Liberalism has no standing in academic history and that few historians recognize a distinctly liberal approach to writing history.
In some academic disciplines, like economics and political philosophy, classical liberal and libertarian views are common and sometimes even fairly respected. I hardly need to mention in this regard such names as Robert Nozick, F.A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman. It is curious, though, that liberalism has no standing in academic history and that few historians recognize a distinctly liberal approach to writing history. This is curious because modern historical study, especially in the West, is more inextricably linked with liberalism than perhaps any other discipline. In fact, the standards of historical research developed largely in the 19th century, in liberal society, by liberal‐minded historians. The influence of liberalism on historical writing is still clear in historians’ emphasis on getting to the truth of the past, in the discipline’s stress on source criticism, in our focus on charting the development of free societies and material, civil, and technological progress.
But ask a room of historians to name a classical liberal historian and you might receive blank stares. Graduate programs in history today teach students to look at the past through the lenses and ideas of people like Karl Marx, Fernand Braudel, Joan Scott, Hayden White, and Walter Benjamin, among others. But these are relative latecomers in historical thinking. While historians today may focus on themes of race, class, and gender analysis, under the surface, they still believe in much of the original foundation of modern historical scholarship, in the uniqueness and unrepeatability of historical events, the real existence of the past and our inability to understand it completely, the necessity of explaining the past not only via material and geographical influences but also by understanding the mind of people who were responsible for change. Historicism, historical realism, subjectivism, and idealism are central to liberal thinking about history.
This is why I call liberalism the dominant tradition of historical writing in the West, from which all other traditions emerge. And that is why I have chosen to compile a reader that re‐introduces liberal thoughts on history. The authors whose texts I selected for this volume were not unknown historians teaching in obscurity; they were chaired professors at major universities.
The Liberal Approach to the Past consists of selected texts from 19th and 20th century self‐described liberal historians reflecting on the nature of historical study. It includes an introduction which explains some themes in classical liberal history.
Liberal history is primarily concerned with ideas and with the reasons why individuals acted as they did in the past. Liberal historians prefer to study themes of power and liberty, particularly as they relate to the rise and fall of political systems that protect liberties and individual rights. As the selections in this reader show, the liberal approach to the past is generally skeptical of laws of history and suggestions of historical determinism.
The authors whose works are reproduced in this book sometimes read each other, and there are instances of in which they even cite each other. And yet, many of them were probably only vaguely aware of the writings on history from other liberal historians. Through their study they came to a set of related beliefs about history. They believed, for example, that most social scientific theorizing about history had no promise. They generally opposed social scientific categories that treated nations or groups as actors. They saw history as an independent discipline, with its own methods, different from the social sciences and the physical sciences. Although liberals wrestled with laws of history and direction in history, they mainly came to oppose it, seeing history not as a set pattern that we can divine, but more as a chaotic record of individual action.
In the past few years, I’ve met many graduate students and early career historians who call themselves classical liberals or libertarians. But many of these people naturally separate these two interests, as the historical and the political. At one moment they are reading about things like comparative advantage and free trade, and nodding in support. But the next moment, they are leafing through a bundle of old letters, trying to draw out the implications of some cultural movements from hundreds of years ago. It is easy to think that unless one is writing about the history of free trade, or the history of liberalism, that one is not writing liberal history. But, liberal history is more than history that takes a liberal view of politics or economics.
“Not all human actions are subject‐matter for history” says R.G. Collingwood. “The historian is not interested in the fact that men eat and sleep and make love and thus satisfy their natural appetites; but he is interested in the social customs which they create by their thought as a framework within which these appetites find satisfaction in ways sanctioned by convention in morality.”
Another way to put this is that liberals are interested in individuals and the societies they inhabit. Liberals want to know about past people so that they can better understand people in general, not to control them and rule them, but to sympathize with them. Liberal history is naturally a humane project; historical material is useful only insofar as it tells us more about humankind. Any history that aims to tell us about the motives, morals, and ideas of people is in a sense liberal.
That is why the authors whose writings are reproduced in the book were historians who wrote about a diverse array of topic, not just the history of liberty and liberal politics. James Anthony Froude wrote biographies of people as different as Caesar, Bunyan, and Carlyle, as well as histories of 16th century England, and novels. F.W. Maitland is a seminal figure in the development of legal history. William Torry Harris was a school superintendent and educational progressive, with an obsessive interest in Hegel. R.G. Collingwood wrote about the Romans, and Pieter Geyl wrote about the history of the Netherlands; Herbert Butterfield wrote Christian history, biographies, political history, and historiography. Jacques Barzun covered all of Western Civilization. This broad liberal historical tradition did not celebrate just liberalism, but humanity in general.
For the most part, liberals who wrote about the philosophy of history, and what it meant to write liberal history, were active historians who worked in archives and in classrooms, looking for the truth of the past and expounding on it. Some were economists and political philosophers as well. With few exceptions, however, the philosophy of history was never their main interest. Good historical research and teaching, they thought, was informed by the practical experiences of life and work as a historian, not by philosophical reflection that preceded a career in historical work. Most of the time, philosophy of history was something historians wrote when they retired and had time to reflect on what they had been doing for the past thirty or forty years.
I believe that good historians are made in the archives and in the classroom, but reflecting on what we do as historians is crucial in helping us become better historians. Thinking about topics like historical determinism, the supposed laws of history, or the proper scale and scope of history helps us to become better critics, so that we can recognize errors in the writings of others and in our own work. The more we reflect on history, the more possible perspectives we gain, so that we can find new, creative ways to answer old historical problems. Liberal history is no set of a doctrinaire beliefs, but rather an approach to the past that emphasizes the need to think in diverse ways to understand people from other times and places. Sympathy for our subject, and for people in the present day, comes when we can learn to see the world as others did and others do.