Do you speak Whiggish? The most recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary does not, it appears – at least not fluently. The original OED, compiled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contained full entries for ‘Whig’ and its adjectival derivatives, denoting that group or tradition which had been one of the two main contending forces in British political life from the late 17th to at least the mid 19th century. The dictionary wisely refrained from attempting to specify in any detail what this tradition’s informing principles were, beyond a certain attachment to liberty, parliamentary government and the Protestant succession to the English throne; the general bearing of the term was suggested by the observation that in political life it had largely been superseded by ‘Liberal’, though it could still be used occasionally ‘to express adherence to moderate or antiquated Liberal principles’. The illustrative quotations reinforced this emphasis: ‘The term Whig,’ Lord John Russell said in the 1850s, ‘has the convenience of expressing in one syllable what Conservative Liberal expresses in seven.’
The entry ranged widely over the (mainly pejorative) extensions of the core use, including such delights, now lost, as ‘Whiglings’ and ‘Whigissimi’, but all these terms and their accompanying definitions were dependent on the central political sense. It was not until the OED Supplement published in the mid 1980s that the phrase ‘Whig historian’ made a separate appearance, defined as ‘a historian who interprets history as the continuing and inevitable victory of progress over reaction’. As so often with this magnificent but frustrating compilation, there appeared to be some tension between this encompassing definition and the illustrative examples. Should one simply conclude that ‘Whiggish history’ was history informed by Whig principles in the political sense, as suggested by quotations referring to Macaulay and G.M. Trevelyan (and as the dictionary’s own internal system of cross-referencing implied), or did ‘Whiggish history’ have a larger sense applicable to any account of the past which appeared to be selected and arranged so as to lead up to and confer legitimacy on the present, as in a quotation from 1975 warning against the ‘Whiggish perspectives’ that tended to infect the writing of labour history and women’s history? Clearly, it was not being suggested that toilers in these latter fields had been extolling parliamentary government and the Protestant succession, though the entry was still being offered as a further example of the original political definition. As is indicated by this and similar quotations (including one, I am disconcerted to find, by my younger self), the term expanded at some point to embrace historical accounts of ‘continuing and inevitable’ progress in any desirable direction, rather than simply the direction implied in the original political sense.
The clue – a rather gnomic one – to the relation between these senses (still not discriminated as such) is given by the inclusion of a quotation from 1931: ‘The truth is that there is a tendency for all history to veer over into whig history.’ That sentence is taken from the introduction to Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, one of those ‘classics’ which is now more referred to than read. Its title, together with the generalised sense of ‘Whig history’, may have entered the language, but beyond having a vague awareness that Whiggish history is, in the terms used by another historical classic of the same vintage, a Bad Thing, many of us might struggle to state Butterfield’s argument any more precisely, and certainly very few people outside a small circle of professional historians could confidently recall what else Butterfield wrote and how, or indeed whether, his other work consorted with his strictures on the Whig interpretation of history.
When I returned to the book itself, a slim volume of 132 small pages, my uncertainty increased rather than diminished. It’s a stylish but oddly elusive work in which proper names are strikingly rare. E.H. Carr was being only slightly unfair when, in What Is History?, published thirty years later, he mocked Butterfield for attacking the Whig interpretation of history without naming ‘a single Whig except Fox, who was no historian, or a single historian save Acton, who was no Whig’. This points to a larger unsteadiness about the object of Butterfield’s criticism, an unsteadiness that was to be reproduced as a tension running throughout his career. In the narrow or literal sense, the ‘Whig interpretation of history’ (usually so capitalised, though not by Butterfield) refers to an account of English history. It is an account that celebrates the unbroken continuity of representative institutions and the legal protection of individual freedom, an account that identifies a deep political wisdom in the English, expressed above all through the wise moderation of those statesmen who adapted to changing circumstances without falling into either rigid reaction or unbridled revolution.
The origins of this account are traced to the middle of the 17th century as parliamentary lawyers attempted to formulate their case against the encroachments of the royal prerogative, arguing for the ‘restoration’ of supposedly ancient liberties rather than pressing the claims of either abstract principle or mere expediency. By the 19th century, this account, generalised and suitably buffed up to accommodate Reform Acts and the like, became the dominant narrative of English history, versions of which could be found in Macaulay, Stubbs, Freeman, and on into the 20th century in the writings of such latter-day Whig historians as Trevelyan and, less obviously, Churchill.
Butterfield’s attack, however, is directed at the informing assumptions of popular and outline histories. ‘It is perhaps a tragedy,’ he writes, or over-writes, ‘that the important work of abridging history is so often left to writers of textbooks and professional manufacturers of commercial literature.’ In such passages he appears to be primarily concerned with the historical framework imbibed and half forgotten by non-historians. ‘Perhaps all history books,’ he remarks with similar loftiness, ‘hold a danger for those who do not know a great deal of history already.’
But at other moments in the book he appears to be preoccupied with a dilemma facing professional historians. He extols detailed research, or what he calls ‘technical history’, as the antidote to the elisions and superficialities of narrative or synoptic history, but at the same time he doubts that such archivally grounded research leads to any fundamental change in the accepted framework. The inconvenient findings of technical history tend to be set on one side as ‘exceptions’, and ‘these exceptions are lost indeed in that combined process of organisation and abridgement by which we reach our general survey of general history.’ So in the broadest terms it is the problem of ‘the relations between historical research and what is known as general history’ that stirs him, and in issuing his warning against ‘an unexamined habit of mind into which we fall when we treat of history on the broad scale’, his use of the first-person plural indicates a predicament he shares. This, and not the prevalence of Protestant and progressive allegiances, or even, quite, the failing of writing about the past ‘with direct and perpetual reference to the present’, is what lies behind the remark quoted in the OED about the ‘tendency for all history to veer over into whig history’.
We are then left with a double uncertainty at the end of The Whig Interpretation of History. First, is Butterfield actually repudiating the broadly Whig story of the growth of English liberties, and if so, what if anything is he suggesting should replace it? The book does not seem to be advocating ‘Tory’ interpretation, whatever that might look like. It is surely the smugness and the anachronism pervading popular forms of Whig history that arouse his ire, not their emphasis on the growth of English liberty and stability. More generally, he appears to be urging what in another vocabulary might be called a dialectical account of history, one in which conflict and discontinuity constitute the norm and outcomes are rarely the result of deliberate agency.
Second, does Butterfield’s extended sense of ‘Whig history’ apply only to a certain kind of present-minded, triumphalist or teleological narrative, or is it an unavoidable feature of large-scale synoptic history in general? He hints at the latter view when he writes: ‘The whig interpretation of history is not merely the property of whigs and it is much more subtle than mental bias; it lies in a trick of organisation, an unexamined habit of mind that any historian may fall into.’ This almost reduces it to a general difficulty of exposition – what he calls in his preface ‘an aspect of the psychology of historians’ – where it is not clear how the difficulty is to be overcome short of refusing to unite the findings of ‘technical history’ into any larger picture. Yet he seemed to be unwilling to abandon the ambition to write ‘general history’, and was evidently not content to leave it to those ‘professional manufacturers of commercial literature’.
The Whig Interpretation of History itself does not explicitly confront these difficulties, and its mix of rhetorical indignation and studied elusiveness does not help to resolve them. The book’s encompassing criticisms also left it unclear what kind of history its author could go on to write. These issues only become more puzzling as we broaden our view to take in two further facts about Butterfield’s career. First, that 13 years after his assault on the Whig interpretation he published The Englishman and His History, which waxed lyrical about the intimate and animating relationship between the English and their past (his friendship in the 1930s with Michael Oakeshott may have played a part here): ‘Let us praise as a living thing the continuity of our history, and praise the whigs who taught us that we must nurse this blessing – reconciling continuity with change, discovering mediations between past and present, and showing what can be achieved by man’s reconciling mind.’ Stirred by the ‘deliverance’ of 1940 and by Churchill’s ‘great speeches’ of that year, he appears to be belting out a familiar patriotic tune from a score marked ‘Whigissimo’. The contradiction between this and his most celebrated work seems so glaring that it has been called (in allusion to German scholars’ attempts to reconcile the apparently conflicting positions of Adam Smith’s two great books) Das Herbert Butterfield Problem. The problem is only made more intractable by observing that although the heightened emotions of wartime may have contributed to the rousing register in which Butterfield wrote in 1944, these views were repeated, in tones that were not significantly cooler, at other times too. For example, in his brief study of Napoleon, published in 1939, he had written: ‘Liberty comes to the world from English traditions, not from French theories.’ And in a series of lectures delivered in Toronto in 1952, he declared that the story of liberty was ‘the basic theme of English history’.
Second, we discover that although Butterfield wrote a great deal in the later stages of his career, it is hard to see that much of it could be counted as either ‘technical history’ or ‘general history’ as he understood those terms. Most of his later publications were revised lectures and collected essays, many of them given over to metahistorical musings on the nature of ‘historical-mindedness’. In his few more sustained publications he was either defending an interpretation of 18th-century English politics that gave a central place to the struggles between popular liberties and royal power, or writing brisk surveys with titles such as The Origins of Modern Science 1300-1800. We seem to be driven to the vexing conclusion that not only was Butterfield a Whig historian in the full political sense of the term, but he also committed a fair bit of Whiggish history in the extended sense as well.
For all these reasons, Butterfield’s is an exceptionally difficult career to make sense of or give a shape to. C.T. McIntire provides some assistance in this task, if indirectly. His book is neither a full biography nor a purely critical study: for the most part, it is a detailed exposition of Butterfield’s writings set within a loosely biographical frame. It has clearly been a very long time in the making: McIntire draws on interviews he conducted with Butterfield in the 1970s, as well as with colleagues and pupils in the ensuing decades. He also draws extensively on the voluminous collection of Butterfield’s personal papers and unpublished writings now held in Cambridge University Library, as well as on other archival sources. All this adds to the usefulness of the book, though its learning is heavily worn and McIntire’s punctilious stations-of-the-cross summaries of every aspect of Butterfield’s numerous writings does not make for exciting reading. But the picture it discloses, sometimes despite itself, is an intriguing one.
Butterfield was born, in 1900, into the respectable, deferential stratum of the working class in a small mill village between Halifax and Keighley in West Yorkshire, on the fringe of the northern heartland of industrial Britain. He followed the route of the bright scholarship boy through the local grammar school and on to Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1919. Exhibiting a practical commitment to continuity that would have done credit to the most Whiggish of Whig politicians, he remained at Peterhouse until his death sixty years later. But this did not signal either lack of ambition or lack of success: Butterfield was appointed to the chair of modern history in 1944; he was elected master of Peterhouse in 1955, serving a turn as vice-chancellor of the university from 1959 to 1961; he progressed to the regius professorship in 1963; he was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1965, was knighted on his retirement in 1968, and was the recipient of 13 honorary degrees.
McIntire’s method allows us few glimpses of the private man behind this impeccably successful public career. One can only speculate about the strains of adaptation as the shy young man with a Yorkshire accent who served as a lay preacher at Methodist chapels in the Fens was thrown into the pomp and snobberies of college life in interwar Cambridge, though at least some of the surviving biographical evidence asks to be read in terms of what another son of the Yorkshire working class, Richard Hoggart, wrote about ‘the scholarship boy’, who goes on to lead an ‘apparently normal life, but never without an underlying sense of some unease’. Butterfield worked ferociously hard all his life, driven by who knows what mixture of ambition, duty and anxiety, and he displayed a marked hunger for the conventional badges of success. We are told that he ‘delighted in the knighthood probably more than any other of the honours he ever received’. Sitting proudly in his new study on taking possession of the Master’s Lodge at Peterhouse, he confided to his secretary: ‘If I die tonight, I shall have been master of my college.’
Butterfield’s professional ascent can, Whiggishly, be made to appear steady and inevitable, but there was in fact a dramatic lurch in the late 1940s. The careers of few intellectual figures, especially historians, can have turned so decisively on a single month, for October 1949 saw the simultaneous publication of three books by him: George III, Lord North and the People 1779-80; The Origins of Modern Science 1300-1800 and Christianity and History. The third of these attracted more attention than the other two put together, but it was the impressive conjunction across such disparate topics that gave his reputation a decisive boost.
The curve of Butterfield’s career can be charted from McIntire’s impressively detailed bibliography of his published writings (there is also a long list of unpublished items). Publications falling in the first 45 years of his life occupy just under a single page, but it then takes seven pages to list the vast output of his remaining three decades. This is not an uncommon ratio as people become more successful, and one also has to allow for his transition from teaching fellow to professor, but the wider acclaim that greeted his triple whammy of October 1949 transformed his life. Thereafter, he received a constant flow of invitations to speak, a large proportion of which he seems to have accepted (McIntire calculates that there were some years in the 1950s when Butterfield delivered more than 15 invited lectures, on top of all his other duties). His radio talks – this was the heyday of the Third Programme – brought him still wider audiences, leading McIntire to speak, with forgivable hyperbole, of ‘his status as a public celebrity’. But the costs of celebrity include superficiality and repetitiveness: Butterfield’s lectures became windier, his examples tireder, his books thinner. Although he published 22 books, only two measured up to the standards of what he called ‘technical history’: his 1929 study of Napoleon and the peace negotiations of 1806-08 (the book which constituted his guild qualification as an academic historian), and the 1949 book on the politics of 1779-80. Significantly, both deal with a very short period; the problems intrinsic to writing extended history seem to have had a sharply personal force for him.
Perhaps the most poignant pages in McIntire’s study occur, improbably, in the bibliography, which includes a section devoted to works Butterfield ‘proposed, planned or agreed to write or edit, but did not complete or, in some cases, begin’. It is an unnervingly long list. Any scholar, especially one who gave as much time as Butterfield did to university administration, is likely to leave some such testimony to thwarted literary aspirations, but even so the length of the list suggests deeper intellectual inhibitions. Pride of place must go to his projected life of Charles James Fox, a project for which he collected, even hoarded, material for almost forty years. Trevelyan had generously lent the younger historian his family’s collection of Fox papers; after Butterfield had kept them for twenty years, Trevelyan finally insisted they be transferred to the British Museum. In 1939 Butterfield signed a contract to write the Concise Cambridge Modern History: more than twenty years later he spoke of this as ‘a large volume hardly half finished’, and although CUP continued to nag him gently about it during the 1960s, it was never completed.
Even where his loyalties were most strongly engaged, Butterfield had a bad record as a non-finisher. The diplomatic historian Howard Temperley had been his patron and model in the early stages of his career, and after Temperley’s death Butterfield promised his widow that he would write a book-length memoir of his former teacher. The promise was given in 1946; he took receipt of a large collection of Temperley’s papers, and began collecting further material. When Temperley’s son inquired about progress in the early 1960s, Butterfield had to confess that the papers were still in his basement, largely untouched. Eventually they had to be returned and the biography was never completed. In 1965 he gave the Gifford Lectures on ‘The History of Historiography’, but decided against following the usual convention of swift publication. For several years he laboured to expand his script into a publishable book, reading widely about the development of ‘historical-mindedness’ among the ancient civilisations of the Near East; the book never appeared.
I suspect that the tensions within Butterfield’s commitment to ‘general history’ played a key part in this repeated pattern of self-frustration. He took the term ‘general history’ from Ranke, for whom it connoted something more ambitious than merely a piece of extended or synoptic narrative. As Butterfield pointed out in Man on His Past (1955), Ranke (contrary to his later reputation as a blinkered archive-hound) did not repudiate the 18th-century ideal of ‘universal history’: ‘He simply claimed that it should be in the hands of historians rather than philosophers. Both he and his predecessors seem to have assumed that, if the historian himself does not undertake the task, some H.G. Wells will carry it out, and will acquire undue power over the minds of men.’ The use of the anachronistic example is telling: Butterfield is projecting the particular form of his own preoccupation onto Ranke. Disparaging references to Wells’s enormously popular Outline of History, first published in 1920, recur in Butterfield’s writing. We are back with those ‘professional manufacturers of commercial literature’ he had inveighed against in 1931.
The problem was an acute one for Butterfield because, unlike most of his highly professionalised colleagues and successors, he was not willing to abandon the ambitions of ‘general history’. One of the main reasons he resisted the introduction of numerous optional courses into the Cambridge history syllabus was that he clung to the honourable ideal of history as a form of moral education for a non-specialised governing elite rather than as a training for future historians, and for this purpose he thought it a duty of the university history lecturer to provide a coherent interpretative account that ranged across different countries and several centuries. It is revealing in this respect that he emphasised in Man on His Past that he was not writing as a specialist in the sub-field of ‘history of historiography’, but from the perspective of the general historian interested in many other things alongside historiography:
Because the role of the general historian is so important, and because the decisions that we make in our capacity as general historians are liable to be the most far-reaching of all – because, also, we cannot even escape having a general history which in a certain sense must preside over the works of multiple specialists and co-ordinate them with one another – it would be a serious matter either to neglect the training or to overlook the function of the general historian.
This, he added, had been a central concern for both Ranke and Acton, naming the predecessors to whom he returned most frequently throughout his career.
Butterfield’s energy as a historian was both stirred and dissipated by the tension between his strong desire to find large patterns in history – even, it could sometimes appear, to identify one overall direction – and his no less strong but much more corrosive urge to dismantle all received accounts, to be sceptical of all overarching narratives. It was the tension, one might say, between Butterfield the programmatically Whig historian and Butterfield the nominalist critic of Whiggish history. These two inclinations roughly correspond to the two extremes of his published work: sweeping but gnomic second-order ruminations about the nature of history, on the one hand, against minutely detailed monographic researches on the other. The increasing part played by Providence in his thinking can be seen as one rather desperate attempt to overcome this tension: Providence often seems to be little more than the law of unintended consequences in Christian dress. In this way he could indulge his taste for demonstrating the way human purposes were constantly frustrated or productive of ironic outcomes without having to present history as just one damn thing after another.
‘Historians,’ Butterfield declared, ‘cannot have too great flexibility of mind.’ But perhaps they can. For all the appeal of that sentiment, and for all the suggestiveness of Butterfield’s own diverse and, in their way, impressive writings, he may not have had quite enough of that combination of confidence, pragmatism and monomania essential to writing, to completing, major works of history. And perhaps this was allied to his counter-suggestibility and cultivated disengagement: although he was, by any measure, a serious historian and, beneath the layers of self-protection, a serious man, it may be that his apparent lack of interest in and commitment to the task of understanding the contemporary world (he regarded reading a newspaper as a ‘boring duty’) lent some excess of intellectual fastidiousness to his attempts to write genuinely explanatory history on any large scale. Butterfield had made his name mainly on the strength of his adroitness at turning received wisdom on its head; for the most part he was less successful at replacing it with some alternative account. The reasons he left behind no major piece of fully realised historical writing were partly contingent and circumstantial (no one working in a modern university can fail to sympathise), but partly the result of this self-inhibiting mixture of scepticism and ambition.
Butterfield concluded Christianity and History with the injunction: ‘Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.’ Perhaps it’s because I find both parts of this credo more or less equally unappealing that it seems to me to offer a key to understanding his role in mid 20th-century British culture. His was a respected, influential and (at least from the late 1940s to the late 1960s) often heard voice, yet it is peculiarly hard to discern the effects of his influence in public debate beyond the encouragement of an obstructive scepticism about the possibility of rational agency in politics and society. Urging the wise statesman to ‘work with Providence’ just sounds like the historian trying to pull rank because he is on first-name terms with hindsight. Butterfield, it appears, did not demur when his position was described as ‘New Whig’, but here, one might say, the term ‘New Whig’ has the convenience of expressing in two syllables what ‘apolitical conservative’ expresses in nine.
That would, however, be far too pat as a characterisation of his stance across his entire career, not least because his mercurial intellect was prone, especially in his younger days, to try out various positions for effect without fully adopting them as his own. He always insisted that it was no part of his case to try to replace the Whig interpretation with a Tory one, yet he did, perhaps despite himself, end up giving aid and comfort to the Tory cause. Those who are principally stirred by their irritation with what they see as fashionable liberal and progressive pieties, rather than concentrating on the states of the world that those views aspire to remedy, are always likely to end up in a clotted, generalised grumpiness that becomes, in practice, hard to distinguish from simple conservatism. Butterfield clearly cherished a sense of his own mischievousness, a light-footed provokingness that couldn’t easily be labelled or pigeonholed in political or intellectual terms. But this, in those who are rather heavier of foot, can encourage the kind of intellectual nihilism that issues in know-nothing conservatism. Partly through his sceptical teaching, partly through a series of appointments he presided over at his college, he came to be thought of as a progenitor of the so-called ‘Peterhouse Tory’ school, exemplified by such figures as Maurice Cowling and John Vincent, though he did not share their leaning towards reactionary populism or their combative delight in sheer bloodiness. It is wholly appropriate that, by his teaching and example, Butterfield, subtle celebrant of the play of unintended consequences, should have been held to have produced ‘disciples’ whom he would have been unwilling to lead.
In the mid-1930s, the young J.H. Plumb felt lost as a research student in Cambridge, largely neglected by Trevelyan, his aloof and shy supervisor. He found stimulus and affirmation in long talks with Butterfield, 11 years his senior, but his later recollection of these intense exchanges pinpointed both the attraction and limitation of Butterfield as a historian: ‘I loved yet distrusted Butterfield’s impish qualities, his almost electric versatility at times daunted me, but his major principles – the deep belief in the role of Providence (Christian of course) in human history – left me, in the end, bored as well as disbelieving.’ Butterfield, Plumb had come to realise, exaggerated any position he took up ‘in order to provoke the inevitable outburst, for deep down he loved to shock, to be contrary’. This sharp judgment on Butterfield in his mid-thirties may have incorporated a little hindsight, but it does seem right about the central tension in his temperament, and right, too, about at least one major part of his legacy.
For ‘bored as well as disbelieving’ is just how one comes to feel in the end about the Peterhouse Tories whom Butterfield spawned, only half deliberately. The intention to provoke becomes too transparent, too merely tiresome: the raison d’être of history seems to be limited to turning any moderately popular or, still worse, liberal notion on its head. Intellectual nihilism becomes boring in the end because it seems like an expression of unresolved adolescence. Moreover, in practice it is tied to a substantive conservatism: all attempts at serious analytical explanation are derided, leaving force and established mores in possession of the ground. When this is conjoined, as it was in Butterfield’s case and, in different ways, in some of the Peterhouse historians, with an insistence on the all-powerful but ever inscrutable ways of God in history, it is bound to look like trying to have the best of both worlds – all the debating-club benefits of the negative forms of cleverness allied to the smugness which comes from always having a hand full of trumps. Butterfield the polemicist, Butterfield the challenging but corrosive supervisor, Butterfield the deeply conservative master of his college cannot altogether escape responsibility for having enabled this unlovely combination of qualities to become a noisy presence, if not a real force, from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Even at this distance, one can still experience some of the attractiveness of Butterfield’s ‘almost electric versatility’, and this helps to explain how he could also have inspired pupils who went on to become serious and original intellectual historians in the next generation, such as Duncan Forbes and J.G.A. Pocock. He saw the importance of the history of science so much earlier than most historians of his formation, just as he saw that the history of historiography was too significant and rich a field to be left to political historians pursuing their professional genealogy as a retirement hobby. It was also to his credit that he refused to let British and European history be confined to wholly separate boxes and that he publicly stood out against the Namierite interpretation of the 18th century when that school was in its heyday. And although The Whig Interpretation of History is, as a book, a patchy and contradictory affair, its identification of that perspectival error which is constitutive of so much celebratory and teleological history is of permanent value. But for all his talents and the diversity of his achievements, the more one reads of Butterfield’s later pronouncements – the murky invocations of Providence, the complacent celebration of the English political tradition, the constant preaching about the limitations of human reason and human agency, the endlessly relaid each-way bet on ‘technical history’ as the corrective of all over-confident generalisations and ‘general history’ as the antidote to disabling specialisation – the more, alas, one starts to become ‘bored as well as disbelieving’. Butterfield certainly wasn’t, as at moments it seemed he aspired to be, the English Ranke. Perhaps he came closer to being the Methodist Acton. It is an intriguingly contradictory identity, of course, but at least it is one that allows for the co-existence of a frequently indulged taste for moralising on the past with a long list of uncompleted projects in the present.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.