Whig History: A Brief Discussion

Ideas shape the course of history. — John Maynard Keynes

Have you ever been hit by such an idea, “Maybe our history is different from the recordings in the books?” I have. Usually, I would shake my heads and persuade me to accept a truth: history is written by the successors, and it is challenging to keep neutral and subjective to those who were overturned by the current people. Even if the scholars compiled history driven by pure academic pursuit, it is painstaking, or almost impossible to ensure the history we learned is one hundred percent “real.”

However, in this article, we will not talk about nihilism or the loop of history. Instead, we will learn about an approach of historiography: Whig History.

The Whigs were a political faction and then became a political parliament in England, Scotland, Great Britain, and the United Kindom (Wikipedia). As the name indicated, “Whig” refers to “whiggamore,” which was named by its primary competitor, the Tories.

The predecessor of the Whig Party should be Roundheads, the supporter of the Parliament of England during the English Civil War. Roundheads got this name because they were Puritans, and their hairstyle looks round (Wikipedia). This is a significant difference between Roundheads and the Cavalier, or Royalties. Another tremendous difference is their political belief: the Roundheads sought constitutional monarchy in place of the absolute monarchy, and this idea was inherited by the Whig Party, while the Cavalier maintained that absolute monarchy is the divine right of kings. And this belief was inherited by the Tories.

The result of the English Civil War is known to all: the Whigs purged the Tories from all major government positions. The rights of kings are confined, and the liberty of citizens was further expanded. To some extent, the Whig Party determined the blossom of England later.

Now here comes the question: now that the Whig Party stood for liberalism and progress, why “Whig History” is a negative word?

Let’s refer to The Whig Interpretation of History written by Herber Butterfield. In the book, the author criticized Whig History as an obsession with the winner in history (Butterfield, 1931). Because every time historians collecting history from the end of the 17th century to the 19th century, Whig Party was described as the incarnation of justice, and it was the only force that pushed England to move forward. It seems that current England would not exist without the Whig Party. First and foremost, the achievements of the Whig Pary should not be neglected. But it is inappropriate to equalize other parties to “backward force” and deny their previous accomplishments (Wan, 2020).

As we mentioned before, history is usually written by successors. If the successor follows Whig History’s approach, the failure of the predecessor would be destined, and this successor would be the representative of justice. At first glance, it may not be a severe problem: everybody is not completely neutral, why must historians avoid Whig History? However, some hidden harms are neglected.

First, you will regard history as destined due to Whig History.

Admittedly, there are so many coincidences in history. These coincidences may make trivia differences, while sometimes the influence may be crucial. For example, if Neymar was not injured in 2014, Brazil may get better scores, and the final winner might not be Germany National Football Team. However, if we follow Whig History, German’s victory is simply because of its unmatchable power, and other competitors are too weak compared with this team. Obviously, this argument is untenable.

Second, the Whig Historians will judge the past people by modern values.

President Roosevelt should be the first person to be mentioned. In the 1930s, a worldwide economic depression began in the United States and spread around the world. At that time, New Deal was come up by President Roosevelt to “relief, reform, and recover from the Great Depression” (Wikipedia). And the result showed that the New Deal had “either caused or accelerated the recovery.” However, now you can view some critiques arguing that President Roosevelt should not adopt macro-control, which would possibly introduce communism. Also, some people maintain that President Roosevelt’s action during the Great Depression did not prevent the spread of Fascism in Europe, which resulted in World War II later.

Nonetheless, these people are just viewing from modern people’s aspects. During the Great Depression, personal income, tax revenue, profits, and prices dropped hugely, and the economic system was almost devastated. It is mysterious whether Fascism will surge without New Deal, but it is certain that the economy of the United States would not recover, needless to say, to prepare for another great war.

So you see, if we view policies from Whig History methodology, we will always find imperfections of them. Some of them even contradict modern morality and social norms. However, an analysis detached from the context of a policy is meaningless.

Now, if we broaden the scope of “Whig History,” what will we find?

Possibly, we will find that the history of modern science is like (not entirely the same as) Whig History. Classic mechanics overthrew the primitive theory of mechanics. However, classical mechanics failed in the quantum world and was proceeded by quantum physics and theory of relativity.

Similarly, the first “neural network” had been built with circuits in 1943, and the definition of “Machine Learning” was come up by Arthur Samuel in 1959, but then it was challenged by the “AI WInter” until the appearance of SVM (Support Vector Machine) and RNN (Recurrent Neural Networks). However, there are still some skeptical voices against machine learning nowadays, including the query of the applicability of AI products, and the future of AI.

It seems human beings are always trying to get closer to the truth. Viewing from the perspective as a modern people, we may feel amused to see the pioneers had made so many efforts to come up with some imperfect or unpractical theories. Needless to mention alchemy and psychoanalysis.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean the efforts of the predecessors are useless. Their achievements should not be judged by the value of these theories in modern theory. Instead, we should consider their contributions in that context, even in human beings’ whole history.

Suppose we take one person’s failure, one theory, one policy as the destiny of history, and judge them from the aspect of a modern individual, the history of human beings is some kind of pathetic. Especially when we realize that our science and technology may be considered as “alchemy” in centuries. Therefore, we may fall into the trap of nihilism.

However, if we break through Whig History, we may find that history had taught us the importance of “uncertainty.” Because of coincidences, there are so many unexpected events in history. Due to the unpredictability of science, we must spend more time and capital on scientific researches. They can be the cornerstone of success or reference to errors to the next generation (Wan, 2020).

Judging is easy, but reviewing history critically is difficult. Staying still is easy, but taking actions in the trend of history is difficult.

This is just a brief talk about Whig History, hope you enjoy it. Our journey had just begun.


Whigs (British Political Party), In Wikipedia, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whigs_(British_political_party)

Butterfield, H., The Whig Interpretation of History, 1931.

Roundhead, In Wikipedia, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roundhead

New Deal, In Wikipedia, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Deal

Wan, W., Break Through Whig History, May 20, 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.biji.com/article/Lpy0edZAG5mnK0wMp3XzD9BkoajY4x

Undergraduate student / Research assistant/ Always curious / Opinions are mine