No Guts, No Glory
“[The revolutionaries] were desperately concerned about their nation’s diminishing world standing. They were furious that James appeared to be appeasing the aspiring world hegemon. They believed they were deposing a king who was pursuing a foreign rather than national interest.”
I recently read Steve Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution. While I normally don’t write book reviews, this one struck me as particularly relevant. It is a deeply-researched and entertaining history of England’s so-called Glorious Revolution in which the ideologically-driven and autocratically-inclined Catholic King James II, who spent his short reign implementing broad-based attempt to remake English society in his own image, was driven from power over the course of a few weeks, deposed and replaced by the Protestant Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of Holland, William III.
It is the remarkable story of how a regime which had seemed so deeply-entrenched in English society — after completely remaking the army and navy, dramatically expanding its control of mails and tax collection, upturning local government, and stacking Parliament with ideological lackeys — could crumble almost overnight.
The revolution of 1688 is traditionally termed ‘glorious’ in the Whig interpretation of history because it was purportedly carried out in an orderly fashion without the sort of widespread violence and societal collapse characteristic of other modern revolutions — the most notable counterpoint being the bloody terror of the French Revolution a scant century later.
It has typically been interpreted as a conservative revolution, in that traditional English values, fed up with the top-down changes being imposed would-be tyrant, reasserted their ancient rights and privileges to restore the status quo ante prior to James’ ascension.
Pincus delves deep into numerous primary and secondary sources — letters, court documents, pamphlets, diplomatic traffic, etc (seriously, there are about 150 pages of footnotes) to demonstrate that this rosy interpretation is at best flawed, and at worst an outright invention.
England in the 17th-century was a rapidly modernizing country. Even prior to the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the political economy was evolving as it transformed from a feudal and agrarian society to a more urban, representative, and manufacturing-based one. It was still recovering from the mid-century civil wars that stemmed from the long struggle over the European Reformation. It was adjusting to the advent of new information technologies, as coaches, post offices, and coffee houses spread across the nation linking more people and spreading information more widely and broadly than ever before. It was becoming a political country, in which the budding middle and even the lower classes expected to have a say in their government.
The revolution of 1688 was not a conservative reaction, Pincus explains, but a duel between contrasting visions of modernization. Neither was it a primarily religious conflict, either. While many historians have viewed the revolution as a continuance of the religious civil wars, both Williamites and Jacobins made it clear they saw the stakes of their competition through strategic, economic, and geopolitical lenses rather than confessional ones. To be sure, there was religious strife between Protestant and Catholic, but this was not the defining disagreement.
James, devoutly Catholic and a professed Francophile who came to rule a predominantly Protestant and Francophobic country, sought to remake England’s institutions in the mold of French absolutism, modeled after his ally, Louis XIV, the ‘tyrant of the age.’ James was a modernizing reformer who wanted to make England into an absolutist state suitable for geopolitical competition in the 17th-century.
James was an absolutist monarch who saw the rising Dutch Republic as the primary geopolitical threat of the era, a collection of rabble who had the temerity to overthrow their God-ordained rulers in Spain. Their form of government and mercantile prowess were seen as lethal threats to the idea of monarchy and the sort of rule by fiat that James and his role model Louis XIV desired.
The alliance of Whigs and Dissenters who succeeded at overthrowing James and bringing William to power also wanted to reform and modernize England’s governing institutions, but instead to make them more open, commercial, and decentralized, suitable for a mercantile nation of manufacturers. They sought to completely change the direction of England’s foreign policy and political economy, replacing James’ strategic alliance with tyrannical France to one with the democratic Netherlands. They saw France’s pursuit of “Universal Monarchy — i.e. world domination — as the principle threat of the age, and the Dutch Republic as a bastion of freedom. They eventually succeeded on both counts and ended up putting the final nail in the coffin of the hereditary principle, to boot.
James’ overthrow wasn’t preordained in some inevitable march toward progress that Whiggish history might like us to believe — in fact, he came very close to succeeding at his attempt to remake England. His mistake was, like most would-be tyrants, he overreached. His dismantling of cherished representative institutions and stacking of government offices with lackeys outraged the English people, destroying his government’s credibility and giving rise to a broad-based disaffection that made the invitation of William successful.
Another interesting point is that the revolutionaries made adroit use of the new information technologies of the day and the new political appetites of the people, spreading disinformation and misinformation to inflame the English people. One such example was the “Irish Fright,” in which James’s Irish troops were widely believed to be planning widespread massacres. “Far from being an example or premodern paranoia, the sophisticated methods used to spread the rumor [of a pending massacre by Irish troops] are more reminiscent of modern smear campaigns.”
Hugh Speke, a Williamite who claimed credit for spreading the rumor throughout England & Scotland, openly bragged that he made use of his vast knowledge of “the coaches, wagons, & carriers by which goods, parcels, & letters might be conveyed.” The effect of the rumor was dramatic & national.
The larger point is that periods of transition are always turbulent, and states have choices to make regarding both their domestic and geopolitical orientations. Had James succeeded at remaking England into an autocratic, absolutist monarchy in the mold of 17th-century France, European history would likely have turned out much differently.
The Glorious Revolution allowed Britain to become Great. By turning away from absolutism and defending the rest of Europe from France’s pursuit of a universal monarchy in the following Nine Years War, England, together with its other two Kingdoms, united to create a modern, representative, and open society that went on to European and eventually global preeminence.