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The true historian attempts to recapture the past for its own sake. He goes about this goal intentionally, always resisting the temptation to eschew complexity for relatability. He is better able to get to the root of an inquiry, to discern what really happened from what we wanted to happen, to learn what past men thought as opposed to what we wish they thought.

The historian is one who meditates upon the past. Hidden away amidst mountains of books, documents, relics, and other dusty objects, the historian explores a world that is not his own. He stands at crossroads where wagon-trains rolled on into the sunset and upon hills overlooking bloody battles. He is but a traveler interested in listening to stories, uncovering great ideas, and chronicling events. But there is one thing which haunts him: he can never fully comprehend the vast web of time. Numerous intersections crisscross each other in an endless murky space. Some historians search blindly for the spider, the source of the web.[1] Yet like the damned in C. S. Lewis’ Great Divorce, they travel alone, distancing themselves from their brethren until they are all permanently lost. Others attempt to preserve bits and pieces of the web, in all of its complexity, simply out of a desire to share with the present. Such collectors are not bothered by the work’s difficulty, the endless trials and details that must be sorted through. Instead, they work like bees, sorting and archiving because they know their work is inherently valuable.

But there are also the lazy historians who never care to dip completely into the past’s dirty waters. These men prefer to sit in their armchairs and look down upon history from the comfort of the present. The labors of history, menial stuff, are beneath them. Others can descend into the mineshafts, struggle and choke in the darkness while searching for the precious stones of yesterday. The thoughts and deeds of men long ago are just not worth the effort in obtaining and understanding them. Far better is it to pass judgement on all that came before while safe and secure in one’s own century.[2] Indeed, it is this perspective which leads such historians, and their followers, to ignorance. For history is not entirely forthcoming; it is dirty and messy, confusing and counterintuitive, demanding of hard labor and thought. But to these men, it is nothing of the kind. History is always forthright, wrapped in silk, and beautiful to the eyes. In truth, historians who adhere to this creed are like those Greeks entranced by the Sirens, oblivious to the dangers below.

In his masterful essay, The Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield lambasts these historians for their malpractice and gives them the title of “whig historians.” Unlike true historians, a whig is incapable of mastering his nature. He regularly gives in to the natural inclination to tell history in light of the present. True historians, however, recognize the tendency and fight it. They are the ones who rise above their nature and elucidate the “unlikenesses between past and present” as “the mediators between other generations and our own.”[3] The whig historian produces a history devoid of any complexity while saturated with drama. The true historian, although his labors may not be as appealing or flashy, attempts to recapture the past for its own sake. He goes about this goal intentionally, always resisting the temptation to eschew complexity for relatability. This is unlike the whig who is entranced by the product of his presentism, a golden apple presented by the goddess of history herself. As she places the fruit in his hands, he stands like an automaton; he is not aware of what he is doing.

Because the whig historian cares little for his efforts, meaning he is not concerned with method and the organization of historical knowledge, his vision of history is devoid of complexity. Ultimately, this perspective is the natural product of a present-dominated mind:

By seizing upon those personages and parties in the past whose ideas seem the more analogous to our own, and by setting all these out in contrast with the rest of the stuff of history, he has his organization and abridgement of history ready-made and has a clean path through the complexity. This organization of his history will answer all questions more clearly than historical research is ever able to do. It will enable him, even before he has studied anything very deeply, to arrive at what seem to be self-evident judgements concerning historical issues.[4]

In short, the whig method, or lack thereof, blazes a trail through historical complexity by seizing upon those morsels which most appeal to or relate to the present. For instance, a past event is studied not because it itself was significant, but because it somehow “brought” or “gave” or “preserved” or “sanctified” or “delivered” the present.[5] Accompanying this error is the whig’s obsession with drama. History never meets the whig’s expectations, and hence it is not very interesting. He then takes it upon himself to rectify the problem. He cannot only say so much and nothing more. Moments need spice and events deserve to be examined from his own vision. From obscurity, a story is catapulted into the spotlight.

Examples of whig history are everywhere. For instance, most students of American history are perhaps somewhat familiar with the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783. Throughout the American Revolution, the Continental Congress failed to provide adequate provisions for Washington’s men, including monetary compensation. Anger and frustration percolated amongst the army’s officers. Between March 10-11, anonymous letters were distributed all through Washington’s camp at Newburgh. One aggressively called for mutinous action, while the other cast suspicion upon Washington’s leadership. On March 15, an officer meeting was held in a remote building called “The Temple of Virtue.” There, Washington addressed his men and pleaded with them to stay true to the cause.[6] Upon hearing Washington’s words, the officers unanimously voted to remain loyal to Washington’s command. Although condensed, this piece of American history is an amazing vignette depicting internal struggle during the transition from peace to nation. But to some, the story is not dramatic enough to grab the average readers’ attention.

If there is a perfect example of whig history, it is Richard Brookhiser’s narrative of the Newburgh Conspiracy in his work, Rediscovering George Washington: Founding Father.[7] What is so stunning about Mr. Brookhiser’s treatment is how he does not see the event as significant in and of itself, but rather as something which immortalized Washington as a god in American history. This is obvious through two aspects of Mr. Brookhiser’s narrative. The first is the way in which he describes how Washington concluded his address: “He drew on this of course, in the famous gesture after he finished his speech.”[8] Due to his failing vision, Washington put on his glasses before continuing. The act was a natural thing, but Mr. Brookhiser describes it as “famous,” something which can only be determined within the present. At the time, the action was not well-known. In fact, witnesses casually mention it as something Washington did because he had to.

The second error bears more of a dramatic feel to it, and it is Mr. Brookhiser’s description of Washington’s entrance into The Temple: “But a side door opened, and he entered, as if on cue. (Washington had seen his first play when he was nineteen, and he remained a theatergoer all his life.)”[9] Of the two errors, this is the greater because it inserts motive and causality into history. According to Mr. Brookhiser, the entire meeting was purposefully set-up by Washington who, with just the right amount of theatrical genius, overwhelmed his officers with both surprise and later pathos. This is despite the fact that no primary sources support Mr. Brookhiser’s claim. Regardless, no matter how hyperbolic or misleading the presentation, Mr. Brookhiser deems this is what happened.[10]

If the whig historian then cares little for method, practice, and dealing with complexity, true historians are not afraid to wrestle with the past in all of its virtues and vices. At a fundamental level, this is what separates good history from dramatized history. Good history is the product of careful, dirty, hands-on research and, quite often, says only so much and nothing more. Details are examined in full. None are cast aside because they are inconvenient or awkward in light of the present. Instead, like an expert witness or a detective in the court room, the historian interrogates history, all the while careful not to take the “truths” of history at face value.

To Herbert Butterfield, this perspective is to be desired in historians. The wise know that the truth of history is no simple matter.[11] It does not come neatly packaged and parceled like a Christmas gift. On the contrary, history is all things to all men:

She is at the service of good causes and bad… Therefore, we must beware even of saying, ‘History says…’ or ‘History proves…’ as though she herself were the oracle; as though indeed history, once she had spoken, had put the matter beyond the range of human enquiry. Rather we must say to ourselves: ‘She will lie to us till the very end of the last cross-examination.’ This is the goddess the whig worships when he claims her the arbiter of controversy. She cheats us with optical illusions, sleight-of-hand, equivocal phraseology. If we must confuse counsel by personifying history at all, it is best to treat her as an old reprobate, whose tricks and juggleries are things to be guarded against.[12]

When historians approach history in like manner, they are better able to get to the root of an inquiry, to discern what really happened from what we wanted to happen, to learn what past men thought as opposed to what we wish they thought. While Butterfield’s description of method and history is certainly not politically-correct, his rhetoric illustrates the crux of his message. History is a tricky thing. But, with a diligent mind and persistent heart, the historian can surmount history’s craftiness and uncover the gems of the past.

It is this methodological act that makes the study of history not boring or vulgar, but beautiful. Thoughtful and cautious inquiries lead to new realizations, new discoveries, and new insights into human nature. Like travelers or even collectors, historians lead others on journeys through worlds that are not their own, lands filled with life’s great complexity, and most of all, humanity and inhumanity in all of its sizes, shapes, and forms. Indeed, while many envision historians as avengers, judges who arbitrate between truth and falsehood, the more nuanced perspective sees historians as guides. They may not know everything about the land, but their insights are valuable and tempered by caution. Although the historian, in trying to “feel his way towards this” method of approaching history, may be “striving to be like a god,” he is perhaps “less foolish than the one who poses as god the avenger,” the whig who sees through complexity because it is invisible to him, who perceives right from wrong in light of the present day, and who knows, without question, that the past is not significant for its own sake, but rather because it gave us the present.[13]

This essay was first published here in April 2019.

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[1] See Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind.

[2] I am referring to two things. Not only do these historians literally pass judgement upon the past, but they also insert their own thoughts into the past based upon their judgement.

[3] Butterfield, Herbert. The Whig Interpretation of History. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965: 10.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] This small, condensed list contains only a smattering of the many words which are typically, but not in all cases, used by whigs in their narratives. They are problematic words, historically speaking, because they can potentially assign causality to something which may or may not deserve it.

[6] See The Diaries of George Washington, volume 2, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick.

[7] Some may criticize me for critiquing Mr. Brookhiser’s work simply because Mr. Brookhiser does not claim to be an historian. After all, his personal statement describes himself as an “editor,” “columnist,” and “author.” However, I would argue that he is, nevertheless, engaging in the practice of a historian both in this work and others, including Alexander Hamilton: American and America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918. In other words, he is writing histories, whether he admits it or not.

[8] Brookhiser, Richard. Rediscovering George Washington: Founding Father. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996: 44, emphasis added.

[9] Ibid., 43, emphasis added.

[10] For those interested in the essential, primary readings for the night of March 15, the two accounts of what happened were written by Samuel Shaw and David Cobb. Of the two accounts, Shaw’s is to be preferred for two reasons. First, Shaw was an eyewitness, unlike Cobb, and second, Shaw wrote his account only weeks after what happened, unlike Cobb who wrote down his thoughts decades later (he also admits that all of his information came to him second-hand). This is important because midway through his narrative, Mr. Brookhiser switches between both accounts. No reason is given, and the logical conclusion is that Mr. Brookhiser found both to be either equally credible or equally valuable to the story. If that was the case, both reasons are equally false. Furthermore, no historian, and this includes Richard Brookhiser, who ever makes the claim that Washington entered through “a side door” ever backs up the claim with evidence. Historian Douglas Freeman, in his Victory With The Help of France, offers an unparalleled examination of the building’s layout. Benson Lossing’s work, The Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution provides helpful illustrations and explanations. In both cases, there is no evidence to suggest there was even “a side door” in the building.

[11] See the book of Ecclesiastes.

[12] Butterfield, 132.

[13] Ibid., 3.

The featured image is “Portrait of a Scholar” by Domenico Fetti (1589-1623), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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