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1688: The First Modern Revolution

A new history of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 labours too hard to prove that it was every bit as

Thomas Paine, in his Rights of Man (1791), predicted that interest in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, "however from circumstances it may have been exalted beyond its value, will find its level. It is already on the wane, eclipsed by the enlarging orb of reason, and the luminous revolutions of America and France. In less than another century, it will go, as well as Mr. [Edmund] Burke's labours, 'to the family vault of all the Capulets'."

In this regard at least, Paine has proved a poor prophet. Since 2006, three new histories of the revolution of 1688-89 - when the Catholic James II was replaced as monarch by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange - have been published. Add to this Liza Picard's work on the Dutch influence on 17th-century English culture, Michael Barone's account of the revolution's impact on American history and the translation into English of much important research by scholars from the Netherlands, and you could be forgiven for thinking - incorrectly, if this parti­cular reviewer's sales are anything to judge by - that the history book-buying public has an insatiable thirst for all things glorious and revolutionary.

So, is there space in this crowded field for Steve Pincus's hefty new tome? The short answer is yes, because what Pincus offers is not yet another narrative treatment of the 1688 revolution's causes and consequences, but instead a lengthy, interpretative essay that stakes a claim for England's last 17th-century revolution as the world's first modern one. This might make the book a less-than-ideal entry point for the uninitiated, but its ambitious scope should secure it a broad audience. And that is because Pincus is moving into territory resembling more that of the late sociologist and political scientist Charles Tilly than the narrow, parochial furrow ploughed by most scholars of later-Stuart Britain.

According to Pincus, England's revolution of 1688-89 established the fundamental pattern followed by all uprisings since, from France in 1789 to Cuba in 1959. Pincus suggests that modern revolutions do not represent the clash of the progressive with the traditional, nor even the replacement of one mode of production with another. Rather, they are the product of the conflict between rival modernisation movements, culminating, usually violently, in the profound transformation of the state.

In the case of England, the rival teams of modernisers were made up of James II and his Catholic advisers on one side and the Whigs and their Dutch helpmeet William of Orange on the other. According to Pincus, James idol­ised Louis XIV and sought to create a modern absolutist state, and an accompanying empire, along French lines. Though outwardly he pursued the goal of religious toleration, the authoritarian James really had little truck with religious pluralism and made no secret of his dislike for the Huguenot refugees who had flocked to English shores in flight from Louis's persecutory policies.

Similarly, England's Catholic king sought to weaken the independence of parliament, altering the political make-up of boroughs and corporations to ensure, he hoped, the election of pliant royal yes-men. In his American territories, too, James dissolved the representative assemblies of the New England colonies and placed them under the government of a hand-picked royal governor. Trade would also become a monarchical monopoly, with the king seeking to extend the grip he held over the slave trade through his involvement in the Royal African Company.

The Whigs, meanwhile, looked over the North Sea to the Dutch Republic for their political inspiration. They wanted to create a modern state based on commerce, not land, and sought religious toleration not only to protect tender consciences, but also because it was believed to be good for business. (Tolerant societies such as the Dutch provided refuge for skilled workers, such as the French Huguenots, fleeing intolerant rulers.) Likewise, the political analogue of a commercially successful nation was an open, participatory polity, responsive to economic interest groups and with a free press that would ensure the availability of the best economic information at all times.

Although ultimately the Whig modernisers were the victors, Pincus is keen to stress that their victory - given James's position of relative strength - was far from the preordained outcome that many contemporaries believed. The post-revolutionary state was not, he contends, a moderate political fudge. Ending his discussion proper with an account of the outcome of the failed assassination plot against William in 1696, Pincus sees a nation transformed in its economic and foreign policy outlook and now officially wedded to Lockean ideas of rule by contract and consent.

Pincus marshals an impressive array of evidence to support his case - indeed, he has done an astonishing amount of archival research - and the book, though long, is compelling and forcefully argued. However, the argument is so bold that parts of it are less than convincing. For example, James II may have admired the government of Louis XIV, but it is not clear that he was really attempting to erect a French-style monarchy. For one thing, his policies in North America - most notably the creation of the Dominion of New England - more closely resembled those of the Spanish vice-royalties than French colonial government.

In fact, in many respects, James's domestic policies followed those of his brother Charles II: the use of borough and corporation charter revisions to pack parliament, or the strategic employment of "declarations of indulgence" (toleration by royal prerogative). Overall, Pincus struggles to find a smoking gun that would show definitively that James or his advisers had a pre-prepared Gallic blueprint for a new kind of English state. Similarly, while it is true that some historians have underestimated the violence of the revolution of 1688-89 in England and Wales, the claim that it was more bloody than the French Revolution seems hard to sustain. Indeed, Pincus can come to this conclusion only by including in his calculations British casualties from William III's European campaigns. It is never quite clear why he thinks he needs to show that the upheaval was so very nasty, except that this might elevate it to the status of the acknowledged mass bloodlettings in France or Russia.

The extremes to which Pincus pushes his argument are, however, one of the main attractions of his book. Not for him the cautious humming and hawing of so much academic writing. Pincus is, to redeploy J H Hexter's description of Christopher Hill, a "lumper", not a "splitter". As with Hill, one might accuse him of taking a selective view of the many sources he consults - did people in the late 17th century really care that much about political economy? But, like Hill, he also manages to write in a way that is both contentious and thought-provoking. This is not the definitive history of the 1688 revolution, but it is a book that will prompt intense historical debate for many years to come.

Ted Vallance's "The Glorious Revolution: 1688 - Britain's Fight for Liberty" is published by Abacus (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London