By Dr John Warren
new perspective Vol 5, No 3
Very 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.
For 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:
Macaulay’s 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 (i.e. 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 judgements. He smoothes away the faults of his heroes but exposes to the glare of outrage the very similar faults of his villains.
Macaulay 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 this need.
In 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.