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 of the present. Discussing the past in terms of present values and concerns was a characteristic of this work. British popular historians explained how Britain had come to have a Protestant identity, respect for property, the rule of law, and a self-confidence combining a patriotic sense of national uniqueness with an often xenophobic attitude toward foreigners, especially Catholics.
History of this type presented a clear and obvious past, one that was ordered by the fact that it clearly prepared the way for the present. Thus British history was a seamless web that stretched back to Magna Carta in 1215 and the constitutional struggles of the barons in medieval England, and forward to the 19th-century extension of the franchise. These were seen as arising naturally from the country’s development, indeed as being the natural character of the progress of its people, an analysis that reflected the influence of Social Darwinism, ideas of human advancement that stemmed from the influence of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the past is never clear and rarely simple, which is the lesson that emerges most obviously from historical scholarship over the last century. There have been and always will be competing schools of thought, but they share a sense that the past is controversial, that the debates of the past over policies and events can be repeated in modern controversies over their analysis.
All too frequently, this level of controversy is neglected in general works and textbooks. This is understandable because writing such books involves a difficult process of selection, and the dictates of space encourage a schematic interpretation. Major events, or rather events that appear full of importance and consequence in hindsight, necessarily provide a chronological structure of such a summary, dictate the emphases, and thus appear to occur as a result of preceding such events. A shortage of space produces an emphasis on order and policy, causes and results, as opposed to disorder and confusion. In the domestic context decision-making is simplified, and pressures are said directly to cause policies: for example, popular agitation for an extension of the franchise “led” to the British First Reform Act of 1832. The ambiguity of influence is replaced by the need to attribute cause briefly. This can also be seen in the style of writing: there is a staccato of active assertion in place of the more realistic balancing of subordinate clauses and the passive tense.
In addition, there is a process of aggregation, or simplification, that eases the difficulties of lengthy explanation. Groups are presented clearly, for example the peasantry, the aristocracy, and the middle class, and each is seen as united and operating in a clear fashion. Similarly, bodies such as the government or Parliament, interests such as “mercantile influence” and “public opinion,” periods, such as the 1590’s, developments, such as “policy,” and situations, such as culture or socioeconomic structure, are presented as clear and distinct activities, influences, eras, and bodies whose conscious interaction determined events. This culminates in the understandable, but inaccurate, use of countries and peoples as shorthand terms for complex and often confusing processes of decision-making.
The relationship between institution or group and opinion is another vexed problem. Furthermore, there is a strong tendency to consolidate and reify ideas and attitudes, and terms such as reaction, conservative, liberal, progressive, and radical are applied far too readily. Instead, the nature and influence of such ideas altered considerably and often involved controversy. They require continual reassessment in any wide-ranging study, but space rarely permits this. In addition, it is necessary to be cautious in suggesting that policies arose or events happened because of ideas. It is important to explain the process by which these ideas were influential.
The past was far more complex than is generally presented, and good “A” Level students should reveal how difficult it is to be precise about past developments. They should be encouraged to reflect maturely not only on the degree to which there have been, and are, historiographical controversies, but also about the very problems of understanding the past and writing history. It is important to appreciate that choices existed, that developments and policies were not inevitable and structurally determined, but, instead, that contingencies and the views of individuals were of consequence. In recreating the world of choice in uncertainty that affected decisions, scholar, teacher, and student alike are restoring the element of free will, a moral dimension to history that invites us in considering how people in the past chose, to reflect on what we might have done, and do, in similar circumstances.
Students now use sources from the past far more than previously. They capture the flavor of contemporary opinion and indicate the way in which people thought and expressed themselves. Documents present problems: they were intended to persuade and can mislead. However, sources enable one to grasp the uncertainties of the past, the roles of chance and perception in societies that did not know what was going to happen. Sources restore a human perspective to a historical imagination too often dominated by impersonal forces. This can lead to greater difficulties in posing and answering questions of the relationships between change and continuity, the short term and the longue durée, but what history teaches is humane skepticism: the difficulties of comprehension and the problems with clear-cut, schematic interpretations. As a subject, history is, therefore, opposed to the clarity of ideology. It is not an unbroken mirror reflecting our views, but a fractured glass with pieces missing or opaque, and a general pattern that is impossible to distinguish to general satisfaction.
Military history is the most obvious field in which it is dangerous to adopt the perspective of hindsight. War-gamers pursue an entirely reasonable pastime, asking whether battles, campaigns, and conflicts could have had different results. Could the Jacobites have won, the British have defeated the American Revolutionaries, or the Confederates triumphed in the American Civil War? Recent work has thrown doubt on any determinist technological approach to the history of warfare, and the role of chance and contingent factors of terrain, leadership quality, morale, the availability of reserves, and the unpredictable spark that ignites a powder magazine appear crucial when explaining particular engagements. War is not always won by the big battalions, and the determinist economic account that explains success in international relations in terms of the economic strength of particular states, the approach adopted in Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1989), is open to question.
There is also a lack of inevitability in internal affairs. Thus, the constitutional, political, and religious trajectories of individual states and nations were far from necessary. It was not inevitable that Britain would become Protestant, while Ireland and France remained Catholic. It was not inevitable that the Stuarts would be less successful than the other newly powerful dynasties of the early 17th century, the Romanovs in Russia and the Bourbons in France. It was not inevitable that the Westminster Parliament would survive and grow in power and authority when other constitutional bodies were suppressed or became less influential.
The entire agenda of early modern history can be reexamined. The decline of Spain was no more inevitable than the French Revolution. The latter conclusion arises from recent research, but it was also a view held by contemporaries. The revolution in its early or “pre-revolutionary” stages was seen not as a new development, a product of spreading radicalism, but rather as a conventional political crisis, in which a ruler faced serious domestic problems, primarily aristocratic factionalism and financial difficulties. These appeared to affect France’s international capability, her ability to wage war or sustain a military confrontation, her stability as an ally, but they were not novel in type, did not therefore necessarily appear insuperable or likely to provoke a change in the French political system, and it was possible to envisage a revival of French strength. This was to come, eventually, through revolutionary change, but in 1788 and early 1789 it appeared, instead, that a revival, producing a more effective monarchy, would come either through a solution to the political crisis achieved by traditional means or by institutional reform and constitutional revival that focused on a new partnership between crown and nation, a path predicted by the radical Tom Paine in his pamphlet Prospects on the Rubicon, published in November 1787. This was certainly what was sought by the French government and political nation. William Robertson welcomed the prospect of France adopting British constitutional principles, and thus becoming stronger. The French Ambassador in London discerned a fear that the Estates General would lead to a revival of French strength as a result of royal power being more solidly based. In January 1789, the Count of Aranda, formerly the Spanish Ambassador in Paris, suggested that the Third Estate would support the crown, in order not to be crushed by the other two estates. He felt sure that the wealth and numbers of this estate would be of great consequence; in short, that the crown could create a powerful new constituency of support.
This was not mere wishful thinking. Contemporaries did not have the advantage of reading future scripts that posited the inevitability, indeed necessity, of the revolution and the impossibility of reform in ancien regime societies. Instead, they were aware of the complexity of their circumstances, a complexity that itself affected contemporary attitudes, and of contradictory developments. For example, Gustavus III had considerable success in Sweden in seeking the support of the Third Estate against aristocratic opponents. There was nothing inevitable in Louis XVI’s failure in France.
The royalists lost in France, or did they? Republican radicalism did not survive the 1790’s and the rise of Napoleon, while the Bourbons returned in 1814 and, more successfully, 1815. Similarly, the Habsburg state in Spain is generally presented as in crisis and decline in the early 17th century. There is a massive and famous study by J.H. Elliott on the revolt of the Catalans in 1640, but no comparable work on the reconquest of Catalonia. Spain still ruled the largest empire in the world in 1700, and was subsequently to enjoy a revival in strength under Philip V and Charles III.
Yet that is generally forgotten or treated as inconsequential in accounts focused on the decline of Spain. “Lost causes” are often the product of historiographical orthodoxies that can be challenged. Yet there are also genuinely “lost” causes. These are specific, such as a greater Armenia including much of modern Turkey, or the world of the Central and Eastern European Jews, and, more general, the world of crown, church, and aristocracy that dominated so much of Europe until 1917. Even if details of such a world can be preserved or restored, the attitudes of clear superiority and, especially prior to the late 18th century, little serious criticism, are gone. Such a shift can be treated as a failure reflecting inherent weakness and redundancy, but that is not a very helpful approach. For example, Spain is generally held to have been in “decline” after 1600, but of course she remained a mighty empire for another two centuries. By the standards of the modern world, that is a considerable achievement.
Aside from the issue of longevity, it is also the case that the world of the past was the world of what have been judged successes and failures in hindsight, and often only in hindsight. To neglect the latter is to present an incomplete account that makes no sense of what have been judged successful. It is a major challenge for writers and teachers to know how best to incorporate both dimensions. Yet each—their relationships, difficulties of assessing success and failure, and the problems and dangers in assuming that such differences were necessary and inevitable—is critical to recovering the past and understanding the present.