Whig History - The Whig Historians Within A Tradition

The Whig Historians Within A Tradition

Paul Rapin de Thoyras's history of England, published in 1723, became "the classic Whig history" for the first half of the 18th century. Rapin claimed that the English had preserved their ancient constitution against the absolutist tendencies of the Stuarts. Rapin's history, however, lost its place as the standard history of England in the late 18th century and early 19th century to that of David Hume. In The History of England (1754-61), Hume challenged Whig views of the past and the Whig historians in turn attacked Hume; but they could not dent his history.

In the early 19th century some Whig historians came to incorporate Hume's views, dominant for the previous fifty years. These historians were members of the New Whigs around Charles James Fox (1749-1806) and Lord Holland (1773-1840), in opposition until 1830, and so "needed a new historical philosophy". Fox himself intended to write a history of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 but only managed the first year of James II's reign. A fragment was published in 1808. James Mackintosh then sought to write a Whig history of the Glorious Revolution, published in 1834 as the History of the Revolution in England in 1688. William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–69) and Henry Hallam's Constitutional History of England (1827) reveal many Whiggish traits. According to Arthur Marwick, Hallam was the first Whig historian.

Hume still dominated English historiography but this changed when Thomas Babington Macaulay, utilising Fox and Mackintosh's work and manuscript collections, published the first volumes of his The History of England from the Accession of James II in 1848. It proved an immediate success, replaced Hume's history and becoming the new orthodoxy. While Macaulay was a popular and celebrated historian of the Whig school, his work did not feature in Butterfield's 1931 book. According to Ernst Breisach "his style captivated the public as did his good sense of the past and firm Whiggish convictions". The first chapter of Macaulay's History of England proposes that:

I shall relate how the new settlement was, during many troubled years, successfully defended against foreign and domestic enemies; how, under that settlement, the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known; how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; how, by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible; how a gigantic commerce gave birth to a maritime power, compared with which every other maritime power, ancient or modern, sinks into insignificance; how Scotland, after ages of enmity, was at length united to England, not merely by legal bonds, but by indissoluble ties of interest and affection; how, in America, the British colonies rapidly became far mightier and wealthier than the realms which Cortes and Pizarro had added to the dominions of Charles the Fifth; how in Asia, British adventurers founded an empire not less splendid and more durable than that of Alexander.
... (T)he history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement.

William Stubbs (1825-1901), the constitutional historian and influential teacher of a generation of historians, became a crucial figure in the later survival and respectability of Whig history. According to Reba Soffer

His rhetorical gifts often concealed his combination of High Church Anglicanism, Whig history, and civic responsibility.

George Kitson Clark writes

...the survival of the myth through the times of Stubbs is one of the most interesting and significant facts in its history. ... indeed it was largely later 19th century historians who converted that very equivocal, essentially medieval character Simon de Montfort into a forward-looking, Liberal-minded statesman with a profound understanding of the virtues of representative government.

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