Butterfield’s Critique of Acton

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


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


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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Copyright information

© Keith C. Sewell 2005

Authors and Affiliations

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

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