1688: The First Modern Revolution (review)
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Reviewed by
Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 647 pp.

This is a rich, and could have been a deeply enriching, book; unhappily it is also a confused and confusing one. Since the mid-twentieth century, anglophone historians have been reassessing the Revolution of 1688–89 as both an Anglo-British and a European event, which precipitated the transformation of England into Great Britain, a military-fiscal state that helped establish the multistate European and Enlightened order of the ancien régime between Louis XIV and Napoleon, and competed with France for global empire in the “second Hundred Years War.” Tensions existed within this state, some inherited from the seventeenth century, some arising from the Revolution itself, some from the military-fiscal structure it produced — the last perceived as “modern” in some of the many senses of that word. These tensions gave rise to civil wars, in Scotland down to 1746, in the American colonies during the 1770s, and in Ireland during the 1790s, but never — this is crucial — in England itself. Some of their causes were religious in character, though there was the powerful movement we call Enlightenment, designed to end the disturbance of state and society by church and faith.

There was no post-Revolutionary civil war in England; hence the image of the Revolution as stabilizing and constitutionalist. The English remembered the wars following 1642 as a “dissolution of government,” which had forced elite and nonelite to draw swords against each other as an issue of conscience; the elites were determined not to repeat the experience. Because the Revolution had been a face-off between the professional armies of James II and William III, civil war had not recurred; but the English desired to be assured either that no dissolution of government and reversion of power to the people had happened, or that if it had it had been a peaceable and triumphant occurrence. One hundred years later, Richard Price painted 1688 in England and 1789 in France as peaceable popular triumphs. Edmund Burke replied that because the English Revolution had been contained within a consensual structure, it had not precipitated the war of intellect against society. The comparative study of revolutions now became possible and general. Sixty years later, Thomas Macaulay, with the European revolutions [End Page 186] of 1848 before him, wrote the history of James’s reign and William’s as a narrative of profound change and disturbance, contained within English history by the willingness of most of the Revolution’s opponents to accept the victory of legal procedures; his history remained unfinished.

The historiographic story was further complicated by a school in the mid-twentieth century that held there was no historic reality beyond the innenpolitik of oligarchy and thus stated and overstated the truth that the English oligarchy had preferred oligarchy to civil war. From this sequence (Burke, Macaulay, Namier) has arisen a myth of consensuality which has now become the myth of a myth, since Macaulay and all his successors depicted the reign of William as a “rage of party” arising from dispute over whether, how far, and on what terms the Revolution was to be accepted — disputes that lasted long after the Revolution’s acceptance de facto, until they were replaced by disputes (some old and some new) in the reign of George III.

Steve Pincus, in this massive and in some ways brilliant book, has chosen the myth of consensuality as his sole target, with the result that in his hands it becomes the myth of a myth, both because since its beginnings it has never been stated unequivocally and because all the reinterpretations of the twentieth century have disputed it by situating it in new contexts. In consequence, he is never able to state the myth precisely, and while mobilizing all the new interpretations against it, he repeatedly attacks them (here I declare an interest) for not attacking it precisely enough. Here he is tripped up by the central, in some ways the best, feature of his work, the trope of “modernity.” It has been argued that what rendered the Revolution “modern” was the installation...