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1688: The First Modern Revolution

Author(s):Pincus, Steve
Reviewer(s):Coffman, D’Maris

Published by EH.NET (February 2011)

Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009. xiii + 647 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-300-11547-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by D?Maris Coffman, Newnham College, University of Cambridge.

As Steve Pincus tells us in the introduction and at key moments in the narrative, his account of the events of 1688/89 in Britain was a decade in the making. Having heard several of the book?s chapters before as seminars, lectures, or conference papers, this reviewer had looked forward to its publication in the hopes that it would answer some of her own questions about political economy, foreign policy and ecclesiastical politics in the late 1680s.? Unfortunately, despite its grand aims, this lengthy and lively work instead somehow amounts to far less than the sum of its parts.

Whatever else can be said for this polemical reinterpretation of the Revolution of 1688/89, no one can accuse its author of lacking ambition. Very rarely does a modern historical monograph begin and end with the view that almost everyone else got everything entirely and precisely wrong. Yet that is the constant refrain in over five hundred forcefully written pages. In them, the author depicts the Glorious Revolution as the first ?modern? revolution. Why? Because, according to Pincus, English society was rapidly modernizing; contemporaries knew this, and not just the elites. What they were contesting in this account were competing visions of the new order. James II was the frustrated architect of a new ?Catholic modernity,? whereas his opponents, no less committed to refashioning the British state and society, had equally splendid plans.

This is a book about which it is almost impossible to remain neutral. Despite repeated reassurances that the author has drawn on new evidence or forgotten sources, this is a work of historiography, or meta-history, not of historical explanation. To say that the analysis is reductionist would be generous; the narrative inhabits a world of binary opposites, Hegelian (rather than Marxist) dialectics, where conflict between mutually exclusive ideologies drives historical change. If the hermeneutic stance is familiar, the argumentative strategy is befuddling. The Revolution of 1688/89 was ?modern? and a ?revolution? because respected historians have characterized it as essentially conservative, non-violent, driven by elites, and perhaps best described as a ?foreign coup.? They were wrong; thus the opposite must be true. Q.E.D.

In this rhetorical extravaganza, the author displays a genius for rationalization. There were ?long-term causes and long-term intended consequences,? (p. 474) we are told, in a seductive narrative that leaves almost no room for uncertainty. All the actors, from the king, to his ministers, to his opponents and even the man (and woman) on the street, had all the information they needed to judge between these competing, overarching visions, which included everything from church-state relations to foreign policy and political economy. As if in a nod to the Chicago School, this is the history of homo economicus. No one, it seems, was misinformed, or the least bit in doubt. Although the victors disagreed among themselves, everything mapped eventually (if not entirely tidily) to Whig and Tory factional politics, out of which the Whigs emerged triumphant. Yet while their politics triumphed, their intellectual descendants got the history wrong, or rather, whitewashed their narratives to make the winners look reasonable, sensible, and sane. If the author has a good word for anyone else?s contributions, he reserves it for the eighteenth-century writers who celebrated the Revolution of 1688/89 as a radical rupture with the past, in contradistinction to Macaulay?s nineteenth-century account.

To take such a work on its own terms is a challenge. The categories the author deploys would have been barely recognizable to contemporaries. ?Catholic modernity,? for instance, is, at times, a dressed up Gallicanism, alternatively caesaro-papism, but at any rate a detailed vision held by James II for a coherent and all-encompassing imperial monarchy, which might have been universal but for the need to share the globe with Louis XIV.? Far from incompetent, rigid or inflexible, this James II knew what he wanted: the French model. He pursued it with more vigor than subtlety, and, in the end, lost.? His opponents, on the other hand, are said to have preferred the Dutch model — a vibrant, commercial society based on toleration and strong representative government — though they disagreed about what that meant in practice.

Do political actors actually think this way? If they did, what would it imply about the political culture? To see in reifications of foreign nations plausible programs for modernization and reform implies a deep-seated political malaise, despair at the value of indigenous institutions, and even cultural shame. Divided Germany after World War II comes to mind, but few others do. The author provides no evidence of this in late seventeenth-century Britain. At least in Jonathan Scott?s equally iconoclastic England?s Troubles, the cultural trauma of the Civil Wars and Interregnum is offered as an important but neglected motivation. In this account, we are expected to accept, axiomatically, that because England was ?modernizing? (or at least experiencing economic growth) the political elite must have wanted to ?modernize? the state.

Since others have dealt extensively with the presentations of ecclesiastical politics and foreign policy, I will limit myself to the claims made about competing visions of ?political economy? (another term which would have been meaningless to contemporaries). In this chapter, Pincus uses a medley of tracts (most available on Early English Books Online and the rest in the Goldsmith-Kress collection) to outline two coherent views: an ?agrarian political economy? and a ?labor- and manufacturing-based political economy,? which he claims eventually mapped to Tory and Whig politics. Most of the writers, the author acknowledges, were ?projectors,? which is to say private parties who proposed bold (and occasionally profitable) schemes, always for the ?common good,? to courtiers in bids for patronage. Reading sources against the grain to discern what they reveal about contemporary attitudes is a valid methodological tool, but not one that can stand on its own. Most of these cherry-picked sources were printed on hand presses for their immediate audiences. Even if they reflected contemporary views, they did not, and could not have, framed contemporary debates. Some of these authors do appear to anticipate eighteenth-century and even nineteenth-century economic writers, but as Julian Hoppit and others have shown, these were not systematic programs of reform.

In the midst of regime change, some of these projectors proved successful in winning approval of their schemes, but the success of their projects (even the Bank of England or the new East India Company) and the glory of their subsequent careers should not be taken as evidence that their views were shared by anyone other than themselves, much less that these competing claims were at the heart of a coherent debate about state modernization. Where the author talks about actual state practice, he discusses the Hearth Tax (always marginal to the revenue) and debates about the Land Tax, rather than focusing, as John Brewer did in Sinews of Power, on excise taxation, which, among other things, served as collateral for new species of government debt and was associated with the ?spy network? that Pincus attributes to James II. To read this account, one would think that the Treasury officials took advice from adventurers and were even drawn from their ranks. To financial historians, the ?Financial Revolution? was incremental — a series of contingent events and unintended consequences. Assuming otherwise for the sake of argument does not make it so.

The Revolution of 1688/89 in a British perspective, as Tim Harris has concluded in Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, may have been far from the tame event depicted by Macaulay. But that does not make it the ?first modern revolution.? The greatest shortcoming of this book is the author?s overweaning aim to replace one set of stylized facts with another. North and Weingast?s account of ?credible commitment? may unwittingly (or not) have furnished ideological window-dressing to the Washington Consensus. We can very much hope this version will not offer something similar to those who harbor ambitions for twenty-first century nation states.

D’Maris D. Coffman is the Mary Bateson Research Fellow and Director, Winton Centre for Financial History at Newnham College, University of Cambridge.

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century