few historians, past or present, would willingly proclaim their adherence
to Whig history. The Whig historian is not a card-carrying member of a
specific school of history, but the victim of name-calling. The word ‘Whig’
has its origins (in the seventeenth century) as a term of abuse against
political opponents, and has become a convenient label for one historian
to attach to another as a mark of disdain. Even so, we can still
meaningfully identify certain ‘Whiggish’ tendencies to which many
historians have allegedly fallen victim.
The British historian, Herbert Butterfield (1900-79), is generally
credited with first exposing those tendencies. In his short book The
Whig Interpretation of History (1931, he complained about historians
who wrote ‘present-minded’ history and, in so doing, fell with a
resounding thud into traps which good historians should avoid.
- They allowed
their interpretation of the past to be coloured by their own political
views and what they saw as the political needs of their own times.
This led to them making arrogant assumptions about the direction history
was taking. They applauded the British system of liberal parliamentary
democracy, and assumed that the goal of history was to perfect it.
- So, Whig
historians were likely to see the past progressing in a reasonably
straight line towards parliamentary democracy. There are two main
problems with this. In the first place, it tends to encourage
historians to look for, and then to over-emphasise, similarities
between past and present, and so to tumble into anachronism. In the
second place, Whig historians were prone to categorising their
historical characters as those who favoured progress (the winners)
and those (the losers) who did not.
Identifying winners and losers is a sure step on the road to making moral
judgments about people in the past. In The Whig Interpretation of
History, Butterfield generally avoided naming and shaming particular
historians, but still reserved a prominent place of dishonour for Lord
Acton (1834-1902) who, he felt, wrongly made the making of moral
judgments the mark of true historical writing.
whatever reason, Butterfield avoided a frontal assault on the historian
who best exemplifies the characteristics of the Whig historian in full
flight: Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59). Macaulay’s monumental The
History of England from the Accession of James III (1848-55) opens
with a hymn to progress:
… the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is
eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual
heroes were those who stood on the side of the developing powers of
Parliament in the struggle to overcome the "autocratic powers of
kingship. Macaulay duly traced the origins of English nationhood and
democracy back to the time of the signing of Magna Carta (1215), which he
presented as an attempt to limit the powers of the Norman (that is, French and
foreign) kings. He interpreted the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth
century as a great blow for individual liberty against the monkish
despotism of the Catholic Church. The English Civil War was the result of
an attempt by Charles I to turn back the clock of progress by sabotaging
the increasing authority of Parliament. Charles’s son, James II, was
spurred by his reactionary Catholic beliefs to make similar attempts, but
was happily defeated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when political
opponents (significantly nicknamed Whigs) called upon William of Orange to
rescue English liberties and rule as William III.
Macaulay is indeed open to all the criticisms made of Whig history by
Butterfield. There is something almost gleeful about his anachronisms. He
refers to the Englishmen of the past as ‘we’, and assumes that they
shared the thought-processes of nineteenth-century gentlemen like himself.
He uses his considerable literary artistry - in particular, his love of
dramatic contrast and gift for irony - to ram home his moral judgments.
He smoothes away the faults of his heroes but exposes to the glare of
outrage the very similar faults of his villains.
also represents an example of another of Butterfield’s pet hates:
so-called ‘abridged’ history. Butterfield disliked the wide-ranging
narrative histories which offered the general reader simplified
explanations. He felt that, the more abridged the work was, the more
likely it was to wallow in Whiggish errors. He also disliked what he saw
as the fatuous and complacent optimism of such works. And why? Because, as
a committed Christian, he felt that such optimism made sinful human
beings, and not God, the shapers of their own destinies. As a defence
against such tendencies, Butterfield upheld the rigorous and painstaking
work of historical scholarship, in which one deliberately ignored the
temptation to write history for the sake of the present. This disciplined
archival scholarship (the legacy of those influenced by Leopold von Ranke)
was also a defence against another contemporary threat to Butterfield’s
particular Christian world-view: the challenge of atheistic Communism.
Writing in a cold war context such works as Christianity and History
(1949) and God in History (1958), Butterfield attacked those who
saw merely human political philosophies or institutions as being the
ultimate goal of history.
Butterfield’s attacks certainly helped to maintain and encourage
prevailing tendencies in British academic history towards narrow PhD-style
research and books which had little or no appeal to a general readership.
Macaulay had sought and gloried in popularity. Most people interested in
non-academic history enjoy a good, sweeping narrative and appreciate the
way in which Whig-style history gives them straightforward explanations of
events and - crucially - a sense of their own place in time. Butterfield’s
unwitting effect was to discourage many post-war historians from meeting
practice, then, issues raised by Whig history remain central to debates
about the nature and purpose of history. Butterfield was right to point
out the dangers of glorifying and distorting the past to uphold a
particular view of the present, and many would agree that the objectivity
he demanded is central to all ‘good history’. Others might question
how far objectivity is, in practice, attainable, and point to the way in
which Butterfield’s own prejudices shaped his demands.
Dr John Warren is
the author of History and the Historians,
Hodder & Stoughton - Access to History series, 1998.