The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

October 10, 2000

Rebels Against State-Building: The General Crisis of the 17th Century


Historians often view calamitous periods in human history through too many lenses. Take an imaginary happy kingdom, Ozarkia, ruled over by a hereditary monarch, Clinton Jefferson Williams. Here is a ruler with little interest in public affairs but an abiding interest in private ones. He allows his officials to terrorize the people and launches a minor war now and then, when public relations require it. Let us imagine that within a twenty year period there are, in addition to misrule, a drought, a famine, a flood, a pestilence, a plague, an earthquake, an unusual lineup of the planets, and a striking cluster of sunspots. During these twenty years the people are destitute, unhappy, and irritable. An historian brings the usual evidence – tax records, diaries, rebel manifestos, et cetera, to bear on the problem. Out of all these conjunctural factors, he will conclude – more times than not – that the people’s unhappiness was due, in the main, "to the malfunctioning of the market economy."


I have previously discussed Martin Van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State. That book and its writer were central to a conference held this past weekend at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. I shall not summarize the conference except to say that it was very stimulating and that the scholarly clashes were carried on with great civility. I think that much good future research and writing will result from the meeting.

Rather than review the conference, let me briefly recapitulate Van Creveld’s theses. He contrasts governments and states. He sees the "state" as a purely modern phenomenon dating from the 15th century. It is an abstract, corporate, legal person, which exists apart from its personnel and any titular "sovereign" king or emperor. Older governments lacked such an exalted juristic and theoretical status.


Late medieval kings waged a two-front struggle against the universal Church and the Holy Roman Empire which limited their authority. The Reformation gave kings – Protestant and Catholic alike – the chance to turn their "national" churches into departments of state. Church and Empire were not the kings’ only opponents. Monarchs had to tame their "over-mighty subjects," the nobility, and deal also with the rising "bourgeoisie," who in Italy and northern Germany had reinvented city-state government on a footing of commercial capitalism. For a short while, wealthy city-states leagued together to threaten royal power.


As Van Creveld notes, kings won nobles over with gifts of land stolen from the church – the Henry the Eighth Principle. French kings gradually established their claim that nobles’ titles were mere grants of royal favor. Having sought to play townsmen off against nobles, kings soon addressed the bourgeois threat by destroying town fortifications and disarming urban populations. Details of this process vary greatly by country but, in the end – save for the Netherlands and (partially) England – kings stood triumphant, even if the victory was incomplete and the new bourgeois economy was allowed to unfold.


Government became both bureaucratic, sedentary, and permanent. Now kings could more effectively fight neighboring states of the same kind. To this end, they sought to manage their people as valuable resources in a shepherd/sheep relationship. Ideological innovations underwrote the new order, and the older "king’s household" gave way to the new managerial apparatus which would, in time, shove the kings themselves aside. So – Van Creveld’s analysis.

Everywhere, states undertook to learn – in detail – their exact boundaries, population, and resources, and more. It was springtime for map-makers and statisticians. This good work aimed at maintaining internal control and preparing for war.


The increased fiscal demands of states set off a series of reactions – the Fronde, Puritan Revolution, and others, which taken together, constitute the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. Some states emerged with new paper limits on their power, which they would seek to overcome later.

British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper kicked off the notion of a "general crisis" of the 17th century in a famous article in Past and Present (1959). He took some notice of interstate wars and the resulting fiscal pressure as causes. Other historians have put different content into the notion. Marxists look for causes in the rise of capitalist economic relations. Other historians espy a crisis in everything, with the weather and economic downturns thrown in – the drought, famine, flood, et cetera, mentioned earlier. Many just see the political events in question as raw material for theorizing about revolutions in general, although it is unclear what we are to do with the theory.


Historians have been struck by the cluster of rebellions, especially in the very middle of the century: The English Civil War (1641-1658), the Fronde in France (1648-1652), the revolt in Catalonia (1640-1652), the Portuguese struggle for independence (1640-1668), and the revolt in Naples (1647-1648), to name perhaps the most important. This was the highwater mark of political discontent. Far away in China, we see the collapse of the Ming dynasty (in two phases, 1620-1644 and 1673-1681).

War and rising taxes provoked a set of popular reactions. The case of France – no longer fully feudal but likewise not fully bourgeois – is especially arresting. The King’s alliances with Protestant powers against the Austro-Spanish Hapsburgs caused discontent among Catholics, including members of the royal family. The exactions of tax farmers weighed heavily on the people. Public debt was not yet perfected – the English did that for us from 1699 on – so hard-pressed monarchs had to find new revenues however possible.

In the southwest, rebels known as Croquants (1636) rose in arms, demanded a return to traditional taxes, no new taxes (! – some one tell Dubilla), unless an Estates General agreed to them. At Poitou, a peasants’ assembly ordered their constituents to keep and bear arms and be ready to act when the alarm was given. Various manifestos catalogued popular grievances, stating that already poor, the people have been obliged to "fall into debt, or mortgage their land to townspeople or to the privileged persons of the locality" (Mousnier, 70). In the end, rebels were forced to yield, although assaults on tax-collectors and other royal agents continued into 1642.

In Normandy, there was the revolt of the Nu-Pieds (1639). Here, there had been a plague, 1619-39, leaving fewer taxpayers to pay current levies as well as the arrearage. Local officials went on strike. Makers of the playing-cards and tarot-cards struck. Tavern-owners stirred people up against new taxes on wine. Prominent gentlemen were involved in the illegal salt trade. Salt-makers were at the heart of the revolt. Similar events took place in Brittany in the 1670s. In these cases, too, the revolt was suppressed without major bloodshed.

In such rebellions, we find local officeholders, gentry, and town-dwelling professionals in league with peasant rebels against new taxes. Local officials resented the king’s "packing" their jurisdictions (which they owned as benefices) with new officials, with whom they have to share revenue and duties. The "revolutionary coalition" cut across class lines and pitted locals against the feds, so to speak. Something similar happened in the English Civil War (Puritan Revolution), although religious questions played a major role there.


Danish historian Niels Steensgaard argues that what we know of the 17th-century economy does not suggest that economic forces brought on the crisis. We do see "a transference of production to the country districts" in order "to dodge the guild regulations and taxation of the towns" (Steensgaard, 34). That transfer was central to what historians now refer to as proto-industrialization.

Steensgard makes the important observation that 17th-century governments were "undoubtedly the strongest buyers." The effects were not neutral but made for widespread "redistribution" of wealth and opportunities. He writes: "Early modern Europe was, to a large extent, a ‘subsistence economy,’ and the role of the State as an entrepreneur was correspondingly greater" (Steensgaard, 38).

The 17th century witnessed "the largest armies since the time of the Roman Empire" (p. 38). In many parts of Europe, people "already taxed to starvation level" were hit with additional taxes to finance wars. Steensgaard writes that taxation in France almost certainly "increased more rapidly than production" (p. 39). High taxes for defense depressed economic life, even in areas not involved in the fighting. Further, "increased taxation pressure... may be one of the most important causes of the demographic and agrarian crises that hit Europe in the seventeenth century.... by forcing craftsmen to emigrate and merchants to reinvest in privileged undertakings such as land, states loans or offices...." (p. 40). He writes that, all in all, "[t]he production of protection was the seventeenth century’s ‘leading sector’" (p. 41).

In Steensgaard’s view, historians who treat wars as something external to economic life have missed the boat. He concludes that: "If the governmental actions were revolutionary and the revolts reactionary, if we are to seek the dynamic factor in conjunction with the State and not with the people, we must abandon the stereotype conception of absolutism as a passive instrument for the nation or class" – that is, bring politics back in as Charles Tilly and Theda Skocpol and others would say. States were instrumental "in forming [their] society" (p. 48, my italics). Maybe that’s the problem.


Religious questions cut across issues raised by the rise of stronger states locked in life-and-death competition against one another. Opposition was traditionalist: a defense of established ways and practices. These were real conservatives, who would not be welcome at a GOP soirée. Opposition spokesmen generally appealed to the constitution, an unwritten body of law and tradition which protected society as it was and had been, as opposed to society as it ideally could be.

The notion of the "patria" as used by opposition spokesmen reflected their "reactionary" outlook. This was "patriotism" – something quite different from nationalism. Patriots looked to existing local and parliamentary institutions, like Estates Generals, to defend existing rights. Here was no ideological party committed to total destruction and rebuilding of society. With a few exceptions, there was not even a doctrine of political revolution sophisticated enough to justify replacing the state rulers with new ones, while leaving society itself largely intact. These movements to preserve society as it existed were unsuccessful.


Dizzy with success, major states were soon fighting worldwide for imperial and commercial gain. Spain’s fortunes sank, while Britain ran France out of the empire business in India and North America. Sweden yielded regional power to Russia.

New state ideologies put an end to an older "discourse" about war, which had included "just war" theory. Now it was just War: a "public" activity calling for sacrificing anyone and anything in the name of winning. The French Revolution drove the last nail in the coffin of medieval constitutionalism and states overcame their practical and ideological limits. The citizen’s "freedom" to be conscripted and killed hundreds of miles from any concrete local interests and attachments was firmly entrenched. The result could only have been those Total Wars which made the 20th century so interesting.


A sad story, indeed. But before we leave it, let us at least raise a glass to the non-theorizing, traditionalist "enemies of our enemies" (so to speak). We can start with Bonny Prince Charles. Bring back the Stuarts as figureheads, I say; just don’t give them, or anyone, any real power.


Please Support

A contribution of $50 or more will get you a copy of Ronald Radosh's out-of-print classic study of the Old Right conservatives, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism. Send contributions to
520 S. Murphy Avenue, #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086

or Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form


Have an e-gold account?
Contribute to via e-gold.
ur account number is 130325

Back to Home Page | Contact Us