the ancient liberties of the realm, is revolutionary.

Pincus several times chastises other historians for failing to put the events of 1688 in a wider European context. Which is fair enough so far as it goes, but Pincus commits the parallel sin of keeping his focus on too narrow a span of time. His impressive learning does not seem to extend beyond the years from 1670 to 1696. It seemed very odd to me that a book about the revolutionary transformation of Britain in the 1600s had nothing to say about the English Civil War of 1642 to 1649, and the execution of Charles I by his people. Those events were in some ways much more revolutionary than 1688; for example, some of the earlier rebels wanted to abolish private ownership of land, and when they cut off the king’s head they didn’t bother to crown another one. Pincus doesn’t mention these events until page 480, where he simply notes that however revolutionary those events were, the changes “proved ephemeral.” This strikes me as akin to saying that the Apollo moon missions made no difference because the astronauts came back. It is true the Charles II came to the throne with great pomp and circumstance, but to be a king whose father was overthrown and beheaded is a little different than being a king whose ancestors have safely held the throne for generations. He, at least, had the wit to refrain from antagonizing his rebellious subjects. James forgot the lesson of his father’s beheading and made the same tyrannous mistakes. This time his subjects rose up much faster than they had against his father, since they already had the habit and all the necessary tools.

After treating us to a vitriolic 480-page argument about the centrality of the years around 1688 in world history, Pincus completes his catalog of annoying historical sins by backing away from his own assertions in the last few pages. You can respect an argumentative bastard who really has the courage of his convictions, but Pincus reveals himself as an argumentative bastard who can’t stick it out to the end:

The Revolution of 1688-89 was not a self-contained event lasting only a few months. To understand it in such narrow chronological terms is to miss the radical significance of the revolution. Instead, it is best to understand the revolution as a process set in motion in the wide-ranging crisis of the 1620s, which unleashed an opposition movement deploying modern polemical strategies and coming to an end only when the Whig prime minister Sir Robert Walpole chose to consolidate his power by guaranteeing that revolutionary change would go no further. (483)

We have thus a “revolutionary century” stretching from the 1620s to the 1720s. Phrased in this way, Pincus’s argument becomes banal; who doesn’t agree that, in political terms at least, England was transformed between 1620 and 1720? On the other hand the change was, I would argue, less significant than what took place between 1820 and 1920; which is the real beginning of the “modern world”?

Pincus believes that 1688 was the first modern revolution. If I argue that, on the contrary, it was the last medieval revolution, the last time a relation of the king and his aristocratic friends raised a peasant army with a battle cry of restoring the traditional liberties of the people, then surely what I say will be partly true. We can argue all day about whether my view or Pincus’ is closer to the truth, but why would we bother? What is the significance of these categories, “modern” and “revolution,” that makes them worth the spite Pincus spews in every direction? Important things happened in seventeenth- century Britain: the founding of the overseas empire, Newton's Principia, the overthrow of two kings. Why confound our understanding of those events with a lot of sound and fury about modernity? 1688 would have been a much better book if Pincus had curbed his anger against historians he disagrees with and stuck to sharing his knowledge of the past.

January 24, 2010

From the 
Commonplace Book

What is become of the Princes of Germany? Blown up. Where are the Estates or the power of the people in France? Blown up. Where is that of the people of Aragon and the rest of the Spanish kingdoms? Blown up. Where is that of the Austrian princes in Switz? Blown up. . . .  Nor shall any man show a reason that will be holding in prudence why the people of England have blown up their king, but that their kings did not first blow up them.

--James Harrington, 1656


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