Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The "Glorious revolution" of 1688: When a dynamic commercial ideal won out over centralized power

Samuel Pufendorf, a 17th-century German historian, described the English people as "having been ­always inclined to rebellion and intestine commotion." But England's regime change in 1688—soon called "glorious"—was a revolution with a difference. Instead of overthrowing the existing order in violent upheaval, it put "government upon its ancient and proper basis, which the measures of a mad bigot had almost ­destroyed." The "mad bigot" was, in this case, James II, the Stuart king (and a Catholic) who was deposed in ­favor of William of Orange, a Protestant from the Dutch Republic. Edmund Burke famously contrasted England's balance of change and continuity in 1688 with the ­ferocity in France a century later.

In "1688: The First Modern Revolution," Steve Pincus challenges this received account to argue that the ­Glorious Revolution marked a much greater break with history than Burke realized—and proved to be an ­emblem of the West's future. James II, Mr. Pincus notes, sought to extend state power at the expense of Parliament and the privileges of local communities. James's adversaries preferred the dynamism of commerce; they believed that wealth sprang from the limitless striving of human endeavor rather than the finite availability of land. France under Louis XIV provided James with a pattern for absolutism; the Dutch Republic provided his opponents with a commercial ideal. The Glorious ­Revolution is often seen as a clash ­between ­"popery"—the term for authoritarian ­Catholicism—and ­ancient English liberties. But Mr. Pincus persuasively describes it as the collision of two ideas about the state in society. In a sense, he implies, we are all Dutchmen now.

In the decades before the Glorious Revolution, Mr. Pincus observes, Britain's economy had grown exponentially, thanks to ever more productive manufacturing and ever more ­expansive overseas trade. Cities grew, drawing workers away from the countryside. Britain's landed ­interests did not lose out: Profits attached them to the new economy in a way that was not true for elites on the Continent. By 1680, ­England had become the first consumer society. And it possessed a thriving public sphere that ­anticipated ­William Blackstone's later ­description of the English as a polite and commercial people.

Such was the world that James II inherited. Although a Catholic ruling a Protestant realm, he had broad ­support when he became king in 1685, and the Duke of Monmouth's attempt to overthrow him then won little support. Most Englishmen backed James, and little ­wonder. The civil war, not to mention Cromwell's ­authoritarian interregnum, was within living memory: An Englishman might well have thought that his country had more to lose from a regime of Protestant ­enthusiasts than from a Catholic king pledged to defend English liberties and even the Church of England. So what changed to bring about James's downfall?

James turned out to be a revolutionary, Mr. Pincus suggests, working to transform England's ­government into a centralized bureaucracy. With his standing army, his subservient judges and his efforts to control ­parliamentary elections, James extended state authority deep into English society. The idea was to ­establish ­England as a great power, beholden to state subsidies for its commercial wealth and ready to pursue yet more imperial conquest. Given such ambitions, Mr. Pincus says, James's willingness to promote religious toleration was a pretext for favoring Catholicism as a faith more conducive to royal power—and for exalting the king's authority by reducing the pope's. Even English Catholics found this idea troubling.

France served as James's model. As Mr. Pincus ­reminds us, prolonged war—and the financial burden of sustaining large armies—had created a crisis for ­Continental Europe in the decades before the Glorious Revolution: a Hobbesian war of all against all. Louis XIV solved the crisis by building a centralized, bureaucratic state and making France the strongest power in Europe. At the same time, he turned the French nobility into courtiers and crushed all rival centers of power. ­Government became the king's secret rather the public's trust.

What James II took as a model, though, his countrymen feared as a threat. Eventually a broad section of the English elite, and a good part of the English populace, repudiated James and his absolutism in favor of his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William. When ­William landed in England with a Dutch army, he faced little opposition, and James soon fled into exile. The revolution, if glorious, was not entirely bloodless, ­especially in Scotland and Ireland, where the Catholic Stuart claim was especially strong. But at least there was no clash of armies or civil war. A relatively peaceful ­transition secured English liberties and a ­facade of royal continuity—Mary was a Stuart, after all.

Unanimity quickly faded, inevitably, as Whigs pushed a reform program that included establishing the Bank of England and borrowing money from private sources for Continental war. Tories balked at such changes, ­believing them to favor metropolitan interests over the public good. Behind the contest over England's ­future—that is, between the French and Dutch ­models—lay a commitment to England's past that Mr. Pincus understates.

The next several decades would see a polarizing of parties within England, but a quarrel among competing interests, rather than rule by ­decree, is what the ­Glorious Revolution aimed to make possible. The English predilection for "intestine ­commotions" checked James II's plan to transform ­England absolutely while ­hastening the decentralized, commercial transformation already under way. John Locke noted that "people are not so easily got out of their old forms," preferring the imperfect system they know to a new one they don't. Rulers who ignore that lesson—as James II ­discovered—do so at their peril.

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