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How England Became Modern: A Revolutionary View

British Library, London/HIP/Art Resource
William III and Mary II, from the Guild Book of Barber Surgeons of York. The portrait may have celebrated their coronation in 1689 after England’s Glorious Revolution.

Some years ago two gifted young historians of Britain made a deal. Both were working on major studies of the English Revolution of 1688, commonly if inconsistently known as the Glorious Revolution. Both believed that what happened in 1688–1689 was a radical, major, transformative event too often written off as moderate, conservative, and peaceful—hardly a “revolution” at all. Both believed that it had deep derivations and long-term consequences that could not be understood with reference simply to England alone; that the subject in its proper dimensions was far broader and more complex than had previously been seen.

So they joined forces, “had numerous discussions to make sure that we would not duplicate our efforts,” and came to an agreement. Steve Pincus (aka Steven C.A. Pincus: he prefers the informality), then at the University of Chicago, now at Yale, would concentrate on the revolution from a European perspective, and Tim Harris at Brown University would develop the broader “British” dimension (England–Scotland–Ireland)—“and if I have learned anything from my work on James II,” Harris wrote, “it is about the importance of not betraying one’s friends and of honouring one’s own side of the contract.” There was no betrayal. The two books have appeared—Harris’s Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685–1720 (2006) and Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution (2009)—and they are very different.

But despite the differences they are both expressions of one of the deepest tendencies of late-twentieth-century historiography: the impulse to expand the range of inquiry, to rescale major events and trends into larger settings, and to seek heightened understanding at a more elevated and generalized plane. In every sphere of historical study—intellectual, cultural, political—the scope of inquiry has broadened. Large-scale comparisons and parallels are explored, national stories become regional, and regional studies become global. One traces the winding filiations of ideas and religious commitments through diverse nations and cultures and across great spaces; one thinks in terms of oceanic “worlds”: Mediterranean, Atlantic, Pacific, Indian. “There is a shock of recognition,” one historian has written, “as populations we assumed to be insular, and whose events we therefore explained in terms of local dynamics, are revealed to be above-water fragments of…submarine unities.” Both Pincus and Harris have relocated the “submerged” fragments of the Glorious Revolution into large, transnational, and multicultural unities that allow for explanations that are fuller, more complex, and more coherent than any we have had before.

They arrived at their expanded visions by different routes. Harris followed the lead of J.G.A. Pocock, who in 1975 set out a new frame for Anglophone history. In “British History: A Plea for a New Subject” and other writings, Pocock envisioned as a coherent object of historical inquiry not England but what he called the “Atlantic archipelago”: England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and in some ways, by extension, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Such a history would show how the separate politics and cultures, indeed the separate nations, of the British Isles “interacted so as to modify the condition of one another’s existence.” Harris’s book in concept is deliberately and precisely “archipelagic”: nothing about the events of 1688–1689 can be understood, he explains, by studying England alone. The Glorious Revolution, in its sources and outcomes, was three different revolutions, in England, Scotland, and Ireland, whose interaction lay at the heart of the overall event.

Pincus’s first steps into an expanded vision of British history had been taken some years before with the publication of a belligerent attack on the traditional idea that England’s foreign relations in the convulsive seventeenth century were inconsequential to its national story, that the English were at best marginal players in Europe’s power struggles, that the country’s rulers rarely looked beyond their local communities, knew little and cared less about the international situation, and that such foreign policy as there was—the preserve of a small aristocracy—mattered little to the insular common people of England. But if this was so, he asked, why did England go to war so often in the seventeenth century, and if its insular purpose was simply to defend its Protestantism in a world of competing Catholic powers, why did the nation fight three wars not against Spain or France but against the Protestant Dutch?

Pincus answered these questions in what he correctly described as a “dense narrative” of the diplomatic negotiations surrounding the Dutch wars together with a study of public opinion on foreign policy. What drove the English into involvements with Europe, he explained in Protestantism and Patriotism (1996), was simple in concept but immensely complex in implementation: the determination to prevent the formation of a “universal monarchy”—in modern terms the domination of a single superpower, whether imperially Spanish or militarily French or commercially Dutch.

1688: The First Modern Revolution is in some ways the fulfillment of the principles of that earlier book (the pan-European outlook is at the heart of it), but it is much more. It is, to begin with, a prodigy of technical scholarship. Pincus has read every scrap of print and manuscript material in any way associated with the revolution, and cites them all in 128 tightly packed pages of notes. But it is also a leisurely, capacious, wide-ranging, elaborately illustrated book that explains not only what he believes the revolution of 1688 was all about but what revolutions in general are all about and what England and its people were like in the tumultuous seventeenth century.

It is a big book, and Pincus offers some friendly advice. Anticipating some readers’ frailty in tackling his text of 486 pages, he recommends that those “with particular interests might find different entry points to the book more to their tastes.” Readers, he suggests, who mainly want the narrative of events might best start with chapter 3; those particularly interested in how his account differs from others’ might do well to start with chapter 1 and then skip chapter 2; and those primarily interested in revolutions in general “may find starting with chapter 2 most to their tastes.” This reader, perhaps more courageous than most and interested in whatever Pincus has to say, took no shortcuts, and was duly rewarded.

The traditional story, Pincus explains at the start, has been clear at least from the appearance of Macaulay’s magisterial History of England (1848–1855), probably the most brilliant, compelling, and dramatic historical narrative ever written in the English language. The core story line in Macaulay’s “Whig” interpretation, which Pincus summarizes, is not complicated. The Catholic James II, inheriting the crown in 1685, shocked the moderate and sensible English people by his judicial murders of hundreds of peaceful West Country residents after the suppression of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion; ran roughshod over English law to support his fellow Catholics; defied parliamentary statutes; forced Catholics into every level of government and into Anglican colleges against the protests of their fellows; packed the House of Commons with his loyalists; eliminated subordinate jurisdictions; and dragged seven Anglican bishops into court for seditious libel for resisting his toleration edict.

Soon thereafter the English establishment, fearful for the future of the Church of England and of an encroaching autocracy, invited the Protestant Dutch prince William III to England to help restore their liberties. James’s army was defeated, and he and his family fled to France. In 1689 William and his wife Mary, James’s daughter, were crowned monarchs on terms that limited their authority. Parliament made it impossible for a Catholic ever to inherit the throne, and passed the Toleration Act allowing Protestant dissenters to worship freely, the first of a series of basic, if partial, reforms.

All of this, Pincus notes, was said to have been “bloodless, consensual, aristocratic, and above all sensible.” An unrevolutionary revolution whose purpose was simply to recover lost liberties, it in no way instituted radical changes in response to social grievances; nor was it deeply divisive. Since England had changed very little after the Restoration of 1660, there had been no social or economic disruptions to upset the social order and to lead to political upheavals.

Thus Macaulay’s “Whig” interpretation of the revolution of 1688 is a pleasing, agreeable story about sensible people defending their liberties by a peaceful regime change. Unfortunately, Pincus writes, it is entirely wrong. It is wrong in concept, wrong in detail, blind to the revolution’s true origins, and silent about its long-term consequences. And twentieth-century “revisionist” historians who have modified the Macaulayan view in significant ways—including such high-powered scholars as Mark Goldie, J.R. Western, Jonathan Clark, John Brewer, and indeed Tim Harris at certain points—have also got it wrong, though in different ways.

Pincus is well aware of the boldness of his challenge to almost all of the historians who have engaged the subject, and so has deliberately written a bifocal book. Though mainly focused on what happened in the seventeenth century, it is also about what historians, Victorian and modern, have said about the revolution, and exactly where they went wrong, not in general but in detail, point by point, as the story unfolds. The book is a study of both history and historiography, as Pincus weaves through the complexities of seventeenth-century history, keeping the reader informed at every point on what other historians have said, erroneously, before.

Among all their errors, two, Pincus explains, are crucial. First, he argues, they have been too insular, too parochial in framing the story. “I expand the lens of investigation [to reach] long-term causes [and] longer-term consequences” and to place “developments in England within broader European and extra-European contexts.” The Glorious Revolution, he writes, was not simply an event in English history, nor even in British or Anglo-Dutch history. It was an event in European history and indirectly in world history.

James II, who had spent years in French exile after his father’s execution in 1649, was not merely a Francophile but a passionate admirer of Louis XIV, of his Gallican, anti-papal Catholicism, and above all of the massive, heavily centrist bureaucratic modern state he had created, which had become a major world power, with its wealth derived from the land and its foreign policy aimed at the construction of a territorial empire. It was James’s deep involvement in and fascination with France’s emerging modern autocratic state that alone explains his actions in power and also the reasons for his ultimate defeat.

In power, Pincus writes, James was not a blatant reactionary hoping to return England to its pre-Reformation state or even to its pre-Restoration state; nor was he simply seeking toleration to free his coreligionists from the disadvantages they suffered. His views, Pincus writes, were modern and forward-looking; he understood the world “in European terms.” In imitation of Louis XIV he hoped to build a new, fully modern state: rational in structure and function, centralized and bureaucratic, tolerant to a sufficient degree, its values and wealth rooted not in the vagaries of trade or manufactures but in the land. His state would be sensitive to popular needs but severely monarchical—“absolutist”—in the location of its sovereign authority. Pincus has no admiration for James’s personal qualities and offers no excuses for his political blunders or his ruthlessness. But he was not, Pincus believes, a bigot or “stupid and perverse,” as Macaulay believed. He was attempting to build England into a modern state inspired by and in parallel to the state system that Louis XIV had built.

The second fundamental error of the historians who have preceded him, Pincus writes, is their failure to note or to incorporate into their political histories what had happened in the social and economic life of England in the twenty-five years after the Restoration. In a splendid chapter (the third, thus heightening the contrast with Macaulay’s famous third chapter on the static, premodern life of England in the seventeenth century), he summarizes much recent scholarship on the dynamism, the great spurts in growth, in England’s economy and society in the later seventeenth century: its booming manufactures and commerce, its successful redesigning of traditional export goods, its expanding extractive industries, its growing urbanity, its elaborating infrastructure of roads, ports, and navigable rivers, its efficient new postal system and insurance and banking companies. He discusses the proliferation of its coffeehouses and retail shops, and above all its flourishing overseas, especially Atlantic, commerce, with its new markets and its enormously lucrative products—sugar, tobacco, coffee—whose importation and distribution had a profound “multiplier effect” on the entire life of this “modernizing commercial society.” Indeed “Atlantic trade,” Pincus writes, “provides the only plausible explanation for England’s divergence from the European pattern.”

These rapid social and economic changes in the years before the revolution transformed the political environment. The protection and enhancement of commerce, the nurturing of manufactures and extractive industries, the development of new financial institutions to serve the needs of the new economy, and government policies to foster the new prosperity—all of that had an impact on politics and led to a program of state modernization that was the very opposite of James’s Francophile design.

In three long chapters on foreign policy, political economy, and the Church, Pincus lays out the successful Whig program for modernizing the state that developed in opposition to James’s innovations. It was widely, not narrowly, tolerationist; it was based on manufactures and commerce, not land; it required and created new financial institutions, especially a national bank. In foreign policy it would be advanced by naval power, not territorial armies. Its monarchy, while technically sovereign, would derive its power not from God but from the people, and, lacking a standing army, would be constrained within constitutional controls.

These were the elements of a revolutionary program whose roots lay in England’s remarkable growth in the years preceding. It was a program formulated in contrast to James’s Francophile modernization, and whose long-term consequences can be traced in the later history of England’s capitalist democracy.

But the clash of programs was not abstract or benign. Profound issues were involved and people’s lives were at stake. Far from a peaceful, consensual revolution of amiable people creating a convenient regime change, the revolution of 1688 that Pincus sees and vividly portrays was full of bloody conflict. Death and devastation were everywhere, not only in the cities but in the countryside as well. England, he writes, as well as Scotland, Ireland, and much of Europe, was “plagued by battles, rioting, and property destruction that were eerily similar to the events following the fall of the Bastille in the next century.” Nor was it consensual: the victors were not unified, there were splinters within every political group, victory was never complete, and commitments softened and disappeared. Yet a new state-building program developed, radical for the time, and truly revolutionary.

But in what sense revolutionary? To answer the question, which is central to Pincus’s argument, he devotes a chapter to the nature of revolutions, their origins and characteristic structures. In his typically thorough way he surveys the entire current literature on the subject—Hannah Arendt, Samuel Huntington, Henri Lefebvre, Georges Soboul, Martin Malia, Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, Jack Goldstone—and concludes that revolutions happen not when old regimes collapse because they are incapable of adjusting to changed circumstances, or when alienated conspirators overturn traditional states, or when structural disorders explode, but “only when the old regime commits itself to state modernization…. They occur only after regimes have determined, for whatever reasons, to initiate ambitious modernization programs. Revolutions, then, pit different groups of modernizers against one another”—precisely what happened in 1688.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Pincus’s history is his answer to the question of how his predecessors could have been so wrong. Why, in the decades and centuries that followed the critical events, did the history and the memory of the revolution lose the bright glow of its initial radicalism, its contemporary reputation as a profoundly transformative event? His explanation, sketched at separate points throughout the book, involves Robert Walpole’s creation of parliamentary supremacy in the early eighteenth century, which drove the revolution’s populism into opposition and buried it under the corruption of competitive office-holding; Edmund Burke’s rhetorical device, a generation later, of heightening the disruptive horrors of France’s revolution by emphasizing the presumed peacefulness and conservatism of England’s; and finally the complacency of comfortable Victorians who inherited and took for granted the benefits of the hard-fought triumph of the ancient Whigs whose program had once seemed so dangerous to so many.

But there is more to the story than that, which Pincus, despite the breadth of his vision, has missed. As he writes, awareness of the radicalism of 1688 faded in the triumph of Parliament’s supremacy and Victorian complacency. But not everywhere. It survived intact, even enhanced, in revolutionary North America. The American colonies had themselves been directly involved in the events of 1688–1689, if for no other reason than that they were important to James’s plans for state modernization.

In America, from the Delaware River to Nova Scotia, subordinate jurisdictions (the original charters) were eliminated or challenged, Catholics were appointed to high positions, land titles were recast and fees added to profit the Crown, and local autonomy and court proceedings were subjected to Crown control. The several colonial jurisdictions with their distinctive privileges and rights having been swept aside, plans were laid to consolidate the colonies into two great provinces—similar to if not modeled on Spain’s vice-royalties—north and south in America and the Caribbean, to be ruled by royal governors directly subject to Crown authority. A shambling approximation to the northern province took shape as the Dominion of New England, but resistance flamed across the colonies, and in the end traditional rights were restored, though now within a loose system of imperial controls.

The crisis faded in America as in England, but the memory of those days of active participation in the great struggle did not. Two generations later that memory inspired the colonists’ protests against the government of George III—frequently analogized to that of James II—and helped shape the constitutional system that the Americans devised to protect, once again, the rights and liberties of free people. The crucial enactments of what James Otis, protesting parliamentary taxation in 1764, called “that memorable occasion” were referred to again and again, the pamphlets and treatises of 1688–1689 were reprinted and cited, the revolution’s principal actors celebrated, its core ideas enacted, and the “system of corruption” that had followed 1688 denounced as the onset of despotism.

There are some general problems with Pincus’s book. It is overwritten, overdocumented, and repetitious. Every statement is illustrated with copious, sometimes redundant, references to and quotations from the sources. The errors of Macaulay and his followers as well as those of the “revisionists” are referred to again and again, and the argument of the book is so frequently repeated that familiarity tends to lull one into agreement. But this is an important, fresh, and imaginative work of scholarship, and if its argument survives the criticism it will probably receive from the “revisionists” and other wounded experts, it will have recast the origins of modern England as well as the history of the revolution of 1688.

Critics should be warned. They should not attempt to refute Pincus’s arguments until they too have mastered the hundreds of manuscripts, recto and verso, in the sixty-two repositories that Pincus has mined and have consulted the hundreds, if not thousands, of pamphlets and other printed sources meticulously entered in the notes. Lacking such ammunition, they will surely be sitting ducks for Pincus’s replies.

A reduced version of Pincus’s book—like the abridgment of Lawrence Stone’s eight-hundred-page Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800—would be an academic best seller.

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