How should a decisive historical event be commemorated? In the history of the British Isles no event has been more decisive than the Revolution of 1688. It defeated a vigorous attempt to impose royal absolutism, and secured the principle of Parliamentary consent. It made possible the emergence of free speech and of an independent judiciary. It was the critical episode in the transformation of Britain from a minor power with a dynastic foreign policy to a major one with an imperial destiny. It laid the foundations of the constitutional practices which would be exported round the world. In Scotland it overthrew the Episcopalian state church and led to the Act of Union. In Ireland it crushed the Catholic bid for emancipation and entrenched the Protestant ascendancy.
The legacy is a mixed one, but it merits public scrutiny on its tercentenary. Yet the commemoration has been low-key where it has not been evasive. While the Dutch, in whose annals the annexation of Britain by William of Orange is a less momentous occurrence, have been celebrating it without inhibition, the response of the Mother of Parliaments was to provide a poky exhibition in the Banqueting House which was taken off before the anniversary of William’s invasion had been reached, and which contrived to obliterate the Irish dimension of the Revolution. A mature nation should be able to confront its past without resort to institutionalised forgetting. But then the notion of national maturity has been a part of the trouble. For it is not merely the Irish problem, or the relationship of England to Britain, that has stirred English unease, but the association of 1688 with concepts of progress and liberty on which historians, and perhaps their readers too, have been turning their backs.
Scruples about 1688 are not new, and no commemoration would be complete without them or without reflection upon the troubled passage of the Revolution’s reputation across the centuries. The deposition of James left the English with a guilty conscience which they have never shaken off. The men who drove the lawful hereditary ruler from the throne and replaced him by a usurping Dutchman searched vainly for a theory to justify their coup. They might claim that James, far from being deposed, had merely abdicated a throne which it had consequently been incumbent on them to fill, but they knew that it had taken an invading army to drive him away. They could claim to have ‘restored’ political rights, not invented them, but that argument recalled the great political blasphemy of the 17th century, the regicide of 1649, that ‘first year of blessing by God’s freedom restored’. They could invoke a liberty to resist a tyrant who had broken his contract with his people, but if that entitlement were once admitted, then the new regime might prove as vulnerable to it as the old.
By the later 18th century, when even the Tory Hume could acknowledge the lawfulness of resistance to tyranny, constitutional anxieties about the example of 1688 were on the retreat. In their place came the social ones created by the emergence of popular radicalism and by the French Revolution. The doctrine of resistance, which had hitherto threatened rulers, now threatened the ruling class. In 1808 Francis Jeffrey, writing in the Whig Edinburgh Review, lamented that it had become ‘unfashionable, and not very popular, to talk of the tyranny of the Stuarts, and the triumph of the Revolution, in the tone that was universal and established within these last 20 years’, for now ‘the Revolution of 1688 could not be mentioned with praise, without giving some indirect encouragement to the Revolution of 1789; and it was thought as well to say nothing in favour of Hampden, or Russell, or Sydney, for fear it might give spirits to Robespierre, Danton or Marat.’ Four years later the same journal warned, in terms drawn from Fox, that while ‘the doctrine of resistance’ was to be commended for having ‘placed the present Royal family on the throne of these kingdoms, it is a doctrine more fit to be inculcated on princes, than rashly instilled into the people.’
The aristocratic character of 1688 had become an embarrassment to the Whigs. Earlier it had seemed to them one of its chief glories. When Algernon Sidney, the 17th-century republican who is the subject of Jonathan Scott’s biographical study, sought to incite insurrection against Charles II, and invoked the rights of ‘the nobility and people’, he made plain his assumption that the people would naturally do what the nobility told them. The assumption may surprise those historians who describe 17th-century England as a country ridden with class hatred, but 1688 bore it out. John Miller’s Seeds of Liberty, although emphasising the dependence of the Revolution on its acceptance by a broad and well-informed political nation, concedes that the nobles led and the people followed. A hundred years later the principle of deference looked altogether less secure. The first centenary of the Revolution produced the clash between Edmund Burke, who regarded 1688 as the sanction of the unreformed political system, and Tom Paine, who interpreted Burke’s claim as a warrant for aristocratic oppression. In radical eyes, William III’s invasion had enslaved the people in 1688 no less than William I’s in 1066. The heirs of the Conqueror’s feudal expropriators were the rich hereditary landlords of the 18th century who, by manipulating an inequitable and oligarchical parliamentary system, and by shifting (as Miller confirms) a swelling proportion of the massive costs of warfare onto the poor, ensured the survival of the Norman Yoke.
Yet the attitude of Paine and other radicals to the Revolution was ambivalent. They celebrated the centenary of 1688 even as they strove to subvert its legacy. For the English tradition of popular radicalism owes more than it and its historians have been inclined to admit to the aristocratic tradition which preceded it and which it outwardly repudiated. John Wilkes, Horne Tooke, John Cartwright, James Burgh, John Thelwall, drew on a language which celebrated manly independence and Roman senatorial liberty and condemned courtly corruption and standing armies. The source of that vocabulary was the tradition of aristocratic protest which, over the previous three centuries, had opposed the rise of the Renaissance and Baroque monarchies. The extent and continuity of that tradition are now becoming clear. It informed the noble opposition to Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s, and pervaded both the political and imaginative literature of the century before the Civil War. It likewise pervaded the thinking, as Scott observes, of successive generations of Algernon Sidney’s two noble families, the Sidneys of Penshurst and, on his mother’s side, the Percies of Northumberland. And it was central to the Whig and ‘Commonwealth’ ideas of the later 17th and the 18th centuries, where the popular radicals encountered it. Their first instinct was not to repudiate aristocratic protest but to emulate it. Thelwall modelled his career on Algernon Sidney and gave Sidney’s names to his son. Sidney’s Discourses, which the radicals somehow contrived to read as a plea for social justice and electoral reform, were publicised by the Society for Constitutional Information and reprinted in a cheap popular edition.
Yet as popular radicalism grew in confidence, so it broke free of its aristocratic inheritance. By the early 19th century Sidney’s admirers were conceding that his views, ‘being chiefly directed to the higher and middling classes of society’, offered no solace to the suffering ‘lower ranks’, whose champions accordingly cited him with diminishing frequency and enthusiasm. The aristocratic struggle against the later Stuarts, of which Sidney had been the leading martyr, was losing its imaginative hold. In 1819 it took the assurance of Lord John Russell to praise – with the readiness characteristic of his family to remind the public of its lineage – the Lord Russell who had been Sidney’s fellow martyr as ‘a man who, heir to wealth and title, was foremost in defending the privileges of the people’.
But the reputation of the Whig plaster saints was lost beyond the earl’s power to recall it. Radical historians, principally Francis Maseres, John Rutt and William Godwin, steered their readers away from the aristocratic coup of 1688 towards the Great Rebellion of 1640-1660, where Godwin found in the Levellers the true ancestors of the reformers of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1840s the historian John Forster pronounced it ‘a grave reproach to English political biography that the attention rightly due to statesmen who opposed Charles I, in themselves the most remarkable men of any age or nation, should have been suffered to be borne away by the poorer imitators of their memorable deeds, the authors of the imperfect settlement of 1688.’ The tug of war between the two revolutions has been re-fought in our own century, most notably between the Whig G.M. Trevelyan, who in 1939 published The English Revolution 1688-9, and the Marxist Christopher Hill, who responded the following year with The English Revolution 1640.
To the Victorians, 1688 became a less uncomfortable subject once the hardship of the 1840s had passed. Macaulay, indeed, gave the Revolution a fresh justification and a fresh appeal. It became in his hands less a vindication of ancient rights than a precondition of modern political liberty, of modern constitutional stability, of modern economic progress, of modern imperial expansion. The virtues he associated with it were as much middle-class as aristocratic.
We have lost such confidence. Imperial decline and economic mismanagement have replaced historical self-congratulation with historical self-criticism. Middle-class virtues have become as unmentionable as aristocratic ones. And so the reputation of 1688 is once more in decline. Macaulay, hailing the uniqueness of England’s political evolution, maintained that the bloodless events of 1688 – their peaceful nature itself a tribute to English wisdom – had spared her the bloody Continental revolutions of the 19th century. Our generation, looking across the Channel at the emergence of stable, liberal, prosperous democracies from the rubble of 1945, has found the eccentricity of English history a more doubtful blessing. At the same time, the modern preoccupation with the rights of minorities has made the limitations of the Toleration Act of 1689 more evident than its advances.
Even so, the tercentenary has illustrated the resilience of Macaulay’s shadow. The ‘revisionist’ history which trumpets its dissent from the Whig legacy has not got beyond pointing to the faults of that legacy (or of a caricature of it). On the other side, John Miller’s brief study and W.A. Speck’s more ambitious work of synthesis, Reluctant Revolutionaries, two accomplished and lucid surveys which plead for the continuing significance of 1688, offer not a fresh vocabulary of appreciation but a discreet modification of the old. Macaulay’s eloquence has been shed, the research which exposed his simplifications and overstatements has been absorbed, but his interpretation remains the starting-point of debate.
Nonetheless the modifications to Macaulay’s version – and to Trevelyan’s – that have been made in the past thirty years or so are considerable. We now know how widespread was the commitment to the Tory and authoritarian principles on which the Stuart bid for absolutism in the 1680s was erected, and how nervously and gradually the nation adjusted to the political doctrines and practices which emerged after 1688. We know that the Revolution’s leaders jockeyed cynically for position even as they proclaimed the triumph of libertarian principles, and that in any case the constitutional changes of William III’s reign may have owed less to those principles than to the new king’s willingness to barter his prerogatives in order to commit Parliament to the Dutch cause against France. We know, too, that for a long time the Revolution was far from secure. D.W. Jones, whose War and Economy in the Age of William III belongs to that dying breed of works on economic history which non-specialists have a chance of understanding and enjoying, brings out the freak economic good fortune which enabled England, and thus its new rulers, to survive the strains of war under William and Anne. The insecurity was as much political as economic. For the polarisation of the nation into Whigs and Tories reflected not merely the seriousness of the divisive issues – war, religion, the succession – but rapid social change and profound social resentment. However surprising the peaceful succession of William III in 1688-9 may be, it is scarcely more so than the peaceful succession of George I in 1714, when the Toryism which the Hanoverian regime so swiftly proscribed commanded a huge and embittered following among the gentry, in the Church, in the City of London and in the provincial shires and boroughs.
The other perception which has gradually modified the Whig version is that although the Revolution weakened the power of the monarch, it enhanced that of the state. As the Government’s patronage swelled, so the independence of the Commons was undermined and the new regime enabled to mobilise resources, and implement policies, more effectively than could have been imagined during the Stuart experiments in non-Parliamentary rule. The force of that tendency is evident from the extent of the opposition which it provoked: opposition so skilfully co-ordinated by Robert Harley, whose early commitment to the ‘Country’ philosophy, and whose subsequent adherence to its essence even when the pressures of power had obliged him to abandon much of its programme, are a thread of Brian Hill’s efficient if dour biography.
Yet the diagnosis of the Country Party was incomplete, which was one reason for the Party’s failure. It is no less incomplete in its modern historiographical form. The state, after all, was strengthened because it had won Parliamentary consent, and because Parliamentary consent, however unedifying the methods by which it was sometimes obtained, supplied a new base for the acceptance of law and policy and gave new room to the influence of public opinion. It was a change which, broadly speaking, the political nation understood and accepted. Even a majority of the Tories, for all their doubts about the propriety of James II’s deposition and for all the mutterings of their backbenchers about standing armies and placemen, agreed to the Act of Settlement of 1701 which legalised the Revolution and renounced the Stuarts. The Party which in the early 1680s had connived at the suspension of Parliament had come to terms with its permanence. A durable and mixed form of government had replaced an unstable and arbitrary one.
It may not matter much to us, from the safe distance of the 20th century, whether the 17th-century state was headed by an unaccountable king or by a monarch limited by Parliamentary consent, but it mattered a great deal to contemporaries. At the heart of 17th-century political debate, and of the Revolutions of 1640 and 1688, lies a conflict between two positions, even if most men, if they saw the force of either, saw the force of both and looked to reconcile them. The one made kings answerable to God alone: the other made them answerable to their subjects. 1688 confirmed what 1649 had suggested: that there was no divinity to hedge a king. It confirmed what 1660 had suggested, too, for now as then the general call for ‘a free Parliament’ indicated where ultimate sovereignty lay. As Speck insists, things felt different after 1688. They felt different not only in politics but in religion. Before 1688 Dissenters in search of toleration had been obliged to look to the executive. Only in the early 1640s, before the intolerance of the Long Parliament had become evident, had the legislature seemed the obvious source of relief. But the granting of statutory legislation in 1689, however grudging and restricted, identified religious freedom – and, in due course, freedom of ideas – with Parliamentary freedom.
Of the books timed for the tercentenary the freshest is also the most puzzling: Robert Beddard’s A Kingdom without a King. Handsomely illustrated and produced by Phaidon Press, it has two principal components which bear only an intermittent relationship to one another. The first is a rich and elegant narrative of the events surrounding James’s deposition. The second is the text, authoritatively annotated, of the minute-book of what Beddard somewhat grandly calls ‘the Provisional Government in the Revolution of 1688’ – that is, of the peers who gathered to resolve the crisis which the collapse of James’s rule had brought. The publishers call this a ‘new’ and ‘outstandingly important’ document, but it is not really either. Belonging to the Stowe manuscripts in the British Library, it was first brought to public attention by Beddard at least twenty years ago. He is oddly reticent about the likely provenance and authorship of the manuscript, giving less away than we learn from D.L. Jones, who cites it in the very useful selection of constitutional documents and Parliamentary debates of early 1689 published by HMSO as A Parliamentary History of the Glorious Revolution. The minute-book is a valuable addition to the sources, but hardly a sensational one.
Beddard emphasises the continuing loyalty of the nobility to James, but the document is no less suggestive of its willingness to come to terms with William. The peers, he says, believed that in James’s absence the authority of the Crown had devolved naturally upon them, and their orders were intended to carry the force of law. Yet the text, far from making these claims, indicates a reluctance to advance them. The peers emphasised that they were acting not as a distinct body but in conjunction with Privy Councillors. They eschewed political theory and got on with resolving the emergency. Yet behind Beddard’s exaggerations lies a substantial point. He is right to stress ‘the determination of the peerage not to let slip the reins of government, even at the cost of minimising irreconcilable differences among themselves’: the peers’ decisions during the interregnum of November and December 1688 were as crucial to the outcome of the crisis as were the subsequent resolutions of the Convention – a fact which, again, he does well to emphasise. No study has demonstrated more vividly that aristocratic character of the Revolution which, across the past three centuries, has so coloured its ideological legacy.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.