The Whiggish View of History

From The Wall Street Journal:

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel “A Handful of Dust” (1934), Lady Brenda Last remarks of her husband’s beloved ancestral home, Hetton Abbey: “I detest it . . . at least I don’t mean that really, but I do wish sometimes that it wasn’t all, every bit of it, so appallingly ugly.” Her husband, Tony Last, will do anything to keep up the old ways. Though lacking any semblance of religious feeling, he dutifully attends the village church every Sunday and sits in the pine pew that his great-grandfather installed there generations ago. While Tony is fussing over his neo-Gothic pile, Brenda takes a flat in London “with limitless hot water and every transatlantic refinement.”

These two figures represent opposite strains of the approach of the English to their own history: One, the Tory disposition, is backward-looking, full of reverence for authority and the shared continuities that the past provides; the other is forward-looking, ever conscious of the seemingly steady march of progress—the Whig view. The two strains were well in evidence in the 18th century, the so-called Georgian era in which differing versions of English self-definition jostled for ascendancy.

In “Charting the Past,” the prolific British historian Jeremy Black aims to examine the ways in which 18th-century English writers and thinkers studied their country’s past and, often, formed narratives to serve their own ends or special causes.

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To take one rather fanciful example, the anonymous pamphlet “Letter From a Gentleman in Worcestershire to a Member of the Parliament” (1727) invoked the ninth-century Viking invasions to urge the importance of fending off a Russian-led invasion from Norway–Denmark. Other lessons were more explicitly political. The Whig historian (and member of Parliament) George Lyttelton in 1735, touted the idea of an “ancient constitution” that had originated with the Saxons, survived the Norman Conquest and continued on in common law as England’s guarantor of freedom from tyranny—that is, in his view, freedom from the divine-right absolutism of the Tories. Meanwhile the Toryish Mary Astell could argue by analogy for a strong contemporary monarchy in 1704 by maintaining that “there were many causes that contributed to the felicity of Q. Elizabeth’s reign, but her magnanimous resolution and stout exertion of her just authority, were none the least of it.”

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History now shows us that the accession of the staunchly Protestant William and Mary in 1689, replacing the Catholic James II, ensured that a Catholic would not again sit on England’s throne. But the threat (or thrilling prospect) of Catholicism was rarely far from the minds of English historians. To some, the suppression of the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745—aimed at restoring the Stuarts by installing the descendants of James II—suggested that the “papists” were defeated and would not menace England again. But to others, the uprisings meant that the Catholic threat would be ever-present. Bishop Lavington of Exeter—in a tract called “The Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists Compar’d” (1749)—even argued that Methodists were crypto-papists.

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Here we encounter men like William Hutchinson, “a solicitor and topographer, who found time, as clerk to the Lord Lieutenant of Durham, to write history,” wherein he gloried in the Druids and blamed the ancient Romans for introducing licentiousness to the British Isles. And though learned men are well represented in Mr. Black’s account, he is also attuned to the many chancers on the scene, such as Thomas Percy, “a grocer’s son who sought to show his descent from the medieval Dukes of Northumberland.” Percy chased fame by publishing “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry” (1765), “an edition of old ballads, which promoted a revival of interest in the subject.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal