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Butterfield’s Critique of Acton

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

Abstract

The Whig Interpretation is an elusive work. Although the prose is intense, Butterfield named few whig or tory historians.1 E. H. Carr complained that he did not ‘name a single Whig except Fox, who was no historian, or a single historian save Acton, who was no Whig’.2 In the Preface Butterfield indicated that the subject was the whig interpretation in ‘the accepted meaning of the phrase’; a statement which drew from Carl C. Becker the confession that he ‘did not recall ever having heard the phrase before’. Butterfield, however, had added: ‘At least it [the whig interpretation] covers all that is ordinarily understood by the words, though possibly it gives them also an extended sense’. Becker correctly concluded that this extension raised problems, as Acton, a devout Roman Catholic, could hardly be regarded as a typical whig.3 In fact, Butterfield’s general critique of the whig method functioned as the basis for a specific critique of Acton’s view of the place of moral judgements in historiography. This dominates the final chapter of the book. Years later Butterfield informed P. B. M. Blaas that he wrote the book

chiefly because I thought I had found the formula for the essential fallacy in historical writing — a fallacy which … helped to explain the Whig and Protestant view of history, and particularly the whiggish historical prejudices of even those people who were Tories in regard to the events of their own day. I… chiefly had Acton in mind … for, though I… admire him, I also find myself at tension with him, particularly on the question of moral judgements.4

Keywords

Moral Judgement Moral Responsibility Historical Research Moral Condemnation General Proposition 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    E. H. Carr, What is History? (1961), p. 35.Google Scholar
  2. See J. J. Auchmuty, ‘Acton: The Youthful Parliamentarian’, Historical Studies 9 (1959/61), 131–9.Google Scholar
  3. see J. R. Dinwiddy, ‘Charles James Fox as Historian’, HJ 12 (1969), 23–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 3.
    cf. Carl C. Becker review of WIH, JMH 4 (1932), 278.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Marshall Poe in ‘Butterfield’s Sociology of Whig History: A Contribution to the Study of Anachronism in Modern Historical Thought’, Clio 25 (1996), 345–52, 354–5, 358–61.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    H. W. V. Temperley, Research and Modem History (1930), pp. 13, 19–20.Google Scholar
  7. cf. Temperley, The Life of Canning (1905), pp. 10, 108.Google Scholar
  8. See also Owen Chadwick, ‘Acton and Butterfield’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 38 (1987), 387–8.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    R. H. Murray, Erasmus and Luther (1920).Google Scholar
  10. John B. Bury, History of the Papacy in the 19th Century (1864–1878), ed. R. H. Murray (1930).Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Acton, ‘The Study of History’, in Lectures on Modem History (1906), p. 5.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Owen Chadwick, ‘Sir Herbert Butterfield’, CR 101 (16 November 1979), 6.Google Scholar
  13. cf. Chadwick, ‘Acton and Butterfield’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 38 (1987), 401.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    For the controversy between Acton and Mandell Creighton, see Friedrich Engel de Janösi, ‘The Correspondence between Lord Acton and Bishop Creighton’, CHJ 6 (1940), 307–21.Google Scholar
  15. John Kenyon, The History Men (1983), pp. 125–37.Google Scholar
  16. Hugh Tulloch, Acton (1988), pp. 103–6, 116.Google Scholar
  17. Roland Hill, Lord Acton (2000), pp. 296–303.Google Scholar
  18. See also Louise Creighton, The Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton (1904), I, pp. 227–9.Google Scholar
  19. Creighton, an Anglican Churchman of the liberal school, published the first two volumes of his History of the Papacy During the Period of the Reformation in 1882.Google Scholar
  20. 14.
    Acton, Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History (1895).Google Scholar
  21. Acton, Lectures on Modem History (1906), pp. 1–28, 319–42.Google Scholar
  22. 15.
    G. M. Trevelyan, ‘Bias in History’, H 32 (1947), 13.Google Scholar
  23. 16.
    Cf. Mandell Creighton, Persecution and Tolerance (1895), and esp. his address ‘Heroes’, The Cornhill Magazine (1898), 729–40.Google Scholar
  24. A. Fish, ‘Acton, Creighton and Lea: A Study in History and Ethics’, Pacific Historical Review 16 (1947), 59–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Acton, ‘The Study of Modern History’ (1905), p. 2.Google Scholar
  26. 21.
    Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (1910), p. 92.Google Scholar
  27. 22.
    Acton review of Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, EHR 3 (1888), 773–88.Google Scholar
  28. 43.
    WIH, p. 129. Cf. Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes (1933), pp. 86–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gertrude Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old (1987), pp. 179–81. The whig drive to come to a ‘judgment of values’ transgressed the inherent limits and specific focus of history as a discipline. WIH, pp. 64–5; cf. MHP, p. 1, n. 1, and p. 97, n. 5.Google Scholar
  30. 45.
    H. G. Wood, Christianity and the Nature of History (1934), pp. 18–19, 181–3.Google Scholar
  31. Cf. C. V. Wedgwood, Truth and Opinion (1960), pp. 45–6, and esp. p. 48.Google Scholar
  32. 46.
    F. A. Hayek, ‘The Historians’ Responsibility’, Time and Tide (13 January 1945), 27–8.Google Scholar
  33. 47.
    C. J. Cadoux, The Protestant Interpretation of History (1947), esp. pp. 6–10.Google Scholar
  34. 48.
    Conyers Read, ‘The Social Responsibilities of the Historian’, AHR 55 (1950), 275–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 50.
    Adrian Oldfield, ‘Moral Judgments in History’, HT 20 (1981), 260–77.Google Scholar
  36. 53.
    Following Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1944/45) and The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), Berlin stood in opposition to determinism, including all forms of deterministic historical interpretation. He regarded deterministic beliefs as injurious to individual responsibility. See Isaiah Berlin, Historical Inevitability (1954), pp. 46–8 and 76–9.Google Scholar
  37. 57.
    Review of Burston and Thompson, EHR 84 (1969), 642–3.Google Scholar
  38. 58.
    Ann Low-Beer, ‘Moral Judgments in History and History Teaching’, in Studies in the Nature and Teaching of History (1967), pp. 137–58.Google Scholar
  39. 61.
    Arthur Child, ‘Moral Judgment in History’, Ethics 61 (1951), 297–308, at 306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 67.
    Ranke, ‘The Great Powers’, tr. Roger Wines, in The Secret of World History (1981), p. 122.Google Scholar
  41. 68.
    Ranke, ‘On the Relation of and Distinction Between History and Politics’, tr. Roger Wines, in The Secret of World History (1981), pp. 110–11.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Keith C. Sewell 2005

Authors and Affiliations

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

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