Whig interpretation

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Whig history, as it is usually called, was both a methodology and a series of messages about Britain's past. Its methodological assumptions were two: the study of British history should be rooted in political or constitutional developments; and the past could, indeed should, be assessed with the present, or present controversies, constantly in mind. Most professional historians now regard these assumptions with disdain. The general messages promoted by Whig history included the notions that Britain's past was the history of progress, that ‘things’ went well (certainly better than ‘elsewhere’), that this progress was largely the work of accommodating elites and popular support for liberties, that its prime domestic product was the ‘matchless’ British constitution, and, finally, that the benefits obtained were graciously extended to other peoples scattered around the globe.

Whig history went through various phases. It started life in the seventeenth century as partisan history; English history as seen by those who opposed, in the name of the ancient constitution, the attempts by all Stuart monarchs between 1603 and 1688, to subvert that constitution and impose a foreign model of government: namely, absolutist monarchy. In the eighteenth century it became party history, that is to say, the Whig party's interpretation of the curious and embarrassing events of 1688 and 1714, when an essentially conservative national elite ditched kings they disliked for others (foreigners) they thought they would like. These episodes required an explanation and justification. Whig (party) history provided it. In the nineteenth century Whig history became the orthodox history of professional historians. Thomas Babington Macaulay's five‐volume History of England published between 1848 and 1861 promotes with some style most of the general themes mentioned above.

Four criticisms are commonly levelled at Whig history. First, that the past should be studied for its own sake (and in manageable chunks), not as historical overviews designed to make a point about the present. Secondly, Whig history was winners' history, the history of the successful—wealthy conservative English Anglicans—and it has little to say about Ranters (or ravers), the lower orders, the ‘crowd’, Catholics, the Scots, and so on. Thirdly, it was altogether too contemptuous of foreign models of political development. Finally, it completely ignored, or was unable to digest, Britain's decline since the late nineteenth century.


Subjects: Politics.

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