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Onward and Upward

‘The Whig Interpretation of History.’

Oct 18, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 05 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Modernizing
England’s Past

English Historiography
in the Age of Modernism, 1870-1970
by Michael Bentley
Cambridge, 253 pp., $35.99

Two inaugural lectures from Regius professors of modern history, one at Cambridge and the other at Oxford, measure the ground that Michael Bentley covers in this brilliant book.

In 1903 J. B. Bury, the editor of Gibbon, told his Cambridge audience that

If, year by year, history is to become a more and more powerful force for stripping the bandages of error from the eyes of men, for shaping public opinion and advancing the cause of intellectual and political liberty, she will best prepare her disciples for the performance of that task .  .  . by remembering always that, though she may supply material for literary art or philosophical speculation, she is herself simply a science, no less and no more.

Here, Bury not only looked back to the Whig histories of the 19th century, with their preoccupation with the progress of liberty, but forward to the positivism of Lewis Namier and the extravagant faith in archives of Geoffrey Elton. 

Three-quarters of a century later, in 1981, the military historian Michael Howard told his Oxford audience that

There is no such thing as “history.” History is what historians write, and historians are part of the process they are writing about. We may seek for what Jakob Burckhardt described as the “Archimedean point outside events” which would enable us to make truly dispassionate judgments and evaluations, but we know we cannot find it, and .  .  . we mistrust those of our colleagues in the social sciences who believe they can.

Here the faith in archives has collapsed and no one can respectably claim that he can re-create the past wie es eigentlich gewesen. A new diffidence has entered history—or perhaps one should say, a new humility, a new discipline—born of the recognition that finality in historical interpretation cannot be had. To quote Bentley, the days of imagining that “the historian of the future would be a computer programmer or .  .  . nothing” are dead and gone. 

Bentley, a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews, fully grasps Howard’s point that “historians are part of the process they are writing about.” Again and again, he shows how that process influenced his historians, forming not only their ideological affiliations but also their understanding of their own place within the tradition of their profession. And nowhere was that more evident than in their engagement with the legacy of their Whig forebears.

What was that legacy? The Whig history of the 19th and 20th centuries, from Henry Hallam to George Trevelyan, tended to depict English history as a triumphant tale of English freedom, progress, fair play, and continuity. Its great boasts were representative government and religious toleration—though Roman Catholics and Dissenters might question the latter claim. For the Whig historian, everything had happened for a reason, and all the reasons put together spelled the irresistibility of Protestant Whiggery. 

If one had any doubts about that, all one had to do was compare progressive Protestant England with backward Catholic Europe. In his famous The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), Herbert Butterfield showed how the Whig tendency to see the past as “the ratification if not the glorification of the present” was something to which all historians are prone. A Methodist from the West Riding, Butterfield also took exception to Whig historians’ indulging in what he nicely called “the luxury and pleasing sensuousness of moral indignation,” which now animates the political correctness that stultifies so much contemporary history.

In considering the impact that Whig history had on his historians, Bentley looks at fundamental themes of constitution and nation, church and state, and war and empire. The constitutional historian William Stubbs lay down the Whig terms of the first, declaring that after the Restoration, “out of the weakness and foulness and darkness of the time, the nation, church, peers and people, emerge with a strong hold on better things; prepared to set out again on a career which has never, since the Revolution of 1688, been materially impeded.” F. W. Maitland, and later Elton, would reject Stubbs’s reading of parliamentary development, but not his contention that, for the English, “the continuity of life, and the continuity of national purpose, never fails.” The durability of the Whig point of view is one of Bentley’s major themes. 

The Whig reading of church and state first appeared in the pages of Hallam, whose Constitutional History of England (1827) made no bones about the matter: Roman Catholicism had been shown the door in England because it was corrupt, foreign, and treacherous. Apropos Thomas Cromwell’s dissolution of the monasteries, Hallam would provide a ready rationale for the extirpation of the old faith. 

Cromwell, in his desire to promote the Reformation, advised the king to make this partition of abbey lands among the nobles and gentry, either by grant, or by sale on easy terms, that being thus bound by the sure ties of private interest, they might always oppose any return towards the dominion of Rome. .  .  . But if the participation of so many persons in the spoils of ecclesiastical property gave stability to the new religion, by pledging them to its support, it was also of no slight advantage to our civil constitution, strengthening, and as it were infusing new blood into the territorial aristocracy, who were to withstand the enormous prerogatives of the Crown.

In other words, depriving the English of their Catholic faith had been justifiable because it gave an opportunistic oligarchy the power to check despotic monarchy.

About the impact of the First World War on English historiography, and on English society as a whole, Bentley is rather sweeping. Speaking of the trenches in Flanders, he says, “Brutality and cynicism, squalidness and despair: these products of that environment did nothing to sustain the values of liberal gentlemen; and they received such an amplification over the next two decades from those who wrote about the war that to claim a permanent element of cultural collapse in English values does not seem hyperbolic”—a diagnosis which echoes Ford Madox Ford in It Was the Nightingale (1933). “A social system had crumbled,” Ford wrote. “Nay, it had been revealed .  .  . that beneath Ordered Life itself was stretched the merest film with, beneath it, the abysses of Chaos. One had come from the frail shelters of the Line to a world that was more frail than any canvas hut.” 

Yet Bentley does not take into account—understandably, since they fall outside his period—the many brilliant books on the war written by British historians in the later 20th century, especially Denis Winter’s Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War (1978) and Trevor Wilson’s The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-1918 (1986), which suggest not “cultural collapse” but hard-won cultural renewal. Nevertheless, it is interesting that it was the Whig historian Macaulay who said “that the essence of war is violence, and that moderation in war is imbecility.” 

On the theme of empire, Bentley shows how J. R. Seeley’s The Expansion of England (1883) revealed the extent to which the British Empire was more than the exploitative swindle that so many Marxists would later claim. For the Victorians themselves, as Bentley persuasively argues, 

It radiated mission; it embraced a destiny. The mission and destiny might imply a form of racial superiority. They might assert a Darwinian inevitability. They asserted no less often however (and to a degree rarely observed through the lenses of a later age), a view of Christian involvement in the world. .  .  . The white man’s burden transcended the taking of responsibility and insisted on the importance of witness with its symbols and sacraments.

Now that the procrustean frames into which Marxists tried to fit empire have had their day, it will be interesting to see what less biased historians do with a theme that cries out for more balanced treatment. The idea that empire had anything to do with Christian witness would have been laughable to Lewis Namier, who cuts a lively figure in this study. For Namier, place and power and their guarantors, money and possessions, not anything as intangible as Christian faith, drove empire, as they drove domestic politics. Discussing Clive of Plassey in a review of his student Lucy Sutherland’s The East India Company in the Eighteenth-Century (1952), Namier wrote:

Clive returned home in 1760, determined to cut a great figure in the country. The jagir, the fee of a purely nominal office under the Mogul, became his dominant concern. “My future power, my future grandeur,” he wrote to a friend, “all depend on the receipt of the jaghire money”; and again: “Believe me there is no other interest in this kingdom but what arises from great possessions”—had he stayed in India and acquired a yet greater fortune, he might have been “an English Earl with a Blue Ribbon.”

For Namier, this would have been proof positive that his materialist reading of history was not only right but incontestably right. The Christian missionaries in India, whom the Anglican clergyman Sydney Smith took seriously enough to attack in the pages of the Edinburgh Review as “insane and ungovernable,” were never given even so much as a nod in Namier’s astringent calculus.

Namier was a fascinating figure. Born Ludwik Bernstein in Poland in 1888 to Jewish parents who converted to Roman Catholicism, he spent a year at the London School of Economics before taking a first in modern history at Balliol College, Oxford. Then he took a post with one of his father’s business partners in America, where he began researching the 18th-century House of Commons that would become his major historical focus. When he returned to England, he worked in the Foreign Office from 1915 to 1920 in its political intelligence department, taking a particular interest in the resolution of Polish affairs at the Treaty of Versailles. During 1920-21 he worked as a tutor at Balliol, which only intensified his infatuation with the English ruling class: “All I’ve done,” he later admitted, “I owe to Balliol.”

To gain some financial independence, he left Balliol and became the European representative of a firm of Manchester cotton manufacturers; he also became a caustic journalist in the Manchester Guardian. From 1924 to 1930 he completed the two groundbreaking works that made his reputation, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929) and England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930). 

Bentley nicely captures their unsettling impact:

The tale, such as it was, was emphatically not one told by idiots, but the whole signified something close to nothing. It did so still more obnoxiously if one began with the view that history had to be conceived as a humanizing subject that laid the foundations among young people for an appreciation of citizenship and its obligations. Butterfield stood among those who wanted to see the study of eighteenth-century history function as a form of “political education.” To accomplish that objective it had to show statesmen to be better than crooks and wastrels, and to provide a story whose denouements would reveal improvement even when leadership had proved lacking. 

Throughout the 1930s Namier was a strong supporter of the anti-appeasement positions of Winston Churchill, and he became adviser to Chaim Weizmann, though he later repudiated Zionism as ineffectual. From 1931 until 1953 he held the chair of modern history at the University of Manchester, and in 1946 published what is probably his best book, 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals. The last nine years of his life, despite his growing deafness, he dedicated to an official history of Parliament, which exemplified his meticulous, static approach to the past. 

According to his research assistant John Brooke, Namier was convinced that “the reasons men give for their actions are rationalizations designed to cloak their deeper purposes,” which led him “to distrust ideas as the explanation of historical movements and to stress the determinism underlying history.” Accordingly, for Namier, Edmund Burke’s political philosophy was so much “cant.” Yet Burke’s understanding of history, which consisted, as he said, “of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites,” had more in common with Namier’s than is perhaps often realized. In all events, A. J. P. Taylor, who taught with Namier at Manchester, was not being entirely facetious when he said that his friend had taken the mind out of history. Still, if Namier was adamant about excluding philosophical thought from his pages, he never stooped to using history to advance the interests of Soviet Marxism, as the fellow-traveling Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and E. P. Thompson did. 

Nor was his distrust of ideas as unreasonable as it may sound. As J. L. Talmon pointed out, “Far from denying the potency of political and social ideologies, [Namier] was frightened by their power to disturb, and he was inclined to regard them as the neurotic symptoms of a society, as traumatic visitations.” Those who have lived to see multiculturalism and political correctness addle whole swaths of American and European public opinion can readily see how ideas might become “neurotic symptoms.”  

Bentley sees an era of increasing professionalism that became too insular, too specialist, bearing out Tolstoy’s quip that “historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.” The history that has succeeded Bentley’s period may be less rigorous, but it is more attentive to the real interests of general readers. Bentley deplores the behavior of “academic publishers [who] now lead historians with a cheque-book towards the banality of the television script or door-stop biography.” 

But this is hardly fair to first-rate historians who have written brilliant biographies: Andrew Roberts’s masterly life of Lord Salisbury is only one of many examples that could be cited. In any case, most readers will agree with Bentley that “one stands in necessary awe” of what historians in his period accomplished. “The skill and assiduity that they brought to their monographs meant that their writing will never be superseded .  .  . because new reckonings must engage with their work.” 

Indeed, good books about historiography are rare. J. W. Burrow’s A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (1981), Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The New History and the Old (1987), and John Clive’s Not By Fact Alone (1989) were all superb additions to this slender literature. One can now add Modernizing England’s Past, which is at once very shrewd and very witty. It should appeal to a wide audience: not only students of history, but students of theory as well. On theory, broadly defined, Bentley quotes Arnold Toynbee, who claimed that “pattern history” was a “dangerous game.” Why? “The pattern becomes clear in one’s own head,” the great historian explained, “without any guarantee that it isn’t nonsense.”

Edward Short is the author of a forthcoming book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.

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