Miles Smith has an insightful piece in First Things about how “American evangelicals have drunk deeply from the well of Whig history.” American Protestants from the start, almost all of them postmillennial, saw the birth of the United States as ushering in a new global age of liberty and social uplift.
According to Smith, “Whig history is an unsound historiographic method that sees history as a predestined progression toward greater democracy and egalitarianism.” He cites the turbocharged ostensibly whiggish rhetoric of speech writer and evangelical Michael Gerson in George W. Bush’s confident declarations about democracy in the Mideast and more widely.
The Whig Interpretation of History is a 1931 book by Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield that critiques “the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.” As one commentator has noted, Butterfield widely called “whig” anyone “writing histories in which something becomes better over time and so is judged A Good Thing. In Butterfield’s lexicon, the uncapitalized noun ‘whig’ and the even looser adjective ‘whiggish’ become universal descriptors for all progressive narratives.”
Butterfield warned against turning history into facile morality tales, pitting liberators against oppressors, leading directly to today’s progress. He preferred to “take the whole present as the child of the whole past,” with the result often a harmonizing synthesis not directly intended by any particular faction. This multigenerational harmony, achieved by eventual compromise after conflicts, was itself the whig tradition, as Butterfield described it in his 1944 book The Englishman and His History.
In that book, written during World War II, Butterfield described another “whig interpretation” that had made, across centuries, liberty the defining essence of Britain. “What power is this English tradition, which swallows up monarchy, toryism, imperialism, yet leaves each of them still existing, each part of a wider synthesis? And how cunningly did the whig interpretation assert itself in all the utterances of Englishmen in 1940, throbbing and alive again, and now projected upon an extended map.”
The result was that, for Butterfield, what had been the whig outlook had become the “English tradition,” which aligns the Englishman with time and history, offering a “continuity of past and present,” and seeking a “moderate mode of politics” prone to compromise. This tradition emerged from whigs, chastened by the extremism and chaos of the mid-17th century, seeking peaceful practicality, resulting in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which Butterfield called the “most masterly episode in English history.”
The whig temperament that became predominant in Britain avoids rash conflict and awaits events for opportunity. Butterfield cited Halifax’s 1687 Letter to a Dissenter, warning impatient ultra-Protestants seething for conflict with James II to await their hour, as “things tend naturally to what you would have, if you would let them alone, and not by an unseasonable activity lose the influences of your good star.” This whiggery is non-doctrinaire and avoids hasty straight lines, preferring consolidation, moderate reform, and cautious progress. Some evils must be “stoked away rather than kicked away,” with a “a tempered faith in the course of history,” while always building bridges to the rear.
As Butterfield describes the whiggish perspective, “it involves a respect for the other man’s personality, a recognition of what is due to political opponents, a certain homage to what the other man may think to be a political good,” of “government by discussion.” Otherwise “democracy can only destroy itself in a conflict of divine right versus diabolical wrong.” This sensibility declines to force an issue through momentary acquisition of power but awaits a national consensus. Such “self-limitation” is needed for “those who cooperate with history.”
Butterfield notes that great and sinister personalities may seize power and bestride history but typically tempt Providence too far and crash. Sometimes it is the patient mediocrities who prevail. Under the whig system, reforms are often overdue, but with the passage of time they are achieved more easily and surely, with “less accompaniment of counter evil.” With conflict mitigated, “the world has a chance to grow in reasonableness.” Such moderation is preferable to “ten righteous men, with white horses, rushing with the sword of the Lord, to remove wickedness from the face of the earth.”
In his First Things article, Miles Smith quotes Edmund Burke, an old Whig, speaking in this vein: “Time is required to produce that union of minds which alone can produce all the good we aim at. Our patience will achieve more than our force.”
As this quote reveals, there is trust that history, with patience, will move forward with progress under providential guidance. Whiggery is an alliance with history, not moving ahead of it, or falling too far behind. It avoids rash action and does not assume too much. The targets of Butterfield’s and Smith’s critique of whig history fail not because they are optimistic but because they presumptuously insist on hasty straight lines, in their history, and in their politics.
Today’s American evangelicals need a dose of the right kind of whiggery. Michael Gerson’s brand of sunny optimism about democracy is now so passe that even he is pessimistic. Optimism and confidence are almost completely gone in public life. Instead, we have impatience, anger, apocalyptic warnings and demands for rash action against supposedly demonic enemies. Such darkness, to which evangelicals often contribute, feeds some of the worst human passions. We almost need a dose of the chirpy confidence for which earlier Protestant postmillennialists were famous.
A patient, wry optimism is wiser and more providential. As Butterfield wrote: “And if sometimes men’s good intentions are defeated in the process, in a deeper sense we may say that the world gets better and at sundry times through the action of people who did not realize what they were doing.”