Lewis Namier
Lewis Namier; drawing by David Levine

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

But changing historical preoccupations do not diminish Namier’s importance. For it was not in the details of his interpretation of George III and Bute, or even in his denial of the continuity of party struggles in English history, that the Namierite revolution consisted. What Namier did was to establish altogether new standards of scholarly precision in the study of modern political history. His analysis of the composition of the 1761 Parliament was a work of unprecedented rigor. By ignoring the views of previous historians and refusing to accept unverified assumptions, however longstanding, Namier demonstrated that there was no substitute for direct and laborious engagement with the original sources. In words that foreshadow much present-day historical thinking, he asserted that “one has to steep oneself in the political life of a period before one can safely speak, or be sure of understanding, its language.” His merciless, not to say sadistic, demolition of sloppy works of editing like C.W. Everett’s Letters of Junius (1927) and Sir John Fortescue’s Correspondence of King George III (1937) established once and for all that editions of modern historical sources had to be produced with the same standard of textual accuracy as that previously expected of classicists or medievalists.

This relentless concern for accuracy in detail reflected what Linda Colley rightly identifies as Namier’s positivist belief in the value of hard facts, empirically gathered. J.P. Cooper has shrewdly observed that it also served as an essential check upon Namier’s own private passions, which could only too readily run away with him, as his polemical journalism abundantly showed.

Whatever its psychological or intellectual roots, Namier’s belief in the all-importance of the exact study of microscopic detail, building up a structure piece by piece, set a pattern for an entire generation of historical research, much of it on topics and periods far removed from the eighteenth century. To those who disliked the consequent neglect of narrative, Namier replied that the reader should not grudge the time spent on details:

We distinguish trees by considering their general shape and their characteristic details, for instance, the leaf or the bark; while seemingly more prominent features, such as the circumference, the number of branches, etc., can be safely disregarded, as can so many things which lend themselves best to historical narrative.

A searchlight concentrated at the focal point, he told John Brooke, would give more light than rows of candles.

Namier’s other great contribution to historical method was the study of collective biography: prosopography as it has come to be known. Of course, he was not the first historian to think that an institution could be best understood by analyzing the lives of its members. But no one has ever devoted himself to this proposition with such unrelenting zeal. In his essay, “The Biography of Ordinary Men” (1928), Namier urged the case for a Dictionary of Parliamentary Biography, and, after the foundation of the History of Parliament Trust in 1951, he devoted his last years to slaving away in a basement in the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research on the parliamentary biography of the late eighteenth century. It is easy to laugh today at Namier’s notion that members of Parliament were “ordinary men” or his faith that the House of Commons offered an “invaluable microcosmic picture of England.” But though the volumes of the History of Parliament have a more limited potential than Namier envisaged, they constitute a valuable and enduring work of reference. Namier’s belief in the necessity of organized collective research aroused much hostility in the individualistic historical profession of his day, but, in an electronic age, the importance of collaborative group research has come to be taken for granted.

Namier also has some claim to be regarded as a founder of the more doubtful science of psychohistory. He was greatly impressed by Freud, of whose works he made his own translations, and he was analyzed in 1921 by Theodor Reik. Though cautioning against “superficial, hasty judgements framed in a nauseating jargon,” he had no doubt that “one of the most important lines of advance for history, and especially for biography, will be through a knowledge of modern psychology.” Confidently believing in the existence of fixations, psychological displacements and projections, he maintained that

a man’s relation, for instance to his father or to his nurse, may determine the pattern of his later political conduct or of his intellectual preoccupations without his being in the least conscious of the connection.

In the history of the Hanoverian dynasty he found abundant support for Freud’s belief in the inevitability of conflict between fathers and sons.

Nearly all Namier’s eighteenth-century figures are accordingly portrayed as neurotics. George III “spent joyless years in a well-regulated nursery, the nearest approach to a concentration camp”; his was an “unbalanced, tortured mind” and his insanity a form of manic depression. Newcastle’s nature and mind “were warped, twisted, and stunted, and his life must have been agony, though perhaps he himself did not clearly realize how much he suffered.” Charles Townshend was the victim of a domineering father: “instead of sensing reality, he would argue against it.” As for Bute, “sense of reality had he none.” Namier’s writings are studded with pen portraits of individuals wrecked by their upbringing, like Philip Stanhope, son of the Earl of Chesterfield, who was paralyzed by the desire to please his father and the fear of displeasing him. Namier even thought Locke’s political theory inadequate because it implied that a political adult could successfully excise all the memories and instincts of childhood.

With human nature such a seething cauldron of inner torment, there was little room in history for reason, Namier regarded political ideas as the mere rationalization of deeper passions: “what matters most is the underlying emotions, the music, to which ideas are a mere libretto, often of very inferior quality.” His scorn for Burke’s “cant,” George III’s “claptrap,” and all forms of abstract theory has won him some justifiable reproaches from later historians, though his critics tend to pass over his admission that “the terms in which men try to account for their actions are of supreme importance.” Namier’s real error was to underrate the extent to which the prevailing mental assumptions of an age will determine people’s behavior, not in the sense of providing a rationalization for their actions, but in fundamentally shaping their view of what a rational way of acting might be.

The cynicism implicit in most of Namier’s reflections on human nature accounted for much of his contemporary appeal. During the postwar decades the characteristic attitude of most academic historians was one of tired disillusion. They punctured myths, deflated legends, and revealed the presence of unworthy motives behind high-sounding ideals. Namier affected an Olympian detachment from “the human antheap” and “the senseless irrelevancy of so-called thought and action.” The genre to which he aspired was that of “historical comedy”; it was “for purposes of historical comedy, and with a view to destroying some beautiful and very rational legends,” that he expounded the story of Newcastle and Bute. It is ironic that present-day students of so-called high politics trace their descent from his critic Herbert Butterfield. For they share Namier’s contempt for large electorates and his belief that men no more dreamed of a seat in the House of Commons in order to benefit humanity “than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others may eat it.”8

Only when it came to the Germans did Namier’s cynicism turn into passionate loathing. This antipathy led him into unnecessarily harsh judgments on those politicians who, in his view, had eased the way for Hitler during the 1920s and 1930s. As D.C. Watt pointed out in a courageous article, published in 1954, when his subject was at the height of his renown, Namier wrote twentieth-century history in the spirit of a prosecuting counsel or a French judge, ruthless with the witnesses.9 (I remember the horror in Oxford when Watt’s article appeared. It was shown to me furtively and passed around in Baillol, as if it were a piece of academic pornography.)

Yet Namier’s feelings about Germany, which went back to his Polish roots, proved only too prescient. Well before World War I, he regarded the Germans as “a deadly menace to Europe and to civilization.” In 1915, in his first and least known book, Germany and Eastern Europe, he wrote the following prophetic words:

Even the cruelty of a Tartar does not approach that of a German; the German beats the Mongol in being dispassionate, systematic, and scientific. In almost every Jewish pogrom in Russia the moving spirit has been a person of German extraction.

And he continued:

Those who expect a profound moral revolution in Germany as a result of this War are mistaken…. The Kaiser may lose his crown, the Hohenzollerns may go into exile, even the Junkers may be swept away, a junto of Berlin Socialists may rule Germany, and militarism will survive as long as there remains alive one single true German capable of bearing arms…. Twenty years hence the effects of the present war will once more make themselves felt.

It is not surprising that he subsequently saw the Third Reich not as an aberration, but “the correct consummation of the German era in history.” He described Hitler, for all his Austrian birth, as “probably one of the most representative Germans that ever lived.”

Anyone stimulated by Linda Colley’s book into rereading Namier’s oeuvre will quickly discern that his historical philosophy was both shaped and scarred by his frustrated passions: his quarrel with his father, his quest for identity, and his sense of repeated rejection. But the overwhelming impression left by his writings is of gigantic intellectual power. Namier’s prose is uneven: long, undigested quotations are left to speak for themselves; and there is very little narrative. Yet repeatedly these arid wastes are lit up by brilliant flashes in which truly memorable remarks are made in oracular fashion:

Conflicts between individuals are almost invariably duels fought in the dark.

Most frontier problems in Europe are due to incomplete conquests in the past.

Revolutionaries…march like armies on their stomachs, except that theirs have to be empty.

The biggest blunders in the world are committed by men with serious faces who feel uncomfortable in their own minds, talk a great deal, and never enjoy themselves.

On careful inquiry it will be found that the coming in of American wheat has wrought a greater change in the composition of the British House of Commons than the first two Reform Acts.

There are scores, perhaps hundreds, of such memorable dicta in Namier’s works. They remind us that, however unfashionable his views may become, they can never be ignored. Many would claim that the extraordinary combination of their historical insight and personal self-revelation makes the first forty pages of England in the Age of American Revolution the most remarkable single piece of historical writing in English. No one would dispute Linda Colley’s judgment on their author, that, “to a degree that is almost without parallel among the major professional historians of this century, he was a profoundly interesting man.”

This Issue

June 14, 1990