Ideas Featured

Whig History or Woke History: Can you spot the difference?

woke history
Written by Lawrence Goldman

John Maynard Keynes once mused that practical men, without intellectual interest, were nevertheless ‘slaves to some defunct economist’ of whom they knew nothing.

It is one of the ironies of current historical studies that many historians, museum curators, and journalists who strive to present a new and critical account of British history are in thrall, unknowingly, to a version of what is known as ‘Whig history’, the present-minded study of the past. It is a different version of Whig history, of course, which seeks to denigrate rather than celebrate the British past. But insofar as it is constructed under the influence of contemporary ideas, and looks for evidence from the past to support those ideas, it is akin to Whig history. It thus shares characteristics with a style and type of historical writing long considered old-fashioned, outmoded, and inaccurate. Historical misinterpretation often arises from the application of inappropriate methods and approaches to the study of the past, and correcting defective historical methodology is a central concern of History Reclaimed. In this, and in subsequent essays, we’ll examine the fallacies and analytical failings of what may be called ‘woke history’, a view of the past determined by the ideologies of the present.

Whig history emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and its most famous exponent was Thomas Babington Macaulay, author of The History of England from the Accession of James II. Macaulay was a Whig MP and minister in two cabinets. He was also a member of the Supreme Council of India in the 1830s, in which role he designed a famous criminal code and an educational system for India: acts of beneficent and progressive statesmanship. In later life he devoted himself to history, and, at the time of his death, had written five volumes of his History, though they covered less than two decades of the British past from 1685-1702. The work as a whole was highly partisan, a celebration of the Protestant Whig triumph in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Catholic monarch, James II, vacated the throne. Macaulay was critical at every turn of Roman Catholicism, divine right monarchy, high churchmen and Tories who had supported the legitimate royal line come what may. In its often crude characterisations of people like William of Orange as heroes and of people like James II as villains and, controversially, of John Churchill, later first duke of Marlborough, as a turncoat, Macaulay’s History established another characteristic of popular Whig history. Today’s demonisation of Winston Churchill, who, in the 1930s, wrote an acclaimed biography of his ancestor, John Churchill, is equally crude.

Whig history constructed the past in terms of the present, seeking to explain the political stability of Victorian Britain under a reformed parliamentary system as the consequence of what Macaulay called ‘a preserving revolution’ in 1688. Little attempt was made to understand the past as actors from that period might have understood it themselves. Macaulay’s history was thus used as a means to explain the apparently successful path taken by the United Kingdom over the years since 1688 towards representative government and economic prosperity. The historical experience of those who had not followed this path or telos to the present, or who might have questioned its virtues and successes, such as Jacobite supporters of the Stuart line, Roman Catholics, Protestant dissenters, the Irish in general, and the Scottish highlanders defeated at Culloden in 1746 – all those who fell foul of the eighteenth-century Whig political ascendancy – were ignored and in large measure written out of history. In chapter 10 of the History’s first volume, Macaulay took a deliberate detour to contrast the contemporary stability of British institutions that were formed in the events of the late-seventeenth century with recent experiences on the continent of Europe during the revolutions of 1848–9 which had unseated monarchs and emperors from Paris to Budapest. Macaulay’s history was partisan and complacent towards a patriotic end; he sought to explain, historically, the reasons for ‘British exceptionalism’. As such, it was remarkably popular, the volumes selling in their tens of thousands to an expanding Victorian reading public eager for a national narrative in an era – the 1850s and 1860s – when new nations were being formed across Europe or fighting for their national coherence and moral identity as in the United States during its Civil War, which was fought over slavery. Macaulay had established not only the outlines of a history of modern Britain, albeit based on a detailed fragment covering only twenty years or so, but had also discovered and nurtured a popular audience for history which has been an aspect of British culture ever since, and which was to be fed once again by the writings of his great-nephew, George Macaulay Trevelyan, another Whig historian in the twentieth century.

Liberal assumptions about the inevitability of social and moral progress ran through all of Trevelyan’s many books, notably his masterpiece in three volumes on Garibaldi and the unification of Italy in the mid-nineteenth century, published between 1907 and 1911. So too did his sense of the special destiny of England unite all his many works on domestic history, which celebrated not just the development of parliamentary government, but also the rule of law and the evolution of religious toleration and civil freedoms in England. In Trevelyan’s view it had been England’s special destiny to lead the struggle for the victory of liberal and humane values in two World Wars. He made his own contribution to the furtherance of English humanity by serving with a British Red Cross unit in northern Italy for three and a half years during the first of these conflicts. Unsurprisingly, Trevelyan’s most successful book in terms of sales was his English Social History, published in 1944. It was an elegiac homage to a stable, organic, and moral nation. Proceeds of the book were donated to the National Trust.

Trevelyan, and Macaulay before him, were not without their critics, however. The most notable of these was another Cambridge historian, Herbert Butterfield, who, in 1931, published a short book under the title The Whig Interpretation of History, employing the term itself for the first time. Butterfield decried the Whig view as the parochial product of a specific mid-Victorian liberal outlook. Many who read works of history written in this vein, and many historians who, following Macaulay, actually wrote history in this way, had come to believe that this narrative of national celebration and self-satisfaction was the only way in which to imagine the British past. Butterfield’s purpose was to show, instead, that the Whig interpretation was limited both intellectually and politically by the age from which it emerged and the ideology which it embodied. It promoted a view of English history consonant with the political and moral outlook of its writers and readers, and was not, therefore, an accurate version. The past was presented as leading to the present in a linear fashion, and judged according to contemporary nostrums. Beyond the specifics of a Whig narrative, however, Butterfield’s purpose was to draw attention to ‘certain fallacies to which all history is liable’.[1] Writing any kind of history from a purely contemporary perspective, giving it a telos leading to the present, and excluding or diminishing all those individuals, groups, movements, and tendencies which presented another face to the past, or offered another possible route to the present, rather than writing history ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ (‘as it really was’) in Ranke’s famous phrase, are flaws that can be found in all types of historical writing in all cultures. Butterfield’s book was designed to illustrate a general failing in historical writing across the board.

Few names were mentioned by Butterfield, but any discerning reader conversant with British historiography, and certainly any serious student of British history, would have known that he had taken aim at Macaulay and Trevelyan. Butterfield had another Cambridge historian in his sights, as well: Lord Acton, Regius Professor of History in the 1890s, whose European ancestry and Catholicism made him something other than an apologist for the Protestant ascendancy. In this case, Acton was criticised by name, and over several pages in Butterfield’s final chapter, for his propensity to make moral judgments in retrospect, declared by Butterfield to be ‘the most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflection’.[2] In Butterfield’s view the historian should neither ‘exonerate’ nor ‘condemn’, nor apply personal and often unarticulated standards to the past. But ‘in Lord Acton, the Whig historian reached his highest consciousness… in his writings moral judgements appeared in their most trenchant and uncompromising form, while in his whole estimate of the subject the moral function of history was most greatly magnified.’[3] In the process of demolishing Whig history, Butterfield was also criticising, therefore, the enthusiasm among many historians to moralise and judge, rather than to analyse and explain.

We see that same propensity in current attempts to ‘decolonise’ curricula in universities and schools, to remove statues, to take down portraits, to rename streets, and to tell visitors to galleries and museums what they should think. This is Whig history reversed. The aim is to condemn rather than celebrate; the focus is on those who have been excluded rather than those with influence and power; the new narrative emphasises the lack of moral conduct in British history, rather than moral improvement and social progress. Macaulay and Trevelyan, as befitted members of a family that distinguished itself in the movements for the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of the slaves, emphasised the remarkable triumph of the British antislavery movement which in less than half a century outlawed practices that were as old as civilisation itself. Today, woke history ignores antislavery. The recent report into Legacies of Enslavement in the University of Cambridge, commissioned by the former Vice-Chancellor, Stephen Toope, which could find no evidence of slave holding or slave trading by the university and its colleges, had next to nothing to say about antislavery. Yet many Cambridge-educated students and dons took leading positions in the British antislavery movement, Macaulay among them.

Whig history carefully selected those elements of English History that cohered to make an uplifting narrative of progress, reform, and improvement. Woke history is equally selective in its choice of theme, evidence and examples in order to construct an opposing narrative of exploitation and discrimination. Two apparently opposed styles of historical thinking use the same methods and approaches to reach entirely opposite conclusions – and both are wrong. Whig history declined after the Second World War, undermined by Butterfield’s critique and supplanted by deeper knowledge of the British past based on better empirical and academic methods, rather than ideology. No academic historian would adopt a Whig view of the British past today, therefore. Our view is wider and we are far better informed. But neither should we embrace the new style of anti-Whig history, which is the equal of the former Whig variety in its origins in ideology, and in its search through the past for evidence that can fit its preordained interpretations. Butterfield was right to convict the Whig historians of excessive moralism; so should we be suspicious of history, or commentary, or the analysis of a work of art that places judgment before evidence. Whig history had its day and was surpassed by better approaches that made the academic study of history in Britain one of the highlights of our post-Second World War intellectual culture. Woke history is a return to the weaknesses and parochialism of Whig history.

We can do better than both of these outmoded and partisan approaches; indeed, we have done better already. The sooner historians recover their academic self-confidence and return to the application of varied and sophisticated methods to the study of history, the better for our discipline and for the public understanding of the British past. History Reclaimed exists to make it possible for any young historian to study what they believe to be important, in their own way, without preconceptions or restrictions, and from the evidence.


This is the first in a series of essays on historical method. Other topics will include the treatment of historical context, the recovery of authorial intention, and the rush to judgement in historical studies.

[1] Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), (1973 edn.), 9. (My italics)

[2] Ibid, 79.

[3] Ibid, 80.

About the author


Lawrence Goldman