In this month’s “From the President” column in Perspectives in History, AHA president William Cronon explores the history of Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield’s book became famous for its critique of progressive narratives of history that were too focused on the triumph of liberty and freedom. Cronon argues that “whiggish” history can easily degenerate into presentism and teleological views of the past that fail to understand it on its own terms.
But at the same time, Cronon argues, it is really hard to avoid engaging in Whig history, especially when historians try to reach a larger public. Cronon’s thoughts here remind me of a line from James Banner’s Being a Historian in which he suggests that historians who want to reach a public audience should not be afraid of committing the “Whig fallacy of presentism.”
Here is a taste of Cronon’s column:
Whenever historians seek to make their knowledge accessible to a wider world—whether in books, classrooms, museums, videos, websites, or blogs—they unfailingly abridge, simplify, analyze, synthesize, dramatize, and render judgments about why things happened as they did in the past, and why people should still care today. But they need not commit the worst sins of whiggishness when they do so. The characters in their stories need not wear white or black hats, and will feel more richly human for being understood on their own terms. Even when such characters are viewed as agents of progressive change, they need not be treated as if they were comrades in arms. The path they followed can honestly be seen as a winding one, with many an unexpected twist and turn, to serve as a reminder of the contingencies that prevent change from being inevitable. Finally, we can be scrupulous in trying not to judge them by standards that would feel unfair even to us if plucked from our own futures and applied to ourselves. All these are among the lessons for which Butterfield’s book remains a compelling guide.
Still, the ambiguously partial praise I offer here is not just for The Whig Interpretation of History but also for the unitalicized (and lowercased) whig interpretation(s) of history that the book criticizes. Although Butterfield’s generation of historians learned to be suspicious of stirring narratives that played fast and loose with historical complexities, and although subsequent generations have learned to be equally suspicious of the oppressions that dominant triumphalist narratives can impose on the less hegemonic histories they too often silence, we still cannot evade the storytelling task of distilling history’s meanings. Historians exist to explain the past to the present. Things happened back then. People really did change. Empires rose and fell. New knowledge emerged. People tried to make sense of their lives and struggled to serve their visions of the good. Although such events, ideas, and actions were never simple, and although we need our best technical skills to understand them, the histories we write typically end somewhere different from where they begin. A new thing emerges by the end of our story that was not there in the beginning. Because Butterfield’s definition of whiggishness was so broad, any narrative describing and analyzing (and maybe even celebrating) that new thing is at risk to be called whiggish. One of Butterfield’s own best-known books was entitled The Origins of Modern Science, 1300–1800, which by tracing a line from origins to modernity would seem to partake of at least a little whiggishness itself. Just so does his work still speak in all its contradictions to this digital age. And just so do I say: two cheers for the whig interpretation of history.