1688: The First Modern Revolution
Graham Goodlad reviews an ambitious and highly scholarly study of the 'Glorious Revolution'.
1688: The First Modern Revolution
Yale University Press, 2009
647 pages, £28
A book which claims to overturn not one but two schools of historical interpretation is a rare publishing event. Steve Pincus’s new study of the Glorious Revolution challenges the familiar Whig orthodoxy, originally expounded by Macaulay in the nineteenth century, and refined by successive generations of historians. According to this tradition, the replacement of James II by William and Mary was the work of a politically conservative elite, intent on restoring a balanced, historic constitution that had been threatened by the authoritarian, pro- Catholic actions of a misguided monarch. Pincus rejects both this interpretation and the more recent version of revisionists like John Miller and Mark Goldie, who have argued that James’ principal aim was to secure religious toleration for Catholics and Protestant Dissenters – a goal which led him into conflict with the narrowly Anglican prejudices of the English landed class. Pincus holds that both approaches underestimate the truly revolutionary nature of the struggle between the followers of James and William of Orange.
1688: The First Modern Revolution sees the events of that year as a clash between two competing visions of modernisation. It argues that James’ short reign witnessed a deliberate and nearly successful attempt to create a centralised, bureaucratic state modelled on Louis XIV’s France. James promoted Catholicism as the faith most likely to enhance monarchical authority. This was a version of Catholicism known as Gallicanism, which emphasised the absolute sovereignty of the king rather than the role of the pope as an international overlord. James also aimed to expand England’s overseas territorial empire as a source of economic strength. By contrast his Whig adversaries were inspired by a rival Dutch model of modernity. They strove to build a state capable of challenging French designs for European domination, yet also dedicated to religious toleration and to the promotion of a manufacturing economy rather than the acquisition of land. Pincus rejects the accepted view of the Whigs as cautious members of an aristocratic governing class, who collaborated with William III’s continental military projects after 1688 as the necessary price of establishing a Protestant, limited monarchy in England. Instead they emerge as self-conscious revolutionaries, who embraced change in a positive manner. By the late 1690s the Whig leaders’ vision had triumphed over the more modest agenda of their erstwhile Tory allies, who shared their desire to remove James without wishing to pursue a programme of whole-hearted state modernisation.
In developing his argument Pincus refers to an extraordinary array of sources. His is a trenchant case, founded upon impressive archival research. In his assertion that the Glorious Revolution was far from bloodless – especially in Ireland and Scotland but also in England – he is on secure ground. Here he confirms the work of scholars such as Tim Harris whose Revolution: the great crisis of the British monarchy 1685-1720 (Allen Lane, 2006) charted the violence that accompanied the change of regime. In other respects, however, universal acceptance of Pincus’s thesis may be harder to secure. The Tories were not the only ones to see the events of 1688 as restorative rather than revolutionary. The leading Whig philosopher John Locke recommended ‘restoring our ancient government, the best possibly that ever was, if taken and put together all of a piece in its original constitution’. Those who resisted James primarily saw themselves as safeguarding a form of government that had been placed in jeopardy by his arbitrary conduct – his expansion of the army, his promotion of Catholics in public life, his attempts to manipulate the judicial system and the composition of Parliament and local government.
It is also arguable that Pincus exaggerates the coherence of James’ own designs and his competence in seeking to implement them. He argues that older historians have been wrong to see the king’s designs as inherently unrealistic. On the contrary, he states, his opponents decided to resist ‘because they realised just how serious and plausible James II’s state-building strategy was’. Yet surely the breadth of the opposition that James aroused itself underlines the king’s failure to comprehend political reality. A more acute operator would have sensed that such a programme could not succeed because it went beyond what was acceptable to the traditional ruling class. An alternative reading would stress the fragility of James’ achievement. His army, although numerically impressive, was internally disunited and proved a broken reed when faced by the news of William’s landing on the south coast. Moreover it is worth noting the argument put forward by Lionel Glassey, that although James’ financial situation was more favourable than that of his predecessors, it was still not adequate to sustain an independent foreign policy. It is likely that had James been permitted to reign longer, he might have been obliged to seek assistance from a parliament that could have used its leverage to clip his wings.
Students of the Glorious Revolution should certainly read 1688 or, if they feel daunted by its size, they should at least acquaint themselves with its conclusion. Even if they decide not to reject the older view of the Glorious Revolution, as a victory for traditional common sense and pragmatism, they will not be able to ignore Steve Pincus’s provocative and challenging reinterpretation.
Graham Goodlad is the author of Peel (Collins, 2005).
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology