The British historian Herbert Butterfield coined the term "Whig history" in his short but influential book The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). It takes its name from the British Whigs, advocates of the power of Parliament, who opposed the Tories, advocates of the power of the king.
The term has been applied widely in historical disciplines outside of British history (the history of science, for example) to criticize any teleological (or goal-directed), hero-based, and transhistorical narrative. The abstract noun "Whiggishness" is sometimes used as a generic term for Whig historiography.
Whig history has no direct relation to either the British Whig or American Whig parties, and should not be confused with Whiggism, which is a political ideology. (The term "Whiggery" is ambiguous in contemporary usage: it may either mean party politics and ideology, or a general intellectual approach.)
When H. A. L. Fisher in 1928 gave a Raleigh lecture on The Whig Historians, from Sir James Mackintosh to Sir George Trevelyan he implied that "Whig historian" was adequately taken as a political rather than a progressive or teleological label; this put the concept into play. P. B. M. Blaas, author of the book Continuity and anachronism has argued that Whig history itself had lost all vitality by 1914.
Butterfield's book on the 'Whig interpretation' marked the emergence of a negative concept in historiography under a convenient phrase, but was not isolated. Undermining 'whiggish' narratives was one aspect of the post–World War I re-evaluation of European history in general, and Butterfield's critique exemplified this trend. Intellectuals no longer believed the world was automatically getting better and better. Subsequent generations of academic historians have similarly rejected Whig history because of its presentist and teleological assumption that history is driving toward some sort of goal. According to Victor Feske, there is too much readiness to accept Butterfield's classic formulation from 1931 as definitive. A study by Keith Sewell, Herbert Butterfield and the Interpretation of History, was published in 2005.
The characteristics of Whig history as defined by Butterfield include interpreting history as a story of progress toward the present, and specifically toward the British constitutional settlement. Butterfield wrote:
It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present [...]
Typical distortions thereby introduced are:Viewing the British parliamentary, constitutional monarchy as the apex of human political development;
Assuming that the constitutional monarchy was in fact an ideal held throughout all ages of the past, despite the observed facts of British history and the several power struggles between monarchs and parliaments;
Assuming that political figures in the past held current political beliefs (anachronism);
Assuming that British history was a march of progress whose inevitable outcome was the constitutional monarchy; and
Presenting political figures of the past as heroes, who advanced the cause of this political progress, or villains, who sought to hinder its inevitable triumph.
Butterfield argued that this approach to history compromised the work of the historian in several ways. The emphasis on the inevitability of progress leads to the mistaken belief that the progressive sequence of events becomes "a line of causation", tempting the historian to go no further to investigate the causes of historical change. The focus on the present as the goal of historical change leads the historian to a special kind of abridgement, selecting only those events that seem important from the present point of view.
Butterfield's antidote to Whig history was "to evoke a certain sensibility towards the past, the sensibility which studies the past 'for the sake of the past', which delights in the concrete and the complex, which 'goes out to meet the past', which searches for 'unlikenesses between past and present' ".
Butterfield's formulation has subsequently received much attention, and the kind of historical writing he argued against in generalized terms is no longer academically respectable. Despite its polemical success, Butterfield's celebrated book itself has been criticized by David Cannadine as slight, confused, repetitive and superficial.
Michael Bentley analyses the "Whig theory" according to Butterfield as equivalent to the formation of a canon of 19th-century historians of England (such as William Stubbs, James Anthony Froude, E. A. Freeman, J. R. Green, W. E. H. Lecky, Lord Acton, J. R. Seeley, S. R. Gardiner, C. H. Firth and J. B. Bury) that in fact excludes few except Thomas Carlyle; the theory identifies the common factors. Bentley comments that,
Carlyle apart, the so-called Whigs were predominantly Christian, predominantly Anglican, thinkers for whom the Reformation supplied the critical theatre of enquiry when considering the origins of modern England. When they wrote about the history of the English constitution, as so many of them did, they approached their story from the standpoint of having Good News to relate.
Roger Scruton, in his A Dictionary of Political Thought (1982), takes the theory underlying "Whig history" to be centrally concerned with social progress and reaction, with the progressives shown as victors and benefactors. Cannadine wrote of the English tradition that:
It was fiercely partisan and righteously judgemental, dividing the personnel of the past into the good and the bad. And it did so on the basis of the marked preference for liberal and progressive causes, rather than conservative and reactionary ones. [...] Whig history was, in short, an extremely biased view of the past: eager to hand out moral judgements, and distorted by teleology, anachronism and present-mindedness.
Paul Rapin de Thoyras's history of England, published in 1723, became "the classic Whig history" for the first half of the eighteenth 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 V; 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".
Political history was the usual venue for Whig history, but it also appears in other areas. Robert Hebert Quick (1831–91) and G. A. N. Lowndes were the leaders of the Whig school of the history of education. In 1898 Quick explained the value of studying the history of educational reform, arguing that the great accomplishments of the past were cumulative and comprised the building blocks that “would raise us to a higher standing-point from which we may see much that will make the right road clearer to us”.
For Canada, Allan Greer argues that the:
interpretive schemes that dominated Canadian historical writing through the middle decades of the twentieth century were built on the assumption that history had a discernible direction and flow. Canada was moving towards a goal in the nineteenth century; whether this endpoint was the construction of a transcontinental, commercial, and political union, the development of parliamentary government, or the preservation and resurrection of French Canada, it was certainly a Good Thing. Thus the rebels of 1837 were quite literally on the wrong track. They lost because they had
to lose; they were not simply overwhelmed by superior force, they were justly chastised by the God of History.
It has been argued that the historiography of science is "riddled with Whiggish history." Like other Whig histories, Whig history of science tends to divide historical actors into "good guys", who are on the side of truth (as is now known) and "bad guys", who opposed the emergence of these truths because of ignorance or bias. From this Whiggish perspective, Ptolemy would be criticized because his astronomical system placed the Earth at the center of the universe while Aristarchus would be praised because he placed the Sun at the center of the solar system. This kind of evaluation ignores historical background and the evidence that was available at a particular time: did Aristarchus have evidence to support his idea that the Sun was at the center; were there good reasons to reject Ptolemy's system before the sixteenth century?
The writing of Whig history of science is especially found in the writings of scientists and general historians, while this whiggish tendency is commonly opposed by professional historians of science. Nicholas Jardine describes the changing attitude to whiggishness this way:
By the mid-1970s, it had become commonplace among historians of science to employ the terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Whiggish’, often accompanied by one or more of ‘hagiographic’, ‘internalist’, ‘triumphalist’, even ‘positivist’, to denigrate grand narratives of scientific progress. At one level there is, indeed, an obvious parallel with the attacks on Whig constitutional history in the opening decades of the century. For, as P. B. M. Blaas has shown, those earlier attacks were part and parcel of a more general onslaught in the name of an autonomous, professional and scientific history, on popular, partisan and moralising historiography. Similarly,... For post-WWII champions of the newly professionalized history of science the targets were quite different. Above all, they were out to establish a critical distance between the history of science and the teaching and promotion of the sciences. In particular, they were suspicious of the grand celebratory and didactic narratives of scientific discovery and progress that had proliferated in the inter-war years.
More recently, some scholars have argued that Whig history is essential to the history of science. At one level, "the very term 'the history of science' has itself profoundly Whiggish implications. One may be reasonably clear what 'science' means in the 19th century and most of the 18th century. In the 17th century 'science' has very different meaning. For example chemistry is inextricably mixed up with alchemy. Before the 17th century dissecting out such a thing as 'science' in anything like the modern sense of the term involves profound distortions." The science historians' rejection of whiggishness has been criticized by some scientists for failing to appreciate the temporal depth of scientific research.
In The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986, see anthropic principle for details) John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler identify Whiggishness (Whiggery) with a teleological principle, of 'convergence' in history to liberal democracy.
Despite their shortcomings as interpretations of the past, Whiggish histories continue to influence popular understandings of political and social development. This persistence reflects the power of dramatic narratives that detail epic struggles for enlightened ideals. Aspects of the Whig interpretation are apparent in films, television, political rhetoric, and even history textbooks.
Popular understandings of human evolution and paleoanthropology may be imbued with a form of "whiggishness". See, for example, the celebrated scientific illustration, The March of Progress (1965). Most portrayals and fictionalized adaptations of the Scopes Trial, such as in Inherit the Wind (1955), subscribe to a Whig view of the trial and its aftermath. This was challenged by historian Edward J. Larson in his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1998.
Recent examples addressing moral progress include Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature and Michael Shermer's The Moral Arc. Both argue that the modern world is much more moral. Pinker is criticized for collapsing distinctions and misrepresenting humanity's past by Douglas P. Fry and R. Brian Ferguson in War, Peace, and Human Nature, and Darcia Narvaez points out the opposite trajectory in Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom.
Criticism of Whig history comes from both postmodernists and neoreactionaries.