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The Conservative Historical Imagination in the Twentieth Century

  • Reba N. Soffer


In 1935, R. G. Collingwood defined the historical imagination as an innate or a priori part of thinking that allows students of history to reconstruct the past. Whether stored in the furniture of the mind, learned through practice, or inherited as genetic inclinations, imagination is indispensable to the historian's craft. The historian's imagination may be richer, more diverse, more inventive than that, say, of an orthopedist, because the historian's present is the surviving but elusive past. Historians have to imagine more because they can never know what actually happened. Like orthopedists and everyone else, historians enter their professions hauling baggage packed haphazardly with images drawn from cultural, personal, religious, moral and practical experience. An orthopedist checks his psychological and social luggage when treating anesthetized muscle and bone in the controlled atmosphere of an operating room. For the orthopedist, the only images relevant for diagnosis and remedy are those produced precisely by x-rays or magnetic resonance. A historian neither diagnoses nor remedies. Instead, relying upon recalcitrant evidence, she tries to explain events that occurred in a dynamic, unpredictable, uncontrollable world already finished.

When historians conduct research and then interpret what they find, they are unwilling and unable to lay aside their every day images of human nature and society. Such concepts, even when wrong, are logically necessary to explanation. Historical imagination organizes the categories that provide a historian with a match between her expectations and the subjects of her inquiry. The historian's juxtaposition, unlike the orthopedist's realistic image, is impressionistic. It becomes satisfying only when it fulfills a cultivated sense of propriety. Although honest historians are persuaded by the information they discover, there are few experiences more pleasing than that frisson of recognition when initial impressions are validated by the historical records. That pleasure is far more agreeable than disappointment. If the records repudiate anticipations then the historian must search for a more adequate explanatory scheme that approximates the truth more closely.



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1 Collingwood, R. G., The Idea of History (Oxford, 1946), pp. 248–49.

2 See Soffer, Reba, Discipline and Power. The University, History and the Formation of an English Elite, 1870–1930 (Stanford, 1994), esp. pp. 4652 for a discussion of historians' reactions to the Great War.

3 For J. H. Clapham, see ibid., p. 156.

4 A. J. P. Taylor had “no illusions about Stalinism” in the 1930s, but he was “unshakably pro-Russian” and saw the “Five Year Plan as a demonstration of socialism in action” (A Personal History [New York, 1983], p. 124).

5 See Rowse, A. L., Appeasement: A Study in Political Decline, 1933–39 (1961), p. 38. Rowse argues that many of the appeasers such as Geoffrey Dawson and John Simon were decent men who did not know the kind of men Hitler and his associates were because they “were ignorant of Europe and European history” (p. 116). Toynbee could not be included in that ignorant group.

6 See Griffiths, Richard, Fellow-Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany 1933–39 (London, 1980), and Thorpe, Andrew, ed., The Failure of Political Extremism in Inter-War Britain (Exeter, 1989).

7 Gilbert and Gott's The Appeasers was dedicated to Taylor, A. J. P.. Parker, R. A. C., in Chamberlain and Appeasement: British Policy and the Coming of the Second World War (New York, 1993), argues that the “evidence shows that Chamberlain, first, became the most active exponent of an agreed policy towards Germany and, then, as others came to doubt and hesitate, argued and manoeuvred to continue it.” Chamberlain dominated the making of British policy and pursued appeasement because “he thought it was correct.” Parker finds that “Chamberlain was wrong when he argued that no effective methods of securing British safety and prosperity were possible other than those he advocated” (pp. 364–65).

8 J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England (London, 1883).

9 See Cole, G. D. H. and Postgate, Raymond, “Epilogue,” in The British Common People, 1746–1946 (London, 1947).

10 In 1836, the young Benjamin Disraeli wrote that “England has become great by her institutions. Her hereditary Crown has in a great degree insured us from the distracting evils of a contested succession; her Peerage, interested, from the vast property and the national honours of its members, in the good government of the country, has offered a compact bulwark against the temporary violence of popular passion; her House of Commons, representing the conflicting sentiments of an estate of the realm not less privileged than that of the Peers, though far more numerous, has enlisted the great mass of the lesser proprietor of the country in favor of a political system which offers them a constitutional means of defence and a legitimate method of redress; her ecclesiastical establishment preserved by its munificent endowment from the fatal necessity of pandering to the erratic fancies of its communicant, has maintained the sacred cause of learning and religion, and preserved orthodoxy while it has secured toleration; her law of primogeniture has supplied the country with a band of natural and independent leaders, trustees of those legal institutions, which pervade our land, and which are the origin of our political constitution.” The Spirit of Whiggism” (1836), in Whigs and Whiggism: Political Writings ed. Hutcheson, William (New York, 1914), pp. 327–28. See, too, Vindication of the English Constitution (1835), in Whigs and Whiggism, pp. 111–232, and the Crystal Palace Speech, June 24, 1872, in The Conservative Tradition, ed. White, R. J., pp. 238–40.

11 Byron Criddle, “Members of Parliament,” in The Conservative Century: The Conservative Party since 1900, ed. Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball (Oxford, 1994), pp. 166, 165. See tables indicating occupations of MPs on pp. 147, 152, 160. For the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, see Marsh, Peter, The Discipline of Popular Government: Lord Salisbury's Domestic Statecraft 1881–1902 (Hassocks, 1978).

12 Catterall, Peter, “The Party and Religion,” in The Conservative Century, p. 670.

13 That description is by Critchley, Julian in his Some of Us: People Who Did Well Under Thatcher (London, 1992), p. 58.

14 In The Gathering Storm ([New York, 1948], p. xi), the first volume of the History of World War II, Churchill said the theme of the book was “How the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm.” See Annan, Noel, Our Age (London, 1994), p. 392. See, too, Feiling's, KeithThe Life of Neville Chamberlain (London, 1946) and The Story of the Modern History of Great Britain, 1862–1946; an inaugural lecture at Oxford, Feb. 1, 1947. (Oxford, 1947).

15 Elton, Geoffrey, “Fifty Years of Tudor Studies at London University,” Times Literary Supplement, Jan. 6, 1956, p. viii. Elton was talking specifically about the Tudor age and the work of A. F. Pollard and R. H. Tawney.

16 White, R. J., ed., The Conservative Tradition (New York, 1950).

l7 John Barnes, “Ideology and Factions,” in The Conservative Century.

18 Butterfield, , Christianity and History (New York, 1949), p. 23.

19 Quoted in Bethell, John T., “Harvard and the Arts of War,” Harvard Magazine (Sept.-Oct., 1995): 48.

20 Annan, , Our Age, p. 392. Butterfield “saw nothing odd when visiting Dublin as external examiner at the university in going to parties at the German Consulate.”

21 The phrase is from Kennan's, GeorgeAround the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy (New York, 1993), where his first chapter is called “The Cracked Vessel.” Butterfield and Kennan had much in common.

22 Butterfield, , The Englishman and His History (Cambridge, 1944), p. 2.

23 Butterfield, , Christianity and History, p. 66.

24 Ibid., p. 23.

25 Annan, Noel, Our Age, p. 270. Hugh Trevor Roper was on the Committee of Electors for the Regius Professorship in Modern History in 1963. Butterfield's close friend Desmond Williams sent Butterfield an extract of a letter he received from Trevor Roper, who wrote: “I shall listen demurely and cast my vote with the Cambridge majority.” He thought the candidates would be Jack Plumb, Elton, and George Kitson Clark. He found Elton unpopular and a stiff opponent of reform, “but no denying his energy and ability.” For Plumb, he could not “vote very enthusiastically. … There is something small about his character, something vulgar about his arrivisme, something trivial about his attitude to history.… Rowse…would probably vote for Plumb as a fellow-devotee of the great god Mammon.…Kitson…is not very inspiring and a bit of an ass.…” He wanted to know if there was a dark horse such as A. J. P. Taylor (May 29, 1963, Butterfield Papers, Cambridge University Library, W335). The Chair went to Butterfield.

26 See the Butterfield Papers.

27 Cowling, Maurice, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England (Cambridge, 1980), pp. 198, 229, 199.

28 Butterfield, , Christianity and History, p. 77. This book began as a series of lectures given to the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge in 1948. They were then transposed into six broadcast lectures for the BBC from April 2 to May 7, 1949 and amplified for publication.

29 Butterfield, , The Whig Interpretation of History (London, 1931), p. v.

30 Butterfield, , The Englishman and His History, p. 92.

31 Butterfield, , Lord Acton (London, 1948), p. 20.

32 Raymond, John, Review of Christianity in European History in The New Statesman, April 12, 1952.

33 Butterfield, , Lord Acton, pp. 7–8, 13. For a perceptive discussion of Butterfield's ambiguity about Acton, see Chadwick, Owen, “Acton and Butterfield,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 38, 3 (July 1987).

34 Butterfield, , Man on His Past: The Study of the History of Historical Scholarship, The Wiles Trust Lecture, November 1954 (Boston, 1960), pp. 186, 107.

35 Butterfield, , Lord Acton, p. 8.

36 Butterfield, , The Origins of Modern Science, 1300–1800 (London, 1951), pp. 32, 41.

37 Butterfield, , Christianity and History, pp. 3334.

38 Butterfield, , The Englishman and His History, p. 89.

39 Butterfield, , Christianity and History, pp. 36, 34.

40 Butterfield, , The Englishman and His History, p. 135. See too, Christianity in European History, The Riddell Memorial Lectures, 1951 (London, 1952), p. 63.

41 Butterfield, , Christianity and History, p. 92.

42 Butterfield, , The Peace Tactics of Napoleon, 1806–1808 (Cambridge, 1929), p. vii.

43 Butterfield, , The Statecraft of Machiavelli (London, 1940), p. 19, reprinted in 1955 and 1960, and Christianity and History, p. 47.

44 Butterfield, , The Englishman and His History, p. 138.

45 Butterfield, , Christianity and History, p. 137.

46 Butterfield, , The Englishman and His History, p. 102, George III, Lord North and the People, 1779–80 (London, 1949), p. vi.

47 Butterfield, , Christianity, Diplomacy and War, The Beckly Social Service Lecture (New York, 1953), p. 115.

48 Butterfield, , Historical Development of the Principle of Toleration in British Life (London, 1957), pp. 1415.

49 Butterfield, , Machiavelli, pp. 1516.

50 Ibid., pp. 24–25.

51 Butterfield, , Christianity and History, pp. 28, 26, 91.

52 Butterfield, , Christianity in European History, pp. 63.

53 Times Literary Supplement, Jan. 6, 1956, p. ii.

54 Butterfield, , The Present State of Historical Scholarship, An Inaugural Lecture (Cambridge, 1965), p. 22.

55 Elton urged historians generally to specialize and Tudor historians to “understand the true structure and ideas of so governed' an age,” and to see “matters not only from the point of view of the governed but also from that of the government” ("Fifty Years of Tudor Studies at London University,” p. viii).

56 For Elton's influence see Kouri, E. I., and Scott, Tom, eds., Politics and Society in Reformation Europe: Essays for Sir Geoffrey Elton on his Sixty-fifth Birthday (London, 1987); Cross, Claire, Loades, David, and Scarisbrick, J. J., eds., Law and Government under the Tudors: Essays Presented to Sir Geoffrey Elton, Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge, on the Occasion of his Retirement (Cambridge, 1988); and, Rules, Religion and Rhetoric in Early Modern England: a Festschrift for Geoffrey Elton from his Australasian Friends (Sydney, 1988).

57 John Pocock, Peter Laslett, and Jonathan Steinberg were influenced by Butterfield, but their work and considerable reputations are unique to them.

58 See Thompson, Kenneth, ed., Herbert Butterfield: The Ethics of History and Politics (Lanham, Md., 1980); the very perceptive and sympathetic The Wisdom of Statecraft: Sir Herbert Butterfield and the Philosophy of International Politics (Durham, NC, 1985) by Coll, Alberto R. who shares Butterfield's religious and political commitments; and the Butterfield Papers, University of Cambridge Library, W270, Letter to Desmond Williams, April 28, 1958, 1; W272, William's reply, on May 2, 1958, 1; W273, May 27, 1958, Williams to Butterfield; W279, n.d., Butterfield to Willliams; Williams to Butterfield, Sept. 30, 1958.

59 Morality and Force. MS on the morality of international relations, Butterfield Papers, Butt/110, n.d., 1.

60 Bosworth, Richard, Explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima: History Writing and the Second World War, 1945–1990 (London, 1993), pp. 5152.

61 Butterfield, , Christianity, Diplomacy and War, p. 15, and Christianity and Human Relations (London, 1951), p. 39.

62 Quoted in Bosworth, , Explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima, pp. 4445.

63 Butterfield, , History and Human Relations, p. 70.

64 Butterfield, , The Present State of Historical Scholarship, p. 24. See, too, the discussion of free will and necessity in George III and the Historians (rev. ed.; New York, 1959), p. 205.


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