George H. Smith discusses some common criticisms of Lord Acton and other classical liberal historians.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

Modern historians have been a reflective tribe; some have written articles and books in which they analyze various problems that attend the art of writing history, such as the nature and possibility of objectivity and the role of value judgments. Among their writings on methodology, few if any have influenced professional historians as much as The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), a slender book by the British historian Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979).

Many professional historians have followed Butterfield’s lead in condemning “the whig interpretation of history,” or what Butterfield sometimes called the “whig fallacy.” These labels are meant to signify a deeply flawed method of writing history, one that Butterfield associated with various whig historians. Other than a few names mentioned in passing, the only historian that Butterfield discussed was Lord Acton, so it is appropriate to discuss Butterfield’s charges in my series on Acton.

Were Butterfield’s criticisms based on an accurate understanding of Acton’s ideas? I contend they were not.

When historians criticize the whig interpretation of history, they are thinking primarily of those nineteenth‐​century classical liberal historians–such as Lord Acton, T.B. Macaulay, H.T. Buckle, and W.E.H. Lecky–who focused on the progress of freedom in various spheres, especially in post‐​Reformation Europe. In particular, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859), who was one of the most widely read historians of the nineteenth century, has been singled out as the quintessential practitioner of the whig interpretation of history. And to hurl this charge against a historian is, in effect, to dismiss his work with a sneer.

What, precisely, is the whig interpretation of history? What is the fallacy that whig historians supposedly committed? Some historians identify what they call presentism as the fundamental fallacy. This is the (supposed) fallacy of interpreting the past from the perspective of the present, of assessing people from bygone eras in terms of our own moral and political values, with the result that those who agreed with us, or who came closest to our way of thinking, receive a more sympathetic hearing than those who did not.

In contrast, critics of this “whig fallacy” insist that the first duty of the historian is to understand historical figures in their own terms, within the intellectual, social, cultural, and political contexts of their own times, rather than judging them by our standards. The job of the historian is to understand historical figures as they understood themselves, not to evaluate them through the distorting medium of our own values. Thus has “context” become a key word in modern historical writing.

Butterfield was all over the map when it came to what he meant by “the whig interpretation of history.” Although he did not use the word “presentism,” he did join more recent historians in condemning what the word denotes. But Butterfield also associated other errors with this approach, including the imposition of inappropriate value judgments by the historian. Indeed, if Butterfield is to be believed, whig historians committed virtually every major methodological blunder that it is possible for historians to commit.

Although Butterfield was something of a classical liberal himself, he criticized earlier liberal historians who viewed history through the prism of libertarian values by focusing on the progress of freedom in recent centuries, and who attempted to explain the causes and conditions of that progress. This perspective distorted the historical record, according to Butterfield. In searching for the origins of values we hold dear today, such as religious freedom, whig historians interpreted people and events in terms of good and evil. Those individuals who contributed to the progress of freedom were praised, whereas those who resisted or impeded that progress were condemned.

In discussing this subject, Butterfield made several points that bear mentioning.

First, whig historians, in their search for heroes and villains, typically vilified Catholics, so the whig interpretation may also be dubbed the Protestant interpretation of history. Whig historians supposedly traced a direct line from Martin Luther to the eventual triumph of religious freedom in many western countries, and in the process they condemned Catholics as enemies of freedom.

Second, Butterfield warned that general overviews of history are prone to adopt a whig perspective, because they omit details that would enable readers to understand the motives and reasons of people they disagree with. When these details are missing, as they are in highly abridged accounts, readers will read their own values into the past and thereby misunderstand why certain people acted as they did.

Third, Butterfield cautioned against finding lessons in history. After the whig historian imposes his own preconceptions on history, he concludes that history teaches us such‐​and‐​such. Yet this such‐​and‐​such turns out to be nothing more than a logical implication of the whig theory itself, not something that history per se has taught us. If the whig historian claims to have discovered grand moral principles from his study of history, this is only because he superimposed those selfsame principles on his investigations from the outset. The source of moral lessons is the whig historian, not history per se.

According to Butterfield, the aim of the historian “is to achieve the understanding of the men and parties of the past.” The basic problem of whig historiography is that “it studies the past with reference to the present.” Whig historians typically believed in progress; and in tracing the history of progress (say, in the realm of religious freedom) they divided “the world into the friends and enemies of progress.” This perspective inevitably distorted the historical record, because people in the past did not hold the same values or view the social and political worlds as we do today. The good historian will eschew the effort to divide humankind into good and evil; instead he will attempt to empathize with the people he investigates and to understand their ideas, decisions, and actions as they understood them.

There is no doubt that Butterfield gave some sound advice. The problem is that most whig (or liberal) historians did not commit the crude fallacies that he attributed to them. For example, I know of no leading whig historian who attempted to trace a direct line from Martin Luther to the emergence of religious freedom. Rather, those historians typically regarded religious freedom as an unintended consequence of the Reformation–an interpretation with which Butterfield himself agreed. Moreover, the perspective of some leading whig historians of the nineteenth century, such as Lecky and Buckle, was more secular than Protestant, and they frequently gave Catholics their due, as when the Catholic Church served as a protective buffer between secular rulers and individuals.

In addition, more than a few whig historians preceded Butterfield in insisting that historians should understand their subjects within their historical context. Indeed, this was commonplace. Consider a celebrated book, The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles the Fifth (1769), by the celebrated Scottish historian William Robertson (an important figure in the Scottish Enlightenment). Robertson, a Protestant, had a good deal to say about the progress of freedom in Europe since the Reformation. He did not hesitate to identify the friends and enemies of progress, so by Butterfield’s standard he was about as whiggish as they come. Yet, in a typical remark, Robertson criticized histories “written by modern authors, who are apt to substitute the ideas and maxims of their own age in the place of those which influenced the persons whose actions they attempt to relate.” Such historians “convey a very imperfect notion of the spirit” of the time they were investigating.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whig historians often insisted that historians should attempt to understand the “spirit” of an age, i.e., the beliefs, assumptions, and perspectives, whether explicit or implicit, that permeated a particular society or culture. It is therefore difficult to know which historians Butterfield thought he was criticizing.

The problem becomes even more acute when we consider that the only whig historian discussed by Butterfield was Lord Acton, and that Acton was a Catholic, not a Protestant. Of course, since Acton was also a classical liberal, it could be said that he was guilty of committing some vaguely defined whig fallacy, despite his religious affiliation. But this won’t wash, as anyone who has read Acton carefully can attest. On the contrary, Acton maintained that no one group or movement, religious or secular, deserves exclusive credit for the theory and evolution of free institutions. He wrote that historians should avoid the error of “making history into the proof of their theories.” Instead, the historian should try “to do the best he can for the other side, and to avoid pertinacity or emphasis on his own.”

It would be an absurd caricature to attribute to Acton most of the fallacies that Butterfield linked to whig historiography. So why did Butterfield single him out? Primarily because of Acton’s comments about the role of value judgments in history. Butterfield exploited Acton’s penchant for penning memorable aphorisms. Even those people who have never heard of Acton are probably familiar with his maxim, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” According to Butterfield, this aphorism instills a prejudice against historical figures who wielded great power, and this prejudice, in turn, hinders our ability to understand them accurately.

Butterfield and other critics of Acton objected to some of his comments in “The Study of History,” a lecture delivered in 1895, after Acton’s appointment as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. It was here that Acton expressed his belief that “liberty is the one ethical result that rests on the converging and combined conditions of advancing civilization”; it was here that he advised students of history to “suspect power more than vice”; it was here that he likened history to “a hanging judge”; and it was here that he uttered the oft‐​quoted line: “But the weight of history is against me when I exhort you never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.”

Critics of Acton who quote these remarks rarely mention Acton’s admonitions in the same lecture about the need for impartiality and accuracy in historical writing, and the danger of making history into a proof of one’s own theories. Similar remarks are scattered throughout Acton’s writings, e.g.: “The absence of a definite didactic purpose is the only security for the good faith of a historian.” So what is going on here?

Acton’s views on the role of value judgments in history were complex and subtle, so it is difficult to summarize them in a few paragraphs. Essentially, Acton was objecting to those historians who whitewashed the unjust actions of “great men,” especially secular and religious leaders, by attributing to them grand purposes and designs. Atrocities that would naturally strike most people as repellent if committed by ordinary people were treated as means to noble ends when committed by people with power; and some historians lightly passed over the details of such atrocities, especially when dealing with a religious or political figure they admired.

Acton astutely recognized that all historical treatments involve value judgments, if only implicitly, because the historian must use value judgments when selecting which facts to include as part of his narrative. Acton was especially critical of fellow Catholic historians who downplayed the significance of various inquisitions, or who excused the role of the papacy by placing most of the responsibility on secular rulers.

Historians need not expressly render judgments of good and evil in order to smuggle value judgments into their writing. Such judgments are integral to the discipline of history itself, so historians must decide whether to reveal their value premises openly so that readers can decide for themselves if they have unduly affected a given historical account. In addition, historians must decide whether to present both sides, good and bad, of an important historical figure so that readers can make their own assessments of his or her character and actions.

It is perhaps ironic that Lord Acton, the supposed dean of whig historians, offered his ideas about value judgments as an antidote to the bias that he found in other historians, both Protestant and Catholic. He did not call for historians to praise heroes and condemn villains; rather, he advised historians to be impartial in their accounts, to present all relevant aspects of significant figures and then let readers determine for themselves, using the ordinary rules of morality, how to assess them.

This is what Acton meant in calling history a “hanging judge.” The historian should not hesitate to recount the worst deeds of “great men,” nor should he sugarcoat their atrocities. This kind of rounded history will result in the “hanging” of many revered figures–not because the historian does the hanging himself but because his presentation of unvarnished and unpleasant facts will cause readers themselves to condemn those supposedly great men. As Acton put it in a letter to the Anglican historian Mandell Creighton: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong.”