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Despite the differences between the British and Irish experiences that
have come to light, the chapter has a ˜British™ interest if for no other
reason than because the actors accepted that Ireland™s future would likely
be linked to that of Britain. Obviously, to have such a relationship work
satisfactorily would have necessitated either fundamental compromises,
or the absolute dominance of one political culture within Britain and
Ireland. Compromise solutions were usually favoured by Catholics (but
not necessarily those in exile) and by the Crown during times of peace.
However, compromise was never favoured by Protestants in Ireland or
by more rigid Protestants in Scotland or England. Equally significant,
all thought of compromise was forgotten when the exponents of any one
position had the opportunity of establishing theirs as the dominant one.
This impasse rendered the problem of governing a composite monarchy
of three kingdoms more difficult than historians have appreciated.
The chapter is also ˜British™ because of the increasing Scottish presence
in Ulster that was sympathetic towards the political priorities of the
Scottish Covenanters. Their presence, living and interacting with sizeable
Gaelic Irish, Old English, and English Protestant populations, meant that
Ulster in the mid-seventeenth century was the world™s quintessentially
British space where a range of political voices clamoured, each seeking to
become the loudest and, therefore, the dominant voice both on the island
of Ireland and throughout the jurisdictions of the British monarchy.
It is not surprising that this turmoil induced the people of Ulster to
engage more readily than people elsewhere in bloody and prolonged
conflict that resulted in a massive loss of life on all sides: initially in
the 1640s but with a repeat performance in the 1690s. Since there were
advocates in Ulster of almost every conceivable political option of the
seventeenth century it is not surprising that the Ulster conflict spread
rapidly to the other provinces of Ireland and to the other jurisdictions
of the British monarchy. Thus it emerged that the issue of governance on
the broader canvas of three kingdoms could be resolved only by further
88 nicholas canny
prolonged bloody conflict designed to effect the dominance of one set of
political preferences over all competitors.
This chapter provides a practical demonstration of the variety of
political opinions flourishing in Ireland and of the impact that political
thought and experience there exerted on British politics. But it has
also made the case that political thought within Britain and Ireland
was but a dimension of European political thought, especially since the
populations of Ireland and Scotland in the seventeenth, as in the twenty-
first century were more outward-looking and continentally-linked than
the population of England.
c h ap t e r 5

In Search of a British History of Political Thought
Tim Harris




Despite the Britannic turn that early-modern historiography has taken
over the last couple of decades, what it means to write a British history
of political thought remains an under-explored subject. Colin Kidd
elsewhere in this volume shows how we might write a history of British
political thought as a history of political thinking about the concept
of Britain.1 By a British history of political thought, however, I have in
mind something different: how we integrate the study of political thought
into the writing of the (so-called) new British history. We have been
taught, of late, that many of the problems that afflicted the Stuarts in the
seventeenth century, for example, stemmed from their problematic
multiple-kingdom inheritance. Might not what contemporaries thought
about ˜the British problem™ be characterized as British political thought,
and is not the history of this thought that we proceed to write British
history? If so, then what kind of a British history? John Morrill also
observes that there are various broad types of British history currently
being written À among them, the ˜incorporative™ (using the Britannic
context to explain problems of English, or alternatively Scottish or Irish,
history), the ˜confederal™ (parallel accounts of developments in all Three
Kingdoms) and the ˜perfect™ (most notably, the study of important
individuals, such as the Earl of Antrim, who saw their Irish, Scottish and
English worlds as one) À and suggests that the incorporative approach is
the one that has appealed most to historians of ideas.2 Does this mean
that a British history of political thought can at best only ever be an
enriched type of English (or Scottish or Irish) history? Or might there be
a history of political thought that is genuinely pan-archipelagic and which
cannot be dismissed as Anglo-centric (or Scotto- or Hiberno-centric)?
This chapter will examine these questions with respect to the period
from the Exclusion Crisis to the Glorious Revolution (covering the years

1 2
Kidd, in this volume. Morrill, in this volume.

89
90 tim harris
from the late 1670s to the early 1690s). Before proceeding, however, some
general observations about my own position are in order. The first is that
I have never been of the view that the Three-Kingdoms approach is the
(in the sense of ˜the only™) way forward for seventeenth-century studies.
The call for British history (or, more precisely, British and Irish history)
has undoubtedly been of great value in forcing us to recognize the
existence of a multiple-kingdoms dimension when such a dimension did
exist but has been obscured by the blinkered approaches of traditional
nationalist historiographies. Having said that, there is no point in trying
to force a Three-Kingdoms approach where one does not make sense.
Sometimes the appropriate unit of inquiry might be the nation or a
locality. On occasion the trans-national perspective that beckons might
be continental European or trans-Atlantic rather than British and Irish.
Thus even though there might have been an important Three-Kingdoms
dimension to the political history of the period 1678À1691, this does not
mean that the Three-Kingdoms dimension provides the key to under-
standing the politics of this time: rather, it is just one of the contexts,
and we need to keep our eye on the other contexts, whether they
be provincial, metropolitan, or continental. Furthermore, the same
range of sources might push in multiple directions; whether or not a
Britannic centre makes sense will in part depend on the questions we
intend to ask.
Historians of early-modern political thought À even when their work
has focused exclusively on English-language texts À have long recognized
the importance of the international dimension. For example, resistance
theory as it developed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England,
culminating with John Locke, had roots both Scottish (one thinks
in particular of George Buchanan) and continental European (both
Protestant and Catholic, pre- as well as post-Reformation).3 Similarly,
much English absolutist thought in the seventeenth century was actually
European, in the sense of being derived from continental thinkers (such
as Jean Bodin).4 In some regards, it would not be accurate to style some
(or perhaps much) of the political thought that was current in England in
the seventeenth century as being English, in terms of its intellectual
pedigree or ideological lineage À although historians have certainly
acknowledged what were the recognizably distinctively English contribu-
tions to, say, the formulations of ideas about limited or unlimited

3
Skinner 1978a; Burns 1993; J. Scott 2004, ch. 5.
4
Sommerville 1986; Sommerville 1996; Goldie 1997.
In Search of a British History of Political Thought 91
government.5 Yet in other regards political discourse in England, even
when most explicitly derived from continental sources, must be labelled
English political thought if it was (as much of it necessarily was) political
thinking applied to specifically English problems and situations. If a
Scotsman, writing from Holland, deploying ideas rooted in a continental
European rather than a recognizably English intellectual tradition,
nevertheless aimed to instruct the English how to react to an English
crisis, surely his political thought is English in certain very central
respects. One thinks here of Gilbert Burnet À although, as will become
clear later in this essay, the case of Burnet is far from straightforward and
illustrates the complexity of the issues involved.
This chapter will show that much of the political thought of the
period 1678À1691 was indeed thought that addressed the British
dimension to politics and worked at a pan-archipelagic level. Thinkers
recognized that both the Exclusion Crisis and the Glorious Revolution
held implications for all Three Kingdoms; they were aware that the
later-Stuart monarchs pursued political strategies that were Britannic in
conception rather than independent English, Scottish and Irish strategies;
and the thought of this time period often reflected an assumption that the
English, Scottish and Irish worlds were one. We do clearly encounter
some form of British political thought here, and this is something
which scholars have hitherto failed to appreciate. Yet it is not British
political thought in any unproblematic sense: depending on the questions
we choose to ask, we might style it British or alternatively not British.
When writing British history À whether or not as historians of political
thought À we need to be aware that there are going to be times when the
British problematic takes centre stage and times when other perspectives
displace the Three-Kingdoms one. This suggests the need for an
alternative way of conceptualizing the subject of British history than those
currently on offer: one that avoids compartmentalizations but rather
recognizes and seeks to come to terms with the complex dynamic that
shaped the interactions between the kingdoms of England, Scotland and
Ireland in the early-modern era.
As I have demonstrated at length elsewhere, both the Exclusion Crisis
and the Glorious Revolution were pan-archipelagic crises.6 There were
many reasons why this was the case, linked to the complex ways in which
initiatives pursued by both Charles II and James II in any one of their

5 6
Pocock 1987a. Harris 1998; Harris 2005; Harris 2006.
92 tim harris
kingdoms had knock-on consequences for the other two. Yet there was
also a more fundamental reason: in a multiple monarchy, excluding the
heir to the throne or deposing the reigning sovereign in one kingdom
inevitably affected the other kingdoms that shared the same monarch.
Understandably, therefore, both crises generated a considerable amount
of political thinking that addressed the Three-Kingdoms dimension and
the problems of the Stuarts™ British and Irish inheritances. For example,
concerns in England during the Exclusion Crisis were related not simply
to a fear of what might happen should Charles II™s Catholic brother,
James, Duke of York, accede to the English throne; they were also set
against the backdrop of developments in Ireland (where the royal
administration appeared to be soft on popery) and Scotland (where the
government under the Duke of Lauderdale appeared to be acting in an
increasingly arbitrary manner, especially in its efforts to suppress radical
Presbyterian dissent). The Earl of Shaftesbury spelled out precisely these
concerns in a speech on the state of the nation delivered in the House of
Lords on 25 March 1679: ˜Scotland and Ireland™, he said, ˜are two doors,
either to let in good or mischief upon us™, but both had been ˜much
weakened by the artifice of our cunning enemies™; in England ˜popery was
to have brought in slavery™, whereas ˜in Scotland slavery went before, and
popery was to follow™, while in Ireland the towns were so ˜full of Papists™
that the kingdom would not ˜long continue in English hands, if some
better care be not taken of it™.7 Such concerns were to be reiterated by
various Whig spokesmen and pamphleteers as the Exclusion Crisis
unfolded.8 Indeed, by failing to recognize that the Whigs were thinking
in Three-Kingdoms À and not just in English À terms, historians have
seriously misread Whig anxieties, seeing them as no more than imagined
fears, rooted in religious bigotry, of a possible threat in the future. In fact,
their fears related to what was going on in the present and the threat
was very real.
The Three-Kingdoms dimension is also vital to understanding the
Tory response to the Exclusionists™ challenge. As we have now come
to understand, the Tories were highly successful in rallying public opinion
behind the crown and the hereditary succession in the face of the Whig
challenge. They did this, in large part, by portraying the Whigs as
nonconformist (especially Presbyterian) ˜fanatics™ who posed more of
a threat to the established Church of England and to English political

7 8
Cobbett 1806À20, iv, cols. 1116À18. Harris 2005, pp. 168À74.
In Search of a British History of Political Thought 93
liberties than a Catholic successor would.9 Within a purely English
context, it is difficult to understand how this line of argumentation could
have been persuasive. The English Presbyterians were not particularly
radical or subversive, whereas York, when he became king, did (as the
Whigs had predicted) use the royal prerogative to undermine the
established Church and the rule of law. However, even the quickest
perusal of Tory speeches, pamphlets, literature, and sermons from the
Exclusion Crisis reveals that the Tories were not thinking within a purely
English context. They were thinking of the threat posed by the
Presbyterians north of the border: it was the Scottish Covenanter
rebellion that had set in motion the train of events leading to the
outbreak of civil war in 1642, and radical Covenanters in Scotland
had launched two (albeit unsuccessful) uprisings since the Restoration
(in 1666 and 1679). It was an easy step then for Tory journalists to allude
to similarities between ˜the Platform of the Scottish Presbytery™ and that
of the English Presbyterians, and to urge people ˜to observe the Harmony
betwixt Simeon and Levi™.10 The claim that the Church of England would
be safe under the Duke of York when he became king likewise seemed
proven by York™s record in Scotland, where he had effectively served as
vice-roy during much of the Exclusion Crisis and shown himself a
staunch ally of the episcopalian establishment against the threat of radical
Protestant dissent. York should be judged by ˜His Conduct™, one
pamphleteer insisted, pointing to his loving and wise rule in Scotland;
another reported how York™s ˜noble Acts™ north of the border had
procured him ˜a general respect™ and tied the hearts of the Scottish people
to him ˜in Loyalty and Affection™.11 Tories also argued that if the Whigs
were not defeated, civil war was likely to break out again. Their logic here
was in part related to their belief that, even if the English parliament
succeeded in passing an Exclusion Bill, it would never be accepted by the
Scots or the Irish (the former, indeed, had passed legislation in 1681
prohibiting tampering with the hereditary succession) and thus war
between the Three Kingdoms would be bound to break out, as had
happened in mid-century. One author even predicted that Scotland and
Ireland would ˜rejoice at another Civil War™, in the hopes of freeing
˜themselves from the Inconveniences of being Provinces™.12

9
Harris 1987, ch. 5. 10 L™Estrange 1678, p. 4.
11
[J. S.] 1681, p. 1; Plea for Succession 1682, p. 2.
12
England™s Concern 1680, p. 10. For a general discussion of these issues, see Harris 2005,
pp. 239À45, 251À2.
94 tim harris
Pamphleteers, polemicists, political commentators and party spokes-
men, in other words, thought about the crisis over the succession that
emerged in the late 1670s in Three-Kingdoms terms. (Why historians
should have been blind to this for so long remains puzzling, since the very
labels applied to the rival political interests, initially as terms of abuse by
their enemies, were Scottish and Irish: Whig referred initially to a
Scottish Presbyterian rebel, Tory to a Catholic-Irish cattle thief.)13 Does
that mean we can categorize Whig and Tory political thought during the
Exclusion Crisis as British political thought? Yes and no. It was perfectly
possible for Whigs to make their case against popery and arbitrary
government, and hence for the need to exclude the Catholic heir, without
referring to either Ireland or Scotland. Indeed, many Whig writers and
spokesmen never once mentioned Ireland or Scotland. Frequently Whigs
looked at what was going on in France under Louis XIV À who had
consolidated the trend towards royal absolutism in France and also begun
to rescind the political and religious freedoms allowed to French
Huguenots under the terms of the Edict of Nantes (1598) À and warned

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