1688 and the Problem of Modernity

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If there is one quality that I admire more than any other among historians, it is the willingness to ruffle a few feathers in the pursuit of a strongly held conviction. For an early modernist to do this makes me especially proud, considering that it is tempting to say that some of our conferences have resembled an exercise in kicking dead equines. But every so often someone manages to find a topic with a bit of kick left. Steve Pincus does just that – and more – by considerably raising the bar for both research and argument in his book,  1688: The First Modern Revolution. So now that all of the critics have weighed in, where does this volume stand, both on its own and in respect to other works on the so-called “Glorious Revolution?”

This is partly a trick question as, in many respects, Pincus’ book isn’t really about a “Glorious Revolution” at all. Instead, it draws our attention to two competing visions of modernity – one absolute and territorial, the other contractual and commercial – that sought to establish themselves through largely violent means. Indeed, one of the best aspects of the book is that it does a masterful job at representing James VII and II as an active, if disingenuous, participant in attempting to realize an absolutist state modeled on Louis XIV’s France.  But the book’s central claim – that this episode represents the first modern revolution – is both contentious and problematic despite a well-supported argument about its global repercussions.

Are the rather holistic criteria – including an apparently strong preoccupation of seventeenth-century observers with what we might call political economy – set out by Pincus for this “modern” revolution particularly useful for evaluating later episodes in

Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David

"Death of Marat" by Jacques-Louis David (Wiki Commons)

European history? Isn’t the French Revolution, with its romantically inspired nationalism, the prototypical “modern” revolution? Or is the agreement of historians over modernity even a desirable outcome considering how nebulous and anachronistic it can be?

 One of the problems in this respect has been the long separation of the political culture of modernity from its social counterpart. Granted, Pincus’ book represents a much-needed challenge to the consensual and teleological tradition of T.B. Macaulay and G.M. Trevelyan’s accounts of the Glorious Revolution, but his delineation of “modern” ideas in government (i.e. state centralization and/or economic liberalization) and political thinking (the emergence of a public sphere) don’t always fit chronologically with other accounts of emergent modes of “modern” self or group identification (such as nationality or in the domestic sphere, as related by Michael McKeon).

In a strictly political sense, Pincus’ more-or-less thematic (rather than strictly narrative) approach also tends to obscure the fact that many of James’ policies (including the use of pliant place-men) seem quite similar to those of his brother Charles and are therefore possibly less “revolutionary” than suggested.

Furthermore, while a convincing account is given of James’ modus operandi , I can’t say the same about William of Orange, whose motives are not always clarified. Nevertheless, both the role

"James II and VII" by Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt. (Wiki Commons)

"James II and VII" by Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt. (Wiki Commons)

afforded to popular politics (especially in the North American context) and the widespread use of state-sponsored violence are convincingly argued and has made this now-inglorious, bloody struggle a lively topic for historical debate once again.

The most pressing practical issue facing this book is its length. At over 600 pages, it is quite long for what it sets out to do, although much of this can be attributed to an overzealous use of in-text examples rather than any redundant reiteration of the main arguments.

Secondly, this isn’t a book for a novice in English or British history and knowledge of earlier works on the Glorious Revolution are essential for fully understanding both the ingenuity and forcefulness of its claims. As an academically oriented work bypassing outdated models of an innovative/bourgeois vs. reactionary/monarchical stripe, however, it certainly fits the bill. What remains to be seen is just how large an impact it will have on forthcoming publications in both early modern and European history – think big.

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