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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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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. 

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