The Cease of Majesty

Article excerpt

1688: The First Modern Revolution by Steve Pincus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)

In his inaugural lecture in the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis suggested that part of the great divide separating us moderns from our ancestors is that they were subject to rulers, while we are governed by leaders. The difference, as he noted, is not merely verbal. Self-rule, in its various forms, is so central to modern political culture that even when we submit to strenuous restraint, we are averse even to think of it as rule by another. When did this frame of mind become dominant? Steve Pincus, of Yale University, thinks that the tipping point came in 1688, when the English chased off the last of their kings to have attempted anything like rulership. The new era of modernity, he argues, was consecrated not by the blood of the Bastille or of Bunker Hill, but of the Boyne.

In staking this claim, Professor Pincus understands himself to be correcting not only current misconceptions and tired Victorian commonplaces but also a trend of misinterpretation dating back almost to the revolution itself. Its leaders had thought they were making the world anew, but already by the 1.720s, the revolution's partisans were fashioning an account of it that would provide rhetorical cover from Tory criticism. At the century's end, this moderate Whig interpretation was given its canonical formulation by Edmund Burke, to whom 1688 meant the restoration of ancient liberties, not the creation of new ones. With Macauley in the nineteenth century and Trevelyan in the twentieth, this peaceful or irenic interpretation was graven in stone. Or so it seemed. But now comes a bold dissertation seeking to prove that the revolution was the very reverse of what has long been assumed. Not a palace coup engineered by a few Whigs and the Dutch, it was a popular revolt; not the work of calm calculation, it was effected--at least in part--by numerous acts of violence; not oil spread on troubled waters, it was a cause of bitter and long-standing division in English society. For these claims, massive evidence has been marshaled: summoned from the yellowed pamphlets and letters of some five dozen archives, placed in rank and file in more than a hundred pages of endnotes, and drilled into the order of one long argument.

The strengths and the weaknesses of Pincus's 1688 proceed from his decision to construct an argument instead of a narrative. The book does follow a loose chronological order. After two introductory chapters--one treating historiography, the other theories of revolution--his attention turns first to the brief reign of James II, then to the six months or so of the revolution itself, and finally to English society in the 1690s. Yet the volume is less a story than a catalogue of evidence. We are not given a setting, introduced to characters, and marched through a plot. Rather, from first to last, the reader is presented with the old Whig interpretation and the claims of contemporary historians and then given the evidence that supports the new conclusion. Readers of 1688 will look in vain for pen portraits of the leading actors in the drama and will find that its illustrative vignettes are usually kept within the bounds of a single paragraph. As a result, those short on interest in the debates surrounding its subject may find the work to be burdensome.

Professor Pincus, however, does succeed in hammering home his point. Both conventional and revisionist historians of the revolution have been too "insular" in their concerns; and, in their fascination with the events of 1688, they have not sufficiently pondered the first three years of the reign of James II, especially in comparison with the deeds of his cousin Louis XIV. Pincus's own "radically different method" is to consider the revolution in its broader European context and as a response to the administrative changes introduced by the last of the Stuarts. …