Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 16: No 1) >> ''That Feel and Touch of the Elbow": William Gilmore Simms and the Whig Interpretation of History >> Page 24

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Secondary Scholarship | 2008
Transcription to attach a whig philosophy of history to Simms and as compelling and useful as
it may be toward understanding his social and political perspectives, it falls short
when one compares Sir Herbert Butterfield's delineation of whig history with the
way Simms actually presented the past to his readers.
It is important first to note that Butterfield did not see the "whig
interpretation" as a philosophical construct. He stated in the preface of The Whig
Interpretation of History that "the subject is treated not as a problem in the
philosophy of history, but rather as an aspect of the psychology of historians." He
explained the importance of this distinction. The whig interpretation "is much
more subtle than mental bias; it lies in a trick of organisation [sic], an
unexamined habit of mind that any historian may fall into. It might be called the
historian's `pathetic fallacy. ' And, Butterfield continued, "it is the result of the
practice of abstracting things from their historical context and judging them apart
from their context-r---estimating them and organising [sic] the historical story by a
system of direct reference to the present."4
Thus, the whig interpretation of history does not consist of a
philosophical world-view per se, but is more accurately the use—or misuse—of
history as a tool, not for the sake of understanding the past so much as it is for
explaining the present. The whig historian manipulates the past to support an
already existent philosophy, especially a philosophy of progress. As Moltke-
Hansen sees it, Simms deconstructed history in search of "alternative pasts,"
presumably to create a selective present.5 If seen as a psychological alternative,
whig history is not something one fully accepts (at least not admittedly so), but
rather something one veers into by mental laxity fostered by presentist zeal. For
some it is an occasional mishap, for others a perpetual way of "doing history."
Nevertheless, we must consider whether the "whig interpretation"- either as a
philosophy or psychology accurately portrays the way Simms wrote history.
In Butterfield's view, the principal earmark of whig history is
oversimplification. The "immediate juxtaposition of past and present . . . is
bound to lead to an over-simplification of the relations between events and a
complete misapprehension of the relations between past and present." It is a
linear approach that takes a "shortcut through complexity" and ignores that
history is in fact a "labyrinthine piece of network" made up of countless and
interwoven episodes of human clash and controversy. When one assumes -the
ability to rise above the fray and identify a divine force progressing to liberty he
feeds this penchant of oversimplification. It is an overall failure to recognize that
"the whole past . . . produced the whole present."6
To Butterfield, few things exemplified whig oversimplification more
than the view that the progress toward liberty, especially religious liberty, came
directly from Protestant heroics. The whig progression of liberty has little or no
place for a positive Catholic role. The story of freedom starts with the Protestant
Reformation down to the present. The whig historian, by focusing on the "agent"

4 Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (London: G. Bell and Sons, LTD, 1931;
reprint, 1963), vi, 30-31 (emphasis mine).
5 Moltke-Hansen, "Between Plantation and Frontier," 7.
6 Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, 14, 22, 45.