The Origins of Political Stability: England, 1675-1725
by J.H. Plumb
Houghton Mifflin, 206 pp., $6.00
Historical research, like research in any other field, whether scientific or humanistic, moves in jerks. A man of unusual imagination and talent produces a model, a working hypothesis of how and why things happened the way they did. This model then serves for a generation or so as a focus for plodding historical inquiry. Its foundations are examined, and ultimately undermined; its structure is pulled about, and eventually found unsafe; its roof is inspected, and at last found leaky. Finally the building is condemned, and the profession then moves out and occupies a new model, erected by another talented architect of another generation, using such parts of the old structure as are still serviceable and have been proved and tested by time. This book by Dr. Plumb provides just such a model, around which historical research will be constructed for a long time to come.
The book appears at just the right moment. For a generation now some of the best minds working in English history have been focused on the problems of the causes and processes of the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century. The debate is far from over, but the main lines are now becoming clear, and the dust is beginning to settle. A whole new set of problems will undoubtedly emerge again as a new generation of historians begins a fresh look at the problem; but for the time being the origins of the English Revolution is a rather jaded subject. It is time to move on.
In this brilliant sketch of how things may have worked out, Professor Plumb sets himself a hard question, which has never been satisfactorily answered, and indeed, had hardly ever been asked, for reasons which will become apparent in a moment. The question is this: For the whole of the seventeenth century, England was the supreme example in Europe of political instability. Ministers of the Crown were impeached, executed, or exiled; kings were killed or driven out. Religious fanaticism, political hatreds, profound social conflicts divided the upper classes into rival groups each dedicated to the persecution and, if possible, the extermination of the other. After about 1720, however, a long era of political peace and institutional stability set in, consensus politics was the rule, and England became the admiration of Europe for its success in achieving strength without tyranny, liberty without anarchy.
Montesquieu, Voltaire, and other continental philosophers tried to puzzle it out. Burke argued that it was the result of a long tradition going deep into the roots of the English past, and subsequent Whig historians like Macaulay and later Trevelyan took the same line, playing down the brutality and instability of English society and politics in the seventeenth century and swallowing whole the myth of Magna Carta and ancestral English liberties, the continuity of Parliamentary development, the lengthy evolution of checks and balances, all of which eventually caused the emergence of a constitutional monarchy. The stress was on continuity, on the slow majestic development from precedent to precedent …