Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History
William Cronon, September 2012
Eighty years have passed since a young Cambridge don named Herbert Butterfield published in 1931 a slender volume entitled The Whig Interpretation of History. What exactly this curious phrase meant was not immediately clear, since it had never before appeared in print. As Carl Becker rather grumpily remarked in one of the very few reviews anyone ever wrote about the book—the American Historical Review gave it no notice at all—"The phrase may have an accepted meaning in England; but, so far as I know, it has none elsewhere. In fact, I do not recall ever having heard the phrase before." Worse still, Butterfield did not bother to cite any of the "Whig historians" he criticized. Thirty years later, E. H. Carr famously joked that although the book "denounced the Whig interpretation over some 130 pages, it did not . . . name a single Whig except [Charles James] Fox, who was no historian, or a single historian save [Lord] Acton, who was no Whig." The book might have vanished almost unnoticed had it not been reprinted in 1950, after Butterfield published a bestselling volume, Christianity and History, which attracted enormous attention. Thus given a new lease on life, The Whig Interpretation of History became required reading for most history graduate students for the next quarter century, and not a few undergraduates as well.
What was the Whig interpretation of history, and why did Butterfield find it so objectionable? As summarized in his preface, it was "the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present." His particular targets were historical grand narratives in which the expansion of personal liberty and of parliamentary authority relative to the Crown served as the organizing principles of English national history from the 17th century forward. Despite his reticence about naming them, Butterfield clearly had in mind such luminaries as Thomas Babington Macaulay, William Stubbs, and G. M. Trevelyan as exemplars of this tradition. Such scholars, he said, habitually narrated the English past as a perennial struggle between the friends and enemies of progress, "of which the Protestants and whigs have been the perennial allies while Catholics and tories have perpetually formed obstruction." By judging such struggles through the lens of their own politics, he argued, these whig historians behaved as if "the voice of posterity is the voice of God and the historian is the voice of posterity."
Butterfield's little book is not much more than an extended essay. It builds its arguments pretty casually, and critics have long noted its internal contradictions. Among the most problematic was its extraordinarily capacious usage of the word "Whig," which it applied indiscriminately not just to members of the Whig party but to anyone writing histories in which something becomes better over time and so is judged A Good Thing. In Butterfield's lexicon, the uncapitalized noun "whig" and the even looser adjective "whiggish" become universal descriptors for all progressive narratives. (This is presumably how Lord Acton—who was not only no Whig but no Protestant either—could be served up as Butterfield's only concrete example of a whiggish historian.) Whatever its weaknesses, we see the persistent influence of this book whenever historians criticize progressive tendencies in each other's work by describing them—perhaps without quite knowing why—as "whiggish."
Butterfield's essay may feel a bit musty today, and would hardly seem an up-to-date guide to what I've been calling "the public practice of history in and for a digital age." And yet the reason the book has proved so influential is that it did in fact succeed in identifying (albeit with eccentric language) some of the most important dilemmas historians continue to face. Butterfield's chief concern was with oversimplified narratives—he called them "abridgements"—that achieve drama and apparent moral clarity by interpreting past events in light of present politics. Thanks in part to Butterfield, we now recognize such narratives as teleological, and we rightly suspect them of doing violence to the past by understanding and judging it with reference to anachronistic values in the present, however dear those values may be to our own hearts.
Butterfield viewed such moral judgments as problematic because they tempt historians not to understand the past on its own terms. The counterpoint he offered to "abridged history" was what he called "technical history": fine-grained analysis that eschews neat heroic formulas in which one group fights for the past while another fights for the future. "Technical history," he said, tries instead to see all of them struggling over their own best understandings of their own time. "It matters very much," Butterfield wrote, whether "we take the Protestants of the 16th century as men who were fighting to bring about our modern world, while the Catholics were struggling to keep the mediæval, or whether we take the whole present as the child of the whole past and see rather the modern world emerging from the clash of both Catholic and Protestant."
And yet there is a deeper problem here. Early in the book, Butterfield acknowledged that the impulse toward progressive narratives and anachronistic judgments has less to do with a historian's political affiliations than with abridgement itself. "There is a tendency," he wrote, "for all history to veer over into whig history . . . ," becoming "more whig in proportion as it becomes more abridged." Although he offered "technical history" as a corrective to the dangers of abridgement, he was too thoughtful a scholar not to recognize that without abridgement, there can be no history. Historians distill the nearly infinite records of the past in order to impose some semblance of order on what would otherwise feel like overwhelming chaos. This is all the more true when they seek to write for audiences other than their colleagues, whose patience for historical technicalities far surpasses that of the public. And because nonhistorians often do want to know how history relates to their own lives, there is no evading their demand for narratives that show how the present did indeed emerge from the past. Abridgement—and with it, by Butterfield's own argument, whiggish history—is inescapable.
Whenever historians seek to make their knowledge accessible to a wider world—whether in books, classrooms, museums, videos, websites, or blogs—they unfailingly abridge, simplify, analyze, synthesize, dramatize, and render judgments about why things happened as they did in the past, and why people should still care today. But they need not commit the worst sins of whiggishness when they do so. The characters in their stories need not wear white or black hats, and will feel more richly human for being understood on their own terms. Even when such characters are viewed as agents of progressive change, they need not be treated as if they were comrades in arms. The path they followed can honestly be seen as a winding one, with many an unexpected twist and turn, to serve as a reminder of the contingencies that prevent change from being inevitable. Finally, we can be scrupulous in trying not to judge them by standards that would feel unfair even to us if plucked from our own futures and applied to ourselves. All these are among the lessons for which Butterfield's book remains a compelling guide.
Still, the ambiguously partial praise I offer here is not just for The Whig Interpretation of History but also for the unitalicized (and lowercased) whig interpretation(s) of history that the book criticizes. Although Butterfield's generation of historians learned to be suspicious of stirring narratives that played fast and loose with historical complexities, and although subsequent generations have learned to be equally suspicious of the oppressions that dominant triumphalist narratives can impose on the less hegemonic histories they too often silence, we still cannot evade the storytelling task of distilling history's meanings. Historians exist to explain the past to the present. Things happened back then. People really did change. Empires rose and fell. New knowledge emerged. People tried to make sense of their lives and struggled to serve their visions of the good. Although such events, ideas, and actions were never simple, and although we need our best technical skills to understand them, the histories we write typically end somewhere different from where they begin. A new thing emerges by the end of our story that was not there in the beginning. Because Butterfield's definition of whiggishness was so broad, any narrative describing and analyzing (and maybe even celebrating) that new thing is at risk to be called whiggish. One of Butterfield's own best-known books was entitled The Origins of Modern Science, 1300–1800, which by tracing a line from origins to modernity would seem to partake of at least a little whiggishness itself. Just so does his work still speak in all its contradictions to this digital age. And just so do I say: two cheers for the whig interpretation of history.
William Cronon (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison) is the president of the AHA.
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