|[a] Whiggery's Opposite RF|
That is the narrative of the "Whig historian," according to Herbert Butterfield's slender little 1931 classic. History is just one great climb to constitutional government (in monarchic form for the British Whig party). The growth and development of natural science—ever perfected, always rising to new heights—plays right into the ol' framework, too. History. It's what's for progress.
Whiggery of whiggeries; all is whiggery.
|[b] Ascent RF|
Politics can be terribly messed up in this regard. The temptation to describe the past as a long, sometimes winding, path toward one's own point of view is very tempting. It goes a little like this: we are all sure to reach that big driveway of progress at the end of the historical road if you just vote for me. Just take a look at the Republican presidential primary debates if you need an example of vituperative teleology in action. That Professor Newt Gingrich, Doctor of Philosophy sometimes seems to be the Whig in Chief is a little perplexing for me (he is stamped with the approval of a Ph.D. in history, after all). It affects other candidates, too. Concord is in New Hampshire...but the battle wasn't. Moreover, a certain Texan thinks the state has the right to secede from the union; any junior high school student in Corpus Christi could tell him that he's wrong (it is true that five little versions of Texas could sprout from the main vine, but that is another matter). Taken together, it is a mind-boggling performance of argumentative ineptitude, a kind of Bachman-Perry Overdrive, and a peculiarly unbookish form of whiggishness.
Herbert Butterfield understood the temptations and the pitfalls of "whiggery," a term that has stuck in the eight decades since he published his essay. It is difficult to get very far in historical studies these days without noticing occasional sneering references to the "whiggishness" of other historians' narratives.
"I mean, (cough, cough) it is almost as though he paved the road from the
|[c] Experimental RF|
"What boorish whiggery. Tsk, tsk."
Trust me, in history classrooms at least, it is never a term spoken with approval. The one exception would be neutral reference to, say, Millard Fillmore as the "last of the American Whigs." This is hardly soaring rhetoric, and scarcely rises to the narrative heights of, say, James Fenimore Cooper, who knew a thing or two about "last of"...stuff.
For practicing (and teaching) historians, "whig" only sometimes is followed by the word "party." It is far more popular as a term of denigration, a pointed phrasing (like "sic") meant to heap abuse on lesser minds and methodologies. Politicians take the biggest hit, as we have seen. After them, science writers—at least the less proficient among them—are commonly singled out for abuse, since it is exceedingly common for them to focus upon experimental success (and progress) while ignoring the kinds of failure about which two doubting Thomas figures (Edison and Kuhn) wrote so eloquently.
Nope, history is messy, says Butterfield (and so say I). Here is the conclusion to The Whig Interpretation of History, which is witty...and a little messy. The prose is pointed and often quite funny ("perhaps all history-books hold a danger for those who do not know a great deal of history already").
Butterfield's gendered references to the historian ("he") and history ("she") is less hilarious, even for 1931. You see, it is not just "history" that is messy; historiography is, too. I leave the original language here, and certainly hope that readers will not assume (beware the Whigs!) that English usage has made the slow ascent toward perfect, non-gendered language now, in the rarefied mountaintop air of today.
You know that you are much too fine a(n) historian for that, don't you?
|[d] Interpretation RF|
|[e] Roman Britain RF|
|[f] Remote, past RF|