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The Brilliant Misfit

Lewis Namier

by Linda Colley
St. Martin’s, 132 pp., $24.95

When I studied history at Oxford in the early 1950s, there was no historian of whose intellectual presence my fellow undergraduates and I were more conscious than Sir Lewis Namier. Of course, we had never met him, for he was a professor at Manchester, not Oxford. Indeed, we knew that dislike for his notoriously obsessive personality, tinged by some residual anti-Semitism (or at least anti-Zionism), had kept him out of a succession of Oxford chairs for any of which he would, on purely intellectual grounds, have been overwhelmingly the most distinguished candidate. My own college, Balliol, however, held out the hand of recognition that the University as a whole had been unwilling to extend.

In 1948 it elected him to an Honorary Fellowship, an honor which he prized above all others, though characteristically regarding it as an act of reparation for his not having been made a tutorial fellow of the college when he briefly taught there after World War I. It was at Balliol that he had studied history between 1908 and 1911, when he came under the influence of A.L. Smith, whom he later described as “perhaps the best history teacher of our time,” and whose example of unremitting tutorial work, to the exclusion of research and publication, he determined never to follow.

As a loyal Balliol man, therefore, Namier readily accepted the invitation of the college History Society to be the guest at one of its regular dinners; and it was there that I first saw and heard him. The impression he made was intimidating, even hostile. A looming presence, with hooded eyes and a forbidding mouth, he spoke with a harsh foreign accent in an intense manner which indicated that irreverent contradiction from callow undergraduates would not be well received. I remember little of what he said, though I do recall his stressing the importance of recycling anything we might one day write: one of his essays on George III had, he said, been published in five different places; and he had been paid for it on each occasion. He also declared that historians should read only primary sources and ignore what other historians had said: he himself had never read Lecky’s History of England in the Eighteenth Century when he wrote The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III. (I was subsequently surprised to see that Lecky is cited more than once in the footnotes to that work.)

Despite his uningratiating manner, we all felt that we were in the presence of someone of unusual distinction; and the disconcerting nature of his personality did nothing to diminish the reverence in which we held his work. The 1950s were the decade in which Namier’s influence was at its peak. In 1952 he was knighted. Belated recognition came from the University of Oxford in the form of an honorary doctorate and an invitation to deliver the Romanes Lecture. A band of devoted followers began to apply his methods not just to the study of eighteenth-century politics but also to other periods from the Long Parliament to the age of Peel. “Namierites” and “Namierization” became accepted terms of art which in due course would enter the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1958 a writer alluded to “the Namierian revolution in historical method.” When Namier died in 1960 he was the most celebrated professional historian in Britain.

Since his death, Namier’s life and work has been much discussed. His collaborator John Brooke has explained the principles underlying his reconstruction of eighteenth-century politics.1 His friend Isaiah Berlin has unforgettably evoked his opinions and personality.2 Norman Rose has traced his role in the Zionist movement.3 Innumerable historians have debated his historical method and achievement.4 Above all, the brilliant biography by Namier’s widow draws so heavily upon her husband’s conversations and recollections as to be in part virtually the historian’s autobiography.5

It could hardly be expected, therefore, that Linda Colley should produce any startling revelation about this much-studied man or a fundamentally new reassessment of his historical oeuvre. Nevertheless, she has provided a wholly admirable analysis of Namier and his work, lucid, acute, and judicious, drawing on some unpublished material and, as might have been expected from an eighteenth-century historian, particularly good on Namier’s studies of Hanoverian England. Her account of Namier as a historian of nineteenth-century Europe and commentator on twentieth-century affairs is more cursory, but since this side of his work, though powerful, was ultimately more ephemeral, the balance of her book is entirely justifiable. Future students of Namier and Namierism can turn to Linda Colley’s essay with complete confidence that it fairly and shrewdly describes the lineaments of its subject.

Colley portrays Namier as an exile and a misfit, whose life was an unceasing quest for his own identity. Born in Russian Poland in 1888, Ludwik Bernsztajn vel Niemiriowski was the son of an assimilated Jewish administrator of a landed estate. Not until he was nine years old did he learn that he was Jewish. He rebelled against his father, briefly took up socialism, and in 1907 came, after studying in Lausanne, to Britain, where he (more than once) changed his name.

His subsequent life was a bundle of contradictions. He was a Jew, but had never been circumcised. He worked relentlessly for the Zionist cause, yet in 1947, on his marriage to his second wife, he chose to be baptized a Christian. A disinherited son, he chose to study great eighteenth-century landowners. A lonely outsider, he became obsessed by the causes of social cohesion. He lacked most of the social graces, yet was drawn irresistibly to the society of the British upper classes. As a conversationalist, he was both dazzling and a bore. His colleague J.P. Cooper recalls “his relentless lack of concern with his audience’s patience,” while Arnold Toynbee has related how his wife caught a chill by standing in a howling wind as Namier recited to her the original Slav names of numerous towns in East Germany.

Passionate in his commitment to Palestine as the Jewish national home, he paradoxically denied the importance of ideas in political life. He disliked the revolutions of 1848, Linda Colley says, because they were

led by ideologues, intellectuals and academics who enjoyed dabbling in politics: and Namier—an ideologue, an intellectual and an academic who enjoyed dabbling in politics—had no patience with such creatures.

Relentlessly hard-working and overwhelmingly ambitious, he never completed any of his major projects. His eighteenth-century studies had originally been intended to explain why Britain lost its American empire but gained another: the answer to this question will never be extracted from his minutely detailed analysis of Parliament and political maneuvering between 1760 and 1762. He projected a history of Europe in the nineteenth century, but never wrote it. Neither his biographical work on the members of the House of Commons between 1754 and 1790 nor his study of the politician Charles Townshend had been completed when he died in 1960.

Laden with honors, he remained to the end anxious and insecure. For the last twenty years of his life, a psychosomatic illness deprived him of the effective use of his right hand. In one of his essays he wrote that “a man, to attain full moral stature and intellectual poise, to enjoy life and be socially creative, has to be at ease: this is seldom given to Jews.”

What was it that entitles this tortured and unhappy being to an enduring place among the twentieth century’s greatest figures? It is not his reinterpretation of eighteenth-century British political history, important though that was. At the time Namier’s Structure of Politics (1929) and England in the Age of the American Revolution (1931) undoubtedly changed the conventional view of the significance of George III’s accession. Namier showed that, contrary to the prevailing view among historians, the young king did not set out to subvert the constitution, that he did not have a sinister party of King’s Friends, and that his ideas and actions were conventional enough by the standards of the time. As for the supposed “corruption” of the Court party, the Duke of Newcastle’s secret service fund, “when uncovered and measured, prove[d] to have been after all but a small rivulet,‌and not nearly as dirty as generally supposed.”

Namier further showed that the mid-eighteenth-century House of Commons did not work according to a two-party system, but was made up of three different kinds of MP: the placemen and officeholders, who would always support the government of the day; the independent country gentry, who sought neither office nor advancement; and the professional politicians, from whom successive administrations were formed. Namier revealed politics to have been shaped not simply by party labels, but by a complex pattern of kinship, affinity, patronage, and local interest. “The political life of the period could be fully described without ever using a party denomination.” He regarded this proposition as a “non-Euclidian system,” requiring “a fundamental readjustment of ideas and, what is more, of mental habits.”

This was undoubtedly a spectacular reversal of the traditional Whig view, shaped as it had been by the opinions of the disgruntled faction of Rockingham Whigs, who were in opposition during the late 1760s and 1770s, and came to power only toward the end of the American war. Their view that the Whigs were men of principle who had been ousted by the cabal of King’s Friends was memorably expressed in Edmund Burke’s Thoughts on the Present Discontents, where party conflict was described as “a generous contention for power,” which could be easily distinguished from “a mean and interested struggle for place and emolument.” The last great Whig historian, G.M. Trevelyan, magnanimously conceded in 1930 that “Mr. Namier is a new factor in the historical world.”

Subsequent commentary, notably by Richard Pares in his King George III and the Politicians (1953), would qualify Namier’s interpretation by showing that he underplayed the young king’s determination to reform the system. George III’s appointment as his chief minister of the Earl of Bute, who as a Scottish peer was not even a member of Parliament at the time, may have been technically proper, but it was undoubtedly a departure from custom.

Later scholars have also modified Namier’s view of political parties by drawing attention to all the factors that he neglected, notably the power of extraparliamentary opinion, particularly in the large constituencies, and the influence of conflicting political ideas. The early 1760s appear now as a highly untypical period and a poor basis for larger generalizations about the eighteenth-century political scene.

More fundamentally, many recent historians of the eighteenth century have shed Namier’s preoccupations altogether. They no longer agonize about the intentions of George III, for they have moved away from parliamentary or even political history to social, economic, and intellectual topics far from Namier’s concern. As Paul Langford remarks in his magisterial new survey of eighteenth-century England, “the ancient debate about the intentions and practice of George III has lost its urgency.”6 Even in Namier’s lifetime, a reviewer could remark apropos of Herbert Butterfield’s attack on Namier in his George III and the Historians (1957), that it “is perhaps the strangest thing of all to find so impressive a controversy reared on the insoluble, and to some extent uninteresting, question of what exactly were the relationships between George III, the Duke of Newcastle, and Lord Bute in the years following 1760.”7

  1. 1

    John Brooke, “Namier and Namierism,” in History and Theory, Vol. III, No. 3 (1964), pp. 331–347.

  2. 2

    Isaiah Berlin, “L.B. Namier,” in Personal Impressions (Penguin, 1982), pp. 63–82.

  3. 3

    Norman Rose, Lewis Namier and Zionism (Oxford University Press, 1980).

  4. 4

    The most acute appraisals include Lucy S. Sutherland, “Sir Lewis Namier, 1888–1960, Proceedings of the British Academy, xlviii (1962); John Cannon, “Lewis Bernstein Namier,” in The Historian at Work, ed. John Cannon (Allen Unwin, 1980); J.P. Cooper, Land, Men and Beliefs, eds. G.E. Aylmer and J.S. Morrill (Hambledon Press, 1983), pp. 251–259; John Kenyon, The History Men (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984), pp. 251–269; and The Making of an Historian: The Collected Essays of J.H. Plumb, Volume 1 (University of Georgia Press, 1989), pp. 10–19.

  5. 5

    Julia Namier, Lewis Namier: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1971).

  6. 6

    Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England, 1727–1783 (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 756.

  7. 7

    The Structure of History,” Times Literary Supplement (November 22, 1957), p. 698.

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