December 25, 2009


The making of the modern state: a review of 1688: The First Modern Revolution
by Steve Pincus (Matthew Price, 12/24/09, The National)

Yet this apparently uneventful transfer of power concealed profound alterations in the relationship between the English crown and its subjects, and set into motion the formation of a new kind of modern state, whose characteristics – vigorous promotion of economic development, broad religious tolerance, and free competition among political interests – still define liberal democracies today.

In his magisterial new book (for once, this overused adjective is warranted), the historian Steve Pincus takes aim at the traditional narrative of the Glorious Revolution, and sets out to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it was more than worthy of the name: a revolution that was contentious, sometimes violent and even bloody, that pitted two radical factions against one another and transformed England.

1688: The First Modern Revolution is one of the most ambitious works of history to appear in recent years – a radical reinterpretation of events that intends not merely to update and improve prior accounts but to vanquish them conclusively. The book is a marvel of scholarship: Pincus’s footnotes bristle with references to a vast range of archival material alongside the latest research in European economic, religious and political history. His focus – too much so at times – is on how history is written, as much as on the events in question, and the result reads at times more like a dense work of political sociology than a narrative history in the mould of Macaulay. But Pincus, evidently obsessed with our need to rethink the events of 1688, has fired an invigorating shot into the otherwise docile realm of Stuart history. Though he too often abandons the subtlety of argument for the force of harangue, his deep learning, and his fearless questioning of received wisdom, more than redeem the book’s flaws.

Pincus demonstrates that by the second half of the century, England was already a land in flux: commerce was booming, foreign trade was on the rise; the English were moving to cities, where coffeehouses buzzed with the latest intelligence from abroad. The country was modernising at a rapid clip, and the revolution, as Pincus describes it, was in essence a battle – a fierce one – over the terms of that modernisation. James II, who in the accounts of Macaulay and many other historians appears as nothing more than a mad Catholic tyrant, was in fact a forward-looking ruler with his own vision for England’s future, one drawn from the absolutist rule of his cousin, France’s Louis XIV. James, Pincus writes, “did everything he could to create a modern, rational, centralised Catholic state” – and he was ruthless in its implementation, cracking down on dissent and spying on his enemies, in effect creating “a very modern surveillance state”.

When James first took the throne in 1685, he had the widespread support of the English people. What eventually roused his enemies, Pincus argues, was not simple anti-Catholicism, but opposition to his aspirations for a “universal monarchy” along absolutist lines. The origins of the Glorious Revolution, in Pincus’s account, lay in a broader European debate over the meaning of liberty. “The struggle that did so much to define the thinking of the revolutionaries in 1688-89,” he writes, “was a struggle to protect European and English national liberties against an aspiring universal monarch, not a war of religion.” Rather than a provincial tussle over monarchy and religion in England, this was a conflict with a secular and international dimension, a revolution whose central plank was liberty for mankind, not merely for the English.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 25, 2009 6:44 AM
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