December 02, 2009

Review: 1688 The First Modern Revolution

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was one of the defining moments of the modern age. Most historians have followed the opinion of Thomas Macaulay that the revolution was notable because as a preserving revolution in the 17th Century, it preserved England from a destroying revolution (mention sotto voce France, 1789). Steve Pincus, Professor of History at Yale, takes a different view: he stands with those who opposed Macaulay and Macaulay's great inspirer- Edmund Burke- men like Dr Richard Price (whose lectures inspired Burke's great Reflections on the Revolution in France), who saw the Revolution as transforming the British constitution. Pincus thinks that it transformed it in three fields: it changed the relationship between the state and the people making the former depend upon the latter for its authority. It changed the way that the British state thought about economics- from relying upon land and empire, to relying upon manufactures and trade- cementing an economic trend that had already begun. And lastly it changed the direction of foreign policy in the UK- the alliance with France that Britain had pursued ever since the reign of Charles II began in 1660 was jettisoned, and the Dutch, against whom Britain had fought three wars in the seventeenth century (1652-4, 1665-7 and 1672-4), became the natural allies of Britain.

In 1685, Charles II died. Charles had come to the throne when his father was executed by Oliver Cromwell et al in 1649, and had formerly taken possession of Britain after Cromwell's death (1658) in 1660. His brother James Duke of York was Charles's heir thanks to the fact that Charles failed to produce a legitimate heir. James was a Catholic and in 1679-81, the opposition Whigs had led a campaign to deprive him of the crown because of his Catholicism. The campaign failed and its leaders (the Earl of Shaftesbury and John Locke included) were driven into exile in the Netherlands. When Charles died in 1685, his brother James II succeeded him to the throne and reigned for three years. The Dutch Statholder William of Orange was himself related to the Stuart dynasty in England and he had married James's protestant daughter, Mary, several years previously. In 1688 alerted by several English noblemen and alarmed by the arrest and trial of leading clergymen, William set sail with 21,000 men to the shores of England. This invasion resulted in the overthrow of James's government- whatever happened when William arrived- the simple truth is that many Englishmen abstained from fighting and others deserted the Jacobite cause, James fled preferring to take his fight (unsuccessfully to Scotland and Ireland). After the Battle of the Boyne in 1693, James was finally defeated and had to rely on the putative assistance of France to recover his kingdom- which he never managed to do.

I offer that brief summary because it is indispensible to understanding Pincus's book and what it represents. To reiterate some historians have seen these events as a truly radical moment within English history- others see these events as pretty mundane. Pincus is in the former camp. He makes his case for the Glorious Revolution being truly revolutionary, based upon a detailed reading of the documents and a thorough understanding of the political culture of the period, because he sees the core dynamic of the revolution as one of modernisation. In this sense, Pincus describes the Jacobite ideal of government as being modern absolutism and on the other hand, a Whig ideal of constitutional and republican liberty. Whigs were radical in one direction, James was a reformer in another. Between them stood the conservative Tories who resisted James in the 1680s and objected to Whig movements in the 1690s. Pincus offers some incredibly thorough and thoughtful discussions, particularly of economic policy, where he shows how the Whigs represented a new set of ideas about the movement of money and the importance of manufacturing. The best section of the book shows us that the Whigs sponsored developments like the Bank of England deliberately, in the belief that wealth was infinite and that if more money circulated freely, more investment would produce more wealth. Fundementally the Whig insight- the basis of John Locke's theory of money and Adam Smith's was the labour theory of value. The Tories though were committed to the idea that wealth was equivalent to land- they wanted to conquer more of an empire, to pursue a wet strategy in foreign policy, neglecting continental armies for ships which would conquer new colonies. The argument would return- but the way that Pincus shows us how Jacobite politics and Tory assumptions were involved in the creation and protection of a National Land Bank and the East India Company, and furthermore how the Bank of England was ultimately preserved by a failed Jacobite assacination of William III. The attempt gave the Whigs impetus at a key moment and the Bank of England survived.

The two other key strands of this argument surround foreign policy- the Whig insistance on fighting a war against the French seriously and in Europe and not on the sea. More controversially Pincus also argues that tolerance became an established value in 1688. As Alexandra Walsham points out in her own book about toleration, reviewed earlier on this blog, James actually advanced a more tolerant system than William ever did. However Pincus points out that such toleration was granted rather than secured via a Parliamentary act: most Whigs accepting a view of liberty which prioritised the state of freedom over a free action, believed that only when toleration had become legal would it be real toleration: to be at the whim of a prince for toleration was to live in a state that was de facto intolerant (Incidentally Pincus never acknowledges the obvious simularity of his Whig concept of toleration to Quentin Skinner's third concept of liberty). At least that is Pincus's view of what the Whigs thought and to some extent it is his view of James's toleration- advanced by grant so it could be recalled by grant immediately as soon as James could make England Catholic. In 1688, Pincus argues that most of the Williamite bishops were themselves tolerant both of Catholics and non-conformists- though theoretical laws still outlawed non-conformity and Catholicism, they were not implemented and they were not important. By 1688, England had become Lockian, in economics, politics and religion.

How seriously should we take these arguments? I am not sure. I have several objections to Pincus's approach- though I recognise that the work is a formidable edifice of scholarly talent- but here are my objections. Firstly Pincus continually plays down religion- he believes that the revolution of 1688 was modern and constitutional- if anti-Catholic only partly so and really directed against James's peculiar Gallican French influenced Catholicism not against the Catholicism of the Pope (who hated both James and Louis XIV). That may be true at a high level- but what Pincus never is able to prove is that outside of the elite circles in London there were many who understood the distinction between good Catholic and bad Catholic. He glosses several quotations as being 'anti-French Catholic' but they could equally as well support an argument which said the revolution was anti-Catholic. Secondly the protagonist who is invisible in all of this is the one who mattered most- William III became King and yet Pincus hardly analyses his reactions to the revolution that in some sense he lead. Pincus has to acknowledge that for the first years of his reign William relied upon Tory, not Whig, ministers and the Tories returned in the reign of William's successor Anne too. If the Tories were conservatives (small c) in this revolution, then the monarchs leading the revolution seemed more willing to work with Harley, Nottingham and Danby than with the radicals that Pincus identifies as the heart and soul of what happened. Thirdly this brings me on to another objection: Pincus says that the revolution of the 1640s was not a revolution because it did not last, and yet he himself says that the Whig interpretation of 1688 had become oppositionalist by 1720: indeed one might argue that save for the late 1690s, the Whigs (as Pincus describes them) never governed England post-revolution. Fourthly Pincus uses the word modern and modernisation with abandon- never really defining precisely what it means. He uses it to mean generating an efficient state- but doesn't really explain why it has to be connected to this concept (why not a modernisation connected say to a discourse of rights- in which case are the Tory objectors to the power of the state the real modernisers in this story?) or why it has to be connected to the concept of revolution.

I don't ultimately quarrell with Pincus's scholarship, I can't but with the way that he has put it together into the book he presents. Its a well researched and important book and save for some copy editing errors (the publisher Yale should be ashamed of the state they have let this book be published in- my edition quite clearly missed words out for example at points), it is written engagingly and interestingly. Like Bernard Bailyn, I beleive the book could be shorter but I also believe that Pincus could have been more disciplined with his ideas. Some of the arguments here are interesting and novel (the economic sections), deserve serious attention (on religion and James's links with France) and they are all exciting. The idea that 1688 was for many a violent and novel event- not a preserving revolution but very much a destroying one- is probably right. For some people it was- for some it was not and recasting the story of eighteenth century England as one of a battle over whether the revolution should become a Revolution is probably something that needs to be done. In that sense Pincus is right, 1688 fundementally changed the way that Britain was governed- whether it was the first modern revolution (why not award that title to Tiberius Gracchus's grain reforms or Solon's constitution or the orange revolution in the Ukraine?) is another point- but Pincus deserves praise for expanding the way that we think about it as an event. I came out of reading him with many many more questions and avenues of thinking to pursue- I didn't agree with everything I read, but my copy is scrawled over with pencil marks denoting strong agreement and disagreement.

Ultimately that is testament enough to Pincus's acheivement- wide reading and deep thought have been accompanied by an interesting thesis and style to acheive something very important and estimable.


James Higham said...

I don't ultimately quarrell with Pincus's scholarship, I can't but with the way that he has put it together into the book he presents.

You don't accept his viewpoint? :)

Gracchi said...

Not completely but its not so much the scholarship with which he found the sources and the work he has done to assemble them, it is with some of his interpretations. I actually find myself being quite influenced by it as an interpretation- but you are right I do not accept it 100%.

Stelios Rigopoulos said...

I am unashamedly pro-Jacobite and I was impressed, first, by a such a surprisingly positive review in the "Economist" (October 17th-23rd 2009), that I felt the need to give Pincus's book serious attention. It is one of the first scholarly attempts, not at white-washing King James II & VII or apologising for his particularly brand of Catholicism and his fervour in pursuing its imposition, but at examining James' own plan for a Glorious Revolution, which he long been preparing since the Restoration of his brother in 1660. His ideal of a modern absolutism and a rational, centralised Catholic state, constructed around the person of the Monarch, evidently based on the prototype of his cousin, Louis XIV, the "Sun King", had as well his "business model", because James was nothing, if not a visionary of a sound economy based on careful foreign investments and trade balances. He became inimical both to Whigs and Tories alike, the former pursuing a mercantilist and Dutch-type constitutionalist agenda to diminish the power of the Crown to a symbol, and the latter, fervent proponents of a "political anglicanism", a reflexively conservative attachment to a status quo, which so expressed the "englishness" of a Westminster dominated unitary rule of the Three Realms. The overthrow of James, as well as his reasons for his flight in an attempt to re-marshal his forces in symapathetic France, had to do with the angry reaction of both opposing forces, sheltering behind the assenine resistance of the Anglican bishops to James ' Declaration of Toleration. His Catholicism, as it had been over the previous 16 years, was merely the facile excuse for stirring up reaction with a blatantly populist media campaign against a far more radical and wide-ranging long term strategy, which was itself nothing short of a revolution.

James Higham said...

In particular?

Gracchi said...

Stelios we don't agree.

Incidentally I am neither a Jacobite nor a Whig- I'll leave seventeenth century politics to them and concentrate on my own time.

What you write has elements of truth in it- Pincus would agree with you and I follow him in this regard in seeing James as having a modernising policy. I'm not sure that Pincus would neccessarily describe the Whigs as mercantalist- the distinction between them and hte Tories and James was not about free trade in his view, it was about the source of wealth- whether it was labour or land that created wealth and thus whether wealth was finite or infinite. One of the things which always puzzled me about Locke's career is that in the 1690s he turned from writing about government and toleration to writing about money- Pincus makes it clear why Locke did that, he wasn't turning to a peripheral but a central subject.

I'm not sure either that the best way of reading James's reign was as a battle between 'English' Whigs and 'Celtic' Jacobites- the Argylls would have disagreed with you there as would many Scots- indeed Pincus shows that in the Scottish elections of 1689, there was a high level of contests and in most cases Whigs were elected.

I don't think that seventeenth century men and women saw anti-Catholicism as facile. For them it meant St Bartholemew's massacre, the events of 1641 in Ireland and other like horrors. Whether they were right or not about these events doesn't matter as much as the fact that these horror stories were very real for them and not at all a populist thing- afterall in 1847 anti-Catholicism was still a way for Lord John Russell to attempt to rally the House of Commons against a Catholic episcopacy in England. You cannot underrate the importance of religion in Early Modern England for many people- elite and non-elite- and this is perhaps where I dissent from Pincus most, I do see religion playing through the revolution more than he does. Even in his own quotations I think that is possible to see.

James I suppose that answers your question: ultimately where Pincus stresses the secular items of 1688 (and I think he has discovered aspects which I had no idea about and he has made me rethink my understanding of what happened), I'm still suspicious of the idea that in 1688 a language of secular politics replaced a language of religious politics. There was a language of secular politics of course- running through Hobbes in particular- but I don't think we should underrate the effect of religion either.