- A revolt is a large-scale, semi-organized riot. It aims, at best (e.g. Wat Tyler’s Rebellion), at the redress of specific grievances. At worst, it’s violent nihilism (e.g. the Jacquerie).
- A civil war aims to replace one leader with another, leaving the underlying civil structure intact — e.g. any of the Roman civil wars post-Augustus.
- A revolution‘s goal is total social transformation. We’re stipulating that it’s violent, because while stuff like the Industrial Revolution is fascinating, we’re not looking at peaceful change here in the Current Year. Revolutions are necessarily, fundamentally ideological.
I realize this can cause some confusion, as events I’d classify as “revolutions” are called civil wars in the history books, and vice versa. But the difference is important, because it sheds light on the development, course, and outcome of events.
The paradigm case is the English Civil War, 1642-51. This was clearly a revolution, as it aimed at — and achieved — the near-total overthrow of existing society. When Charles I took the throne in 1625, his kingdom was very much closer to a Continental-style divine-right monarchy than most Britons would like to admit. While the English had succeeded in clawing some of their liberties back from the crown after Henry VIII’s death, the fact remains that the Stuart state, like the Tudor state, was despotic. But by 1625, the despot was completely out of step with his people, and his times.
By 1642, the first revolutionary prerequisite was in place: No clear alternative. There were lots of revolts against Henry VIII, and one of them, the Pilgrimage of Grace, had the potential to turn into a civil war, or even a revolution. The revolts against Elizabeth I didn’t quite rise to that level, but the Northern Rebellion, and Essex’s Rebellion certainly imperiled her government. See also Wyatt’s Rebellion against Queen Mary, the Prayer Book Rebellion and Kett’s Rebellion against Edward VI, etc. In all of these, the alternative was clear — return to Rome, replacement of one court faction with another, or return to the old ways.
In other words: Potential rebels could size up the situation accurately, and decide whether the potential benefit of __ outweighed the known hardship of the current situation, plus the very real danger of rebellion. The simple folk on the Pilgrimage of Grace might have been very attached to their monasteries, but “keeping the local monastery open” — the clear alternative offered by the rebels — didn’t outweigh the very obvious hardship of being hanged in chains. By 1536, Henry VIII had been on the throne nearly thirty years; he was a known quantity. During his reign, England had gone from a relatively obscure power on Europe’s outskirts to a major player in international affairs. Going back to the old style of mass wasn’t worth all that.
By 1639, though — the start of the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms,” a different interpretive slice of the English Civil War — there was no clear choice on offer. Charles I was intolerable, but the alternative was….? His son was only 9 years old, and the courtiers surrounding him — that is, the potential regents — were all suspect, either crypto-Catholics or obvious despots. The rest of Europe was twenty years into the Thirty Years’ War; no help would be forthcoming from the Continent. Charles was also King of Scotland, so rising behind a Scottish laird would entail either Scotland’s independence, or rule by actual bare-arsed, kilt-wearing Scots — both intolerable.* Ireland, of course, was a benighted, Catholic land held down by main force; they’d make another bid for independence at the first possible moment. Charles was intolerable, but seemingly indispensable…
Thus an alternative had to be worked out. An ideological alternative. Perhaps it’s not the individual monarch who’s the problem — it’s the institution of monarchy itself. If men must be allowed to follow their conscience in religion — which is the highest of all consciences — then must they not be allowed to follow it in politics? And if the king derives at least some of his power from the people — the King-in-Parliament, as it had been since Runnymede — then are the people not in some sense sovereign, equal to or even above the king? Certainly the king isn’t above the law, or the ancient Rights of Englishmen — this is why the victorious rebels executed their former king on a charge of treason. How could Charles betray the country he was king of, if not that “the country” is somehow superior to whatever mortal is temporarily at the head of its government?
The great Western political theories all flow from that one event: The execution of the king for treason. Even Thomas Hobbes, who derived a theory of the most absolute possible monarchy from it, had to account for the brute fact of Charles’s head rolling in the dust. His answer is instructive: Though the monarch’s power is theoretically unlimited, a “monarch” who can’t maintain his power in practice is no monarch at all. Hobbes made his peace with the Protectorate, and came home from exile in 1651 (that is, he lived 8 years under Cromwell, the king’s executioner).
Part III soon.
*James I was no fool. Though born and raised in Scotland, he acted as English as he possibly could throughout his reign. To my knowledge Charles I never got further north than York.