Whiggery

April 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

If you’re interested in historiography, I recommend reading Kevin Sharpe’s “Remapping Early Modern England,” the first chapter of his book of the same name.  Fantastic overview of the historiography of the civil wars. Especially good on the phenomenon of “Whig history.” I mentioned it in passing early in the semester, but now that we’ve begun to weigh different approaches to history writing, it’s a good time to bring it up again.

Narrowly defined, Whig history refers to the way 19th-century historians interpreted the 17th century as preparing the way for the 19th-century Whig party’s proudest achievement: parliamentary reforms effected by reasonable, progressive, and hard-working Protestants.

James II as Duke of York, Samuel Cooper, c. 1662-69

It’s understandable if you’re wondering who the heck the Whigs were, since we’ve seen hide nor hair of them in our study of the mid-17th century. In 1688, it was the Whig party who dethroned the Catholic-admiring James II (son of Charles I, brother of Charles II) and managed to install the very Protestant William and Mary in his place. Without causing another civil war, which was a nice change. The transition is often called the Glorious or Bloodless Revolution…

The second,  broader meaning of Whig history doesn’t have to have a thing to do with Whigs. Whig history in this sense simply means understanding the past as preparing the way for institutions or movements or ideas or other things that we assign great value to in the present. It’s viewing history backward, looking for signs of the present in the past. It doesn’t see what it doesn’t want to see, especially the embarrassing or politically untenable bits.

Whig history seems so utterly natural to you and me that it’s difficult to conceive any other way to read, write, or understand history. It’s a story that makes us feel good, a bedtime tale of progress and improvement. Everything’s getting better all the time, to paraphrase the Beatles.

You may be unaware how well Bard has acquainted with Whig history in its broader sense. You’d have to look awfully hard for a better example than your year-long, Enlightenment-themed first-year seminar.

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