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Sir Lewis Namier

Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke

by Charles Townshend
St. Martin’s Press, 224 pp., $7.00

The creative activity of the twentieth century has witnessed a retreat from grandeur, a flight from the conflicts of men in society and a growing obsession with narrow themes and private experience. In literature, the great tradition of Balzac, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, and the rest petered out in Wells, Bennett, Du Gard, and Mann. And what is true of literature is true of history, at least in Britain. There are no Leckys, no Froudes, no Freemans, no Humes in the twentieth century; only G. M. Trevelyan tried to keep the old tradition alive. The rest retreated, some slowly, some fast. A general book on a short period was about as much as any professional historian dare risk without incurring the opprobrious epithet of journalist or being accused of prostituting his scholarship. And it is not surprising that the British historian whose reputation has been the highest and most universally accepted this last twenty years never wrote a book at all. The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, England in the Age of the American Revolution, and the rest of Sir Lewis Namier’s contributions to eighteenth century history are essentially collections of essays on highly specialized themes. All his titles are misleading. The Structure of Politics is a complete misnomer; it is concerned solely with the House of Commons, and, indeed, only some aspects of the Commons at that, such as elections, patronage, secret service money, division lists, and the like. But to understand Namier’s work and his reputation something must be said of the man himself as well as the state of historical studies in which his reputation flourished.

Obsessional natures in which intellect and emotion fuse and project themselves into a specific preoccupation in order to escape the strain, frustration, the intolerable crisis within, are not rare amongst scholars. Namier, who was full of psychosomatic ills and neurotic quirks, had this capacity to concentrate his emotional and intellectual energies, and, as with obsessional natures of this type, he strictly limited his area of interest. Like some gigantic, myopic caterpillar he moved into the wood, up the trunk, along the branches, down the twigs, until he found his leaf; slowly he explored every vein, every spore, every tiny hair with the thoroughness of a camera attached to an electron microscope and a handful of leaves lasted him a lifetime—the diplomatic exchanges of the Thirties, the Revolution of 1848, and above all the electoral politics of the early years of the reign of George III, to which he devoted most of his life and by which he must be judged. Like many an obsessive scholar, Namier also possessed a strong streak of intellectual cruelty. He detested error and punished it savagely. He blasted reputations and seared the creative urge of many young writers. And for most of his life he was not loved. His intense preoccupation with the minutiae of his interests proved wearisome in ordinary social intercourse and many a country gentleman cursed the ancestor who had left him a load of eighteenth-century correspondence. Namier’s views on men and events were always trenchant and never concealed. The Establishments at Oxford and Cambridge were rendered so uncomfortable by his formidable disdain, as well as bored by his obsessive preoccupation, that they gave him just cause for his contempt by treating him with less than justice. He was passed over at Oxford and at Cambridge for professorship after professorship and no honors came his way until the evening of his life. The effect of this ostracism was to strengthen his monolithic preoccupation almost to the point of paranoia. And yet as with many obsessed characters he acquired a few ardent devotees to whom he remained intensely loyal. So, although not accepted, he always possessed a small but strong pressure group working on his behalf. And then in the Fifties, as if in a rush of guilt, the tide turned for him. He became the towering genius amongst English historians, and scholars who had never read a word of his work spoke and wrote solemnly about his methods and techniques. And the honors came too. With the sweet taste of success, Namier mellowed a little, took a somewhat more benign view of other people’s work, condemning more by silence than by savagery. He remained, however, an obsessed scholar, preoccupied with detail, moving precisely in the limited field he had delineated for himself. It was extraordinary that so gifted a scholar should have been indifferent to other aspects of historical scholarship in his own century; although his temperament mellowed, his scholarship did not.

There are facts about him as important as his temperament. He was a Polish Jew from Galicia and said to be of land-owning stock—an outsider-insider.He was drawn to established authority like a filing to a magnet—Berenson, the King of Sweden, Sir Harold Macmillan, the gently decaying baronets of Northumberland—the very thought of them, let alone their presence, filled him with delight and blunted, even if they did not destroy, the razor edge of his critical observation. In England he felt human nature had found the institutions that pragmatically suited it, that were free of philosophy, cant, and bogus ideology, freer far than other political institutions in the world. He revered the British Monarchy, he loved the British aristocracy and adored the British Parliament, and eventually he even found solace in the Church of England. Although Lords of ancient descent did not render him obsequious, they always produced proper solemnity, for they were the artifacts of Time at its most cunning. And he accepted without much criticism the myths that English aristocratic families weave about their inherited natures. In all this there is a streak of credulity, an absence of that fierce critical awareness that marked so much of his work. Namier, indeed, could be, in fundamentals, as uncritically conservative as a village doctor’s wife. There was a quainter credulity than this. He believed implicitly in the art of graphology; indeed as seriously as he believed in the psychology of the unconscious. And both methods—both sciences doubtless Namier would have called them—were used to help him assess character either living or dead. Perhaps his unbalanced dislike, one might almost say loathing, of Edmund Burke stemmed as much from his handwriting as his liberalism.

The combination of intense conservatism, Jewish race, and scholarly preoccupation with documentary evidence made him a formidable critic of the diplomatic exchanges of the late Thirties. And his indictment of Neville Henderson, Chamberlain, Daladier, and the rest is ruthless, massive, incontrovertible, and in many ways Namier was at his most effective in his support of the forceful, humane, but highly nationalistic, conservatism represented by Sir Winston Churchill. Of course, he was working from limited source material and many of his diplomatic essays are dated, but his contribution to contemporary history in the late Thirties and early Forties is as likely to rise in public estimation as his reputation as an eighteenth century historian is likely to diminish.

Namier’s approach to eighteenth-century political history was atomistic. It was pointless for him to talk of the Whig or Tory parties, public opinion, or political sentiment. He wanted to know who were the Whigs, who were the Tories, how they voted, why they voted; these facts would reveal the nature of politics much more clearly than a consideration of ideologies or an investigation of political discussion in books, pamphlets, or speeches. The rationalizations men made about their actions were never of primary interest to Namier. He was highly skeptical of altruism in politics. And it is not surprising that he was drawn, therefore, to a period of British political history in which there were no great social divisions to polarize politics or indeed any great national crisis. He began his research with the intention of dealing with the American revolution and British politics, but he never got that far; 1760-65 claimed him. He decided to investigate each Member of Parliament elected in 1761, to leave on one side the surface of events and the theorizings of constitutional historians who had always, seen 1760 as a great watershed in English political history, the point where Tories and Toryism once more emerged as a factor of importance in English history. The technique of counting heads, of building up a picture from a mosaic of individual biographies was not his own. It was adopted from an American scholar, Professor C. W. Alvord, who used it in his book. The Mississippi Valley in British Politics. In Namier’s hands it produced startling results. He showed that political conviction scarcely counted at all amongst the reasons for a man entering the House of Commons in 1761. Likewise he demonstrated that political issues played almost no part in the elections to the Commons. He proved that as far as Members of Parliament could be described by a label the vast majority were Whigs: owing loyalty to different leaders like so many packs of hounds following the lead of a huntsman, but all belonged to the same species. The Tories were a minority and in no way significant. He also showed that on the great issues of the day—Wilkes and General Warrants for example of the Stamp Act—Whigs and Tories were to be found on either side in the divisions. And finally he blew sky high the myth that George III had a large body of King’s Friends in the Commons tied to him by place or pension. The secret service expenditure, discovered by Namier, was published by him and exhaustively edited. It added up to very little.

So the myths were destroyed. George III, like his grandfather before him, depended on Whigs and Whigs alone. For both reigns the vaunted two-party system was meaningless; furthermore, George III’s methods of government differed in no essential way from George II’s or indeed George I’s. He was younger, more interested, more inept; what changes there were were changes of men, not method. This was the true picture, the true structure of politics in the 1760s. Public issues, public opinion counted as for nothing compared with the personal compulsions of the politicians.

Namier was not interested in the social basis of politics; for all good conservatives it did not exist. He did not ignore it, he denied it. Namier never turned his attention to the City of London. He never investigated local politics outside elections; never considered who promoted addresses to Parliament; ignored urban radicalism or the politics of dissent. He never enquired who supported Wilkes outside Parliament, he regarded that as irrevelant. George Rude in his important monograph on Wilkes and Liberty has demonstrated that politics even in the early 1760s had a social basis. That then, as now, they reflected social conflict. The politics of the House of Commons was more complex than Namier would allow and the politics of the House of Commons was but a part of the political life of the nation. And Namier’s results, true only so long as you accept Namier’s limitations on his subject, are now being steadily modified. He himself was moving to a slightly broader outlook. His three-volume History of Parliament which he never completed shows a greater realization of the importance of local politics and of radicalism, but the change in emphasis still remains slight. Namier stuck obstinately to the personal basis of political activity and the only approach which made real sense to him was through biography.

Namier was finally hamstrung by his own method and by his own obsessional preoccupations: he would not allow for either the pressure of ideas or the stronger pressures of social forces from which even the Hanoverian oligarchies were not immune. It is odd that a scholar who was so aware of the unconscious motivations of individuals should ignore so completely the semi-conscious motivations of society. Men, therefore, in their individual lives were his preoccupation and so biography should really have been his art. He chose in the end to write about Charles Townshend. He attempted his life three times, a short biography in the History of Parliament, a larger one which he gave as a Leslie Stephen lecture, and now this full-scale attempt which was unfinished at the time of his death. It has been completed by John Brooke and the best parts are by him. In many ways it was a pity to publish it. Namier was old and tired when he came to write it, an exhausted man, and in consequence his faults are more glaring than ever. His literary technique always suffered from a tendency to over-quote but here he does it to the point of tedium; every speech of Townshend’s in every version is quoted in full or in lengthy precis. The same is true about every letter, about every manoeuver for or about place. The political background, the public issues in which Townshend was so deeply involved are mentioned en passant, but Townshend never gets properly related to the political situations in which he found himself. At times the biography is scarcely readable: the narrative grinds slowly on, totally indifferent to the implied drama of Townshend’s life. Here and there, there are touches of Namier’s wit and Namier’s insight but these underscore his incapacity to write a book and the grave limitations of his literary techniques.

He was a master of the short essay and he could write brilliant character sketches—they abound in the History of Parliament—but he was a master only of fragments, a research worker of brilliance and a compiler of genius. But as Trevelyan once said he was “no historian.” And it is a sad comment on the state of historical writing in England that his reputation should have been so high.

Yet his powers were exceptional; great industry, prodigious memory, and incisive intellect. What he lacked was literary skill and true historical judgment. Although he prided himself on his realism, he was incurably romantic, giving to the politics of the couloir an historical significance that they have never possessed. Politics, even in 1761, were entangled in social forces and decided by the pressure of events. The major fault of Namier’s work springs from his attempt to analyze history as if it were static. And history that ignores change must fail.

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