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The Whig interpretation of history

Thomas Macaulay ~ Herbert Butterfield

The term Whig is actually a name originally used pejoratively to refer to the British Whigs, who supported the power of Parliament, by their Tory opponents who were usual supporters of the King and the Aristocracy, in a long drawn out ideological contest principally played out in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was a contest in which the Whig interest felt it had prevailed, and which had resulted in the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Britain. The Whigs felt that this form constitutional monarchy was allied to political liberty allowing the constitutional subjects of the Monarch, who were also subject to Parliamentary laws, many opportunities for a progressive life.

One of the principal proponents of Whiggish history was Thomas Macaulay author of a celebrated, multivolume, History of England from the Accession of James II, the first two volumes of which were issued in 1848. The very first paragraph of the first chapter of the first book sets out something of Macaulay's congratulatory approach to British history as guided by Whig principles:-
I purpose to write the history of England from the accession of King James the Second down to a time which is within the memory of men still living. I shall recount the errors which, in a few months, alienated a loyal gentry and priesthood from the House of Stuart. I shall trace the course of that revolution which terminated the long struggle between our sovereigns and their parliaments, and bound up together the rights of the people and the title of the reigning dynasty.
I shall relate how the new settlement was, during many troubled years, successfully defended against foreign and domestic enemies; how, under that settlement, the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known; how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; how, by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible; how a gigantic commerce gave birth to a maritime power, compared with which every other maritime power, ancient or modern, sinks into insignificance; how Scotland, after ages of enmity, was at length united to England, not merely by legal bonds, but by indissoluble ties of interest and affection; how, in America, the British colonies rapidly became far mightier and wealthier than the realms which Cortes and Pizarro had added to the dominions of Charles the Fifth; how in Asia, British adventurers founded an empire not less splendid and more durable than that of Alexander.

In this work Macaulay identified, to his own satisfaction, a thread of what he regarded as progressive change.
He traced the origins of English nationhood and political representation back to the time of the signing of Magna Carta (1215), which he presented as an attempt to limit the powers of the Norman (i.e. French and foreign) kings. He interpreted the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century as a great blow for individual liberty against the monkish despotism of the Catholic Church. The English Civil War was the result of an attempt by Charles I to turn back the clock of progress by sabotaging the increasing authority of Parliament. Charles's son, James II, was spurred by his reactionary Catholic beliefs to make similar attempts, but was happily defeated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when political opponents (significantly nicknamed Whigs) called upon William of Orange to rescue English liberties and rule as William III.
In all of this Macaulay's heroes were those who stood on the side of the developing powers of Parliament in the struggle to overcome the "autocratic power" of kingship and churchmen. Freed from the constraints of absolutism Englishmen were able to enjoy liberties under law where they could gain wealth through trade and provide a good education for their children so that they, in turn, could enjoy and defend the fruits of hard-won liberties.

There was then an interpretation of history then that looked at much of history, through British Whig eyes, as having been a course of progress away from savagery and ignorance towards peace, prosperity, and science.

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The appalling realities of suffering experienced during the First World War, (and possibly also Britains slow relapse from being a major power), contributed to a less optimistic assessment being made of the course of history as being one of sustained progress.
The British historian Herbert Butterfield, in his small but influential book The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) (whose title actually coined the phrase!) criticised many traditional assumptions of the Whig history that had seemed to see liberal parliamentary democracy as the best form of government which all peoples should hope to adopt and seek to perfect.
Whig History for Butterfield, was a flawed history of progressive "liberal and democratic" heroes who had won concessions in the teeth of opposition from a variety of conservative and absolutist forces and individuals.

Whilst many people interested in non-academic history often enjoyed a good, sweeping narrative and appreciated the way in which Whig-style history gave them straightforward explanations of events and - crucially - a progressive sense of their own place in time issues raised by Butterfield's disparagement of Whig history remain central to debates about the nature and purpose of history.
Butterfield was probably right to point out the dangers of glorifying and distorting the past to uphold a particular view of the present, and many would agree that the objectivity he demanded is central to all 'good history'. Others might question how far objectivity is, in practice, attainable, and point to the way in which Butterfield's own prejudices shaped his criticisms. Butterfield seems to have been particularly appalled, as a committed Christian, because felt that such optimism made sinful human beings, and not God, the shapers of their own destinies.

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

The preparation of these quite frequently visited pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.