10/9/09 - french and english revolutions

In today's excerpt - England's Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which the Catholic King James II was overthrown by the English people and replaced with the Protestants William and Mary in roles more constrained by constitution and Parliament. European historians most often portray 1789's French Revolution as the bloody beginning of the turbulent period, which largely wiped away monarchies from the continent. But England's Glorious Revolution, though quickly reinterpreted by its historians as bloodless, was as violent as France in 1789. (Historians also note that America's Revolutionary War and Civil War both had a number of combatants who opposed each other that were descendants of families that first opposed each other in England in 1688):

"England's Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 holds a special place in our understanding of the modern world and the revolutions that shaped it. For the better part of three centuries scholars and commentators identified it as a defining moment in England's exceptional history. Political philosophers have associated it with the origins of liberalism. Sociologists have contrasted it with the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions. Historians have pointed to the Glorious Revolution as confirming the unusual nature of the English state, the balanced ancient constitution which limited the excesses both of monarchical authority and popular liberty. ... All of these interpretations derive their power from a deeply held and widely repeated narrative of the revolution.

"Unfortunately, this narrative is wrong. ...

"Though we have come to view the Glorious Revolution as bloodless, aristocratic and consensual, the actual event was none of these things. The revolution of 1688-89 was, of course, less bloody than the terrible upheavals of the 20th century, but the English endured a scale of violence against property and persons was similar to that of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Statistics that highlight the violence of revolutionary France, such as those cited by the historian Jack Goldstone, for example, inevitably include the Napoleonic Wars.

"By including statistics from the Nine Years War (1689-1697; also called King William's War) and the wars in Scotland and Ireland, all direct consequences of the revolution of 1688-89, the percentages of dead and wounded are comparable to the French case. Englishmen and women throughout the country threatened one another, destroyed one another's property, killed and maimed one another throughout the revolutionary period. Englishmen and women, from London to Newcastle, from Plymouth to Norwich, experienced violence and threats of violence, or lived in terrifying fear of violence. This was not a tame event.

"Nor was it a staid negotiation conducted by elites. Men and women of all social categories took to the streets, marched in arms on England's byways and highways and donated huge amounts of money—some in very small quantities—to support the revolutionary cause. When the members of the House of Lords tried calmly to settle the succession issue after James II had fled the country, an angry crowd numbering in the tens of thousands cut short the nobles' deliberations and forced their hands. ... The English throughout the 1680s, 1690s and thereafter were politically and ideologically divided. There was no moment of English cohesion against an un-English king. There was no period in the late 17th century in which the sensible people of England collaborated to rid themselves of an irrational monarch. The revolution of 1688-89 was, like all other revolutions, violent, popular and divisive."


Steven Pincus


'1688: A Fight for the Future'


History Today


October 2009


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