The Causes of the English Civil War
Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World
One may well ask why we should care about what happened in England 350 years ago. For Americans it matters a great deal, since if the events were indeed no more than an accidental civil war caused by factional disputes among disaffected noblemen, then the ideology behind the American Revolution and the language of the Declaration of Independence become virtually incomprehensible. If the founding fathers did not have more than a century of individualist and democratic political ideas from England upon which to draw, where else did they get the ideological principles which enabled them first to achieve independence from George III and then to form a union based on the theory of popular sovereignty, the rule of law, the division of powers, and the separation of church and state?
Today, we are all aware that every cultural enterprise, even science, is at least in part a social construction, and that history is particularly susceptible to this form of skeptical interpretation. Indeed, looked at objectively, the historiography of any major issue over the last century lends itself to the cynical view that it is the product of a series of political strategies, adopted by each new generation of young scholars in order to displace the received wisdom of their elders, and thereby to win fame. Each new intellectual edifice usually lasts barely long enough to allow the leading builders to become safely ensconced in tenured chairs at prestigious universities, to acquire a near monopoly over both research money and publication, and to write the new textbooks, which drive out the old. After a while, however, an even newer generation arrives on the scene, whose members, in their turn, reject the current interpretation constructed by their elders, in order to clear the decks for yet another vision of the past. This is one aspect of the process of paradigm change so brilliantly described by Thomas Kuhn for the history of science.
It is tempting to argue that in the humanities, if not in the hard sciences, the intellectual results are often circular. After all these efforts and these two great battles between three generations, the outcome may well be a return to something quite like the received wisdom of the first generation. But I like to think that each new model is usually—but by no means always—rather better than the one before, in the sense that it accommodates more evidence and gets us a little closer to that unattainable Holy Grail, the truth.
Over the last twenty years just such a shift has taken place over the causes, nature, and consequences of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century (and also of the French Revolution in the eighteenth). In the 1950s and 1960s two warring groups of historians dominated the field. About all they had in common was that they both believed that something of unique importance happened in seventeenth-century England—and also late-eighteenth-century France. They believed that these were both “Great Revolutions,” which in significant ways changed the course of…
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