All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of drunkard’s eye. All’s Whiggery now,
But we old men are massed against the world.
—W. B. Yeats
Outside Thomas Bramwell Welch’s “unfermented wine,” surely Whig History remains the foulest invention of the 19th century. What is this treacherous human construction? According to historiographer and hipster conservative sensei Herbert Butterfield, Whig History is a historical narrative that paints the past as march toward inevitable enlightenment and inexorable progress. The present is the standard and justifies the past. Those parties, men, and (much over-estimated) “forces” in history that champion or prelude the Whiggish ideal of democratic government, liberalized personal freedoms, and scientific accomplishment stand as undeniable heroes; those which oppose this movement towards progress must be understood as authoritarian villains intent on accumulation of power, superstition, and widespread ignorance.
Although the case against this approach has already been made with incisive scholarship, I will try to make a quick if insufficiently thorough rebuttal before moving on. Whig history ignores the multiple failures and uncertainties of science and technology in particular and the potentialities inherent in human choices in general. This progressive historiography also suffers from a chronological snobbery: what is new and present is invariably better than what was past. The present is the political, moral, and even spiritual gold standard from which we “objectively” judge other men, women, and their institutions. I must commend Mr. Smith for his winsome demolition of such nonsense. The history of the Whig is simple, streamlined, and inevitable. It is therefore boring and dishonest. The Whig historian cannot submit to chronological charity; thus, he can never understand.
In an age of populism, however, Whig history finds an avid audience. Slick and easy metanarratives of increasing freedom and progress provide addictive pseudo-historical fodder for the masses. Take for example the much-beloved Thomas Babington Macaulay. This Whig statesman carried his prejudices into his sizable body of writing. His widespread and lasting popularity speak to a ubiquitous Whiggishness in the Western historical understanding. To see the wordsmith at his work, let us look into the first chapter of his magnum opus, The History of England. In volume one of this massive series, Macaulay provides a bracing progression through the ancient and medieval eras. He later uses these eras as a background of contrast against the progressive forces of the early modern age. He works with a duality: parties either stand up for the somewhat bad ancient-medieval understandings or for the good Enlightenment Whig conceptions of society.
Ever since Thucydides, historians have had a tradition of presenting a “state of scholarship” in their introductions. Generally, a historian will lay out his gripes against peers and then reveals the issues he wishes to elucidate with his story. In this sense, history remains one of the subtlest forms of argumentation, since it is used as evidence in so many other fields of study. To alter the remembrance of the past is to alter the entirety of a debate. Macaulay participates in this grand custom, laying out his intention to illustrate
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. . . .
Notice the features of British Enlightenment latent in this encapsulation: property rights and law help secure individualist freedom, economic prosperity, and nationalistic grandeur. Locke would be proud, and so would many American “conservatives” (read: moderate Whigs). Macaulay does not stop to ask if this freedom can be sustained or if it might have drawbacks; he does not consider whether prosperity cuts into another sort of wealth; he does not question whether being “umpire among European powers” is necessarily a desirable and sustainable role. These states of affairs are laid out as unquestionable goods.
Later on, Macaulay’s unshakeable faith in the Supreme Present rises to more explicit terms:
Yet, unless I greatly deceive myself, the general effect of this chequered narrative will be to excite thankfulness in all religious minds, and hope in the breasts of all patriots. For the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement.
The last 160 years for Macaulay had been none other than the years of the Enlightenment, which we as conservatives tend to dislike with some virulence. However, the English historian condemns any nostalgic or reactionary impulse, any belief that the past could have something better for humankind, declaring, “Those who compare the age on which their lot has fallen with a golden age which exists only in their imagination may talk of degeneracy and decay: but no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present.” Any distanced critic who has a love for past wisdom and habits needs to understand that he is a stick in the mud.
We can see Macaulay’s Enlightenment tendencies when we look at his investigation of the Middle Ages, when “the darkness begins to break” after the age of fable. The period between A.D. 500 and 1500 is the typical object of scorn for innovative sophisters since it was the height of Christendom, religious authority, and hierarchical understanding. Macaulay, however, still has a strong affection for Christianity . . . just not the medieval kind. “The conversion of the Saxon colonists to Christianity was the first of a long series of salutary revolutions,” he argues, “It is true that the Church had been deeply corrupted both by that superstition and by that philosophy against which she had long contended, and over which she had at last triumphed.” An insight into the modern mind: it hates the pagan almost as much as the Christian. We see Macaulay instruct that Mother Church “had given a too easy admission to doctrines borrowed from the ancient schools, and to rites borrowed from the ancient temples.” Christianity as the fulfillment of the pagan? Hogwash! “Roman policy and Gothic ignorance, Grecian ingenuity and Syrian asceticism, had contributed to deprave her. Yet she retained enough of the sublime theology and benevolent morality of her earlier days to elevate many intellects, and to purify many hearts.” In other words, the heart of Christian faithfulness is abstracts and nicey-niceness. No wonder Whig politics chose Prohibition as its crowning policy. The rabid reformist spirit that fueled suffrage battles, problematic egalitarianism, and teetotalism needed justification on every level. The gods of science, industry, and all-around enlightenment supported such progressive policies. Of course history would also support these novelties. The good Bede is having a hard time keeping his supper down, but he’ll muscle through to church-state relations.
“That the sacerdotal order should encroach on the functions of the civil magistrate would, in our time, be a great evil. But that which in an age of good government is an evil may, in an age of grossly bad government, be a blessing,” continues the historian. Macauley sees the bishop accosting the king and nobles at court as the lesser of two evils, since “[i]t is better that mankind should be government by wise laws well administered, and by an enlightened public opinion, than by priestcraft: but it is better that men should be governed by priestcraft than by brute violence. . . . A society sunk in ignorance, and ruled by mere physical force, has great reason to rejoice when a class, of which the influence is intellectual and moral, rises to ascendancy,” he observes. “Such a class will doubtless abuses its power: but mental power, even when abused, is still a nobler and better power than that which consists merely in corporeal strength.” Enter rule by irresponsible cerebral elites (as opposed to aristocracy with noblesse oblige), stultifying bourgeois bureaucracy, and antiseptic “fairness.” O Nietzsche, Chesterton, Otega y Gasset, and even bat-crazy John Lyde Wilson, how have we need of thee!
In parting, we must be careful to avoid a conflation of the Whig with the Jacobin. I think the difference is more on of extent rather than type, but it bears noting. Macauley has no affection for that particularly virulent breed of 1700s pseudo-historians—which better merit the name “chronological paraphrasers”—that decided it would be a good idea to try to rewrite the human narrative to intellectually defecate on the preceding 1500 years or so. “These stories have drawn forth bitter expressions of contempt from some writers who, while they boasted of liberality, were in truth as narrow-minded as any monk of the dark ages,” howls the Whig, “and whose habit was to apply to all events in the history of the world the standard received in the Parisian society of the eighteenth century.” As a history major, I had to read Voltaire and Co.’s forays into historical writing; I can affirm that it is for good reason that only Gibbon’s efforts survived that century. Macaulay concludes,
Yet surely a system which, however deformed by superstition, introduced strong moral restraints into communities previously governed only by vigour of muscle and by audacity of spirit, a system which taught the fiercest and mightiest ruler that he was, like his meanest bondman, a responsible being, might have seemed to deserve a more respectful mention from philosophers and philanthropists.
I think this final insight should serve as a warning: the Whig is moderate and socially attractive. The Jacobin wants to turn the world upside down with violence for the sake of an unknown-yet-inevitably-better future. The Whig is also a futurist. He simply exudes the attractive ethos of reform, democratic sentiments, and the elimination of evil. The mad howl in the wilderness, of ancient evil and primeval good, must be shut out of the city. The terrifying choices that protagonists make in time are too wild for an age of progress. The potentialities of human free will must be channeled into easily defined dichotomies of “good” progress and “bad” reservation. For the Whig, the study of history is not a restraint to be cast off as we see with the 1700s chroniclers. Instead, the past provides dead instruments that we wield to clinically secure the future, i.e. the vision in our heads. The remembered past does not form us; we shape it. In a word, Whig history is idolatry. As Yeats claimed, in removing the drunk down below, the Whig also cannot abide the saint.