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Chosen People

A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past

by J. W. Burrow
Cambridge University Press, 308 pp., $45.00

Last summer I visited some friends in the house they were then renting in London. It turned out to be the case that their landlord’s hobby was collecting pudding molds. Everywhere one looked one could see them—in shapes ranging from bunches of grapes to various birds and animals to a couple of likenesses of famous faces. Some were more beautiful than others; all still seemed redolent with promise of gelatinous bliss.

Reading Mr. Burrow’s excellent book on how some Victorian historians interpreted the English past has brought back memories of that visit. For are there not historiographical pudding molds as well as those of a more familiar kind? All historians, whatever their outlook or ideology, must at some point put the results of their researches into a readable form. “Form” means, as battalions of formidable literary critics armed to the teeth with modes and tropes have recently been reminding us, a certain manner of literary construction and presentation. But it also means that, depending on which pudding mold the historian employs, the pattern of events he sets out to describe itself assumes a certain shape; and that, perhaps more often than not, it is the mold, ready to hand, rather than the ingredients of the pudding or even the culinary skills of the chef-historian which determines the shape.

Mr. Burrow has taken a closer look at one of the pudding molds most frequently used by historians of England over the last three centuries, the so-called “Whig interpretation” of English history. The term was coined fifty years ago by the late Sir Herbert Butterfield, who used it to characterize those accounts of the English past which celebrated it as revealing a continuous, on the whole uninterrupted, and generally glorious story of constitutional progress, all leading up to the triumph of liberty and representative institutions.

The high points of that interpretation in its original form included an ancient, free, Teutonic constitution under the Anglo-Saxons; the immemorial antiquity of common law and the House of Commons; the continuity of Saxon freedoms which could not be destroyed either by William the Conqueror or by the feudal system brought to England by the Norman Conquest, but which, indeed, were confirmed and endorsed by Magna Carta; the revitalization after a period of absolutism of the power of the Commons as well as the flowering of constitutional government under the Tudors; and the inevitable as well as providential defeat by the forces of freedom, as they manifested themselves in the English revolutions of the seventeenth century, of the wicked attempts by tyrannical Stuart kings to turn the clock back to despotic, personal rule. It all added up to a story of success which gave grounds for rejoicing over the confident possession of such a marvelous past: “an invitation to national jubilation at which the shades of venerated ancestors are honoured guests.”

This particular version of a usable English past went back a long way. In the seventeenth century it was maintained by lawyers intent upon hailing the venerable antiquity of the English common law and by Parliamentarians eager to defend what they held to be the ancient rights and liberties of the Commons against royal incursions. It was also heavily attacked. One attacker, Robert Brady, demonstrated, for instance, that writs of summons to the House of Commons could not be traced back beyond the thirteenth century, and argued persuasively that it was indeed feudalism rather than a hypothetical ancient constitution that was crucial for any real understanding of English medieval political history.

Radicals still went on believing in an ideal ancient constitution, somewhere in the distant past. But for those more moderately inclined, more concerned to establish grounds for a “liberal descent,” in Edmund Burke’s pregnant phrase, than in revolution or nostalgic appeals to democratic rights, what was lacking after Brady and others had gone to work was evidence for continuity between past and present. Continuity, in fact, was and is the essence of any Whig interpretation; and new means had to be found to establish it.

One such means, chiefly developed by the eighteenth-century Scottish school of sociological or “philosophical” historians, was to see the history of civil society as a series of stages, progressing from barbarism to civilization, with liberty a product of the latest or modern stage. Another means will always remain firmly linked to the name of Burke, who yielded to none in his exaltation of the long tradition of English common law, but who regarded that tradition as a flexible one, fruitfully combining continuity and change. A certain amount of innovation and reform could well be absorbed in the course of time by a legal or political tradition, provided that those changes and innovations did not emanate from abstract modes of thought imposed or copied from outside—Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France comes to mind here, of course—but grew naturally from a native stock. One must respect the past without becoming confined by it. Here, then, were two ways in which continuity and progress could still be preserved by those English historians who delighted in the slow but steady growth of freedom, yet at the same time possessed a due regard for historical evidence.

But those same historians had to overcome one more intellectual obstacle—a formidable one—in the shape of the philosopher-historian David Hume. In his History of Great Britain (1754-1762) Hume had argued that there had, in fact, been no public liberty under the Tudors, and that because of this there existed no free constitution to be over-thrown by the Stuarts. The rights claimed by the Long Parliament from Charles I were new rather than ancient rights. Indeed, as a monarch confronted by attempts at innovation who ended by having his head cut off, he deserved retrospective sympathy rather than censure.

Hume himself belonged to the Scottish school of philosophical historians, and, as such, helped to provide future Whig historians with a model of the advancement of civil society by successive stages. But in stressing the point that this advancement was a European phenomenon of which the development of English freedom was a purely local manifestation, the Tory Hume created one further difficulty for his Whig successors.

What eventually happened was that by the early nineteenth century a historiographical consensus had been worked out, something Mr. Burrow calls the “Whig compromise.” This assumed that the English constitution was neither Saxon nor merely modern, but arose early in the thirteenth century with Magna Carta and the summoning of burgesses and knights of the shire to Parliament. Under it the monarchy was limited, the sovereign below the law; and kings could neither tax nor legislate without Parliament. The Tudors did make despotic innovations. But those were aberrations which never became an accepted part of the constitution. Thus, in the seventeenth century, there was indeed a free constitution to be defended against the Stuarts; and the Parliamentarians of that time, in defending and improving it, sensed the current of progress which was about to carry Europe as well as England toward the great modern era of wealth and civilization. The “glorious” revolution was both innovative and conservative. It resulted in the departure of a monarch, James II; but at the same time it secured English liberty and prosperity.

This Whig compromise, containing elements, of both the Scottish school and Burke, as well as taking due account of Hume’s historical strictures on the old doctrine of the ancient constitution, was taken over and powerfully displayed, with dazzling literary skill, by Thomas Babington Macaulay, the first of the four Victorian historians to whom Mr. Burrow accords extended treatment in his book. His comments on Macaulay’s History of England (1849-1861) are original and perceptive to the highest degree.

Take, for example, his observations on the central antithesis of Macaulay’s History: no longer, as in his early essays, between Whig and Tory as protagonists of party conflict, but between civilization, property, public trust, and liberty under law on the one hand and, on the other, lawless ambition, fanaticism, unbounded passions and appetites.

Macaulay, like many of his contemporaries in the England of the 1840s, feared revolution. He therefore feared the loss of control by governments over those evil passions which it was the office of government to control and to restrain: avarice, licentiousness, revenge, the hatred of sect for sect.

It is this anxiety that lends special force; throughout Macaulay’s History, to his emphasis on what the proper course of public life ought to be. It makes us understand why it was so important for the historian to use his own book as a potential source for common political memories that would bind together in a common political culture a newly enfranchised electorate. The History, then, is much more than a vindication of the Whig Party. It celebrates not merely the worth of public life and the wider progress of society, but also what Mr. Burrow calls “a sense of the privileged possession by Englishmen of their history, as well as of the epic dignity of government by discussion.” It is a polemic, not so much on behalf of party as on behalf of that favorite Victorian virtue, respectability.

William Stubbs, author of what became the classic Victorian Constitutional History of England (1874-1878), was born in 1825 and belonged to a later generation of historians for whom the key issues were race, nationality, and democracy rather than the power of the House of Commons, and for whom the chief enemy was bureaucracy and centralization rather than revolutionary demagoguery. Those historians, Stubbs among them, were also subject to new intellectual influences, primarily from German legal scholars who laid stress on the mark-community as the foundation of Germanic society: this was held to be a free village community, politically democratic, within which a system of communal agriculture was carried on. Brought to England by the Saxons, this “folk-moot,” along with other local institutions such as courts of the shire and the hundred, embodied the representative principle and contained dormant seeds of future liberties; seeds that were able to survive the Norman Conquest and the very undemocratic age of feudalism that followed upon it. For Stubbs the continuity of English history rested in the vigor of those humble institutions of local government. Some still existed, so Stubbs believed, in the nineteenth century: for example, the vestry meeting of the English parish incorporated the primitive assembly of the Anglo-Saxon township.

Stubbs himself was a Tory in politics. One would hardly expect a future bishop of Oxford to have been anything else. But so powerful still was the tradition of English historical writing in the mold of progress and continuity that, for the purposes of Mr. Burrow’s argument, he can, not unreasonably, be counted as Whiggish in historical outlook. Still, even though the mold may have remained the same, it now contained a new ingredient: the longevity of local institutions. In the old Whig interpretation it was the Parliamentarians of the seventeenth century who fought to conserve a popular ancient institution against innovating monarchs who tried to encroach on it. “But in Stubbs,” as Mr. Burrow points out, “the conservative defence was conducted not by parliamentary heroes but by the combination of inarticulate persistence and malleability in the institutions themselves.”

Stubbs’s successor in the chair of history at Oxford was Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-1892), author of The History of the Norman Conquest of England (1867-1879). Unlike Macaulay, he owed his political creed not to the eighteenth century but to Byron and Mazzini. As Mr. Burrow wittily remarks, “the Norman Conquest was his historical consolation for not belonging to an oppressed nation.” His historical writings reflect his attempt to assimilate heroic populism to Whig notions of continuity. Though he had begun, when a student at Oxford, as a high church Tory, he ended up as a Gladstonian Liberal. He differed from Stubbs in politics, yet he greatly relied upon him for his constitutional history, thus lending a certain amount of verisimilitude to that well-known Victorian doggerel:

Ladling butter from alternate tubs,
Stubbs buttering Freeman, Free- man buttering Stubbs.

But while Freeman’s assertion that English history had begun in freedom and that the Norman Conquest had made no permanent breach in its essential continuity was very much in accord with Stubbs’s stress on the persistence of local institutions, he added something new, an obsession with race.

What that meant as far as Freeman was concerned was recognition of the significance of Teutonic kinship, from the early German forest dwellers to George Washington, along with continuity between village community, tribalism, the nation-state, and the invention of representative government. And to that emphasis on Teutonic exclusiveness Freeman added a corresponding emphasis on “Aryan” inclusiveness. Like some other scholars of his generation, Freeman, taking his cue from the philologists, came to believe in an Aryan race and stock of institutions, in an overarching Aryanism binding together by common ancestry into one noble brotherhood Greeks and Romans as well as Teutons.

In some of his most brilliant pages Mr. Burrow shows how the interplay between Freeman’s love of Teutonic homogeneity and his admiration for Aryan inclusiveness—the latter leading him to display in his personal attitudes racial prejudices against “non-Aryans” which have become all too familiar to us in this century—determined the nature and limits of his own special brand of Whig history.

On the one hand, Freeman ran true to type as a Whig historian in regarding England as passing from the village community of the Anglo-Saxons to the modern nation-state in which the principle of representation had successfully taken the place of the ancient liberty of face-to-face democracy. But he was as much attracted by universal as by national history. He wanted to be a Whig on a European scale. And here difficulties arose. For he saw history as a cyclical drama of rebirths and resurrections, with institutions as well as historical actors repeating their roles time and again. Progress occurred only in the guise of restoration.

Cycles and restorations lent themselves to an apocalyptic view of history which posed a major threat to the Whig idea of continuity. Here the concept of a single Aryan race helped to guarantee for Freeman the integrity of European history. But he was never able wholly to resolve either the tensions that were produced by his being equally attached to both English and world history or the intellectual difficulties that were bound to confront one whose love of restoration was almost greater than his love of continuity.

Freeman’s views, then, put considerable strain upon those twin pillars of the Whig interpretation of history, continuity and progress. So did the views of James Anthony Froude (1818-1894), whose spiritual odyssey had led him from the Oxford Movement via religious doubt to an aggressive Protestantism; who gained perhaps his greatest fame as the biographer of Carlyle; and who, at the end of his life, like Stubbs and Freeman before him, occupied the Regius chair of history at Oxford. His History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1856-1870) is, on the one hand, a straightforwardly Whiggish paean to the English victory over the Spaniards and the subsequent triumph of the English Reformation. On the other, it contains two elements, both products of his discipleship to Carlyle, the man he called his “master,” which were not so easily absorbed into the conventional Whig interpretation.

One is the emphasis on social rather than constitutional history. Froude’s ideas, like Carlyle’s, were those of a Tory Radical, sympathetic to government paternalism, nostalgically fond of a responsible aristocracy, critical of the inequitable distribution and misuse of wealth, and hostile to the laissez-faire individualism of the classical economists. The other is his adoption, not of the classic Whig pattern of continuity and progress, but of a formula of historical explanation stressing discontinuity, recurrent decay, and renewal.

Mr. Burrow demonstrates how, with Froude, the Whig interpretation once again proved sufficiently resilient to accommodate, more or less comfortably, both radical nostalgia, which yearns for a return to certain aspects of the past, occasionally favors revolution to bring about that return, but militates by definition against a gradual progress from past to present; and messianic views of history which postulate, sometimes in religious, sometimes in secular, guise, a historical pattern consisting of episodes of captivity, deliverance, and release rather than the continuous forward movement that had been the essence of the old Whig view in its pure form.

Froude was an ardent imperialist who hoped to see the virtues of sixteenth-century rural England re-created in the colonies. But while his imperialist tracts caught the mood of the immediate future, his History had not dwelt unduly on the expansionist exploits of the Elizabethan age. And neither he nor any other leading nineteenth-century historian grasped what may seem to us now an obvious opportunity to extend the Whig interpretation by propelling it outward to depict in a systematic manner the attachment of American ideas and institutions to ancient constitutionalism. That might have been one way of reinvesting with new vigor a liberal impulse in English historiography, which by the end of the century had reached at least temporary exhaustion.

The combination of a conservative political reaction with a broader and more objective temper in historical writing played its part in diminishing the attraction of a Whig approach for medieval historians. And, in any event, the Whig interpretation, once the property of Parliamentarians and constitutionalists, was getting stretched, broadened, and dispersed to the point where it seemed about to become the national interpretation.

One could say that these are some of the main lines of Mr. Burrow’s argument. But no summary can possibly do justice to the richness, subtlety, and originality of this book, to my mind one of the finest volumes on modern English intellectual history to have appeared since his own Evolution and Society (1966). Mr. Burrow’s deep knowledge of the Victorian age has stood him in good stead in the present book, which he intends not so much as a study of technical historiography as, in the words of Burckhardt, a record of what one age finds of interest in another.

One of the obvious pitfalls of such an approach is, of course, a lapse into excessive relativism. One concentrates to such an extent on the intellectual influences that shaped the historians under discussion that their histories tend to emerge primarily as manifestations of an age, literary documents like novels and poems and tracts, rather than works of history which, after all, lay claim to dealing with facts and uncovering the truth about the past. Even though one detects a slightly plaintive note in his admission that historians have no duty to make themselves available to intellectual history, Mr. Burrow is well aware of the relativistic danger and manages to avoid it.

He remarks, for instance, that Macaulay’s work, with its wider implications, remains within the bounds of responsible history; and that Stubbs’s Constitutional History, while Whiggish in structure and outlook, is written with a scrupulous respect for the integrity of the historian’s materials and for the social arrangements of the past.

At the end of his book, Mr. Burrow confronts a paradoxical situation: having “exposed” the Whig interpretation for more than three hundred pages, how can he himself avoid ending up as a Whig historian? “It would not be hard,” he writes, “to idealise the episodes of English historiography described here, aided by the elegiac quality which tends to attach to the conclusions of historical works, often reflecting not so much anything in the history itself as the fact that the story told about it is reaching its end.”

Clearly it will not do for Mr. Burrow to end on such a Whiggish note of celebration. So he shocks his readers with a wisecrack. “On the whole,” he remarks, “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 a safe bet that neither Macaulay nor Stubbs nor Freeman nor Froude concluded any of his works in this fashion. Indeed, even Mr. Burrow feels constrained to add one more paragraph in which he duly notes the benefit, offered by a reading of the mid-Victorian historians, of seeing one society and culture reflected through another.

The fact that he does, after all, end on that positive and almost joyful note proves his own thesis that there is an innate Whiggishness in stories as such; and that as long as historians continue to tell stories dealing with entities more enduring than individual lives—crown, Parliament, the constitution, the working class, “or for that matter ‘the Whig tradition”’—there must be some depiction of change-in-continuity, just as there is bound to be climax or resolution at the end of the story. In that sense, then, Whiggism is perennial: a pudding mold that will never be melted down or, barring the grim prospect of a total triumph on the part of the cliometricians, retired to the British Museum.

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