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The Whig Interpretation of History Diary Index

Macaulay was the arch champion of the Whig Interpretation of History. How true is it? It haply always was under fire but Herbert Butterfield's attack on it in 1931 made it very unfashionable indeed. Simon Schama in his book and TV series, A History of Britain ( the book is due out on 5 October and the first TV episode was shown on 30 September), is reported as trying to revive it. The TV series comes in sixteen parts, seven this year and nine next.

In "Blair thinks the past is a drag" Allison Pearson interviewed Schama (The Daily Telegraph 22 September p.21). The book will cover more than the sixteen hours the TV series will allow for. The BBC has been trying to get this series for some time but Schama turned them down in 1995. It was only on re-reading great historians of the past like Clarendon, Macaulay and Gardiner that he decided to accept the offer to follow in their footsteps.

Britain is not a young country as Tony Blair is trying to make out, Schama tells Allison Pearson. It is one with almost 2000 years of history since the coming of the English and an older one if we look at the British before them. So Blair errs badly there. Schama wants to write about capitalism and how it goes hand in hand with social justice. However, he is a Labourite. He is neither Old nor New Labour but middle-aged Labour. He will not bow to any form of Political Correctness if he thinks it is a lie. He has lived in the USA for the past 20 years but he does not think that this prevents him from presenting Britain's history. In the 1960s he was dead set against the Whig Interpretation of History but with his recent re-reading of the great books, he is not so sure that the Whig historians are wrong. They saw Britain as progressive, democratic; for the common law and a perennial force against tyranny. When Schama came to revise his history, he decided that the Whig Interpretation was not so wide of the mark after all. Nevertheless, Englishness today is the identity that dare not speak its name. Its past is tainted and historians are taught to treat many of the great events of its past with irony. Schama found that the irony tended to fall away with the exposition of British history.

We should not be coy about the achievement of parliamentary democracy, says Schama. England broke with feudalism in the Middle Ages, and that happened nowhere else. The idea of continual progress was questioned all along by the Tories, but were they right to do so? The Tories sided with the Catholic ideology while the Whigs sided with the Protestant -- though not the Puritan side. The acme of Whig history is Macaulay with his massive book The History of England (five volumes from 1848 to 1861) which centred around the events of the year1688. Butterfield thought it ridiculous that history should glorify the present and eulogise the past. He saw it as a disease of the general history of the type Schama is about to expound, rather than of scholarly historical research. In research the finality of an author like Macaulay would be out of place. It was more to do with the psychology of certain historians than with the philosophy of history. Lord Acton is another whom Butterfield seems to have in mind in his 1931 book and he cites him by name in his chapter "Moral Judgements In History". He feels it is not right for historians to judge in the way Acton so often did. To moralise is not history. Instead of taking sides the historian should try to understand both sides better than they understood themselves.

In looking at the past, we do tend to assume that men were more or less like ourselves, though even giants like Thomas Aquinas may at first seem foolish and forever alien. Butterfield thought that we should study the past for its own sake rather than to make points about the present. We should attempt to forget about our own time and try to put ourselves in the times we set out to understand. We ought to realise that we do make assumptions and to think that we can be free of them he thinks is a major part of what he calls the Whig fallacy. It greatly abridges history for what does not contribute to the present is thought to be insignificant. The things that have no legacy at all will be unimportant. This gives us lots of excuses to leave things out. It makes history far more simple and intelligible but less realistic, and it leads to lots of anachronisms being passed off as history when they are really modern ideas. The Whig thinks that we get the British constitution despite the sea of troubles it passed through. It would be more realistic to think that we get it as a result of the dangers it faced. Questions concerning origins like "to whom do we owe our liberty?" are wrongheaded in this Whiggish way, says Butterfield. Such questions are certainly not answered by simply finding the first fellow to talk of liberty.

Although Macaulay was the doyen of the Whig historians, Butterfield did not cite him explicitly. He knew that Macaulay did attempt to bring the past to life and would often visit the districts which he was writing about so that he could, as near as possible, relate the landscape as it was. Macaulay often gives the impression that he was there at certain battles and presents the characters of the past as if the reader is meeting them or reading an account of one who knew them. Macaulay was a Whig but not quite the Whig that Butterfield captures in his 1931 book. Macaulay presents those he disagrees with quite vividly and he does take sides.

For Butterfield, the Whig thinks that unless he can say who was in the right in a struggle of yesteryear, he will not have done his job. Butterfield thinks that the verdict the Whig brings to conclude his story will always be beyond that which the past allows for. The past is just one thing after another, with no conclusion so far. Here Butterfield states a viewpoint that is usually thought of as the major verdict of the liberal historian H.A.L. Fisher, the author of A History of Europe (1936). History is about the contingent rather than about principles. It is concrete and particular rather than general. This cannot be reduced to a formula. It can never be a science. Above all, the historian should shun judgements of value. History can never show that any man was ever right. On this, most people, rather than just the Whigs, seem to be too Whiggish in their outlook on history. Yet the historian does have a part to play and maybe he cannot be completely without bias. He has to use his imagination to try to reconstruct the past. The often very different world he finds has to be explained to the present, and as time moves on, this will need to be done to every generation. This takes interest, sympathy and imagination. Butterfield admits that the Whigs have often done an excellent job, but only for one side. The other side of the story needs to be told. The historian can never be judge or jury in any case. His role is rather that of the quasi-witness who attempts to give evidence, and the job of later historians will be to go over the evidence to reproduce still more reports, none of which will ever be the last word on the matter. We can never presume to understand the past completely. What Butterfield will not like about Macaulay is his sense of certainty. Lord Melbourne wrote that he wished he could have been as certain of anything as Macaulay was on everything. But certainty is not epistemologically germane. It is not the case that dogmatic agnosticism is the best standpoint. If anything, as Popper made clear, a bold hypothesis allows us to test our ideas while to fence-sit is to be utterly barren.

Old Hickory

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© Libertarian Alliance  2001

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