Modern Pioneers: Herbert Butterfield
Scientific and Christian
October 1, 2001
"It was the fallacy of Whiggish history!" The student concluded her history paper triumphantly, and the history professor, nodding in agreement, gave her an A. For decades the accusation resounded in colleges and universities of the English-speaking world to refute the dominant way of doing history. Little did most of the accusers know that they were calling on the rhetorical power of Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979).
Butterfield's Whig Interpretation of History made his name as a historian. When he published it, he was a Cambridge fellow, barely 31, slight of build, and very shy. His book, really just a rambling essay, was similarly unimposing. Readers found it difficult to fathom, yet somehow provocative and compelling. The very strangeness of the phrase "Whig interpretation of history" lodged in the memory.
Butterfield defined Whiggish history this way: "What is discussed is the tendency of many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present."
Though Butterfield had in mind the English Whigs who drew a straight line from the Magna Carta to their own sense of liberty, his observation also fit others: capitalist historians who justify the domination of the industrial West, American historians who chronicle the sure rise of the United States to world power, liberal social historians who trace the triumph of the middle classes, and evangelicals who deem themselves the direct descendents of Paul, Martin Luther, or any other key figure.
In place of the straight-line story, Butterfield modeled historical study as the analysis ...