Review – Burrow, “A Liberal Descent”

J.W. Burrow, “A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past” (1981) – I have been imagining a book sequence for a while, about the history of political philosophy as related to visions of the nature of time and human history. As you imagine, such books tend to be chunky, in topic, tone, prose, and heft. It would start with Ernst Kantorowicz’s “The King’s Two Bodies” and J.G.A. Pocock’s “The Machiavellian Moment,” and end with Philip Mirowski’s “Machine Dreams.” I’ve been vexed by what the “middle ground” of this sequence would be. I would want something on the nineteenth century, especially nineteenth century liberalism.

“A Liberal Descent” might be the closest I’ve found so far (other than maybe Hayden White’s “Metahistory,” which is a little too historiographical for what I have in mind), even if it doesn’t quite nail it. More an intellectual history than a strict historiography, Burrow’s book asks how liberal British historians at the height of, well, liberalism, British power, and probably the British historical profession, squared a peculiar circle: the idea of a heritage of liberalism. That is to say, how did the likes of Thomas Macaulay and William Stubbs deal with the seeming paradox of a culture that they wanted to say was always progressive? If it was always progressive, where was it progressing to? Especially when you factor in their whiggish ideas of progress and liberty, that do not allow for the advisability of sudden, dramatic, painful change? 

Burrow, a highly-respected British intellectual historian who never quite broke out like other prominent British historians of his time did (it wasn’t necessarily the most popular time for intellectual histories of Britain), does not allow this book to become ponderous and thesis-heavy. We get a lot about the way his four main subjects – super-popular chronicler of the pivotal late seventeenth century and parliamentarian Thomas Macaulay, deep researcher of the Saxon past William Stubbs, theorist of Anglo-Saxonist racialist “democracy” Edward Freeman, and polemical historian of the Tudor era James Froude – understood history in general, getting into their educations, influences, writing styles, source treatment, etc. 

All of them stood before a challenge made by David Hume: that British liberty isn’t unique, that it has no real provenance (Hume claimed that the English under Henry VIII were as free as the subjects of the Grand Turk, a big diss at the time), that the Roundheads and early Whigs were delusional when they claimed “ancient constitutional freedoms” as the bases of such actions as starting a civil war, executing a king, and inviting a Dutch dude to start a whole new dynasty. Hume was feeling his oats as a big clever Enlightenment Scot, with some of the more innovative Scots social historians behind him, in a period (the late eighteenth century) not known for the glittering innovations of English historical writing. He was long dead by the Victorian period but our English Whig historians still had to reckon with him.

Whether or not they’d admit it openly, Macaulay and company paid Hume the compliment of admitting his basic thesis, that British liberalism’s institutional history cannot be cast back into the misty past without serious violence to historical continuity. Whatever Saxon Witenagemots or Runnymede confrontations you can point to, there A. were plenty of similar moments in other parts of Europe at roughly the same time, B. Many decades- or centuries- long gaps where proto-democratic/liberal institutions or movements failed to matter or even exist and C. many many instances of England being, if anything, more of a forerunner in terms of developing feudalism, royal prerogative, or anything else a Whig is supposed to have seen as the sort of thing they, and good Englishmen, oppose. The central, longstanding criticism of Whig history is that it reads the present into the future in a profoundly unsophisticated, teleological way. And while all of our Whig historians had their faults, and Macaulay in particular fell into the classical “Whig teleological history” stereotype, none of them failed to realize the problems involved.

I guess that’s the theme of the reading series I had in mind at the beginning of this review- the creation and playing-out of problem-spaces in highly politicized areas of thought around definitions of what the political is. The space of disputation in which the Whig historians of the Victorian period worked involved political stakes ranging from the big overarching questions of political philosophy to what amounts to family loyalty- many of the families sending kids to Oxbridge by this time still had some family tradition of alignment with the Cavaliers or the Roundheads of the English Civil War, for instance. It also entailed expanding access to and professionality in dealing with primary sources, as well as the professionalization of history and of academia in Britain in general, well after Germany started the process. The disputes took place while Britain was in the prime of its global power, but especially as the century progressed, the British elite began to feel less confident of the permanence of their place in the sun. 

All in all it was a pretty interesting set of circumstances to write history in, and Burrow goes deep into the processes of our four historians (and others who were around at the time too). Probably the ones I’d be most interested in reading for myself would be Macaulay and Stubbs. Marx called Macaulay “a systematic falsifier,” and he sounds like he was a pompous boob, but his work was standard, once upon a time. He seems to just sort of elide the whole “British tradition of freedom not being that traditional, or even that British” thing with a sheer firehose of prose (you basically can’t get the full six-volume history anymore unless you want some real old volumes or print-on-demand). Stubbs elided the other way, immersing himself in deep Britishness, obscure old records and laws from the countryside- if the institutions did not have continuity, the land and its communities did, he thought he could prove. Freeman and Froude were less confident, less sanguine, trying weirder things – Freeman’s Saxon vs Norman raceplay, Froude’s Carlylean hero-worship – to square various circles as the late nineteenth century kept making things, well, rounder, I guess, in this metaphor. 

All in all, it was very “my shit.” Burrow does not come to as stark, surprising, or wide-ranging conclusions as Kantorowicz, Pocock, or Mirowski (his work is also much shorter and more readable) so I’m not sure it’s exactly what I was looking for, but it is well worth a read if you’re interested in the history of how the elite of the nineteenth century (a lot of Americans read deeply in English history, too) understood themselves. *****

Review – Burrow, “A Liberal Descent”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s