The Whig interpretation of History
I cannot believe any historian has never heard of the ‘Whig interpretation of History’. Herbert Butterfield supposedly busted it in his eponymous book, published in 1931.
The Whigs saw all history as leading to … well, basically, the Whigs. The story of ‘our island story’ was one of the inexorable rise of British (English) democracy, Protestantism and empire. These developments were not merely seen as inevitable, but as ‘destined’ – Whig history was born of the same confidence as saw Britain export her religion, culture and language throughout the world.
Whig history, as we have seen, was overwhelmingly individualist, seeing History as the product of great men – the ‘heroes of history’ who built the world in which we live.
For Whig history was also ‘presentist’ – Whig historians looked back and tracked the particular aspects of History in which they saw the development of their own world. It created a warped, teleological approach to History which regarded the people of the past as (even somehow consciously) creating the present. Some events and people were seen as ‘significant’ or ‘important’, whilst others were seen as ‘blind alleys’ or irrelevancies. There was a tendency to force events into an interpretative straightjacket.
And Whig history also tended towards the ‘positivist’, seeing History as progress – a trend from backward to modern, from ignorance to knowledge, from barbaric to civilised. This led to an interpretation of history which forced the Middle Ages to be less advanced than the Early Modern Age, and which posited ‘leaps forward’ such as the Renaissance and the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions – all
of which ideas modern historians have fairly much debunked.
The Myth of the Whig Interpretation of History
To be honest, I am not so sure that the idea of a ‘Whig interpretation of History’ is not as much a myth as the stereotypes of history it is supposed to have peddled. It is true that Macaulay and Trevelyan are pretty much ‘Whig History’ drunk neat but, to be fair, they were writing for a popular market rather than the academic historian. So of course they were presentist – if you saw the recent, wonderful series, If Walls Could Talk
, which tracked the story of rooms-through-the-ages, it was full of presentism (for instance, telling us that the word window comes from the words ‘wind eye’ because it was a hole that let in the wind). I just thought that made it more interesting. It is ‘popularist’ – presentist in a harmless sense – to see in the past the inchoate seeds of the present. I don’t think it necessarily invalidates it.
And have you ever read Butterfield? What
a disappointment. Shallow, repetitive, ill-informed – one of the most wasted purchases I have ever made. Butterfield spends much of the book making unjustified generalisations about the Reformation. He neither adequately analyses, nor debunks the ‘Whig interpretation’ he is attacking. And, rather than attacking Macaulay or Trevelyan, he instead sinks his bitchy teeth into Lord Acton…which is quite unfair – rather than forcing history into a presentist eulogy of the present, Acton believed that we ought to study History for its own sake, and declined to judge the past with the standards of the present.
Above all, I am just unhappy about lumping all historians ‘before Butterfield’ into one homogenous group. History was full
of debate and development before 1930! I am sure that EA Freeman and JH Round – who clashed with vitriol over the Norman Conquest – would have been horrified to be lumped together as ‘Whig historians’. And historians like Maitland, Tait, Lytton Strachey and even Lord Acton himself saw themselves as refining and developing new ideas about history, not just retailing a traditional corpus.
If we are still to tell pupils about the ‘Whig interpretation on History’, it must surely be as a simplified starting point – as the aunt sally against which they can develop their intellectual muscles.
John D. Clare