Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Whig Interpretation of History

An Indian massacre of Virginian settlers, 1622

"Bailyn’s 2012 book The Barbarous Years, which deals with the early-17th-century origins of the English colonies, has been criticized for being too narrow and for not including Canada and Spanish Florida in its narrative. And the Indians, well, no matter how much space Bailyn gives to them, no matter how sensitive his analysis of the native peoples, it would never be enough. To his critics, Bailyn’s Indians remain simply a “faceless offstage menace.” Bailyn’s vivid and detailed descriptions of the brutal and vicious treatment of the Indians by the English have boomeranged on him: His critics now complain that he didn’t fully appreciate the Indians’ contribution to English well-being and the extent to which the native peoples provided the economic glue that tied the separate colonial regions together. In other words, unless the Indians became the main characters in his story, Bailyn couldn’t win. 
No historian, including Bernard Bailyn, denies the importance of the native peoples in shaping colonial America. But it is a question of proportion, of fitting the Indians into a story in which, tragically, they become steadily marginalized and eventually overwhelmed. Nevertheless, for us today, looking back through centuries, the whites’ treatment of the Indians seems totally immoral and inexcusable. Can history ever evade that kind of moral judgment? Can putting the past in context help? Bailyn quotes Herbert Butterfield from his remarkable little book of 1931, The Whig Interpretation of History, to emphasize the importance of context in history. “The dispensing of moral judgments upon people or upon actions in retrospect,” wrote Butterfield, is the “most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflection.” And still it goes on."

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