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Response to Review no. 884

I am thrilled by the opportunity to reply to Mark Knights’s careful, thoughtful, and stimulating review of my 1688: The First Modern Revolution. Like all scholars, I suppose, my great aim in writing the book was to simulate debate, and to provoke a wide range of readers to think hard about what they thought they knew. I am especially excited to see Knights highlight the novelty of my interpretation of later 17th century Catholicism (a point missed by some reviewers) and the interpretative potential of my engagement with recent work in the harder social sciences. It is exceedingly flattering that Professor Knights concludes that I have produced ‘a book that will be difficult for any student of the 17th century or of revolutions to ignore’.

Knights, of course, does much more than flatter. He raises a number of important conceptual and substantive questions about the core concepts of the book. It seems to me that Knight’s questions operate at three different levels: substantive, historiographical, and methodological.

On the substantive level, Knights wonders in the first instance if I have exaggerated James II’s political skill. James II’s modernization program was , after all, a failure in the last analysis.  I think Knights is right to suggest that James II had limited political skills. Unlike his brother he was no charmer. Those who knew him commented on the intensity of his commitments, the depth of his knowledge, but never about his talent for making friends and influencing people. My contention, then, is not that James was a very good political tactician. He had very little talent in that regard. Rather my claim is that James had a powerful and coherent political strategy. Both his enemies and his friends believed that he had almost succeeded in creating a powerful state that would have been impossible to overthrow. It was because his enemies saw that state growing stronger by the day, rather than because of the birth of the Prince of Wales, that the seven signatories of the famous letter of invitation urged William that he needed to act with the greatest speed.

Second, Knights points out that for all of James II’s Francophilia he did not mimic Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Here Knights is certainly right. However, James was operating in a very different socio-political context from his cousin. The overwhelming majority of Louis XIV’s subjects were Catholics. Louis could plausibly believe that it was time to move on his conviction that religious dissent was a mere act of will. Protestant wills could be broken, and French would become a modern catholic nation. James II, however, was well aware that Catholicism was a minority religion in England. He therefore needed to improve Catholicism’s position. That meant in the first instance promoting a massive campaign to make Catholicism a major presence in English life. He supported the building of hundreds of new Catholic churches, dozens of new Catholic schools, and thousands of copies of freshly translated French Catholic apologetic. James did not outlaw Protestant religious practice because he was too good of a politician to know that that was not possible. He did, however, in the very Declaration of Indulgence that has been celebrated by the revisionists as a precocious statement of tolerationist principles, outlaw Protestant controversial preaching. The Ecclesiastical Commission was in the first instance meant to silence Protestant criticisms of Catholic theological positions. The difference between James II and his cousin Louis XIV was not theological. James and Louis shared the same commitment to Sorbonniste Catholicism. They differed in their political circumstances.

On the historiographical level, Professor Knights raises several issues, two of which I will take up here because they open up wider discussions. First, Knights points out that I am hardly the first to notice that there was a transformation in the orientation of English foreign policy or a financial revolution as a consequence of the revolution of 1688–9. Fair enough. But my central dispute with others is not that such a transformation happened but that that transformation was an intended consequence of 1688–9. Most scholars see the Nine Years War as an unintended consequence, perhaps a Dutch imposition, of William’s so-called invasion. Indeed, one of things I found most remarkable, and remarkably right, about Knights’s Politics and Opinion in Crisis (1) is that he highlighted where others had missed the central role that foreign policy played in Whig thinking during the Exclusion Crisis. In my view a central prong of the Whig agenda in the 1680s was their desire to initiate an all-out war against France. Many Tories wanted war, too, but they wanted a different kind of war. They wanted a war to make three British kingdoms safe from the Stuarts. They had no interest, as the Whigs did, in securing European liberties. The Tories in the 1690s wanted a blue-water foreign policy. Here, too, I see myself offering a very different account from most scholars. The same is true about the Financial Revolution. For most scholars – the exception here is Henry Roseveare – see the Financial Revolution as an unintended consequence of the events of 1688–9. My claim is that the Whigs knew that only a radically transformed state could make England competitive on the world scene. They intended in 1688 to foment a financial revolution. The Bank of England was not a pragmatic response to financial exigencies. The Whigs wanted to create a National Bank that would accelerate the transformation of England into a manufacturing society.

Professor Knights’s second larger historiographical point is more interesting still. He agrees with me that ‘revolutions are not made overnight’ but chides me for ‘an overly short chronology’. Here I am inclined to agree. I started work on 1688 a decade ago with the belief that while there were certain problems in the established narratives of the Revolution, surely centuries of historiography had got the basic contours right. I discovered that I was fundamentally mistaken. So while my account of social and economic change begins well before 1685, my political narrative begins there. Had I the chance to write the book again, I would start the account in the 1620s. My belief is that there was a long English revolutionary period, that had its ebbs and flows, but began in the 1620s and only really ended in the 1720s with Walpole’s seizing of the political middle ground. If I am right about that, then Knights is surely right to ask how I would extend the narrative into the 18th century. I hope to sketch out my answer to that question, and the more detailed questions Knights rightly raises, in future publications.

Finally, Professor Knights raises what I take to be a broad methodological question about the state that he points out I have ‘lightly conceptualized’. I should have taken on board more centrally the ‘social history of the state literature’. Here, is where I think the neglect of the harder social sciences – political science (as opposed to political thought, economics, and second and third wave historical sociology – has so deeply diminished the community of scholars working on Early Modern Britain. Let me point out that one of those Knights groups in the ‘social history of the state’ group – Mike Braddick – has embraced some of this literature. Braddick suggests, as I do, that in the later 17th-century England succeeded in developing a more centralized and more bureaucratic state. Negotiation remained, and remains still today, an important element of state formation. But the coercive powers of the state grew tremendously. This, I think but as yet cannot prove, was a s much true vis-à-vis local secular institutions as it was vis-à-vis the Church. Central institutions came to matter and matter tremendously in the later 17th century all over Europe. They supplanted state formation by local authorities and by ‘confessionalization’ (in Heinz Schilling’s and Wolfgang Reinhardt’s sense). It was these new central institutions spawned as an intended consequence of the Revolution of 1688–9 – new institutions like the Bank of England and the Board of Trade – as well as the centralizing institutions that began in the 1650s, and those developed under James II, that shaped the contours of the British Empire in the 18th century and made Britain into the first industrial nation.

Institutions, I believe, are fundamental to our understanding of macro-historical changes. I follow new institutionalists in believing both that institutions are fundamental to understanding political, economic and social processes and that culture helps to shape institutions. While some institutionalists believe that institutions are created as a result of consensual bargaining, I believe along with some economists and political scientists that institutions are forged through political conflict. The cultural turn, the turn of historians to literary criticism and cultural anthropology has been salutary. We have learned to think in new ways about ideology and agency. But, it is now time for historians to re-engage with the harder social sciences. They have not been standing still for the past three decades – instead they have new methodological insights to teach us. At the very least, as Knights himself points out, reading in different disciplines has provoked me to ask different questions and write history ‘in the whole, and hence to correlate changes in politics, religion and economy’. I hope he is right that my approach helps us ‘to stand back from events in 1688 to ask how they fit into wider patterns of change’. That is the kind of history that I think we should be writing in an age when hyper-specialization is under attack both by academic fashion and institutions of the state that seem to have a certain amount of coercive power.


  1. Mark Knights, Politics and Opinion in Crisis, 1678–1681 (Cambridge, 1994).Back to (1)