Whig History and Lost Causes

It is totally misleading to present history as if its course was inevitable. The past cannot be understood if the elements of chance and contingency are ignored. To assume that what happened was bound to happen—the teleological interpretation of history—takes away the options facing individuals, groups, and governments in the past. It is analytically suspect, and also morally suspect, because it is wrong to argue that the past belongs to the victors. That is a version of the "might is right" approach, the criminals' charter of history, that reduces to impotence and inconsequence those who were, and are, weak or unsuccessful.

Both British and foreign history are littered with developments that were anything but inevitable. I will refer to some of the most important later, but first must note that the purpose of such an exercise is not simply to turn individual episodes on their head but, more generally, to call for a fundamentally different approach to history. The traditional Whiggish stance was one way of tackling what many saw as the purpose of history: explaining how "we came to be here." This commonly assumed that "we" was unproblematic, that the identity and coherence of the English and the French were clear-cut. There was also a clear assumption that the course of history was a matter of progress, that a degree of triumphalism was appropriate; the past as a suitable and heroic reflection...

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