Whig History Is Back

Historians/History




The author is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. His book, Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, is being published this month by Free Press. His previous books are The Last Patrician, a New York Times Notable Book of 1998, and Jefferson’s Demons.

In 1931, a Cambridge don, Herbert Butterfield, published The Whig Interpretation of History.  The Whig historian, Butterfield said, is a bad historian because in embracing the British Whigs’ faith in freedom he studies the past, not for its own sake, but “with reference to the present.”  In concentrating on the consequences, for liberty, of the acts of revolutionary statesmen, the Whig historian distorts history, and makes it into a narrative of the triumph of the free state, the summit or end of history. 1

Butterfield’s belief that Whig history is bad history became conventional wisdom.  To call an historian a Whig, J.G.A. Pocock observed in 1981, was to belittle him. 2  But in the 1990s a Whig revival began;  the fall of the Berlin Wall stirred interest in the question at the heart of Whig history—how are free states made, and how are they unmade?3   Where Progressive and Marxist historians interpreted episodes like the creation of the American Republic cynically, as defenses of property and class interests, a new generation of Whiggish historians took the founding seriously, as a crucial event in the history of freedom.4  

In a spate of books on the revolutionary statesmen of the early Republic, David McCullough, Richard Brookhiser, Ron Chernow, and Walter Isaacson cast the founders in a Whig light as avatars of freedom.  Gertrude Himmelfarb examined the contributions of British Enlightenment Whigs to liberty;  Akhil Amar offered a Whiggish interpretation of the Constitution. 5  In the past year more books with Whig themes have appeared, among them Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval, Michael Barone’s Our First Revolution, and Andrew Roberts’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900.
Detractors regard neo-Whiggery as a front for neo-conservatism’s faith in the inevitable triumph of free institutions.  But if they are to refute the new Whigs, such critics must do more than cite Butterfield’s book.  Butterfield expended much effort in demonstrating that Martin Luther was not a nineteenth-century freedom-fighter, but he failed to address later historical episodes where a Whig interpretation can, arguably, illuminate the question of how free states are made.  And he said little about the greatest work in the Whig canon, Macaulay’s history of the Revolution of 1688.  As well refute Marxism without taking into account Das Kapital.

In writing about three upheavals that shook the world between 1861 and 1871—Lincoln’s revolution in America, the unification of Germany under Bismarck, and the liberation of the Russian serfs by Alexander II—I found the Whig perspective useful.  In analyzing Bismarck’s statesmanship, I could not escape the knowledge of its consequences for freedom.  Nor could Fritz Stern, who in Gold and Iron showed how Bismarck prepared the way for Hitler by stamping out the “dream of a liberal, humane Germany” and forging a “fatal and unprecedented” system of “constitutional absolutism,” a “mighty, militaristic country that would idolize power.” 6

No more could I evade the consequences of Lincoln’s statesmanship.  Had Lincoln not succeeded in saving the United States on principles of freedom, it is doubtful whether America would have been strong enough, or free enough, to resist the slave empires that emerged in Germany and Russia and that in the twentieth century aspired to world power.

Yet if Butterfield was too dogmatic in excluding, from the historian’s vision, a knowledge of subsequent events, he was on more solid ground when he argued that the historian who judges the past from the point of view of the present risks complacency.  Butterfield’s skepticism of the self-satisfied determinism that turns many Whig histories into triumphant pageants of liberty was anticipated by Lincoln himself, the greatest Whig of his age (if Whiggery means expansion of freedom).  Lincoln did not, like Butterfield, reject the Whig interpretation of history;  he instead reworked the facile, deterministic conception of progress which had characterized it since its inception in eighteenth-century Scottish historiography.  Lincoln gave Whig history what might be called a Dostoevskian twist.

Though Lincoln never read Dostoevsky, he was, like the Russian novelist, perplexed by the morally ambiguous qualities of revolutionary statesmanship, even when such statesmanship enlarged freedom.  In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Lincoln spoke of those who, like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, belong to “the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.”  “Towering genius,” he said, was amoral:  "It thirsts and burns for distinction;  and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen."7

Lincoln’s “eagle” statesman “would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire [distinction] by doing good as harm;  yet, that opportunity [to do good] being past,” he would “set boldly” to do harm.  In Crime and Punishment, which Dostoevsky began the year Lincoln died, Raskolnikov argues that the “‘extraordinary’ man” is similarly amoral:  he “has . . . an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep certain [moral] obstacles.”

Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals . . . and they did not stop short at bloodshed either, if that bloodshed—often of innocent persons fighting bravely in defense of ancient law—were of use to their cause.  It’s remarkable, in fact, that the majority, indeed, of these benefactors and leaders of humanity were guilty of terrible carnage.8

Raskolnikov argued that for his “extraordinary” man, all things are permitted if they enable him to do something great. 9  Lincoln argued that his “eagle” man will permit himself all things in order to do something historically distinctive.

Even as Lincoln orchestrated his liberating “Whig” revolution, he renounced the optimistic Whig triumphalism which Butterfield condemned.  He came to believe, with Raskolnikov, that the morally corrosive characteristics of revolutionary statesmanship—even revolutionary Whig statesmanship—must be expiated through suffering.  “The really great men,” Raskolnikov says, “must, I think, have great sadness on earth,” for they must expiate their morally ambivalent ambitiousness.  Lincoln agreed:  “If there is a worse place than Hell,” he said in 1862, “I am in it.”10   Shortly before he died Lincoln returned to Macbeth, a work that prefigures Crime and Punishment, and he meditated on the consequences of Macbeth’s ambition.11   “I think nothing equals Macbeth,” he said. 12 

Unlike Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Lincoln used his insight into the morally ambiguous nature of revolutionary statesmanship to revise the determinist Whig notion that the free state is the inevitable “end of history.”  In the vesper-music of his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln insisted that America’s story could still be a Whig story, a story of the victory of freedom over coercion.  But the outcome was not predetermined.  If progress were to continue, Americans would have to sweat—and suffer—for it.  They must, Lincoln said, abandon triumphalism and expiate their complicity in slavery. 13 

In the Second Inaugural Address Lincoln preserved what is valuable in Whig history—its faith in freedom—while he at the same time endowed it with humility and moral insight.  If Lincoln was right, Butterfield was wrong.  Whig history can illuminate the story of freedom—as long as the Whig historian tempers Macaulay with Dostoevsky.

1 Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: Norton, 1965), 11-14, 16, 24, 28, 62, 97.

2 See J.G.A. Pocock, “The Varieties of Whiggism from Exclusion to Reform” (1981), in Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 215.  Pocock recounts the cruel verdict which “an academic woman of high distinction” pronounced upon Caroline Robbins:  “But she is a Whig.”

3 Friedrich Hayek laid the groundwork for the Whig revival in his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty, a spirited defense of the Whig interpretation of history.  “It was the ideals of the English Whigs,” Hayek wrote, “that inspired what later came to be known as the liberal movement in the whole of Europe, and that provided the conceptions that the American colonists carried with them and which guided them in their struggle for independence and in the establishment of their constitution.”  Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 408.

4 See, for an example of the Progressive approach, Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1914).  Richard Hofstadter’s youthful Marxism arguably influenced his portrait of the founders in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Knopf, 1948).

5 Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (New York: Knopf, 2004).  In America’s Constitution: A Biography, Amar equated the development of the Constitution with the gradual enlargement of freedom.  “If this be Whiggism,” Amar wrote, “Americans should make the most of it.”  Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2006), 19.

6 Fritz Stern, Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire (New York: Vintage, 1979),94.

7 Lincoln, “Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois: The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” January 27, 1838.

8 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Random House, 1956), 234-35.

9 On Raskolnikov’s theory of “men to whom all is permitted,” see Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, 441.

10 Michael Knox Beran, Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made (New York: Free Press, 2007), 186.

11 Michael Knox Beran, “Lincoln, Macbeth, and the Moral Imagination,” Humanitas, vol. 11, no. 2 (1998), 14-15.

12 Lincoln to James H. Hackett, August 17, 1863.

13 See the Second Inaugural Address:  “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.  Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”



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