England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 holds a special place in our understanding of the modern world and the revolutions that had a hand in shaping it. For the better part of three centuries scholars and public intellectuals identified England’s Revolution of 1688–89 as a defining moment in England’s exceptional history. Political philosophers have associated it with the origins of liberalism. Sociologists […]. Historians […]. Scholars of literature and culture […]. All of these interpretations derive their power from a deeply held and widely repeated narrative of England’s Revolution of 1688–89. Unfortunately, that narrative is wrong. Replacing that historical narrative with a new one will necessarily force us to revise many of the basic historical, political, moral, and sociological categories we use to make sense of the modern world. […]
The Revolution of 1688–89 is important not because it reaffirmed the exceptional English national character but because it was a landmark moment in the emergence of the modern state.
Steven C. A. Pincus
« La Glorieuse Révolution anglaise de 1688-89 occupe une place particulière dans notre compréhension du monde moderne et des révolutions qui ont joué un rôle dans son façonnement. Durant la majeure partie de trois siècles, savants et intellectuels publics ont identifié la Révolution anglaise de 1688-89 comme un moment caractéristique dans l’histoire exceptionnelle de l’Angleterre. Les philosophes politiques l’ont associée à l’origine du libéralisme. Les sociologues […]. Les historiens […]. Les spécialistes de la littérature et de la culture […]. Toutes ces interprétations tirent leur pouvoir d’un récit profondément ancré et largement répété de la Révolution anglaise de 1688-89. Malheureusement, ce récit est faux. Remplacer ce récit historique par un nouveau nous obligera forcément à revoir nombre des catégories historiques, politiques, morales et sociologiques fondamentales dont nous nous servons pour faire sens du monde moderne. […]
La Révolution de 1688-89 est importante non parce qu’elle réaffirma l’exceptionnel caractère national anglais mais parce que ce fut un moment charnière dans l’émergence de l’État moderne. »
William III (Portrait attribué à Thomas Murray, v. 1690)
… the English experience is not exceptional but in fact typical (if precocious) of states experiencing modern revolutions. The Revolution of 1688–89 is important not because it reaffirmed the exceptional English national character but because it was a landmark moment in the emergence of the modern state.
England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 holds a special place in our understanding of the modern world and the revolutions that had a hand in shaping it. For the better part of three centuries scholars and public intellectuals identified England’s Revolution of 1688–89 as a defining moment in England’s exceptional history. Political philosophers have associated it with the origins of liberalism. Sociologists have contrasted it with the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Historians have pointed to the Revolution as confirming the unusual nature of the English state. Scholars of literature and culture highlight the Revolution of 1688–89 as an important moment in defining English common sense and moderation. All of these interpretations derive their power from a deeply held and widely repeated narrative of England’s Revolution of 1688–89. Unfortunately, that narrative is wrong. Replacing that historical narrative with a new one will necessarily force us to revise many of the basic historical, political, moral, and sociological categories we use to make sense of the modern world. This book aims to explain both the ways in which this traditional view is mistaken and why that view has been so widely accepted for such a long time. The old narrative emphasized the Revolution of 1688–89 as a great moment in which the English defended their unique way of life. The argument I advance in this book is that the English revolutionaries created a new kind of modern state. It was that new state that has proved so influential in shaping the modern world.
Men and women all over the English-speaking world once knew what happened in England’s Revolution of 1688–89. In 1685, the Catholic King James II inherited the crown of England. In 1689 the English people agreed to replace him with the Protestants King William III and Queen Mary II. In the intervening years, James II gradually and myopically alienated the moderate and sensible English people. He did this in a series of well-known missteps. In late 1685 he overreacted to the romantic but hopeless rebellion of his nephew, the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, by judicially murdering hundreds of humble inhabitants of the English West Country in the Bloody Assizes. Determined to improve the social and political status of his Catholic coreligionists, James then ran roughshod over English law. He insisted on his right to defy parliamentary statute and awarded Roman Catholics military and naval commissions. In 1687 he used his newly formed and illegal ecclesiastical commission to force England’s Protestant universities to accept Roman Catholic fellows. When the fellows of Magdalen College Oxford resisted their king’s demands, he had the dons stripped of their fellowships, turning the institution into a Catholic seminary.
According to this once well-known narrative, after James II had failed to persuade the House of Commons or the House of Lords to repeal England’s laws against Roman Catholicism, he decided to emasculate Parliament. He first asserted his right to nullify the Test Acts and Penal Laws. These parliamentary statutes—requiring, in the case of the Test Acts, that all political or military officeholders take the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England and, in the case of the Penal Laws, punishing those who officiated at or attended non–Church of England services—had successfully insulated the English from Continental Catholic practices. Then James determined to have his royal fiat ratified by a Parliament packed with men whom he knew would do his bidding. When, in June 1688, seven bishops of the Church of England defied James II by refusing to have his Declaration of Indulgence, emasculating the Penal Laws and Test Acts, read from England’s pulpits on the grounds of its illegality, James had the seven prelates dragged into court for a show trial. That even a carefully picked English jury acquitted the bishops demonstrated the extent to which the English were willing to go in support of their king. Soon after the trial, the English invited the Dutchman William III, Prince of Orange, to England to vindicate their religious and political liberty.
The English people enthusiastically welcomed William on his arrival in the west of England in 1688. James’s army quickly melted away after a series of spectacular defections, including that of the future Duke of Marlborough. James himself, preceded by his wife and newborn son, fled to France. The English people, in what was thought to have been a remarkable moment of political unanimity, agreed to replace James with William and Mary in February 1689. The English justified the crowning of the new monarchs with the publication of the Declaration of Right, detailing the ways that James II had violated English law, thereby insisting on the limited power of English kings. In the traditional account of the Glorious Revolution, the English people, led by their natural leaders in the two Houses of Parliament, changed the English polity in the slightest of ways in 1688–89. They slightly altered the succession, they made it illegal for a Catholic ever to inherit the throne, and they passed the Toleration Act, allowing Protestant Dissenters to worship freely. There were, to be sure, some significant unintended consequences of this bloodless revolution. But these outcomes were to be understood less as a direct consequence of these events than as the natural outgrowth of the English national character—a character that the Catholicizing Stuart monarchs had done much to pervert.
This was the story that every English schoolchild, and many North American ones, used to know. This was the story that the great Victorian historian Thomas Babington Macaulay laid out in his magisterial History of England, first published in the middle of the nineteenth century. That History was an immediate and runaway best seller and has deservedly been deeply influential ever since. Macaulay told his story in beautiful and accessible prose. He based his account on exhaustive research. Any scholar with an interest in the late seventeenth century should begin his or her research by examining Macaulay’s notes, now preserved in the British Library. Very few subsequent scholars of the events Macaulay described have achieved his level of archival mastery. And in many ways, subsequent scholars have quibbled with the details of Macaulay’s story while accepting his general thesis.
Macaulay’s thesis became the classic statement of the Whig interpretation of the Revolution of 1688–89. It had a number of distinctive facets. First, the revolution was unrevolutionary. Unlike other subsequent revolutions, England’s revolution was bloodless, consensual, aristocratic, and above all sensible. The English had no desire to transform their polity, their society, or their culture. Instead they worried that James II had intended to do just that. Second, the revolution was Protestant. James II had tried to reinstitute Catholicism in England. The revolution insured that England would remain a Protestant polity. Third, the revolution demonstrated the fundamentally exceptional nature of English national character. Continental Europeans vacillated between the wild extremes of republican and popular government on the one hand and tyrannical royal absolutism on the other. The English, by contrast, were committed to limited monarchy, allowing just the right amount of tempered popular liberty. Just as the English church was a sensible middle way between the extremes of Roman Catholicism and radical Protestant sectarianism, so the English polity, by maintaining its ancient constitution, was sensible and moderate. In this context the English remained committed to their hierarchical social structure precisely because it did not impose unbridgeable gaps between the aristocracy and the people. Fourth, there could have been no social grievances undergirding the Revolution of 1688–89 because English society had changed little in the period before James II’s flight. It was only after English property rights were secured by the revolution, only after absolutism was no longer possible in England, that the English economy could truly flourish.
This book challenges every element of this established account. It is my claim that England’s Revolution of 1688–89 was the first modern revolution. […] … the English experience is not exceptional but in fact typical (if precocious) of states experiencing modern revolutions. The Revolution of 1688–89 is important not because it reaffirmed the exceptional English national character but because it was a landmark moment in the emergence of the modern state.
Steven C. A. Pincus – 1688: The First Modern Revolution
“…what Pincus offers is not yet another narrative treatment of the 1688 revolution’s causes and consequences, but instead a lengthy, interpretative essay that stakes a claim for England’s last 17th-century revolution as the world’s first modern one. […]
According to Pincus, England’s revolution of 1688-89 established the fundamental pattern followed by all uprisings since, from France in 1789 to Cuba in 1959. Pincus suggests that modern revolutions do not represent the clash of the progressive with the traditional, nor even the replacement of one mode of production with another. Rather, they are the product of the conflict between rival modernisation movements, culminating, usually violently, in the profound transformation of the state.
In the case of England, the rival teams of modernisers were made up of James II and his Catholic advisers on one side and the Whigs and their Dutch helpmeet William of Orange on the other. According to Pincus, James idolised Louis XIV and sought to create a modern absolutist state, and an accompanying empire, along French lines. Though outwardly he pursued the goal of religious toleration, the authoritarian James really had little truck with religious pluralism and made no secret of his dislike for the Huguenot refugees who had flocked to English shores in flight from Louis’s persecutory policies. […]
The Whigs, meanwhile, looked over the North Sea to the Dutch Republic for their political inspiration. They wanted to create a modern state based on commerce, not land, and sought religious toleration not only to protect tender consciences, but also because it was believed to be good for business. […] Likewise, the political analogue of a commercially successful nation was an open, participatory polity, responsive to economic interest groups and with a free press that would ensure the availability of the best economic information at all times.”
Ted Vallance : New Statesman
“The revolution of 1688 was the first modern revolution. Like more recent revolutions, it was violent, popular, and divisive. It was not an aristocratic coup or a Dutch invasion, but a popular rejection of James II’s French-inspired, Catholic, absolutist modernisation of the state in favour of an alternative Anglo-Dutch vision that prized consent, religious toleration, free debate and commerce. By the mid-1690s this second, Whig version had triumphed. Britain had experienced a truly transformative revolution that had reshaped religion, political economy, foreign policy and the nature of the state. […]
The first chapter examines the way in which 1688 has been viewed by subsequent generations. Pincus seeks to explain why, if 1688–9 was really revolutionary, it should have acquired a reputation as conservative, moderate and peaceful. Discerning a change of Whig attitudes under Walpole in the 1720s and 1730s, Pincus also suggests that the radicals of the later 18th century turned their back on what they saw as an imperfect revolution. Both moderates and radicals thus came to see 1688–9 as a conservative revolution, though the first group celebrated it for that and the second despised it for it. Pincus then takes the modern scholarly community to task for having ‘claimed with a united voice’ that the ‘lives of most Britons were remarkably little affected’ by the revolution. […]
The first transformation, explored in chapter 11, was a revolution in foreign policy that was explicitly intended by the revolutionaries rather than being the result of a Dutch king’s will. William did not simply impose his European agenda on the nation; instead, ‘the English invited William to England because they knew he would support their image of the national interest’, which meant war with France (p. 307). James’s aggressively pro-French and anti-Dutch foreign policy meant that ‘most English people came to understand their own problems in remarkably modern and nationalist terms’; they saw the world in European terms (p. 333). This was not, however, a war of religion, for Catholic powers supported England and the Dutch; rather it was ‘an international struggle against Louis XIV, a tyrant and aspiring universal monarch, who was equally threatening to Catholic and Protestant’ (p. 339). […]
Author’s Response : My belief is that there was a long English revolutionary period, that had its ebbs and flows, but began in the 1620s and only really ended in the 1720s with Walpole’s seizing of the political middle ground. […]
Central institutions came to matter and matter tremendously in the later 17th century all over Europe. They supplanted state formation by local authorities and by ‘confessionalization’ (in Heinz Schilling’s and Wolfgang Reinhardt’s sense). It was these new central institutions spawned as an intended consequence of the Revolution of 1688–9 – new institutions like the Bank of England and the Board of Trade – as well as the centralizing institutions that began in the 1650s, and those developed under James II, that shaped the contours of the British Empire in the 18th century and made Britain into the first industrial nation.”
Mark Knights & Steven Pincus : Reviews in History
“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. […]
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.”
Bernard Bailyn : The New York Review of Books