Whig History

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past by J.W. Burrow
    Cambridge, 308 pp, £19.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 521 24079 4

Whig historiography stood four-square to its age; there was no suggestion that it was addressed to the happy few, or that it appealed to the justice of posterity against the spirit of the times. Posterity has on the whole avenged itself for this neglect. Macaulay will presumably not lack readers for a good while to come, and Stubbs will enjoy affectionate and respectful remembrance in the small circle of medievalists. But on the whole the great Victorian histories now seem like the triumphal arches of a past empire, their vaunting inscriptions increasingly unintelligible to the modern inhabitants: visited occasionally, it may be, as a pissoir, a species of visit naturally brief.

It is wicked to quote this delicious paragraph, one of the many that can be quoted, if only because it is so supremely quotable, but even more so because its sensational image may encourage false, 20th-century expectations. But John Burrow will not mind. He writes to burst joy’s bubble upon the tongue. A Liberal Descent, like the works of 19th-century historical scholarship that it discusses, is written out of a tradition that respects personality (which is not at all the same thing as saying that it worships the hero, the deliverer, the saint, or is in any way apologetic) and has a personality at the centre. It has some of the qualities of George Malcolm Young’s Portrait of an Age: Victorian England – superb broken-field running and coiled argument humanised by a delight in words and conversation. It is – ironically, for Burrow is a Cantabridgian – more Young than Herbert Butterfield on the eve of DNA, although the serious examination of a tradition of historical thinking in relation to a national culture is Butterfield; and Burrow would – does – as anyone interested in the history of historical method would – should – readily acknowledge Sir Herbert’s presence.

The title and theme are taken from Burke, an exquisite passage urging the tempering of ‘the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess’, by ‘an awful gravity’, to produce a ‘liberal descent’ – which combines a respect for the past while welcoming, if often nervously, the future. This famous Burkean balancing act was played in a thousand Victorian theatres before sell-out audiences, consumers of the present desiring to be heirs of the past. The fundamental point of Whig historiography standing four-square to its age, of a correspondence between historian and reader, is central. It accounts for so many of the characteristics of the great Victorian writers: their rhetorical bias (Ciceronian in Macaulay’s case); their gift for story and sense of nation, becoming confused at a later date with nationality; their schoolboy acquaintance with the leading figures of the past; their celebration of energy in the age of steam; their range of reference and allusion readily picked up (it is a fair assumption) by clubmen, urban professionals, and Macaulay’s ladies, who would otherwise, he suggested, have turned to the latest French novel upon their boudoir tables. Thus Whig historiography was not and could not be truly academic in the 19th century, although it was inching that way. In the long run, the reform of the ancient universities of England and Scotland, the establishment of a metropolitan university and civic universities with a research mission and the example of the Germans in basic knowledge, joined to the expansion of the British economy’s service sector, created specialised audiences for the various disciplines and broke the Whig historian’s monopoly of the readership. The anti-trust movement extended through the Imperial period, producing an inevitable reaction to the Whig eulogy of ‘Englishness’, for the special qualities of political and civic temperament that made the past relatively happy and the future reasonably promising. Butterfield’s 1944 attempt to revive a Whiggish patriotism in The Englishman and His History may be seen either as a contribution to the tradition (‘a late example of it’, according to Burrow) or a desperate rearguard action, a dangerous exercise in nation-puffing. But let him be ashamed who thinks evil of it. What Butterfield meant was that if history was ‘something like the memory of mankind ... brooding over man’s past, we must imagine it as working not to accentuate antagonisms or to ratify old party-cries but to find the unities that underlie the differences and to see all lives as part of the one web of life’ (The Whig Interpretation of History). However, what was natural for the Victorian historians (and they were not, as Burrow demonstrates, as confident as we suppose) is strained for the 20th-century Georgians and Elizabethans, even false. Posterity has indeed avenged itself on the Whigs. In recent times, the backward look has not been one of pride or faith (Burke: our ‘canonised forefathers’) or nostalgia, or even a great good gulp of fresh air clearing out the lungs for further exertion, but of anger, of a sense of betrayal and class conspiracy. What is noticed is History’s injustice, not its generosity. The feeling is one of expropriation, rather than of a future to be possessed.

The protagonists of A Liberal Descent are Macaulay, Freeman, Stubbs and Froude. The deuteragonists are Hallam, John Millar, Green and George Brodie. Carlyle appears, as do Hume and Gibbon. The stage is full. The theatre is Shakespearean in its range and variety rather than confined and unified as in Classical drama. The action cannot be completely co-ordinated, for the Whigs could not agree on a plot. They were sometimes characters in search of a play, disagreeing in their accounts, hinting at larger difficulties, confused by what they knew and unwilling at times to express their private thoughts. Some were more political and legal-minded than others, some under the influence of Romanticism, and others, like Macaulay, still Augustan in temperament despite a fondness for Scott. Each had his own historical favourites. Several inclined toward volkisch views of national purpose. Others were imperialist, a few were Little Englanders. But what they had in common – how difficult it is to isolate the leading strands of an historical tradition – was a belief in continuity. The present always bore some relation to the past. If at times – for example, with Macaulay – this collapsed into agreeable associations, Proust’s pastry summoning up remembrance of things past, the point remains. The task was to preserve the spiritual inheritance, even the material one, and to bring it forward into utterly different times. The great Whig fear was disruption, an irreparable break in the legacy. This went by various names: revolution, class conflict, demagoguery, effeminacy, Burke’s ‘misrule and excess’ and ‘upstart insolence’.

The serious mistake would be a posthumous dismissal of this fear as merely conservative or reactionary. It is but one of the many startling observations in this book to be told how difficult it was for the Whig historians to maintain faith in the inherent strength and wisdom of Britain’s institutions, or in her saving elements of national character, in the face of the many disruptive challenges of the 19th century. ‘To maintain complacency in a vale of tears is a more heroic achievement than it is often given credit for ... More than most men [the Whig historian] needs a consistently fair wind, and can survive relatively little disappointment; an embittered Whig historian is a contradiction in terms.’ Of course, but how easy to write the Whig historian off as ‘complacent’ and not to see him as an Aeneas, setting out to found Rome while weeping for Dido, as Sainte-Beuve said of Tocqueville. In the case of Macaulay, the converse is more true. His attitude towards the ancient constitution was piety, for he actually disliked archaism and the consistent veneration of precedents. He embraced the new – the fact of a commercial civilisation, for example. An excess of attachment to legality, after all, was the Tory way.

To reiterate, the maintenance of a tradition, which in one definition is a set of conventions that eases the burden of making fresh starts with each new crisis, is easier when the challenges to it are weak. It may also be suggested that it is easier psychologically where meaning is experienced on the plane of sacred time, as in certain Western religions. The sacred is eternal, invariable, sanctified. By contrast, the profane is corruptible, transitory, unclean. The Whig tradition was profane, and so usually denied itself the gifts of the first. To be sure, it hinted (for a time) at an earthly paradise, but calling it New Zealand surprised some readers. In general, the Whigs welcomed change, but they were never allowed to enjoy it. The present always managed to be more problematical, more uncertain, more disturbing than Victorian social science forecasting allowed. The persistent historical problem – one that Burrow confronts because his Whigs confronted it – was to capture and guarantee the line of descent. Stated another way, the task was to stretch a tradition without snapping it. At what point in its travels, the Whigs asked themselves, will a tradition cease to be functional, cease to teach the salutary lessons of continuity, gradualism, slow adaptation and good temper? Put in these terms – really, there is no other way to put it – the history of Whig history is as Burrow does it – a study of the efforts of historians to accommodate a series of rolling challenges to the faith of ‘canonised forefathers’.

The first obstacle to be overcome was Hume. One can imagine the sceptical nephew or bastard son disputing the legality of the will. Hume’s relativism prevented the Whigs from drawing clear-cut historical lessons, interfered with their desire to strip away the outer layers surrounding their telos. Hume’s objections were met: English liberty had imperfect origins, but its line of historical development was nevertheless certain. The next step was to broaden the argument, shift the inheritance from law and the constitution to the idea of the nation and national character, from specific institutions to the collectivity. Macaulay, says Burrow, did not understand the anonymous. His successors did, and understood as well that the happy Whig story of progress could not be limited to the triumph of the Reform Bill of 1832. With the idea of nation went an emphasis, implicit all along, on the special, nearly divinely-ordained characteristics of the English. The way was open for the higher patriotism – not the civic humanism, the Tory virtue, of the Augustans, and of the revolutionary Americans with whom, for special reasons, Macaulay had disputed, but the racism of the Imperial period, the insecure oscillation between omnipotence and impotence typical of the later 19th century. As poverty, class conflict, urban squalor and Ireland seemed immune to the remedy of a simple affirmation of the instinctive right reason of the nation, the Empire was summoned into being as proof of English strength and continuity. Here, as Burrow shows in discussions of historians like Seeley and Froude, the liberal legacy was moving beyond its logistic support, moving beyond the theme of liberty.

The profoundest challenge of all, it is tempting to surmise, was an infiltration almost in the dead of night. It was not like the other challenges, a change in the social polity that had to be brought under the discipline of gradualism and made to accord with a belief in happy outcomes, but a change in the very manner of writing history itself, a new attitude towards the use of sources, new standards of scholarly exactitude, a move to replace prejudice in historical writing with the relativism of context. Removed in time and circumstances, key personalities and events had to be interpreted differently. The past was to be judged by its own values, not by those of the present.

Here in different form was Hume again, only this time the Scots had allied with the Germans, not the French. The effect would have to be devastating, of the same magnitude as Bentham’s dismissal of Locke. Like the Social Contract, the Whig tradition, Whig assumptions about historical motive and movement, was largely myth. The desire of high-minded and well-intentioned historians to pass down the story of liberty had resulted in a falsification of the historical record. It had raised hopes destined to fail, and had finally taken refuge in events external to the island.

History is never without irony of the deepest kind, and it is perhaps one of the saddest, although necessary dimensions of the Whig interpretation that it could not incorporate a tragic sense of human destiny. The truth-tellers with document, electricity and klaxon, busily dismantling the assumptions and substance of Whig history, also destroyed the basis for the nation’s belief in itself, pride in its collective achievements, drowned out the two cheers for democracy, questioned its celebration of flexibility and governing instinct, its good humour and fair-mindedness. Yes, some of this had been theatre, as Burrow writes in a brilliant passage on crowds, even melodrama and grand guignol, but it had moved a nation and at times – it could be argued – moved it well. The analogy with Locke may be continued. Man in a state of nature may have been fiction, but it was noble fiction, meant to justify free institutions. It was in this mood, as Britain fought for itself, for Europe and for the world against the Nazis, that Butterfield agonised over the Whig interpretation of history. But it was possibly too late. The Whigs had moved indoors. Once men of affairs, politicians, lawyers, living their life in public, they were becoming academics – serving whom? How to pose the question is awkward.

But the argument of the foregoing paragraph is not quite Burrow. It is rather a logical deduction from the history of historical writing as part of an academic tradition. As such, it is an intellectual and emotional trap. Burrow’s own reflections on the research ideal and on the course of historical writing in the 20th century are subtler and more convincing. ‘The class of purposive and justificatory historical myths of which English Whig histories are a distinguished sub-species is unlikely to be dispelled by any changes in the professional practice and ethics of historians,’ he writes. ‘This is so not only because analysis may be impotent against prejudice, or because even being made to read learned articles in historical journals seems not so incompatible as might have been hoped with continuing subscription to some form of political Manichaeanism. It is because, even in the conditions of exasperated tribalism in which such myths flourish most vigorously, the facts appealed to on both sides may be perfectly true ... What gives such history its continuing power is not falsehood, or for that matter truth, but the sense of continuing identity, expressed in reenactments by ritual and riot.’

These are stunning words, and there are many such in a beautiful book. They catch the eye and mind because of a continued contrast and play of moods, of wit and laughter, and pleasure in the kaleidoscope of persons and styles, and a teasing appreciation of ambivalence and irony, and of anxiety hidden by delicacy, modesty and scholarly distance. The narrator is spectator and participant. To realise that the Whig interpretation lives on and not be able to say outright that the trust has been undermined, or that Burke’s descent is illiberal, is like stifling a scream. Is it helpful to suggest that the difference between the Old Whigs of the 19th century and the New Whigs of the 20th lies in the deliberate and cynical distortion of the whole story by telling only a part of it? Is it useful to defend the Whigs by arguing that their partisanship transcended its limitations in the search for national as opposed to tribal identity, or that misrule and excess remained the enemy for them, or that they were aware of their inherited myths and wanted to do more than merely save the appearances? Possibly not, for the Whigs of the 20th century can make the same apologies using different examples and categories.

This is not the ending or the reading for which the reader may have been prepared. The fault is not Burrow’s, but a state of mind that sees death as the inevitable outcome of history. How convenient it would have been for the Whig interpretation of history to have found paradise, even a temporal one, to have rendered unto history what is history’s and to professional scholarship what gives it pleasure – a doctoral thesis – and to have left the historical scene somewhere around 1914!

If the Whig interpretation did not die with Queen Victoria, it nevertheless does not occupy as much of the centre of national consciousness as it did in the last century. There is a competitor. The enemy of myth ‘is not truth but individualism, the dissolving of the sense of collective identities and temporal continuities ... The classic demolition of English Whig history was accomplished by Namier not by a rival story but by a cross-section.’ Here, to adopt a shorthand, is the twofold contradictory influence of Romanticism. It enriched Whig history with a sense of detail and personality. It reinforced the essential theme of inevitable change, the spirit of a nation refusing to be confined or deflected. It allowed for the transition from constitution to folk. But it also made the unique the source of meaning, and shattered belief in the possibility of a national and public culture by painting irresistible pictures of a plural and private one.

A Liberal Descent is a remarkably nuanced account of the struggles of a tradition to maintain itself by a continuing effort at relevance and redefinition. But there are several quite different problems here. The first is the use the historian can make of the shifts, alterations, contradictions and ambivalences within a particular mode of historical writing. That is, the academic ‘problem’ of method. The second is of another dimension. It is the problem of the historian as teacher and provider in his own time. Discussion of the first does not easily supply an answer to the second: but discussion of the first demands that the issues in the second be raised.

A Liberal Descent, like a recent novel (and film) of Victorian life which has received more attention in the United States than in Britain, has two endings or narrations. The first (or is it the second?) tells the story of how Burke’s blessing was handed down. The narrator adopts the voice of the professional historian of ideas and culture. ‘One of the ways in which a society reveals itself, and its assumptions and beliefs about its own character and destiny, is by its attitudes to and uses of its past.’ The task of the historian is to understand the past in its own terms and even, where possible, to enjoy it. The portraits in hall – the Swiss Victorian Jacob Burckhardt, Leopold Ranke, the German father of scientific history – look down approvingly. Magnificently expressed, we have Burrow’s admonition that ‘we can avoid ... writing as though we told the story ... The shield of Aeneas foretold the history of Rome, but the shield of Achilles, which told no story, was the more comprehensive social document.’

The second (or is it the first?) narration is by the disturbed, even fidgety observer of late Elizabethan Britain (how wonderful it would be to substitute ‘high’ for ‘late’!) who uses the Whig alter ego to comment indirectly upon his own time. Rare are such openly expressed sentiments as ‘our age’s preference, in intellectual history, for the subversive and rancorous over the official and self-congratulatory’. Even here, the irony is strong, the pairs of contrasting attitudes unattractive. The obvious worry is that the second narration will compromise the objectivity of the first. The prose, which consists of intricately-crafted and qualified sentences, captures this mood. Other clues are the ambivalences attributed by the author to the Victorians and shared by him – the delight in the particular, the cross-section that destroys patterns and total meaning but is perhaps the final and only historical truth. In order for the Whig interpretation to flourish, the parts of the story must be subordinate to the whole, yet the parts have a mischievous tendency to run away with the gravy as well as the goose.

The portraits in hall are not indifferent to these difficulties in carrying out the historian’s task. They move – small but perceptible adjustments of the mouth and eyes. ‘History is the record of what one age finds of interest in another.’ Burrow several times refers to the Burckhardtian injunction for the writing of history. It is not so simple, as he well knows. The interest that Burckhardt took in Renaissance Italy was a fascination with the conflict between individualism and order that he saw there. Translated into 19th-century terms, this was the choice between bildung and Bismarckianism. The choice was, however, only apparent, not real, for the aesthetic and spiritual alternative of higher individual expression was purchased at the expense of representative government.

The trick is to walk the line, if there is one to walk. As Burrow carefully demonstrates, the belief in progress required an attack on Tory institutionalism and legalism, but to attack too furiously was to invite anarchy and relativism. To praise the past warmly – and there were different pasts to be praised – was to replace the ideology of evolution with that of romantic socialism or easy nostalgia. Ultimately, there really was no satisfactory means of working out Whig assumptions about the future of England.

In fact, the reign of the idea of progress was short. It never succeeded in commanding the complete loyalty of the Victorians. Mixed in with the optimism of Green and Stubbs was the increasing pessimism of Froude. But the line was walked even if the steps were wobbly, according to Burrow, and the Whig message of a special national destiny survived the century. May it be suggested that its vitality owed as much to the medium as to the message? The strategy was to write robustly, in a mood of high confidence, and to carry the audience by theatre when fact and logic weakened. It was even possible, as Robert Brentano demonstrated in a brilliant essay on Stubbs in the Journal of British Studies (May 1967), to carry an audience by appealing to its national sense of sound.

Problems will inevitably arise when tradition slides into advocacy or when the health of a nation is seen to depend upon a noble myth. At a higher level, however, advocacy or persuasion can become ‘educative rather than directly prescriptive’, and the Victorian Whigs occasionally achieved this. The thoughtful historian who narrates the history of a tradition cannot avoid participating in debates and dilemmas central to a culture’s self-perception and survival. Such participation is itself a means of keeping the tradition alive, even if essential issues cannot be resolved. So says Burrow in the beginning and in the end.

In so many instances of value choice, contradiction remains the only outcome. It is the modern way not to resolve issues that cannot in conscience be resolved. At the very least it may be hoped that the profoundest expression of an age’s humanity is its readiness, and the readiness of its historians, who look back in order to see the present, to discuss conflicts and trade-offs in a spirit of high civility.