Fragment on English Whig Conceptions of History

Readers of The Fourth Estate may recall my own readings of Oswald Spengler’s Prussianism and Socialism back in 2021.This pamphlet, which was meant to complement Volume II of The Decline of the West, essentially argued that Socialism did not originate with Marx and Engels but began much earlier. Although he does not mention it explicitly, Spengler was alluding to the notion that Socialism originated from Prussian Cameralism, just as Capitalism stemmed from English Mercantilism. He believed that if Socialism in any form was going to distinguish itself from Social-Democracy, it must recognize itself as the continuation of a specific legacy that began with Prussian Cameralism. If the political model of Capitalism is Liberalism, hence “Neoliberalism” or “Liberal Capitalism,” then Socialism must also find its own political form and its own version of Democracy.

A huge portion of the pamphlet is devoted to discussions about the Whigs (Liberal Democrats, as they known in the UK today) and the Tories (Conservatives). Before Labour rose to prominence in Parliament at the time of Prussianism and Socialism’s writing, UK politics had been dominated by Tories and Whigs since the English Revolution of the 17th century. The Tories and Whigs in the 18th and 19th centuries, despite being overwhelmingly comprised of nobility, were able to form a two-party system within Britain because they were both in agreement on fundamental political-economic issues. Spengler sought to identify how this two-party system came about. He correctly determined that it was product of centuries of historical development that began with the Magna Carta and culminated in the English Revolution.

Furthermore, Spengler wrote that the Prussians and English were related to each other insofar as they originated from Germanic tribes who later went on to become the German and British peoples respectively. The historical developments of the Prussians and English were completely different, and what I would like to address here is the English. Spengler maintained that the English shared a common lineage with two other Germanic peoples, namely the Normans and Anglo-Saxons. There is a certain truth to this claim as far as Whig or Liberal historians were concerned.

An argument has been posited among Whig or Liberal historians during the Enlightenment. They claimed that because the English are derived from two very different Germanic peoples, two political strains of thought emerged in the forms of the Whigs and Tories. The Tories represent the Norman qualities, whereas the Whigs embody the Anglo-Saxon qualities. It is possible that Spengler, while writing The Decline of the West, may have read those historians and based his conclusions about English on their descriptions, which later contributed to his own writings in Prussianism and Socialism.

I have a 1992 research article that is related to the topic and demonstrates how their ideas went on to inform Jeffersonianism in American political thought. The research article in question is called “The English Radical Whig Origins of American

There is a relevant passage therein which reads:

“‘It has ever appeared to me,’ [Thomas] Jefferson wrote to the English Real Whig John Cartwright in 1824, ‘that the difference between the Whig and Tory of England is that the Whig deduces his rights from the Anglo-Saxon source, and the Tory from the Norman…’ He congratulated Cartwright for deducing the English constitution from ‘its rightful root, the Anglo-Saxon,’ and added that ‘although this constitution was violated and set at naught by Norman force yet force cannot change right. A perpetual claim was kept up by the nation, by their perpetual demand of a restoration of their Saxon laws; which shows they were never relinquished by the will of the nation. In the pullings and haulings for these ancient rights, between the nation, and its kings of the races of Plantagenets, Tudors, and Stuarts, there was sometimes gain, and sometimes loss, until the final reconquest of their rights from the Stuarts.'”

“This passage nicely illustrates the extent to which the historical vision of Jefferson and his contemporaries was shaped by the romantic view that historians have called the ‘Whig interpretation’ of English history.

The Whig historians’ approach to English history, particularly the history of English government after the Norman conquest-the so-called
“Saxon Myth”-has been nicely summarized by H. Trevor Colbourn, who contrasted it with the Tory historians’ view.”

‘There had developed … two principal views of English history; the one, ususally the more accurate by modem scholastic standards, can be called the tory interpretation-although not in any party sense; the other is reasonably familiar as the whig interpretation, although it too existed long before a formal Whig party and continued long after the Whig politicians opportunistically lost interest in it. The historical whigs were writers seeking to support parliamentary claims upon the royal prerogatives by exalting the antiquity of parliament and by asserting that their political ambitions had solid foundation in ancient customs. They presented an idealized version of an Anglo-Saxon democracy, which they usually found overturned by Norman treachery and feudalism.

The tory historians instead preferred
to see the parliamentary claims as without any ancient source, and viewed Anglo-Saxon England as feudalistic, but lacking in Norman stability and order.

The Whig historians began with a model of government, introduced into the nations of northern Europe by the barbarian tribes that settled there, and saw in that model the original constitution. At the same time, however, they argued that the constitution remained unchanged on a theoretical level. To the Whig historians, the whole of English constitutional history since the Norman conquest was the story of a perpetual claim, kept up by the English nation, for a restoration of Saxon laws and the ancient rights those laws guaranteed.”

In other words, it was sort of assumed by Jefferson and the English Whigs that the British and more specifically the English had originated from two Germanic peoples with very different perspectives. They began in the German-speaking world and underwent their own historical developments as the British, independent of the German-speaking world. Those were the conditions which Mercantilism and Cameralism, Capitalism and Socialism, emerged over the past few centuries.

Categories: Philosophy

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