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1688: The First Modern Revolution (The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History) Paperback – February 22, 2011
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"Mr. Pincus’s cogently argued account of what really happened during England’s revolution destroys many comforting notions that have prevailed for more than 200 years. . . . It leaves the reader with something much more exciting: a new understanding of the origins of the modern, liberal state."—Economist
"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."—The National
A finalist in the category of Nonfiction for the 2010 Connecticut Book Award, given by the Connecticut Center for the Book
"We all know that the year 1688 is a milestone in England's history; now, thanks to Steve Pincus, the book 1688 will be a milestone in its historiography. Pincus transforms what once seemed a peaceful compromise among agreeable aristocrats into a fractious and all-encompassing crisis, the ‘first modern revolution.’ Provocative, erudite, and accessible, 1688 is a must read for anyone interested in seventeenth-century Europe and its possessions."—Cynthia Herrup, University of Southern California
"A magnificent, fully documented, very well written study of how the first thorough-going modern revolution was achieved with effort and against substantial obstacles over several years. It was bloody and popular, not merely a palace coup achieved with little loss of life, as is commonly held. Taking a broader chronological view and considering more aspects of society than previous historians, Pincus convincingly shows how England had become a commercial society by the 1680s, and the race was on to harness new wealth—a race between the absolutist modernizing vision of James II and the more tolerant and liberty-minded vision of his opponents. What emerged was the first modern state, with independent financial institutions and a strong sense of national and civil, as opposed to confessional, interest. The triumph of William III and his supporters was a conscious re-ordering of the place of the three kingdoms on the European and world stage. Pincus's commitment to vigorous argument (in which he overturns many received views; his definition of revolution itself is bracingly refreshing) makes this book exciting reading, and will raise fascinated interest in the late 17th-century for many years to come. For anyone interested in modern liberal society, its origins, and why it is worth defending, this book is indispensable."—Nigel Smith, Princeton University
In this bold new narrative history Steve Pincus argues that England’s Glorious Revolution was a fundamental turning point in the making of the modern world.
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Strength 1. What stands out in this book is Pincus' new theory of revolutions. Instead of seeing revolutions as a revolt of the new against the old, he argues that the *first* step is that the ruling regime *breaks* with the past to offer a new vision of a modernized state we can call "Model A". That is, the entrenched power structure begins a program of modernization on Model A. A revolution is the result of a new group, who have a different ideal for a modernized state, which we can call Model B, rising up against Model A, not the old traditional ways. In other words, The state does the heavy lifting of destroying traditional, conservative ways, so the revolutionaries only have to compete with an alternate program of modernity. In the case of 1688, James II tried to modernize England as an Absolutist Monarchy along the lines of Louis XIV's France. The revolutionaries rejected this approach, instead electing to "Go Dutch" as Lisa Jardine would have it--they imported a modernization scheme based on the open society of the United Provinces. Not only is this a great explanation of 1688, but this new way of looking at revolutions sparks all sorts of interesting ideas about other revolutions. There is a weakness buried in this strength, however--the book would have benefitted from a more fleshed-out, if still brief, discussion of why the English Civil War is not a "modern revolution" in his eyes.
Strength 2. Pincus does an excellent job of countering the recent narrative (pace Johnathan Israel and others) that the Glorious Revolution was essentially a Dutch invasion and hostile takeover of England (though this is closer to the truth in Scotland, and almost entirely correct in Ireland). Israel and others have done a marvelous job of showing that the old Whig narrative of a small elite inviting Willem van Oranje and Mary Stuart to accept the throne to protect The Protestant Religion and Willem altruistically crossing the channel to bloodlessly march to London and accept the crown on behalf of a grateful nation is horribly inadequate. Pincus adds to this, showing just what a major military operation this was, the fact that it was not bloodless, and that this was an enormous risk for Willem, who very definitely was prepared to fight. He also shows, however, that while he was prepared for great opposition from James, some loyalists, and the French and Irish, he expected to have the overwhelming support of the English people. Pincus is convincing that Willem never would have attempted a hostile takeover, while he was willing to take part in a popular, yet partially opposed, coup d'etat.
Strength 3. Pincus explains, in careful and eye-opening detail, what James II's program was, and what it was not, and what the opposition was concerned about, and what it was not. In particular, he demolishes the notion that this was, at the root, a confessional struggle, based either in unthinking anti-Catholicism on the part of Radical Whigs, or a pox-on-both-your-houses revolt of Anglican hard-liners against a Dissenter-Catholic alliance. James's program was Catholic, to be sure, but it was French Catholic Absolutism, and the "Catholic" was the least important of those three words, and "Absolutism" the most important. He catalogs exactly what Louis XIV's centralized, absolutist police state was, and how James was very successfully copying it in England from 1685-8. The picture painted is not one of Louis merely weakening the old French nobility of Versailles, but of Louis (and James) creating early versions that presage the authoritarian, and ultimately totalitarian states of the later modern centuries. For example, James' quadrupling of the size of the peacetime army and quartering these troops in pubs and private dwellings, while at the same time developing a huge domestic spy network, almost certainly felt to the English as a *massive* increase in military-governmental control of their lives, and a reduction of personal freedoms.
Weakness. While Pincus touches on this, his treatment of the Dutch system the revolutionaries were importing and the background to Willem's Great Gamble in Dutch history is too light to understand the Dutch part of the story. In other words, it's less clear what the revolutionaries thought they were fighting *for* in bringing over Willem and Mary than the Absolutist monarchy they thought they were fighting *against*. It's equally true that Pincus' description the strong support Willem knew he would receive on landing in England explains why he thought the adventure was likely to be successful, while it remains less clear why he was so anxious to try in the first place. If one knows 17th century Dutch history well, Pincus leaves enough breadcrumbs that you can "fill in the blanks", but if you don't, you might be forgiven for thinking that Willem just wanted more provinces to his name like a typical Medieval aristocrat. Without a detailed understanding of Willem II's refusal to disband the army in the 1640s, the near-siege of Amsterdam, and the Stadtholderless period, you can't understand why the willingness of the Staten Generaal to support the Glorious Revolution was so remarkable, and without a much better explanation of the Anglo-French invasion of the United Provinces in 1672 and the fiscal strains of that event, you can't understand why Willem saw this as a defensive maneuver, the only possible way to ensure the survival of the Dutch state and the "True Freedom" that the Dutch saw as their national identity. In telling a broader story in the "European context", Pincus did a fabulous job in explaining the English and French pieces of the puzzle that is the events of 1685-9, as well as the Scottish-Irish pieces, but the Dutch piece is a little light.
All of that said, the book is one of the best history books I've read in some time, and I think will establish the new standard view of this important topic, as well as spinning off other excellent books from Pincus and others that build on this foundation.
I think when you look back at the last 20 years or so of narrative histor ty, you have to look at the attempt by American historians to work in the field of English/UK/European history. Such a thing would have been hard to contemplate 100 years ago, but a half century of expansion by the American empire has placed its scholars in the driver's seat when it comes to describing "anglo american" relations.
Explicit in 1688 is a critique of English historians that is as his main thesis- he castigates the "British exceptionalism" that historians used to justify their interpretation of the events of 1688 as "hardly a revoliution at all."
Although the United States appears almost not at all in the text, it's not hard to consider the impact of the events of 1688 on the American Revolution. You really get a sense of the Whig movement that would inspire many Founding Fathers. For example, the issue of quartering soliders in people's houses was a hot issue in the Revolution of 1688.
Finally, I think it's important to note two things:
1. This book is just as much histiography as narrative history so bring your thinking cap.
2. The last 80 pages is a discussion of the English Church which really stops the momentum of the preceding 400 pages.
The author's style is driven by a need to conclusively prove his findings! The result is a bit tedious, yet without the full evidence, people in general might think his proposals irrelevant. So I read on and find much understanding of the times and the idea of revolutions, especially the Great Revolution of 1688! For his comprehensive result he deserves 5 stars!
Top international reviews
Pincus is concerned with taking on both Whiggish, conservative and revisionist historians interpretations of what 1688 was about and where it sits in the long view of English, British, European and world history. This he succeeds in doing for the most part.
Pincus argues that 1688 was not a coup, was not a foreign invasion, was not motivated by religion, was motivated by opposition to an absolutist vision of the state, and, so, was European in outlook, but that Tory and Whig visions of the alternative to absolutism would be played out over the coming decades and that 1688 set England and Britain on the road to being a modern capitalist, manufacturing society.
In most of these arguments, Pincus succeeds. There are places where he doesn’t succeed. I don’t think that he makes a case for a genuinely popular revolution, at least not one where lower classes develop political agendas independently of higher social classes. Pincus also suffers because he views James II’s absolutism and the opposing Williamite vision as both being ‘modern’ without addressing how absolutism really fitted into societies with emerging capitalism and was essentially conservative.
All the way through the book, the revolutionary events of 1640-60 assume ‘elephant in the room’ proportions and eventually, in his conclusion, Pincus addresses how England’s two revolutions relate to one another. Unfortunately, this analysis is quite superficial and Pincus is quite dismissive of the mid-century events but does concede that 1688 was not possible without 1640 to 1660.
There's lots to chew over and anyone interested in how changes in modes of production interact with changes in political/state structures will be interested in what Pincus has to say......even though he says it ever so stodgily.
Good. Just what I needed. Arrived in good time and as described.
This book was occasionally informative, but was overlong and badly written. His extensive research has allowed Pincus to write a comprehensive and informative narrative of the Glorious Revolution that is occasionally compelling and entertaining. However, as a work of scholarship it is a failure. He fails to establish any of his main points, and from very early on it becomes clear that his academic judgement is poor. Contrary to his claim that this book overturns the accepted wisdom regarding the causes and consequences of the Glorious Revolution, it actually proved the soundness of the Lord Macauley’s original history.
He is a poor author. He has clearly done a lot of research but the author’s job is to distil that knowledge into a readable text and organise it to support a coherent argument. His style is to vomit forth all his research onto the page. Not only does this make for a turgid and tedious read, but he fails to appreciate that this does not help him prove his points. For instance, he attempts to prove the importance of the Newcastle coal trade by quoting lots of different people all saying things such as “there was more coals vented in one year than was in seven-years forty years by-past.” And so on for pages. It would be shorter and more compelling to simply quote the estimated production numbers. Furthermore, the population of Great Britain and Ireland at the time was roughly 7 million. Using quotes from half a dozen people to support an argument is deeply unsatisfactory because (a) the sample size is tiny, (b) it is a partial selection of quotes and he does not give us any information about the views of the whole sample. It does, however, make for a dull, repetitive read. He seems to have a complete aversion to statistics.
He is prone to overly confident assertions, which mainly serve to undermine ones trust in his judgement. For instance, he attributes the relative success of the British economy to its access to Transatlantic trade and states that “Atlantic trade provides the only plausible explanation for England’s divergence from the European pattern”. That is a very odd judgement to make in a book that is primarily about the importance of institutions, and as David Landes pointed out years ago if Transatlantic trade was so important why weren’t Spain and Portugal the leading economies of Europe?
He is also prone to making bold statements that he attempts to justify through highly partial use of the evidence. For example he claims that violence during the Glorious Revolution “was on the same scale as the violence in France subsequent to July 1789” (p.223). He then justifies this by stating that the 60 troops killed in a skirmish at Reading “far outnumbered the number of Parisians killed in the famous ‘massacres of the Champs de Mars’ in July 1791.” That may be the case, but the Paris Reign of Terror alone claimed between 17,000 and 40,000 victims, while the War in Vendée claimed between 150,000 and 400,000.
He bemoans the “false binary positions” which “bedevil” study of the “early modern period”, but this book is absolutely full of them. In particular he caricatures Macauley when arguing against him.
Despite these failings some of his arguments are convincing and well made in particular:
The Glorious Revolution can only properly be understood within a European context. He demonstrates clearly the influence of French absolutism on James II, and shows how William of Orange’s decisions have to be understood in the context of the Netherland’s war with France.
The Glorious Revolution was not a Dutch invasion. He shows that of the 20,000 men in the invading army, 9,000 were British and that the expedition was largely financed from Britain. He thus reinforces the traditional historiography.
The Glorious Revolution led to the ideological victory of Whig political economics. He describes very well the ideological battles between the Whigs and Tories, and how the Glorious Revolution led to the victory of Whig notions of wealth based on labour (and hence infinite) over Tory notions of wealth based on land (and hence finite).
He fails to establish any of his 3 main points which are: that the Glorious revolution was popular, violent, and divisive.
Popular. The revolution was instigated by the aristocracy. He shows that there was popular support for the revolution, but it was not a popular revolution. The populace did not rise to overthrow James II, it was the aristocracy that rose and organised their own armed militias. The populace may have joined the revolution, but they did not start it.
Violent. This part is particularly laughable. He claims that the Glorious Revolution was as violent as the French Revolution but mainly documents a few small skirmishes in which barely dozens died. The most violent battle was that of Killiecrankie, which killed at most a couple of thousand on each side. Hardly the Reign of Terror.
Divisive. He clearly demonstrates that there were strong ideological battles between Whigs and Tories during the period, but as he himself shows they came together to overthrow James II. Both sides agreed on the need to overthrow James II to assert the nations traditional liberties. It was surely inevitable that they subsequently reverted to their usual bickering. It was not a result of the revolution.