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Whig history is a pejorative name given to a view of history that is shared by a number of eighteenth and nineteenth century British writers on historical subjects. It takes its name from the British Whigs, advocates of the power of Parliament, who opposed the Tories, advocates of the power of the King and the aristocracy.
The phrase was coined by the British historian Herbert Butterfield in 1931, in his small but influential book The Whig Interpretation of History. The characteristics of Whig history as seen by Butterfield include:
- Interpreting the past in light of the present day British constitutional political settlement; and specifically
- Viewing the British parliamentary, semi-democratic constitutional monarchy as the acme of human political development;
- Assuming that the constitutional monarchy was in fact an ideal held throughout all ages of the past, despite the observed facts of British history and the several power struggles between monarchs and parliaments;
- Assuming that political figures in the past held current political beliefs;
- Assuming that British history was a march of progress whose inevitable outcome was the constitutional monarchy; and
- Presenting political figures of the past as heroes, who advanced the cause of this political progress, or villains, who sought to hinder its inevitable triumph.
A number of well known books exemplify these tendencies. Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England contains many of the assumptions of Whig history in an earlier form. Henry Hallam's Constitutional History of England shows many of the traits of Whig history. But perhaps the pinnacle of Whig history is exemplified by Thomas Macaulay's multivolume History of England from the Accession of James II, whose first chapter proposes that:
- I shall relate how the new settlement was, during many troubled years, successfully defended against foreign and domestic enemies; how, under that settlement, the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known; how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; how, by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible; how a gigantic commerce gave birth to a maritime power, compared with which every other maritime power, ancient or modern, sinks into insignificance; how Scotland, after ages of enmity, was at length united to England, not merely by legal bonds, but by indissoluble ties of interest and affection; how, in America, the British colonies rapidly became far mightier and wealthier than the realms which Cortes and Pizarro had added to the dominions of Charles the Fifth; how in Asia, British adventurers founded an empire not less splendid and more durable than that of Alexander.
- . . . (T)he history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement.
Whig history, despite its flaws as an interpretation of the past, remains valuable. Its interpretation of past events may be open to question, but even its flaws remain instructive; it reveals what respectably liberal Britons at the times in which it was written believed about politics. It turns history into an epic tale of dramatic struggles, told by good writers for whom historical writing was a form of literature. Though it may mislead about the motives and beliefs of its characters, it's still a good yarn.
The uses to which British history was put in Whig history reveal much about the beliefs that motivated political actions in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As such, Whig history -- not so much despite its flaws, but because of them -- offers a glimpse into the minds of both the British reformers and the American revolutionaries.
The term has received use in historical disciplines outside of British history as well, coming to symbolize any teleological, hero-based, and transhistorical narratives.
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