Whig History

This was an English view of history which became particularily popular in the 19th century. Sir Herbert Butterfield provided a quite detailed definition of what it meant. In his view it was an interpretation of history which believed in the concept of an ancient, free Teutonic constitution; Magna Carta; the antiquity if the House of Commons; and an idealisation of the "constitutional experiments" of the 14th and 15th centuries. However this definition seems to be too rigid for the 19th century and more relevant to the 18th century. The ideas of Teutonic freedom or the Magna Carta were not important to Macaulay. Yet one aspect of his description of Whig history has remained and it is this which is used today when discussing this branch of history. This is what J.W.Burrow has called "confidence in the possession of the past".

To the Whig Historian the past is a story of success, something which may be revered. English history in this view was the tale of the triumph of constitut veional liberty and representative institutions. By the 19th century Whig History had become rather diverse and it is by no means easy to give a detailed description of it. It is more useful to understand the Whig context and then to study individual historian's works such as Macaulay's History of England (published in 1848).

It is important to have an understanding of the traditional 17th century Parliamentarian and common lawyer's view of the national past of England. They held the view that an ideal ancient constitution had passed down through the ages until the Stuarts plotted against it. There were obvious serious problems with this view and over time it changed.

The importance of an ancient constitution came to be supplemented and even supplanted by other ideas. Amongst there were:

Ideas of progress and the Burkean conception of tradition were crucial to the Whig historians of the 19th century. Millar stated that in the 18th century:

"The blind respect and reverence paid to ancient institutions had given place to a desire of examining their uses... The fashion of scrutinizing public measures according to their utility has now become very universal."
In this new view constitutional reform was seen as acceptable if one was respectful of constitutional precedent. It was in a way a Whig "via media".

However, Hume with his analysis of the Long Parliament dominated the debate on history. He undermined the idea that the Stuarts could betray the constitution by arguing there was no free constitution in the first place. He argued that liberty was a relatively recent innovation and it is this argument that has made many mistakenly call him a Tory. Hume had a cosmopolitan Scottish notion of "the progress of civil society" which meant that unlike many insular 18th century Whigs he saw progress in a European rather than simply English context. He differentiated between political and personal liberty and this allowed this wider view to make sense. So in understanding the Whig tradition and Whig history of the 19th century one needs to appreciate the complexity of its past.

Some Whig historians of the late 18th century clung to the idea of stages in history. Millar saw three stages: the pastoral, feudal and commercial. Whigs like him were determined to show that Hume had to be wrong in his view on the state of the constitution in the Tudor period. The problem for these historians was explaining how England had managed to reconcile liberty with opulence and power, unlike ancient states such as Rome. The answer to Hume was that the constitution was not simply modern. It had its origins in the 12th and 13th centuries when it was made clear there were limits to royal power. The king could not tax or legislate without the sanction of parliament. The despotic innovations of the Tudors were usurpations which were never accepted parts of the constitution. It was this which gave the Whig view its historical justification and context. So one comes to 1688, a crucial event in Whig historiography. It was here that debates on conservative and innovation came to rest. It was this event which Macaulay, arguably the greatest of Whig historians decided to describe in his life's most important work. Although it was admitted to be innovative as well as conservative it was the most crucial moment for Whig history as it embodied the underlying spirit of English history.


Whig History varied over time and it is vitally important to consider the context of the writer's time when using the term. It was a Protestant progressive view of the past which sought to explain the liberty that the State allowed as well as the greatness of England. The latter point became increasingly important as Britain gained a vast Empire. It sought to explain like so much history does why England was as it was. However added to this was a conception of the ideal of the English Constitution and the manner in which it had developed. Further there was an almost Hegelian notion of progress. Over time the specifics of the arguments changed but these underlying features remained.

The seminal work in the denunciation of Whig history is The Whig Interpretation of History, published by Herbert Butterfield in 1931. Butterfield's main claim now seems uncontentious - essentially he argues against a teleological interpretation of history which sees it as forever approaching an end-point - our modern liberal world. The example he mentions most is that of the Reformation - Whigs had a tendency to view Martin Luther as a great champion of freedom standing against a tyrannical Papacy. In reality, this was not really the case - neither party believed in religious toleration, and the outcome of that great struggle would have pleased neither of them. The modern World, then, is the product of processes and a dialectic.

Butterfield accused Whig historians of the most basic sin of history-writing, of which anachronism is the crudest form - studying history with reference to the present. By applying his own prejudices to the past, the Whig historian distorted it hugely - but he did so believably. The historian's task, says Butterfield, is to enter the World of the past and describe it so well and in such detail that the reader can understand the passions of that time through the eyes of that time. Thus Butterfield opposed abridged general surveys of history - for the further we lift our eyes from the detail, the more tempting it is for us to draw analogies that are harmful to historic understanding. For instance, in Lord Macaulay's opening paragraph of The History of England (1848), he enthuses -

"The history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral and of intellectual development."

In one sentence Macaulay distorts one hundred and sixty years of history, inculcating a Romanticism which close examination cannot help but dispell. Abridgement in history is inevitable - history books cannot teach us as much as history itself can, but will do so in proportion to our fidelity to the truth within abridgements. To understand the massively complex web of interactions which brought us to the present state it is necessary for our history books to be written by people who lack fundamental assumptions so strong that it will lead them to be selective with the evidence. The Whig historian seizes on personages and parties which interest him most - because they relate to something in his own age - and is quick with applause or condemnation according to the standard of his age. He knows the easy pleasure of moral indignation - "the enormous condescension of posterity", as E.P. Thompson called it. Yet the duty of the historian should not be to pass moral condemnation on two parties in a struggle, but describe how they came to struggle at all.

Pressed to define the 'Whig fallacy' succinctly, I would say it is made up of four generic points. These are what is generally understood as 'Whiggishness', and what the historian should strive to avoid.

  1. Teleology. Seeing a pre-ordained pattern to events, an unfolding that could not be stopped and was inevitable.
  2. Mistaken reification. Seeing individual historical actors as a part of this unstoppable teleology - they are just manifestations of the underlying essence. In reality, their passions were complex and have reference to their own age - not ours.
  3. Anachronism - seeing in the past the symptoms of the present. In reality the present has come into existence through a complex web that does not submit to human understanding. Untangling any of these webs is a complex task.
  4. Manichean. The Whig sees good and evil in an eternal contest - but standards of good and evil change over time. We need to understand their passions in relation to their own time - simply denouncing them as heroes and villains makes further analysis pointless.

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