Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Steve Pincus' "1688: The First Modern Revolution"

Steven Pincus is professor of history at Yale University. He is the author of The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England, Protestantism and Patriotism: Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy, 1650-1668, and England’s Glorious Revolution: A Brief History with Documents.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, 1688: The First Modern Revolution, and reported the following:
From p. 99 of 1688: The First Modern Revolution:

“Although James II’s Catholicism at his accession raised some concerns, they were initially limited among the English population…. The experience of the previous century and a half had apparently diminished the religious prejudices of the English people while at the same time enhancing their commitment to their laws in church and state. By the accession of James II identity politics played only a limited role in shaping English political culture.”

The central claim of 1688: The First Modern Revolution is that the English people in 1688-89 fomented a revolution every bit as radical in intension and consequences as the revolutions of 1789 in France or 1917 in Russia. This revolution was radical because it transformed England from an agrarian to a manufacturing society, it reoriented English foreign policy away from territorial Empire in the Atlantic towards political engagement with continental Europe, and it reshaped the Church of England, away from an intolerant and persecuting church into one that, at least at the highest levels, valued religious difference as a possible means to arrive at religious truth. The revolutionaries who brought about such radical changes were unsurprisingly compelled to resort to violence to achieve their ends. The revolution was therefore popular rather than aristocratic, violent rather than bloodless, and divisive rather than consensual.

The book challenges two established views of the Glorious Revolution that rely in different ways on the concept of identity politics. Both views that I challenge insist that the Revolution of 1688 was an unrevolutionary revolution, one which emphasized continuity rather than transformation. The first view, normally associated with the Whig interpretation of history, insists that the English possessed a unique commitment to political moderation. So, when James II tried to impose a foreign Catholic and absolutist monarchy on the English people, they united against him to restore the ancient constitution. The second interpretation I challenge, maintains that English identity was fundamentally a rigidly intolerant Protestant one. So, when James II tried to impose religious toleration by royal fiat, the English, led by the intolerant Church of England men threw him out. In both views the English defended their identity against innovation.

My claim in 1688 is that James II was a successful political modernizer. James centralized, regularized, and politicized the English political bureaucracy. He created a modern, efficient standing army and with the help of his chief naval administrator, Samuel Pepys, transformed and modernized the English navy. James was also committed, like his cousin and political ally Louis XIV, to an intolerant and absolutist form of Roman Catholicism. So, he hoped to turn England into a Catholic absolute monarchy. All of this spawned resentment. But those who overthrew James, the Whigs, did so not in defense of the ancient constitution or religious intolerance, but in the hopes of creating a modern state of their own. They wanted to transform English society from an agrarian into a manufacturing one, the English state from an absolutist regime into a politically pluralist one, and the English church from an intolerant and repressive one into one which was committed to the notion that religious truth could best be discovered through religious dialogue generated by a pluralist religious atmosphere.
Read more about the book at the publisher's website.

Learn more about Steven Pincus at his Yale faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue