27 October 2021

The Tory Interpretation of History

The Whig interpretation of history has warped the common perception of the historical record for three hundred years! But, as they say, 'The victors write the history'.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Michael J. Connolly

In 1931, the young English historian Herbert Butterfield published a small book entitled The Whig Interpretation of History. While modest in size, it left an outsized impact on historical scholarship, considerations on the nature and practice of history, and the way historians think about presentations of the past. Too many English historians, particularly those of the nineteenth century like Thomas Babington Macaulay and Lord Acton, portrayed history as the “struggle for liberty” over authority and the inevitable triumph of progress, usually defined as the mores of contemporary liberalism and the prerogatives of the British Whig and later Liberal Party. The story of history becomes one of ascent, a sort of neo-Marxist progressive liberation from constraint and oppression, thereby glorifying the present as the culmination of past battles against evil. None of this settles well with our knowledge of the world since 1789, or 1776, or 1688, or 1649, or 1537, however, nor did it settle with Butterfield.

If history is the record of progress, then the progressive road to a brighter future is marked by potholes that call into the question the legitimacy of the interpretation itself. Butterfield proposed to substitute a radical empiricism for Whiggery, so radical in fact that his replacement looked bloodless, a “just-the-facts, ma’am’” Dragnet-style history without meaning or morality. A more effective counter to Whig history, one that fights upon the same ground as the Whigs, is a Tory interpretation that emerged from the same point of contention – the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (Tories would prefer to call it the Inglorious Revolution) and its fallout.

Whig history embraced a method of analysis, definitions of key terms, and a narrative of the past reflecting Whig prerogatives. Butterfield famously defined Whig history as interpreting the past in light of present ideas and moral priorities:

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present; and though there may be a sense in which this is unobjectionable if its implications are carefully considered, and there may be a sense in which it is inescapable, it has often been an obstruction to historical understanding because it has been taken to mean the study of the past with direct and perpetual reference to the present. Through this system of immediate reference to the present-day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it.

Having settled upon a method, Whig historians then created a convenient definition of progress that affirmed the class from which they emerged. Progress represented the Protestant European principles of individualism and liberty (often defined as “doing as one likes,” in Matthew Arnold’s formulation) and, by extension the Whiggery and liberalism which emerged to defend it. Enemies of progress were Catholics and Tories who “perpetually formed obstruction” and were, to use a common Whig/liberal phrase “on the wrong side of history.” “It is astonishing to what an extent the historian has been Protestant, progressive, and whig, and the very model of the 19th century gentleman,” Butterfield observed. “[T]he historian tends in the first place to adopt the whig or Protestant view of the subject, and very quickly busies himself with dividing the world into the friends and enemies of progress.” The resulting historical narrative based on “progress” drew straight lines to the present-day and was, in the words of historian Wilfred McClay, “simplistic and one-sided, reducible to white hats and black hats.”

Whig historiography serves several purposes. First, Whig history has an inevitability to it, that history runs in one direction – toward liberation of the individual from constraint – and to oppose that movement is futile delay. Jacobitism, Thermidorean reaction, and the Spanish Inquisition are painful but fleeting and their extinction gives evidence of history’s meaning, the victory of good over bad. Whig histories almost always have a happy ending. Second, Whig history validates liberal policies and ideas, and delegitimizes opposing narratives. If the present is brighter than the past and the future brighter still, roadblocks and delays are inhumane. Opposition to Whiggish conceptions of liberty are not just contrary to the direction of history, but also cruel. Thus, Whig historians practiced a kind of Victorian cancel culture, delegitimizing contrary narratives as a kind of perverse humanitarianism.

Third, Whig history deletes details that complicate the progressive narrative and in its resulting simplicity takes on the air of propaganda. The historian Roger Schmidt writes,

The [Whig] historian elevates the factual into literature, creating a narrative that entertains, enriches, and captivates. The historian is not an archivist but a rhetorician, the reading of history not a study but a means of achieving a polite education … A superficial commitment to the past is thus catered to and encouraged in the name of polite learning. As a result, masses of historical actualities sink below the surface, leaving only a configuration of significant events, the Whig archipelago … [T]o turn the historical record into a story that elevates one’s thoughts and captivates one’s affections not only distorts the nature of the past, it blurs the distinction between truth and fiction.

Whig history is abridged and “telescoped” history, focused tightly on that which reinforces the message of progress. Wilfred McClay notes that “[s]uch history sought to make the crooked places straight and the rough places plain, and paved over the lost causes, failed arguments, noble sacrifices, unopened doors, untried passages, ambiguous outcomes, and inconclusive experiments that are the soul and substance of life as lived and remembered.” Fourth, Whig history operates as psychological warfare, for if the tide of history runs inexorably in one direction, fighting progress is a waste of energy: “We know what progress is, it’s going to happen eventually anyway, you will lose, so surrender.” Demoralization of opposing histories works as well delegitimization.

Butterfield was half-right. Whiggish history was guilty of the hubris he accused it of harboring, but he was an old Whig himself and his criticisms were over the abuse of history rather than the principles of Whiggery. He aligned with the conservative Whig Edmund Burke, not the liberal Acton who he believed practiced bad history. The question of whether Whiggery and liberalism themselves were to blame goes unexamined. In addition, his preference was for a kind of radical empiricism where the historian studies the past entirely on its own terms. While Butterfield admits that historians cannot perfectly absent themselves from contemporary concerns, he nonetheless pines for an impossible degree of objectivity. Readers of the Whig Interpretation of History can be forgiven for wondering if in Butterfield’s view history has any meaning or moral content whatsoever and if the only possible response to Whig history is a bloodless recitation of facts. McClay describes Butterfield’s ideal historian as aloof, detached, and floating above contemporary moral concerns:

The historian should, in short, aspire to a God’s-eye view, one in which a deliberate attempt is made to set aside the dominant moral claims and sympathies of one’s own era – not out of a misplaced relativism but out of a carefully thought-out set of judgments about the limits of what historians can accomplish, and the peculiar set of virtues to which they should aspire.

But we cannot secede from the moral realities of the world, and if we fall short of Butterfield’s standards of objectivity, we can at least practice an honest empiricism that studies the sources, considers all the inconvenient evidence that complicates our understanding of the past, and works hard to make intellectually convincing cases. There will always be interpretive differences, but some interpretations are better than others.

Even Butterfield missed his empirical ideal, when during World War II he back-peddled from his earlier paean to objectivity with ringing defenses of England’s endangered heritage of liberty. History had moral content after all. So, if Butterfield’s antidote to Whiggery falls short, another historical method is needed. It is no use combating Whig history with a kind of historical neutrality of “just the facts,” as it cedes the field to liberals who will rightly claim that objectivity is impossible anyway and continue the triumphant narrative. The Whigs must be met on the historiographical battlefield with opposing interpretive methods. The contrasting force is not the impossible dream of radical objective empiricism, but the Tory interpretation of history with its own values, perceptions, categories, and subsequent narrative.

The Tory interpretation is not an invention of today, but a genuine school of history that fought against Whig history in the interpretive battles after the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Tory historians like the Restoration lawyer Roger North, whose 1706 Examen: Or, An Enquiry Into The Credit And Veracity Of A Pretended Complete History, Showing The Perverse And Wicked Design Of It worked to refute Bishop White Kennett’s Whiggish A Complete History of England, were equally combative as the Whigs and equally full of confident moral judgments based on observations of change over time. The Tory values expressed in their histories contrasted starkly with Whigs and were founded in an alternative vision of how the world works. As historian Mark Knights relates:

The Tory interpretation prized order over revolution and continuity over change. Mistaken definitions of liberty and notions of popular sovereignty and rights, in particular, received sustained attention as profoundly dangerous for church and state. Tory historians tended to write in terms of duty rather than rights and on the side of the monarchy and the established church, condemning challenges to either institution…. Tory interpretation rested on the belief that there had been a prolonged and coordinated attempt to undermine the two institutions of order, church and state.… It was an interpretation rooted in the persistence, utility, and order of a church-state that was challenged by forces of sedition. As a result, rather than progress, the Tory interpretation stressed the prevalence of decay and corruption.

The Whig ideology of rights and liberty cloaked “selfish motives,” Tories asserted, and they hid behind insincere religious expression to reach their goals. For Tories, “Whig religion was so lukewarm that it barely concealed their pursuit of self-interest.”

Whereas Whigs saw humanity’s prospects getting brighter every year, Tories saw little progress at all. Our material world may be improving, but spiritually and morally we were regressing. Whig history spoke of how the forces of darkness were being defeated and things were getting better. Tory history spoke of how the forces of darkness were winning and things were getting worse. Knights continues:

The Whig interpretation stressed the progress of liberty: liberty of speech, of the press, and freedom from tyranny. The Tory interpretation, by contrast, told a story about the perversion of liberty, a narrative in which the language of liberty had been manipulated by unscrupulous men who sought to enslave others … Hostility to license, not to liberty, was the Tory rallying cry: licentiousness in speech, in worship, in morality, and in civil affairs.

Tories believed Whigs advanced toward their goals by subterranean methods, deceit, misdirection, and the sowing the confusion. Post-1688 Tory historians were “highly sensitive to the ways in which people could be misled, either through the manipulation of their fears or through slogans deployed by those who sought to use the power of the people to undermine church and state.” Whig subterfuge too often succeeded because of human frailties. Again, the contrast is sharp. Whigs pictured the advance of liberty as evidence of innate human goodness, while Tories “ascribed historical causation to vices inherent in man, such as ambition and self-interest.”

Whig history reflected the rising Enlightenment, with historical events proceeding rationally and systematically toward the desired progressive end. “It seems designed to demonstrate that God does not play dice,” historian Roger Schmidt wrote. “[T]he more seemingly pre-ordained one’s history, the more beautiful … If God is the wonderous Clockmaker, and the earth His divine work of mystical engineering, then History ought to unfold in some semblance of order, a reflection of the Divine hand of Providence at work.” In other words, God was a Whig. In contrast, Tories saw not God, but His nemesis at work in history. The Tory interpretation of history “inverted the providential view of history … offering instead a view of human agency in association with the Devil, in which religion was used as a veneer to hide self-interest.” If Whigs had a providential view of history, the Tories had a Mephistophelian one.

The Tory interpretation of history encompassed three basic principles: elaborationetymology, and empathy. In their rationality and progressive optimism, Whigs simplified history down to a monomaniacal narrative of progress, “seeing progress not as the product of contention between two sides but as the domination of one side over another.” Contrary evidence was ignored, inconveniences discounted, and contradictions explained away all for the sake of the good story. Yet where Whigs saw simplicity, Tories observed complexity and the diverse experiences of individuals.

Countering the Whig narrative style, Tories like Roger North preferred biography, “the most legitimate and least distorted form of history.” Schmidt explains that “North challenges the validity of that style of historiography which concentrates on the dramatic and public event, neglecting individual lives and the surface of everyday life. Such neglect allows, if not encourages, historians to speak of large historical forces abstracted from human agents, and to divorce ‘events’ from the context in which they occurred.” Tories wrote instead of “the ungovernable richness of the individual life” against “the overarching dynamic put forth by Whig historians.” Sweeping Whig abstractions like liberty, equality, or rights were swept aside by the “the intricate undertow of human affairs, the erosion of ideology in the face of practical, personal, or immediate demands, and the ceaseless incoming of the haphazard and miscalculated.” By focusing on individuals, Tory history “seeks out such complexities as particular accounts and private lies afford, in order to construct a more intimate knowledge of the past, and a history that seeks to rise above them in order to construct large scale models of change or evolution.” In Whig histories, everything works out in the end. For Tories, life is complex, chaotic, often contrary, sometimes ends badly, and demands elaboration by the historian.

The principle of elaboration means Tory history is hard, “even unnaturally hard,” the historian of science Michael D. Gordin suggests. “This is not because of political ideology, but because treating the past on its own terms as much as possible, and not simply as a runaway aimed at the present, goes against our instincts of placing ourselves and our times at the center of the world-picture.” You must train yourself to be a Tory historian. Toryism offers a higher liberty to historians by limiting their presence (and their own times) in the narrative and liberates them to a deeper understanding of the past. It is liberation through drawing boundaries, while Whiggery is surrendering to self-regard.

Frankly, the elaborations of Tory history are more interesting. Didactic Whig histories teach readers a lesson on how to think “correctly” about the past, like a minister instructing a sinful congregation. But as Schmidt writes, the Tory preference for “biography was ideally suited to describing life beyond the Whigs interpretation … That is to say, biography offered a history freed from the necessity of chronicling significant events: minor figures swim into focus, incidental circumstances are given a solidity … Biography could ennoble those who supported the lost cause.” Thus, Roger North’s Examen and its defense of King Charles II, for example, is “irksomely inconvenient: a vast slow process of which one can never quite keep track … a chaotic motion in a dissipative structure.” By focusing on individuals, North believed that “a knowledge of character equals historical understanding” and that character is not easily predictable: “lightening may be divine in origin, but it never travels in a straight line … A history poised on such a foundation as only volatile, unstable individuals can offer, cannot be charted with certainty, nor its trajectory predicted. ‘What they did’ is an unreliable index to ‘what they were.’” Mapping the decisions, character, and quirks of historical actors, Tory historical contingency countered Whig determinism.

From this understanding of complexity comes an appreciation for language and the importance of etymology to historical understanding. Schmidt emphasizes that North placed heavy importance on etymology to avoid anachronism, “one of the chief sins of the Whig interpretation and one which a thorough knowledge of etymology would seemingly prevent.” When diverse figures like Pope Paul III, King Henry XIII, Oliver Cromwell, John Adams, Daniel Webster, Vladimir Lenin, and Barry Goldwater use terms like “liberty,” “freedom,” “equality,” “right,” “justice,” or “authority,” each is using the definitions and understandings of their day and context. Bringing present-day definitions to centuries-old words bends meaning to the contemporary desire for historic justification.

It is great comfort to have Mary Wollstonecraft or Robert Dale Owen on “your side” in debates over equality. But the shared meaning of words changes over time. Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum of 1737 defines “equal” only as a geometric and mathematical category, and “equality” as “a being equal, or like, Agreeableness, Likeness: in Mathematicks, the exact Agreement of two Things, in respect to Quantity.” The 1775 Universal Etymological English Dictionary defines it as synonymous with “equalness”: “a being equal or like, Agreeableness, Likeness.” Samuel Johnson in his 1792 Dictionary of the English Language shows the multiple understandings of “equality” by drawing from prominent authors and how they used it: Shakespeare as “Likeness with regard to any quantities compared,” Milton as “The same degree of dignity,” and Thomas Browne as “Evenness; uniformity; equability.” By 1828, in American Noah Webster’s dictionary, equality was now “An agreement of things in dimensions, quantity or quality,” “the same degree of dignity or claims… and equality of rights,” “Evenness, uniformity,” and “Evenness, plainness, uniformity; as in equality of surface.”

Compare these, at which time a host of Anglo-American writers composed seminal political works in the Western Tradition, with today’s Cambridge University online dictionary of “equality”: “the right of different groups of people to have a similar social position and receive the same treatment” and “a situation in which men and women, people of different races, religions, etc. are all treated fairly and have the same opportunities.” Contemporary cultural and social pressures are clearly directing this definition. Eighteenth and nineteenth century dictionary editors would not have recognized or understood this meaning. If you want to understand David Hume, Adam Smith, or Edmund Burke, read their language in light of their understanding. Roger North believed that “etymology was an essential foundation not only for the study of the laws, but for historical understanding in general; the terminology of the past must be read within a specific historical context.” Whigs, reading backwards in the light of their own understanding, project meaning onto the past and misread history for the benefit of their ideology. Tories saw this misreading as deliberate, as a way for Whiggery to trick and manipulate people by deceptive historical narratives. Without sufficient research and knowledge of context, “history can neither be precise nor reliable.”

Finally, by explicating complexity and the contingency of language, Tory preference for biography errs toward an empathetic presentation of the past. Tories believed that with empathy and a vicarious rendering of human lives, readers could better understand actors and situations. Butterfield believed a primary qualification for historians was seeing the past on its own terms:

The primary assumption of all attempts to understand the men of the past must be the belief that we can in some degree enter into minds that are unlike our own. If this belief were unfounded it would seem that men must be forever locked away from one another, and all generations must be regarded as a world and a law unto themselves … Real historical understanding is not achieved by the subordination of the past to the present, but rather by our making the past our present and attempting to see life with the eyes of another century than our own.

Empathy underlay the Tory use of biography and “describing life beyond the Whigs’ interpretation.” Schmidt offers that Tory history comes closer to communion with the past: “That is to say, biography offered a history freed from the necessity of chronicling significant events: minor figures swim into focus, incidental circumstances are given a solidity.… Biography could ennoble those who supported a lost cause.” None of this meant biographers universally approved of their subjects, only that the best renderings of human life begin with empathy rather than antipathy. How better to refute Whiggery than to have a deeply empathetic understanding of their many personalities, even ones you detest?

The nineteenth-century American Tory poet Richard Henry Dana, Sr. observed the present-mindedness of Jacksonian Americans – what later generations would call “presentism”– and accused his fellow countrymen of lack of imagination and materialism. Americans were “besotted with the spirit of the age,” he wrote in 1833. “Present time constitutes, in a peculiar degree, a state of sense. He who is interested singly in the present lives mainly in a material world. He perceives only things and he cares only for things.” An unhealthy submersion in the present distorts the work of history:

In the rush of things, stability of character is swept away, and the man gets overheated by the friction of close, grinding circumstances, and giddy in their whirl. Shut out from the calm past by the thronging of the exciting and urgent present, and standing too near to objects to take in their outline, they grow gigantic to him; then the spirit of exaggeration possesses him, disproportion follows, and the end is monstrous deformity.

Much like today, the Jacksonians’ attitude betrayed an impatience to imprint instantaneous meaning on all things, thereby bending them in ways flattering to the present, and a persistent narcissism where all things were understood by simply looking in the mirror. The art of history then becomes therapy, telling readers of Whig narratives that they are good, everything will work out, God is on their side, and all moral and material progress leads to them. Tory history, however, tells a different story. With the “three Es” of elaboration, etymology, and empathy, their histories inform readers the day is later than you think.

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