The Whig Interpretation of History – a lasting influence

“It is astonishing to what an extent the historian has been Protestant, progressive, and whig.”

These words, from Herbert Butterfield’s classic 1931 essay The Whig Interpretation of History, will ring true with any Catholic who has spent much time reading works of history, whether academic or popular. Historians writing from otherwise conflicting perspectives often agree on this: the Church is behind the times, against progress, an increasing irrelevance, or is to be ignored and written out of history altogether.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 edition of Calx Mariae. It is reprinted here with permission. Picture: BOL93904 Portrait of James II by Lely, Peter, Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, UK; English, out of copyright (Source)

An understanding of the past, of “history”, is an absolutely indispensable precondition for a correct understanding of the present. However, the term “history” refers not only to the events of the past, but also to the discipline by which knowledge of the past is communicated. If we are to learn “lessons from history” we must first learn how to read historical works, and for this a knowledge of historiography – the study of historical writings – is indispensable. This is especially so for those wanting to understand the way that the history of the Church is written in (or written out of) mainstream works of scholarship, and popular presentations of history.

A good place to begin is with consideration of the “Whig Interpretation of History” of which Butterfield, a distinguished Cambridge academic, wrote in 1931. Butterfield described it as:

“the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.[1]

The term has been used in a very broad sense, to refer to any presentation of history as the inevitable advance of “progress” or “liberty”. A restrictive sense would limit this to interpretations which gives the “Glorious Revolution” a central place in English history, which is presented as a process of growth in the liberty of the people, ever defended against the encroachments of royal authority. “Whig history” traces this liberty to remote origins in Anglo-Saxon England, and records its vindication by such signal moments as the signing of Magna Carta in 1215, the English Reformation, the victory of Parliament in the Civil War, and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. The progress of English liberty can be traced through later historical events which, depending on the individual historian’s perspective, may include events such as the Reform Act of 1832, the increasing extension of the franchise, and Britain’s defence of liberty against a variety of totalitarian ideologies.

William of Orange’s invasion fleet

Historians identified as “whig” may, of course, often have little or nothing to do with the historic political party of that name, but the view of history it describes can only be understood with reference to that party. The origin of the Whig party lay in the opposition, including by many of the wealthiest and most influential members of the aristocracy, to the accession of James II as King of Great Britain and Ireland, and their participation in his overthrow and the invasion of England by the Dutch usurper William of Orange in 1688. They were primarily motivated by hostility to James II’s Catholic faith and by the fear that he would use royal authority on behalf that faith and against Protestant interests. They accused King James II of wanting to rule England in the absolutist manner current in many Europeans states in the seventeenth century, such as the France of Louis XIV.

The revolution of 1688, which resulted in the replacement of the house of Stuart with the strongly Protestant regime of William III, which led on to the Hanoverian succession in 1714, secured Whig domination of English politics for more than half a century. The “Glorious Revolution”, the Whigs considered, had saved England from Catholicism and absolutism. The failure of the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 to overturn the settlement of the “Revolution” strengthened Whig control. At risk of over-simplification we may say that the Whigs were the party of Protestantism, including toleration of dissenters who refused conformity to the Church of England, and of parliamentary privilege. They were opposed by the Tories, who were supporters of royal authority, of the Established Church, and who included among their number many with Jacobite sympathies.

Three leading Whig politicians wrote histories of the “Glorious Revolution” during the early eighteenth century: Charles James Fox, Lord John Russell and, less well known, Sir James Mackintosh. However, the historian most closely identified with this school is Thomas Babington Macauley (1800-1859), a Whig MP and cabinet minister, whose History of England from the Accession of James II traced the course of the “Glorious Revolution” and from the accession of James II to the death of William III. Macauley intended to continue his work up until the Reform Act of 1832, which saw an expansion of the franchise and the abolition of “pocket boroughs”, thus greatly weakening the influence of aristocracy over the House of Commons. However, he died in 1859 before his work could be completed.

The first two volumes of Macauley’s history were published in 1848, the year in which much of Europe was convulsed by revolution. England remained at peace while, as Macauley put it in the preface to his work, “the proudest capitals of western Europe… streamed with civil blood”. England’s deliverance from revolution was, Macauley was convinced, because of the peaceful “Glorious” Revolution of 1688 and the Act of 1832: “the Revolution which brought the crown into harmony with Parliament, and the Revolution which brought the Parliament into harmony with the nation.”[2]

In his History Macauley gave utterance to the classic “whig” view:

“our revolution was a vindication of ancient rights… In almost every word and act may be discerned a profound reverence for the past… Both the English parties agreed in treating with solemn respect the ancient constitutional traditions of the state. The only question was, in what sense were those traditions to be understood… To us who have lived in the year 1848 it may seem almost an abuse of terms to call [it]… by the terrible name of revolution. And yet this revolution, of all revolutions the least violent, has been of all revolutions the most beneficent.”[3]

Macauley’s History profoundly influenced not only succeeding generations of English historians but also the wider public. Lord Acton, the only historian mentioned by name by Butterfield, read Macauley four times as a youth and described himself as “a raw English schoolboy, primed to the brim with Whig politics”. Acton, a Catholic, did certainly not hold to every perspective associated with “whig” history but nonetheless throughout his life he saw history primarily in terms of the growth of liberty:

“We have no thread through the enormous intricacy and complexity of modern politics, except the idea of progress towards more perfect and assured freedom”.[4]

Another influential historian who can be categorised as belonging to the same broad tradition is William Stubbs whose 1874 work The Constitutional History of England in its Origin and Development traced the development of English liberty, and the immemorial constitution which was its bedrock and defence, from its roots in the Germanic society of the Anglo-Saxons to his own day.

It is not the purpose of this short column to identify where, and to what extent, the “whig interpretation” of history is true or false and Butterfield’s essay has been criticised, rightly, for the lack of precision in the use of his term. However, there is no doubt that he identifies a number of key problems that have distorted our understanding of English history, and which can be applied to many more recent historians who have who sought to find a “progressive” direction to history. It is not possible to replicate Butterfield’s argument in the space that remains but we can briefly reflect on what I consider his fundamental argument:

“It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present”[5]

While this is, to some extent inevitable, it can prove, with insufficient self-awareness on the part of the historian:

“an obstruction to historical understanding because it has been taken to mean the study of the past with direct and perpetual reference to the present. Through this system of immediate reference to the present day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it; so that a handy rule of thumb exists by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis.”

This means that “whig” history unduly emphasises those events and individuals that are considered to have been part of the chain of causation that led to the later events in which the historian has an interest:

“instead of being vigilant for unlikeness… he will imagine that he has discovered a ‘root’ or an ‘anticipation’ [of his own century]”

For example:

“Working upon the same system the whig historian can draw lines through certain events, some such line as that which leads through Martin Luther and a long succession of whigs to modern liberty; and if he is not careful he begins to forget that this line is merely a mental trick of his; he comes to imagine that it represents something like a line of causation. The total result of this method is to impose a certain form upon the whole historical story, and to produce a scheme of general history which is bound to converge beautifully upon the present – all demonstrating throughout the ages the workings of an obvious principle of progress, of which the Protestants and whigs have been the perennial allies while Catholics and tories have perpetually formed obstruction.

“A caricature of this result is to be seen in a popular view that is still not quite eradicated: the view that the Middle Ages represented a period of darkness when man was kept tongue-tied by authority – a period against which the Renaissance was the reaction and the Reformation the great rebellion. It is illustrated to perfection in the argument of a man denouncing Roman Catholicism at a street corner, who said: ‘When the Pope ruled England them was called the Dark Ages’.”

Herbert Butterfield

Nearly 90 years after Butterfield wrote, this is still the dominant view among the general public, opinion formers such as journalists, and many academics from other disciplines. Indeed, it still holds sway over many historians. 

Butterfield continues by drawing attention to the problem faced by any historian who, presenting the fruits of detailed historical research in a more general manner, needs to “abridge”, that is, give some order to his work that makes it accessible and comprehensible to the general reader:

“The whig method of approach is closely connected with the question of the abridgement of history; for both the method and the kind of history that results from it would be impossible if all the facts were told in all their fullness.”

“Abridgement” carried out according to unsound principles leads to an unbalanced, and ultimately false, presentation of the past:

“it provides us in the long run with a path through the complexity of history; it really gives us a short cut through that maze of interactions by which the past was turned into our present; it helps us to circumvent the real problem of historical study. If we can exclude certain things on the ground that they have no direct bearing on the present, we have removed the most troublesome elements in the complexity and the crooked is made straight. There is no doubt that the application of this principle must produce in history a bias in favour of the whigs and must fall unfavourably on Catholics and tories. Whig history in other words is not a genuine abridgement, for it is really based upon what is an implicit principle of selection. The adoption of this principle and this method commits us to a certain organization of the whole historical story.”

Against this approach Butterfield counselled studying the past on its own terms, not primarily in terms of its relationship to our present condition. For example:

“It matters very much how we start upon our labours – whether for example we take the Protestants of the sixteenth century as men who were fighting to bring about our modern world, while the Catholics were struggling to keep the medieval, or whether we take the whole present as the child of the whole past and see rather the modern world emerging from the clash of both Catholic and Protestant. If we use the present as our perpetual touchstone, we can easily divide the men of the sixteenth century into progressive and reactionary…”

However:

“we are better able to discover the way in which the past was turned into our present, if we adopt the outlook of the sixteenth century upon itself… and in this case we shall tend to see not so much progressive fighting reactionary but rather two parties differing on the question of what the next step in progress is to be. Instead of seeing the modern world emerge as the victory of the children of light over the children of darkness in any generation, it is at least better to see it emerge as the result of a clash of wills, a result which often neither party wanted or even dreamed of, a result which indeed in some cases both parties would equally have hated, but a result for the achievement of which the existence of both and the clash of both were necessary.”

Butterfield’s approach is summed up in these words:

“Real historical understanding is not achieved by the subordination of the past to the present, but rather by our making the past our present and attempting to see life with the eyes of another century than our own.”

Real historical understanding has been pursued by man from the earliest times – the historical books of the Old Testament are the oldest surviving works of written history – down to the present day. The approaches and methods employed have been manifold, but the goal is impossible to achieve perfectly. Yet the need for a truer, more real, understanding of history has perhaps never been more essential than today.

Don’t forget!

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[1] Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, (London, 1931).

[2] Thomas Babington Macauley quoted in John Burrow, A History of Histories, (London, 2007), p369.

[3] Thomas Babington Macauley, The History of England from the Accession of James II, Volume 4, p517.

[4] Lord Acton in a lecture of 1895, quoted in Burrow, History of Histories, p405.

[5] All the quotes that follow are from Butterfield, Whig Interpretation.

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