Recently, while reading an engaging autobiographical essay by the once widely read Whig historian George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876-1962), I was struck by the fair-minded suavity with which he deals with those whose political and religious convictions he opposed. For example, writing about his childhood, he says:
During the General Election of 1880, when I was four years old, we were staying at Buxton for Easter, and my brothers were taken to a Liberal meeting in the town. I remember my excitement about it, but I was too young to be allowed to go. My brothers came back and reported that a Tory at the back of the hall, acting after his kind, had cried ‘boo!’ I was much impressed, and it became a joke of the elders to ask me ‘what do Tories say?’ To this question I would reply with a prolonged ‘boo-o-o.’
Of course, his Whig elders would have seen an instructive comedy in Master George’s reply, since for them, Tories booed everything worth cheering in public life: they booed reform; they booed progress; they even booed laissez-faire liberalism.
British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876–1962) (George Charles Beresford/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)
Yet Trevelyan was also quick to tell his readers that these same elders, being sound, sturdy, tolerant Whigs, allowed that there were some good Tories, though they constituted “a select class,” including as it did his charming uncle, Harry Holland, later Lord Knutsford, Salisbury’s Colonial Minister; and his governess, Miss Martin.
Miss Martin, “though English of the English,” taught Trevelyan his French—taught it to him so well that he had to conceal his superior French accent when he went to Harrow to escape being thought “peculiar” by his fellow Harrovians. She also made him “learn dates and poetry by heart, as all children ought to be while their memory is still good and retentive, instead of being stuffed with generalizations about history and criticisms of literature which mean nothing to their empty young minds.” Thanks to the Tory Miss Martin, Trevelyan retained his love of literature to the end of his days and would always prize the poetry inherent in history.
For the Whig historian, in other words, Toryism might be objectionable, but Tories themselves could be admirable. In fact, for Trevelyan, who regarded a good deal of Christian history as “pietistic flapdoodle,” even Roman Catholics could be admirable, as he relates in another childhood memory:
In 1882 my father became Chief Secretary for Ireland, in succession to his friend Lord Frederick Cavendish who had been murdered in the Phoenix Park. My brothers were in Ireland only for their school holidays, but I, being just six years old, was still at home. I spent much of my time wandering round the wooded circle of the Chief Secretary’s grounds, playing chestnuts, marbles and hide-and-seek with a mild, gigantic Irish plain-clothes detective, named Mr. Dunne, whom I regarded as my playmate, and who was incidentally responsible for the safety of my small person in those troubled times. It was startling to discover that he took the opposite side about the battle of the Boyne.
That is to say, Mr. Dunne was a Catholic—he did not exult in King William’s victory over the deposed James II in July of 1690 in the battle that became the rallying cry of Ulster’s Orangemen, though it is important to recall that Pope Alexander VIII supported William of Orange in the battle, James II being too subservient for his tastes to the Gallican Louis XIV. History is rarely without amusing little ironies.
Trevelyan was putting it mildly when he said that the times of his childhood were “troubled:” they were atrocious. On May 2, 1882, the “Invincibles,” a peculiarly bloodthirsty branch of the Fenian Brotherhood, murdered not only Cavendish but also his undersecretary, T.H. Burke, in broad daylight with surgical knives. It was a memorable milestone in the history of Irish frightfulness. It even caused the unflappable Charles Stewart Parnell to consider resigning as head of the Home Rule party in Westminster.
Yet how winning of Trevelyan to recall someone for whose putative benefit these outrages were being committed as a “playmate.” Nothing could show more clearly his conviction that history was primarily about people, not partisanship, even when people got up to the most abominable partisanship imaginable.
Many years later, Trevelyan would write about the upshot of King William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in his deservedly popular History of England (1926), and it is notable how careful he was to own up to the mismanagement of the same Whig magnets whom Whig historians were otherwise sworn to celebrate and commend. “The restored English rule in Ireland reflected very little of the wise and tolerant spirit of William,” he concedes. “In this Catholic island he was powerless to do anything to protect the Catholics whose lot he mitigated in England.” The “rash ignorance and prejudice of the Whigs and Tories of the Westminster Parliament . . . the real overlords of the reconquered dependency” alienated both the Catholic and the Protestant Irish. As for the penal laws, they placed “the Catholics in Ireland under every political and social disadvantage that malice could invent, and pursued and persecuted their priests, the only leaders left to them under the Cromwellian land system.”
England’s Irish policy even incurred the odium of Ulster’s Presbyterians, the very men who had “manned the walls of Londonderry and forded the Boyne water.” Indeed, it ruined what might have been the thriving Irish cloth trade, with the result that “Many thousands of Ulster Scots who sought refuge beyond the Atlantic in the Appalachian mountains, had more real wrongs to revenge on England in the War of American Independence than had most of those who followed the standard of Washington.”
In reading Trevelyan’s autobiographical essay, I was also struck by how his Liberal convictions set him apart at late-Victorian Harrow. “At the General Election of 1892, I was told that I was the only boy in the school who openly said he was a Liberal,” he recalled. “And I wouldn’t be confirmed,—another eccentricity for which I was taken to task by some of the boys.”
He might have been surrounded by more like-minded young men once he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, but as a schoolboy at Harrow he embraced political and religious convictions that were the reverse of popular. Nevertheless, he largely enjoyed his time at the school, which he credited to an unforgettable gentilesse. “The head of my house, James Sandilands, a king among boys, whom I greatly and justly admired, treated me sensibly and kindly, and made my position possible,” Trevelyan recalled. “I shall never cease to be grateful to him. He knew how gauche I was, but I think he approved of me for taking my own line.” Boyhood chivalry, in other words, gave Trevelyan the confidence he needed to pursue his “own line”—that, and Harrow’s commendable aversion to group think.
At Harrow, in the sixth form, Trevelyan pursued his “own line” by pursuing history instead of classics when history was scarcely recognized as a specialized discipline. The influence of “two history masters of rare quality,” Robert Somervell and George Townsend Warner, guided his decision. “I think I had at Harrow a better historical education than any other schoolboy in England,” Trevelyan boasted. “Mr. Winston Churchill [another Harrovian] has gratefully recorded that Somervell taught him the mastery of English,—surely a priceless service to our nation as things have turned out. Somervell took the Sixth in history. We did Charles II’s reign one term, and his teaching of it revealed to me the complexity and interest of the many-sided political past of our country, for I had been brought up at home on a somewhat exuberantly Whig tradition.”
This was patrician understatement. Trevelyan was the great nephew of the greatest of all the Whig historians, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859). He was the son of Macaulay’s biographer, Sir George Otto Trevelyan. He personified what Herbert Butterfield dubbed the “Whig interpretation of history,” which A. J. P. Taylor nicely defined as “the story of English liberty, founded by Magna Carta, consolidated by the Glorious Revolution, expanded by the Great Reform Bill, and reaching its highest achievement with the Labour government.” Later in life, Trevelyan might have become a Baldwinite conservative, but only because he thought this exiguous change of allegiance—Baldwin never being a robust conservative—was one of which Macaulay would have approved. In all events, Trevelyan was one of the most popular historians that the world has ever known. It is true that he was unduly partial to the Protestant order that had made England a force in the world, but he also served up histories that were artful, readable, and tolerably well-researched. If Trevelyan’s popularity incurred the jealous contempt of academic historians, especially when he taught modern history at Cambridge from 1927 to 1940, it endeared him to the common reader. He certainly recognized, as he said in one of his talks, that “When history is used as a branch of propaganda it is a very deadly weapon”—a truth that needs reaffirming today as much as it did after the First World War, when totalitarian dictators were gaining power in Europe and the Bolsheviks had Mother Russia by the throat.
The influence that Trevelyan’s two history masters had on him in helping him to prepare for his choice of career set me wondering how history is taught in our schools here in New York. As it happens, I now work at a school myself, the Schools of Saint Mary, an excellent preparatory academy in Manhasset, Long Island, grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition, with a lower, middle, and upper school, and after reading Trevelyan I spoke with two of the school’s history instructors, Messrs. Jonathan Marron and Michael King. They shared with me how they are carrying on some of the good historical traditions to which Trevelyan was loyal.
“Studying history provides students the opportunity to develop intellectual and moral skills as well as an appreciation of the past,” says Marron, who teaches European history to the upper school and has an incomparable record of preparing students to excel in Advanced Placement courses. “While studying history, students acquire such indispensable life skills as the art of evaluation, comparison, and analysis. In addition, history adds to the development of a student’s moral virtue by forming and sharpening his moral sense. The examples of those who have weathered adversity are always inspirational.”
Interestingly enough, to exemplify certain benefits of the study of history, Marron cites the instruction he gives his students in the Renaissance, which “instills in them a love for the beautiful.” He finds it “wonderful to see students explore truly remarkable works of art, and to go on to develop an appreciation and knowledge of some of the great works of art produced by the Old Masters.”
The graduate of Chaminade High School and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service adds: “Instructing students to develop well-reasoned arguments is one of the most important skills that we look to develop. Furthermore, history is filled with individual examples of those who were daring in the pursuit of high ideals, and we always seek to enable the students to appreciate the practical good that such high-achieving individuals accomplish.”
King, who teaches American history at Saint Mary’s, is another graduate of Georgetown, where he not only studied finance, international business, and theology but also played football for the Hoyas. Like Marron, he reinforces the school’s commitment to rational discourse. “I teach students about both sides of various political issues,” he says. “I give them a ‘pro’ article, which we read and discuss, then a ‘con’ article, where we do the same. They have a discussion, I play ‘devil’s advocate,’ and at the end of the class, they can leave believing whatever they like. My job is to teach them how to construct arguments and to understand the issues—how to think—not to tell them what to think.” His methodology is straightforwardly effective:
Debate and argumentation are a big part of my class. I start off each year with a lesson on the importance of free speech as well as a lesson on the importance of being able to have conversations with those we disagree with, emphasizing that we can learn from our opponents. Indeed, if you want to bring about change in the world, salutary change, you must learn from your opponents, so that you can construct arguments that will appeal to them.
King stresses that “all opinions are welcome in my class as long as they are respectfully delivered and respectfully received. Students are taught to attack an idea, not the person who holds that idea. Also, when we look at an issue, students are required, like good barristers, to learn the best arguments for both sides. Furthermore, I teach them how to build arguments through claim, reasons, and evidence. When we move into writing, this takes the form of making a thesis statement that will include supporting reasons. Beyond the thesis statement, those reasons must be supported with evidence cited from a reputable academic source.”
Nevertheless, King is not entirely unbiased in his presentation of the history he teaches. Why? “I teach my students about the whole of U.S. history, the good, the bad and the ugly, but I also make clear that, warts and all, this is a very special place.”
Trevelyan had some interesting things to say about bias and the writing of history. “Clearly, we are hampered and misled in our attempt to find out what our ancestors really thought and felt,” he writes, “if we try to fit them into some modern category which did not exist in their time. In that way, bias hinders the search for truth.” Yet Trevelyan also recognized that bias could be beneficial to the historian, especially if it helped him “to sympathize with the actual passions of people in the past whose actions it is his business to describe.” To enter into such passions, “Clio should not always be cold, aloof, impartial.” Sometimes, the historian might even be warranted in sharing the passions of his subject, but only “provided they are the real passions of the past and not a false reflection of some modern dogma or prejudice.”
Finally, Trevelyan opined that “The ideal history, never yet written by any man, would so tell the tale of the Civil War that the reader would not only grasp with his mind but would warmly feel in his heart what Cavaliers and Roundheads respectively felt, and would also understand what they none of them understood. The ideal history requires indeed a more varied combination of heart and of head, of science and of art than any other study undertaken by man.” Still, the good historian in Trevelyan, despite his own biases, knew that this ideal history was worth keeping in mind, not because it confirmed one’s biases but because it enriched one’s fellow feeling. Sympathy, after all, not bias, is what makes great history possible—sympathy and wonder. Trevelyan had both, as he made clear when he reminded his readers that “The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow.”
Top Photo: The Schools of Saint Mary, Manhasset, Long Island (photo courtesy of author)