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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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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.”

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