1688: The First Modern Revolution

Given that use of the term “revolution” to describe a political regime change dates from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, it’s ironic that the conventional wisdom has come around to the view that it wasn’t a “real” revolution at all. In his 2009 book, 1688: The First Modern Revolution, Yale historian Steve Pincus tries to put the “revolution” back in the “Glorious Revolution.”

As if often the case when an amateur dips into a historiographical controversy, at times Pincus seems to me to be reaching with his interpretation. But his point — which I think is well-taken — is that we should see the events of 1688 as one but one episode in a years-long process that really did constitute a Whig Revolution complete with revolutionary wars and a major change in the basic orientation of English economic policy. The parts of the book dedicated to arguing with other historians about how we should understand James II’s agenda are kind of dull, and unfortunately this is where Pincus starts. But the latter parts about the Whig agenda and early liberal politics are fascinating. The Tory view that real wealth is based in land and hence is finite and merely shifted around rather than increased through exchanges isn’t something anyone would admit to believing today, but I think it’s fair to say that a kind of folk Toryism on this point animates a lot of thinking at all points in time. The fact that modern banking is really a kind of invention of statecraft and not a natural part of the exchange economy is important to understand even today and learning about its specific historical origins drives that home.

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