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The Revolution Over the Revolution

The Causes of the English Civil War

by Conrad Russell
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 236 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World

by Jack A. Goldstone
University of California Press, 608 pp., $34.95

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 history.1

The first group were the Whigs, who followed the tradition of Macaulay and Trevelyan and whose views were exemplified in Margaret Judson’s classic Crisis of the Constitution, published in 1949. This group saw the great political revolutions of seventeenth-century England as a struggle of the propertied classes for liberty of speech, the abolition of extra-parliamentary taxation, and a defense of the Calvinist-leaning Protestantism of the Elizabethan Church against inroads made by what they regarded as tyrannical monarchs under suspicion of popery, like Charles I and James II. They saw the entrenchment of the constitution in the 1690s as a final triumph of English liberties for an oligarchy of property owners, liberties which in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were extended to the middle classes, the working class, and even to women. Sir John Neale and the American professors Wallace Notestein and J.H. Hexter were the dominant figures of this group.

The second were the social historians, notably R.H. Tawney and Christopher Hill, who argued that the root cause of the political upheavals of the seventeenth century was neither constitutional principle nor religion. It was demands made by an economically and socially rising group of gentry for a larger role in participation in national affairs, and especially in the protection of their own property rights. The Marxists among the group, like Christopher Hill, saw the revolution as evidence of the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the overthrow of an old, backward-looking, feudal aristocracy. They held that although the Revolution of 1640–1660 failed, and the monarchy and aristocracy were restored, the political system and the law were thereafter geared more and more to serve the interests of bourgeois capitalists, both merchants and entrepreneurial gentry. One historian who straddled the two groups was H. R. Trevor-Roper, who poured ridicule on Tawney, Hill, and others, but himself went on to produce yet another social interpretation, based on a theory of relative deprivation. He argued that it was frustrated, economically declining gentry, not prosperous, rising ones, who formed the core of the parliamentary opposition to the King. If true, this interpretation effectively destroyed the “bourgeois” model of the Marxists.

The social historians such as Christopher Hill and R. H. Tawney thus saw the key historical forces as economic, demographic, and social, and paid relatively little attention either to the state as an autonomous force, or to high politics. They concentrated on long-term structural processes, and emphasized the role of popular culture, minority beliefs, and radical pressures from below.

The Whigs, such as Hexter and Sir John Neale, on the other hand, were primarily concerned with the high politics of court faction and Parliament, and with legal, constitutional, and religious issues. They emphasized the central importance of a prolonged constitutional struggle between some powerful landed gentry represented in Parliament, and the King and his courtiers. The dispute ranged over war or peace, foreign policy, religion, and what these members of Parliament described as “liberty”—meaning what Isaiah Berlin has characterized as “negative liberty.” In the 1620s this meant putting limits upon a series of actions recently taken by the King: freedom from taxes not voted by Parliament; freedom from censorship of speech in Parliament, especially about religion; freedom from imprisonment without trial; and freedom from billeting of soldiers. These were the demands laid out by the parliamentary opponents of the King in the Petition of Right in 1628.

The result of disputes between gentry in Parliament and the King was a long-drawn-out and increasingly bitter constitutional crisis, lasting on and off from 1606 to 1640, especially over who controlled the main lever of power, the ability to raise taxes. In 1629, the House of Commons was so enraged by royal fiscal policy that a majority, led by a radical faction, denounced all who paid taxes not voted on by Parliament as “capital enemies of the Kingdom and the liberties of the subject.”2 And they meant every word of it.

The Whig historians held that this struggle over negative liberty and religion, involving criticism of the powers of both the state and the established church, was fought twice in seventeenth-century England, once during the Civil War between 1642 and 1660, when it failed with the restoration of Charles II, and again in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689 and its aftermath, when it succeeded. They—and also many social historians, including myself and H. R. Trevor-Roper, but especially Christopher Hill—regarded as of critical importance the growing religious split among Protestants, between the majority, who were satisfied with the semi-Calvinist establishment church of Elizabeth, and two growing minorities: first a small group of leading clergy, called Arminians, who were patronized by the King and were pushing the church in a much more “popish” direction, enhancing the authority of clergy and bishops and reintroducing into the service elaborate ceremonial; and secondly, the so-called “Puritans,” who were alarmed at the rise to power of the Arminians, whom they suspected of crypto-popery, and demanded a further purge of all ceremonial, and of any hint of worship of “popish” relics.

This was the position adopted in the early years of this century by the great archival historian S. R. Gardiner, who described what happened between 1640 and 1660 as “The Puritan Revolution.” The Whigs argued that as a result of the two revolutions, there was a permanent partial shift of power from the Crown and the central bureaucracy to the aristocracy, landed gentry, and great merchants and bankers, upon whom the Crown and the administration were henceforth dependent for finance; and granting to all Protestant sects limited religious liberty. The outcome was a state and a church structure very unlike the absolutist monarchal regimes and monopolist state churches of the continent of Europe, especially those of France.

It is evidence of the speed of change in historiography in the late twentieth century that both the social and the Whig models were quite suddenly overthrown in the 1970s by a new generation of historians, who called themselves “Revisionists.” Encouraged by Sir Geoffrey Elton of Cambridge, they were led by Conrad Russell and Kevin Sharpe. Not only did they regard both social and Whig explanation as totally discredited. Economic history almost vanished, and in many quarters social history was also largely abandoned. The Marxists beat a retreat, realizing that the notion of a bourgeois revolution simply did not fit the facts about how the bourgeoisie aligned themselves in the Civil War. More serious was the broad claim of the Revisionists that in any case the English Civil War or Revolution was not more than “a fortuitous accident, unrelated to fundamental political and social processes.”3

As a result of this huge demolition job, all that seemed left, notwithstanding the work of two generations of scholars, including R. H. Tawney, Christopher Hill, and H. R. Trevor-Roper, as well as Wallace Notestein and Sir John Neale, was the hitherto despised histoire événementielle—a mode of historical narrative which rejects all long-term structural causes and concentrates exclusively on personal and factional accidents in high politics. The Revisionists therefore adopted this mode of historical interpretation. Recently a critic remarked that “one of the hallmarks of Revisionism has been its emphasis on the immediate context of events, and a corresponding lack of interest in longterm developments.”4

When twenty years ago the Revisionists began to undermine both the social and the Whig models, the strategy was a clever one. Realizing the difficulty of attacking on two fronts, they did an end run around the social historians by ostentatiously ignoring them altogether. They never cited them, challenged them directly, or paid the slightest attention to them. Since the Revisionists believed that there were no long-term structural causes or revolutions, the advocates of such causes could be quietly consigned without ceremony to the dustbin of history. Instead, these young men in a hurry concentrated their fire upon the destruction of the Whig model, the lead in the attack being taken by Professor Conrad Russell.

  1. 1

    For a survey of the historiographical scene as it existed five years ago, see L. Stone, “The Century of Revolution,” The New York Review, February 26, 1987.

  2. 2

    Past and Present, Vol. 126 (1990), p. 46.

  3. 3

    Quoted by M. E. Kennedy in “Legislation, Foreign Policy, and the ‘Proper Business’ of Parliament of 1624,” Albion, Vol. 23 (1991), p. 43.

  4. 4

    M. E. Kennedy in Albion, Vol. 23 (1991), p. 43.

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