The Whig Interpretation of History–a Reconsideration by George Bagby

Butterfield, Herbert. The Whig Interpretation of History. New York: W. W. 

Norton, 1965.

Trump’s term in the White House seems to have given Americans a respite from self-congratulatory meditations about being on the “right side” of history. The Obama White House seems to have used the term upwards of two dozen times, according to the American Presidency Project, but Trump has both refrained from such presumptions himself and struck enough fear in the hearts of positivists to get them to shut up about it: at least temporarily. The “arc of history” that “bends towards justice” has currency in American ears thanks to the artful quoting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the phrase is also found in the rhetoric of the radical abolitionist Theodore Parker, who funded the terrorist John Brown, and in the Morals and Dogma of the Masonic Lodge. The direction or judgement of history is a regular part of American political discourse, and has lodged itself in the American imagination, but the radical leftist causes linked to this ideological notion discomfit not a few. Those on the “wrong side of history” are the usual suspects: white Southerners, orthodox Christians, monarchists, opponents of abortion, advocates of traditional marriage, and, increasingly, males of the species. The “arc of history” favors not so much Aristotelian justice as it does victims of all possible varieties, who have been exalted as the replacement of Marx’s apotheosized proletariat; they are the new chosen nation of God, purged of the taint of original sin, whose empowerment brings about the New Jerusalem. The reader of the ancient tragedies will be troubled with the thought that oppression and pain usually debases and degrades the character. Contemplate the apotheosis of the oppressed during your next hangover. 

The notions of the “right” and the “wrong” sides of history, although briefly hijacked, we might say, by Reagan to shame the collapsing Soviet Union with irony, are leftist and progressive notions. The vocabulary we use in politics seems to be built on framework of the directions of “forward” and “backward.” The “progressives” work for the fashionable causes of the left, and the “backward,” the conservative, and the “reactionary” prefer the status quo or love things from before their own times. The vocabulary is like a stacked deck, and was contrived by the enemies of the Church, the family, and the king. 

Yet, the fashions of the left used to be more mundane, bourgeois, and even quite conservative by our standards, and in those times and places the rhetoric about the judgement of history took a milder, more nuanced form. Claims about the “right” and the “wrong” side of history is actually a form of propaganda, and not a progressive oracle. Clio does not divide the actors of history into those destined to win or lose, as does Marx. The status of Clio the virginal muse, as opposed to Clio the political groupie was defended by the English don Herbert Butterfield in his essential Whig Interpretation of History in 1931. 

Butterfield noted that popular writers of history in English frequently assume that history has been progressing in a certain direction. The English Whig Party, the champions of Protestantism against the Catholic Church, the plutocrats against the High Street businesses, and the Parliament against the Stuarts, had been so closely associated with this tradition of composition that it has been termed “Whig historiography” to assume the victories of each of these factions over their opponents. Moderns are bred on this faith. Confronted with the syllogism that “all progressive causes eventually succeed, x is a progressive cause, and thus x will succeed,” what modern is not swayed either with rapture or foreboding? Whig historiography is part of the fishbowl we swim in. The value of reading Butterfield is that he shows the difference between history and special pleading for radical causes. 

Butterfield’s essay is an extended definition of what history is and is not, and what kinds of questions the discipline of history can answer. Although many approach history to identify the forerunners of various causes or fashions in our own day, Butterfield argues that this is a mistaken goal of inquiry and a mistaken and flattering presumption whenever argued. Martin Luther serves as a regular example for Butterfield, who notes his popularity among the Whig historians, who have claimed him as the forerunner of liberal speech rights, religious toleration, popular government, and other cause célèbre. Butterfield notes that actual historical scrutiny reveals the flaw of claiming such things about Luther, for the man himself was not religiously tolerant, opposed the Peasant Revolt, and opposed the speech rights of both Catholics and other Reformers. Although Protestantism is eventually connected with liberal reforms, Butterfield notes with some care that Luther’s own convictions ran very much against the priorities of the Whigs who have coopted him as a figurehead, and the historical personality and thoughts of Luther himself are lost in propagandistic cant. 

Butterfield reminds us that “real historical understanding is not achieved by the subordination of the past to the present, but rather by making the past our present, and attempting to see life with the eyes of another century than our own.” The Whig searches history for ammunition and supporters for his own politics, but the historian attempts to judge history on its own terms. Just as we cannot possibly make choices according to the priorities of partisans hundreds of years in the future, so we must understand that all historical actions can only be understood in context. Butterfield argues that “their generation was as valid as our generation, their issues as momentous as our issues and their day as full and as vital to them as our day is to us.” The task of the student of history is to think the thoughts of the dead and even, as R. J. Collingwood has it, to “reenact” history by understanding why people acted as they did in the circumstances, and putting ourselves in their shoes. Thus, we must empty ourselves of our present concerns, and fill our minds with the concerns and beliefs and thoughts of those we contemplate. The historian, Butterfield notes, is the mediator between the dead and the living, whose job is to interpret the concerns and the reasons of the dead to the living. Transforming the dead into cheerleaders for modern causes is flattery and falsehood. 

The Whig “takes a shortcut” through the “complexity” of history, according to Butterfield. The Whig reduces the drama of the historical episode into a morality play in which the progressive actors: the Protestant, the advocate of popular government, the sexual radical, is bound to prevail over the forces of tradition, legitimacy, and orthodoxy. The historical drama is made of real men and women who, often enough, never intend or imagine the results of their efforts or their influence in history. Returning to Luther, Butterfield notes that whatever the arguments Luther and the Papacy had against one another, we can be certain that both would have united against our own age, could they have foreseen it. Actors in history did not choose to bring about the world of the progressive dream, and legitimate understanding of their beliefs makes this obvious, and blaming or claiming them for contemporary concerns is not the function of history.

The Whig Interpretation of History is a masterpiece of clear-thinking about the meaning of history and a defense of history against those who would transform it into flattery. Legitimate history is an attempt to tell the stories of people and places according to their own concerns and beliefs. Butterfield concludes that “we see in each generation a clash of wills out of which emerges something that probably no man ever willed.” The proper place of the historian is careful observation, and God, not the historian, is the final judge of mankind. “We can never assert that history has proved any man right in the long run,” Butterfield notes. This lucid thought will keep the attentive focused in a time of positivism run-amok, and is full of Christian hope.


The Fleming Foundation

1 Response

  1. Harry Colin says:

    Sounds like a “must-read” book. It represents a refreshing glimpse of a time when at least a few historians applied these tenets of legitimate historical inquiry and analysis.

    While I’m sure many folks could post examples of the dreary state of current books of history, I’m reminded of the recent torrent of books in the past decade published on the 100th anniversary of World War I. All sorts of writers contorted themselves to establish “ground-breaking” works to fit their own peculiar prejudices -exempting the Germans from blame, blaming the Russians for the war, for example – all wrapped in the comfort of terrible prose.