Eliohs: Electronic Library of Historiography
Collane Catalogo Generale Altre Risorse Home

Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979)

The Whig Interpretation of History

Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)
URL: <testi/900/butterfield>
Html edition for ©Eliohs by Guido Abbattista - February 2002

Index | Preface | 1. Introduction | 2. The Underlying Assumption | 3. The Historical Process
4. History and Judgements of Value | 5. The Art of the Historian | 6. Moral Judgements in History


It has been said that the historian is the avenger, and that standing as a judge between the parties and rivalries and causes of bygone generations he can lift up the fallen and beat down the proud, and by his exposures and his verdicts, his satire and his moral indignation, can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent. One may be forgiven for not being too happy about any division of mankind into good and evil, progressive and reactionary, black and white; and it is not clear that moral indignation is not a dispersion of one’s energies to the great confusion of one’s judgement. There can be no complaint against the historian who personally and privately has his preferences and antipathies, and who as a human being merely has a fancy to take part in the game that he is describing; it is pleasant to see him give way to his prejudices and take them emotionally, so that they splash into colour as he writes; provided that when he steps in this way into the arena he recognizes that he is stepping into a world of partial judgements and purely personal appreciations and does not imagines that he is speaking ex cathedra. But if the historian can rear himself up like a god and judge, or stand as the official avenger of the crimes of the past, then one can require that he shall be still more godlike and regard himself rather as the reconciler than as the avenger; taking it that his aim is to achieve the understanding of the men and parties and causes of the past, and that in this understanding, if it can be complete, all things will ultimately be reconciled. It seems to be assumed that in history we can have something more than the private points of view of particular historian; that there are "verdicts of history" and that history itself, considered impersonally, has something to say to men. It seems to be accepted that each historian does something more than make a confession of his private mind and his whimsicalities, and that all of them are trying to elicit a truth, and perhaps combining through their various imperfections to express a truth, which, if we could perfectly attain it, would be the voice of History itself. But if history is in this way something like the memory of mankind and represents the spirit of man brooding over man’s past, we must imagine it as working not to accentuate antagonisms or to ratify old party-cries but to find the unities that underlie the differences and to see all lives as part of the one web of life. The historian trying to feel his way towards this may be striving to be like a god but perhaps he is less foolish than the one who poses as god the avenger. Studying the quarrels of an ancient day he can at least seek to understand both parties to the struggle and he must want to understand them better than they understood themselves; watching them entangled in the net of time and circumstance he can take pity on them – these men who perhaps had no pity for one another; and, though he can never be perfect, it is difficult to see why he should aspire to anything less than taking these men and their quarrels into a world where everything is understood and all sins are forgiven.

It is astonishing to what an extent the historian has been Protestant, progressive, and whig, and the very model of the nineteenth-century gentleman. Long after he became a determinist he retained his godly role as the dispenser of moral judgements, and like the disciples of Calvin he gave up none of his right to moral indignation. Even when he himself has been unsympathetic to the movements of his own generation, as in the case of Hallam[1], who bitterly opposed the Great Reform Bill and trembled to think of the revolutionary ways into which the country was moving, something in his constitution still makes him lean to what might be called the whig interpretation of history, and he refuses historical understandings to men whose attitude in the face of change and innovation was analogous to his own. It might be argued that our general version of the historical story still bears the impress that was given to it by great patriarchs of history writing, so many of whom seem to have been whigs and gentlemen when they have been Americans: and perhaps it is from these that our textbook historians have inherited the top hat and the pontifical manner, and the grace with which they hand out a consolation prize to the man who, "though a reactionary, was irreproachable in his private life". But whether we take the contest of Luther against the popes, or that of Philip II and Elizabeth, or that of the Huguenots with Catherine de’ Medici; whether we take Charles I versus his parliaments or the younger Pitt versus Charles James Fox, it appears that the historian tends in the first place to adopt the whig or Protestant view of the subject, and very quickly busies himself with dividing the world into the friends and enemies of progress. It is true that this tendency is corrected to some extent by the more concentrated labours of historical specialists, but it is remarkable that in all the examples given above, as well in many others, the result of detailed historical research has been to correct very materially what ad been an accepted. Protestant or whig interpretation. Further, this whig tendency is so deep-rooted that even when piece-meal research has corrected the story in detail, we are slow in re-valuing the whole and reorganizing the broad outlines of the theme in the light of these discoveries; and what M. Romier[2] has deplored in the historians of the Huguenots might fairly be imputed to those in other fields of history; that is, the tendency to patch the new research into the old story even when the research in detail has altered the bearings of the whole subject. We cling to a certain organization of historical knowledge which amounts to a whig interpretation of history, and all our deference to research brings us only to admit that this needs qualifications in detail. But exceptions in detail do not prevent us from mapping out the large story on the same pattern all the time; these exceptions are lost indeed in that combined process of organization and abridgement by which we reach our general survey of general history; And so it is over large periods and in reference to the great transitions in European history that the whig view holds hardest and holds longest; it is here that we see the results of a serious discrepancy between the historical specialist and what might be called the general historian.

The truth is that there is a tendency for all history to veer over into whig history, and this is not sufficiently explained if we merely ascribe it to the prevalence and persistence of a traditional interpretation. There is a magnet for ever pulling at our minds, unless we have found the way to counteract it; and it may be said that if we are merely honest, if we are not also carefully self-critical. we tend easily to be deflected by a first fundamental fallacy. And though this may even apply in a subtle way to the detailed work of the historical specialist, it comes into action with increasing effect the moment any given subject has left the hands of the student in research; for the more we are discussing and not merely inquiring, the more we are making inferences instead of researches, then the more whig our history becomes if we have not severely repressed our original error; indeed all history must tend to become more whig in proportion as it becomes more abridged. Further, it cannot be said that all faults of bias may be balanced by work that is deliberately written with the opposite bias; for we do not gain true history by merely adding the speech of the prosecution to the speech for the defence; and though there have been Tory – as there have been many Catholic – partisan histories, it is still true that there is no corresponding tendency for the subject itself to lean in this direction; the dice cannot be secretly loaded by virtue of the same kind of original unconscious fallacy. For this reason it has been easy to believe that Clio herself is on the side of the whigs.

[1] «Henry Hallam, 1777-1859, historian, born at Windsor on 9 July 1777, was the only son of John Hallam, canon of Windsor (1775-1812) and dean of Bristol (1781-1800), a man of high character, and well read in sacred and profane literature. The Hallams had long been settled at Boston in Lincolnshire, and one member of the family was Robert Hallam [q.v.], bishop of Salisbury. Later members had been on the puritan side. Hallam's mother, a sister of Dr. Roberts, provost of Eton, was a woman of much intelligence and delicacy of feeling. He was a precocious child, read many books when four years old, and composed sonnets at ten. He was at Eton from 1790 to 1794, and some of his verses are published in the ‘Musæ Etonenses’ (1795). He was afterwards at Christ Church, Oxford, and graduated B.A. in 1799. He was called to the bar, and practised for some years on the Oxford circuit. His father, dying in 1812, left him estates in Lincolnshire, and he was early appointed to a commissionership of stamps, a post with a good salary and light duties. In 1807 he married Julia, daughter of Sir Abraham Elton, bart., of Clevedon Court, Somerset, and sister of Sir Charles Abraham Elton [q.v.]. His independent means enabled him to withdraw from legal practice and devote himself to the study of history. After ten years' assiduous labour he produced in 1818 his first great work, A View of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages, which immediately established his reputation. (A supplementary volume of notes was published separately in 1848.) The Constitutional History of England from the Accession of Henry VII to the Death of George II followed in 1827. Before the completion of his next work he was deeply affected by the death of his eldest son, Arthur Henry (see below). ‘I have,’ he wrote, ‘warnings to gather my sheaves while I can-my advanced age, and the reunion in heaven with those who await me.’ He fulfilled his purpose by finishing The Introduction to the Literature of Europe during the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries, published in 1837-9. During the preparation of these works he lived a studious life, interrupted only by occasional travels on the continent. He was familiar with the best literary society of the time, well known to the whig magnates, and a frequent visitor to Holland House and Bowood. His name is often mentioned in memoirs and diaries of the time, and always respectfully, although he never rivalled the conversational supremacy of his contemporaries, Sydney Smith and Macaulay. He took no part in active political life. As a commissioner of stamps he was excluded from parliament, and after his resignation did not attempt to procure a seat. He gave up the pension of 500l. a year (granted according to custom upon his resignation) after the death of his son Henry, in spite of remonstrances upon the unusual nature of the step. Though a sound whig, Hallam disapproved of the Reform Bill (see Moore's Diaries, vi. 221), and expressed his grave fears of the revolutionary tendency of the measure to one of the leading members of the reform cabinet, in presence of the Duc de Broglie (Mignet). His later years were clouded by the loss of his sons. His domestic affections were unusually warm, and he was a man of singular generosity in money matters. Considering his high position in literature and his wide acquaintance with distinguished persons, few records have been preserved of his life. But he was warmly loved by all who knew him, and his dignified reticence and absorption in severe studies prevented him from coming often under public notice. John Austin was a warm friend, and Mrs. Austin was asked to write his life, but declined the task as beyond her powers (Mrs. Ross, Three Generations of Englishwomen, ii. 118, &c.). During the greater part of his life he lived in Wimpole Street, the ‘long, unlovely street’ mentioned in Lord Tennyson's ‘In Memoriam,’ and for a few years before his death in Wilton Crescent. He died peacefully, after many years of retirement, on 21 Jan. 1859. His portraits by Phillips (in oil) and by G. Richmond (in chalk) show a noble and massive head.

Hallam was treasurer to the Statistical Society, of which he had been one of the founders, a very active vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries, honorary professor of history to the Royal Society, and a foreign associate of the Institute of France. In 1830 he received one of the fifty-guinea medals given by George IV for historical eminence, the other being given to Washington Irving.

Hallam seems to have published very little besides his three principal works. Byron, in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, sneers at ‘classic Hallam, much renowned for Greek.’ A note explains that Hallam reviewed Payne Knight in the «Edinburgh Review», and condemned certain Greek verses, not knowing that they were taken from Pindar. The charge was exaggerated, and the article probably not by Hallam (see «Gent. Mag.» 1830, pt. i. p. 389). The review of Scott's Dryden in the number for October 1808 is also attributed to him. At a later period he wrote two articles upon Lingard's History (March 1831) and Palgrave's English Commonwealth (July 1832) (see Macvey Napier's Correspondence, p. 73). A character by him of his friend Lord Webb Seymour is in the appendix to the first volume of Francis Horner's Memoirs.

Hallam's works helped materially to lay the foundations of the English historical school, and, in spite of later researches, maintain their position as standard books. The ‘Middle Ages’ was probably the first English history which, without being merely antiquarian, set an example of genuine study from original sources. Hallam's training as a lawyer was of high value, and enabled him, according to competent authorities, to interpret the history of law even better in some cases than later writers of more special knowledge. Without attempting a ‘philosophy of history,’ in the more modern sense, he takes broad and sensible views of facts. His old-fashioned whiggism, especially in the constitutional history, caused bitter resentment among the tories and high churchmen, whose heroes were treated with chilling want of enthusiasm. Southey attacked the book bitterly on these grounds in the «Quarterly Review» (1828). His writings, indeed, like that of some other historians, were obviously coloured by his opinions; but more than most historians he was scrupulously fair in intention and conscientious in collecting and weighing evidence. Without the sympathetic imagination which if often misleading is essential to the highest historical excellence, he commands respect by his honesty, accuracy, and masculine common sense in regard to all topics within his range. The Literature of Europe, though it shows the same qualities and is often written with great force, suffers from the enormous range. Hardly any man could be competent to judge with equal accuracy of all the intellectual achievements of the period in every department. Weaknesses result which will be detected by specialists; but even in the weaker departments it shows good sound sense, and is invaluable to any student of the literature of the time. Though many historians have been more brilliant, there are few so emphatically deserving of respect. His reading was enormous, but we have no means of judging what special circumstances determined his particular lines of inquiry.

Hallam had eleven children by his wife, who died 25 April 1846. Only four grew up, Arthur Henry, Ellen, who died in 1837 (the deaths of these two are commemorated in a poem by Lord Houghton), Julia, who married Captain Cator (now Sir John Farnaby Lennard), and Henry Fitzmaurice. He had one sister, who died unmarried, leaving him her fortune» [article by Leslie Stephen, Dictionary of National Biography, 1890].

[2] Lucien Romier (1885-1944), French historian, author of Les Origines politiques des guerres de religion, Paris, Perrin, 1913-14,  Les Protestants français à la veille des guerres civiles, Paris, 1917, La Conjuration d'Amboise. L'Aurore sanglante de la liberté de conscience. Le Règne et la mort de François II, Paris, Perrin, 1923, Catholiques et Huguenots à la cour de Charles IX, Paris, Perrin, 1924, L’Ancienne France, des origines à la Révolution, Paris, Hachette, 1948.

Index | Preface | 1. Introduction | 2. The Underlying Assumption | 3. The Historical Process
4. History and Judgements of Value | 5. The Art of the Historian | 6. Moral Judgements in History