Friday, February 26, 2010

1688 by Steve Pincus

From the moment James II departed England, the English with almost united voice called for war against France. The majority of English men and women believed that James had not followed the national interest in pursuing alliance with France and war with the Dutch. Few called for a renewal of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century confessional strife. However, it would be a mistake to assume that though there was wide-spread enthusiasm for war, there was a popular consensus. Instead, from 1689 there were two distinct visions of the proper nature of English foreign policy. Both sides deployed passionate nationalist arguments.

The Tories argued for a blue-water foreign policy. Louis XIV needed to be fought only so long as he posed a real and immediate threat to the British Isles and could plausibly undo the events of 1688-89. England had no interest in financing a Continental war against France that would merely benefit weak and unreliable confederates. For the advocates of blue-water policy, England's future lay in overseas empire, not in European engagement.

Whigs, by contrast, argued that England needed to be strong both at sea and on land. The French threat was ideological as well as geopolitical. England could be safe only when European liberty was secure. As long as states continued to be seduced or compelled to adopt the absolutist political model, Europe and England would be dragged into a hopeless spiral of massive military expenditures and unending warfare. It was not enough to defend the British Isles; England needed to humble France and thereby halt the spread of absolutism.

Whig frustration with Tory blue-water foreign policy provides the context for the publication of Robert Molesworth's spectacularly successful Account of Denmark, a runaway best-seller from the moment it appeared in late 1693. By 1700 at least thirteen editions of Account had been published in French, Dutch, German and English, and spawned a variety of virulent attacks, and became the talk of diplomats all over Europe.

After taking up arms on the side of the revolutionaries in 1688, Molesworth had been posted to Denmark. He had witnessed first hand that Protestant monarchy's slow drift from active membership in the Grand Alliance into the French sphere of influence.

In Molesworth's view the Kingdom of Denmark provided a case study in the pernicious effects of French political ideology. Before 1660 the Danes had shared in the benefits of the Gothic constitution that had once prevailed "in most, if not all parts of Europe." It was to the Goths that Europe owed "the original of Parliaments," with "frequent meetings" in which "all matter relating to good government were transacted," the right to elect their kings, and the right to depose "cruel, vicious, tyrannical, covetous, or wasteful" rulers. Then, "at one instant the whole face of affairs was changed" in Denmark, and the kings became "absolute and arbitrary" with not the least remnant of liberty remaining to the subject."

Denmark's turn to absolutism was not unique. "The King of Denmark," like many monarchs in Europe, explained Molesworth, had become "a pupil" of Louis XIV.

According to Molesworth's Account, the turn to absolutism in Denmark, as was the case everywhere else, necessitated "frequent and arbitrary taxes" to support the enlarged military machine. This in turn impoverished the country," the value of estates in most parts of the kingdom is fallen by three fourths." The policies of the Danish kings had caused "poverty in the gentry, which necessarily causes extremity of misery in the peasants.. the constant effects of arbitrary rule in this and all other countries where it has prevailed." Those states "that consider soldiers as the only riches, never cease enlarging their numbers, till they are necessitated for their subsistence, either to come to blows with their neighbors, or to create animosities between others" that would necessitate employing their forces as mercenaries. Absolutism breeds endless arms races. No leader dared risk disarmament for fear that his neighbors were only waiting "for the opportunity to fall upon him that is worst provided to make resistance. " This, Molesworth concluded, was "none of the least calamities which the French tyranny has forced upon the world." His analysis generated a clear imperative for English foreign policy. The only way to block the spread of economic depredation and unending warfare was to block the spread of French absolutism. This implied, at a minimum, constant vigilance and involvement in Europe or, most likely, a full-scale invasion of France.

Molesworth's analysis made it clear that the age of confessional (religious) warfare had ended. The threat to the welfare of Europe was absolutism, not Roman Catholicism. Denmark, Molesworth reminded his readers, was a Protestant country. "Whoever takes the pains to visit the Protestant countries abroad will be convinced that it is not Popery as such, but the doctrine of blind obedience in what religion soever be found, that is the destruction of liberty,and consequently of the happiness of any nation." The spread of "slavery" in "most of the Protestant as well as Popish countries" was because "the spirits of the people" had been weakened by clergy who preached "that subjects should obey without reserve". The problem was not priests, but priests who depended on an absolutist state. The danger came not from the spread of the Catholic or Lutheran reformation but from the growing power of the absolutist states.

"I wish every Englishman could read the Account of Denmark, wrote the Lancashire Whig William Phillips to the Somerset Whig Edward Clarke, for then "they'll find a slave is the same thing be he a Papist or a Protestant".

William and Mary, as the king and queen of England, heeded their their subjects call for war against Louis XIV. The war the revolutionaries asked the English nation to fight was not, as some recent historians have claimed, a war of religion, it was and international struggle against Louis XIV, a tyrant and aspiring universal monarch who was equally threatening to Catholic and Protestant; a multi-confessional alliance of European nation against a 'global' dictator who threatened the existence of each and every one of them.


  1. "People are not so easily got out of their old forms", John Locke perceptively observed at the time. "The slowness and aversion in the people to quit their old constitutions, has in many revolutions, which we have seen in this kingdom, in this and former ages (referring to the period between 1640 and 1660) still kept us to, or, after some interval of fruitless attempts, still brought us back again to our old legislative of kings, lords and commons and whatever provocations have made the crown to be taken from one of our princes' heads, they have never carried the people so far as to place it in another line." Given a choice, Locke argued, most people preferred an old, imperfect government to any innovative alternative.

    But Locke implied that things would be different in the later seventeenth century. Neither the revolutionaries nor the king were defending the old forms. James II, in contrast to his father, chose to cast himself as a modernizer. He modernized England's infrastructure, England's army, England's navy, English local government, and English political techniques. He and his polemicists asserted a modern, more expansive view of royal power and insisted on new limits on political expression. When forced to defend his grant of religious liberty without civil liberty, James and his polemicists described their efforts in terms of a "new great charter for liberty of conscience". By embracing modernity, by adopting a program of political and social modernization, James had eliminated conservatism as a viable political option. There was no possibility of restoring the old regime. In 1688, unlike the 1640s and 1650s, English men and women were forced to choose between alternative paths to modernity.

  2. The English Revolution of 1688-89 was the first modern revolution. It transformed the English church, the English State, and, in the long run, English society. It was an event that involved large swaths of the English nation in political violence and partisan political contestation. In many ways the Revolution of 1688-89 was an inspiration for the late-eighteenth century revolutionaries in France, North America, and elsewhere. This was not the conservative and restorative revolution described in the establishment Whig historiography. Neither can the revisionist view that 1688-89 was a confessional struggle in which a Catholic king was overthrown by narrow-minded Protestants be upheld.

    1688; The First Modern Revolution" by Steven Pincus; Yale University Press; 2009