Butterfield’s Critique of the Whig Interpretation

  • Keith C. Sewell
Part of the Studies in Modern History book series (SMH)


Butterfield published The Whig Interpretation of History in 1931.1 Much later, Owen Chadwick stated that it ‘put historians into a state of self-analysis and scrupulosity’ and contributed to ‘the modern and fruitful consideration of the problems of historiography’.2 It was a sustained critique of the motivation, methods and fallacious conclusions of the whig practice of staging narratives anachronistically so as to produce an inevitable ratification of the present, or justification of a position currently espoused by the author.3 It conveys the impression of having been produced at high tension after intense deliberation. It was written after discussions on anachronism and historical change in the meaning of words.4 It is one of Butterfield’s most important books, providing a fuller indication of the basis upon which the earlier works were written and containing the seeds of issues raised in his later writings.


Historical Study Historical Process Human History Historical Research Sustained Critique 
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  1. 2.
    Owen Chadwick, Freedom and the Historian (1969), p. 37.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    WIH, pp. 3–6; cf. John W. Derry, ‘Whig Interpretation of History’, in The Blackwell Dictionary of Historians (1988), pp. 448–50.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    P. B. S. Blaas, Continuity and Anachronism (1978), p. 10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Jack H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (1969), p. 42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Plumb may have been influenced by Geoffrey Barraclough, History in a Changing World (1955), p. 9.Google Scholar
  6. E. H. Carr, What is History? (1961), pp. 35–7.Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    WIH, pp. 49 and 35, respectively. In fact, Acton acknowledged that Luther ‘was a profound conservative and a reluctant innovator’, Lectures on Modem History (1906), p. 95. Cf. Heinrich Boehmer, Luther and the Reformation in the Light of Modem Research (1930), pp. 1–30.Google Scholar
  8. Wilhelm Pauck, ‘The Historiography of the German Reformation During the Past Twenty Years’, Church History 9 (1940), 305–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    WIH, p. 61. Contra Acton, ‘The Study of Modern History’, in Lectures on Modern History (1906), p. 3.Google Scholar
  10. 35.
    WIH, pp. 42–5; cf. George Watson, Lord Acton’s History of Liberty (1994).Google Scholar
  11. 44.
    Ranke, ‘Preface’ to Geschichten der Romanischen und Germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514, as translated by Roger Wines as ‘Introduction’ to the ‘History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations’, in The Secret of World History (1981), pp. 55–9, at p. 58.Google Scholar
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    Roy Stone De Montpensier, ‘Maitland and the Interpretation of History’, American Journal of Legal History 10 (1966), 259–81, esp. at 264–5, 275, note 37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 70.
    A. Rupert Hall, ‘On Whiggism’, History of Science 21 (1983), 49–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 71.
    George Watson, ‘The War against the Whigs’, Encounter (New Series) 1 (1986), 19–24.Google Scholar
  15. 72.
    Adrian Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, ‘Whig History and Present-Centred History’, HJ 31 (1988), esp. 1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Keith C. Sewell 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Keith C. Sewell
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of HistoryDordt CollegeUSA

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