Who was Butterfield?
Herbert Butterfield was born in Yorkshire in 1900; and studied at Cambridge, in later life becoming master of Peterhouse college and vice-chancellor of the university. His most famous work is “The Whig Interpretation of History” (1931) in which he lay down and defined the characteristics of “Whig history.”
What is the book about?
Butterfield tells us he sets out to explain how historiography (Whig and the Namier school in particular) have resulted in the history of the reign of George III coming into “a state of considerable confusion.” The book is then split into three sections…
Book One: The Historian and his Evidence.
Butterfield explains a good knowledge and understanding of the period is essential to interpreting primary sources. Also warns the historian to beware of first hand narratives – they were being written for a reason after all. Complains that some historians (ie. The Namier school) focus too much on primary sources to the exclusion of secondary sources: making it difficult for them to reach correct conclusions.
Book Two: George III and his Interpreters.
Here Butterfield explains the historiography of the period up to the rise of the Namier school, claiming it is essential to gaining a good understanding of the reign. Early historiography was based on contemporary sources such as the letters of Bubb Dodington, the work of Burke and opposition pamphlets. Serious historiography of the period began with Adolphus’ “History of England 1760-1783” in 1802, offering up a favourable, Tory, view of the King. After George III’s death in 1820 the historiography became more open in its criticisms: Holt, Huish and Walpole, whilst generally supportive of the king, were unchecked in their criticisms of the King’s “favourite”, Bute. New evidence emerged in the 1830s/40s. eg. The Chatham and Bedford Correspondences. This heralded a new Whig historiography and a picture of George III as the enemy of Whig constitutional ideals. Trevelyan and Lecky held extreme Whig views on the reign; Lecky claimed in 1882 that George III had “inflicted more profound and enduring injuries upon his country than any other modern English King” (because he wanted to regain direct royal control of the country). In the early 1900s historians like Von Ruville broke away from the Whig history to offer a more balanced and realistic interpretation of the reign.
Book 3: George III and the Namier School.
From the 1890s there was a move towards focusing on individuals as understanding their motives for entering parliament helped explain their actions as politicians. This made primary sources like letters, journals and diaries v. important. This was the focus of Namier’s 1929 book, “Structure of Politics.” Butterfield congratulates the contribution of Namier and his supporters to research – the dating of hundreds of letters from George III to Bute by R. Sedgwick for example.
Butterfield’s criticisms of the Namier school:
- They focus on structure to the exclusion of narrative; both need to be considered.
- They are as guilty as Whig historians for using sources selectively, creating biased history. “[They] have been curiously neglectful of London and the more popular side of political life.”
- V. critical of Namier’s focus on details rather than the wider picture. “A student’s folly… to imagine that only the details matter, and that the details are all of equal value… One could not write history if one did not see the possibility of grouping the details into coherent shapes.”
- Namier school reduces politics to the level of mere faction-fights. (eg. “England in the Age of the American Revolution” – Brookes.)
- They see themselves as anti-whig and the “professional defenders of George III” despite often overlooking the aspects of the reign that portray the King in a positive light.
- They do not take the differences between C18th/19th and modern day Parliament into consideration. Eg. Brookes questions the strength of the Rockingham Whigs because only 50-60 of them voted for the “Nullum Tempus” Bill (which was v. important to Rockingham) in 1768: Party discipline was, however, nowhere near as strong as in the C20th.
- They ignore the history of ideas and too readily criticise party history for its focus on ideals. Public conscience and ideals can override an individual’s misgivings in Parliament. (Ie. On some issues ministers vote in line with public opinion or ideals over their own feelings.)
- They are too “mechanically scientific.” “Historical judgements may be incorrect if based on the analytical method which abstracts things and subdivides the life with which it deals.”
Reviews of Butterfield:
- W.T.Laprade of Duke University in AHR, 1958: “Butterfield’s criticism will not be helpful if it merely serves to generate controversy.”
- C.L.Mowat in the William and Mary Quarterly, 1959: Picks apart Butterfield’s criticisms. Eg. Says he only focuses on 4 historians who hadn’t produced enough work to be said to truly belong to a “Namier School”. Mowat accuses him of quoting out of context (eg. By suggesting Namier ignored the importance of the overall historical narrative.) Points out that at different points Butterfield accuses of Namier school historians being too “Whiggish” and too close to the Tory viewpoint.