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Herbert Butterfield Essay

In this book, the author focuses more on the works of Herbert Butterfield rather than his personal life and explores Butterfield’s influence that reaches beyond what he perceived as “presentmindedness”. McIntire uses Butterfield’s private papers giving the reader a very close accounting of this historian’s thoughts and writings. His career in the academic field was impressive. Graduating from Cambridge in 1922 he went on to become regius professor, master of Peterhouse, and serve as vice-chancellor of the university.

He grew up in the industrial town of West Riding where he and his family came from a Methodist background. His first job offer that he applied for after graduating was at the secondary school in Lampeter. He did get the job, but turned it down because he believed the teaching position would have been a dismal and uninspiring job. Butterfield believed, according to the author, that it would not have helped his writing. He had previously considered becoming a Methodist preacher, like his father.

Even discussing the matter with the principal of Wesley House, and together decided he did not have the qualities of a preacher. He had aspirations of Knighthood and becoming president of the Historical society, this and all that was just part of McIntire writings of the man, Herbert Butterfield. The author takes the reader through each step of Butterfield’s careers throughout his life. In 1979, McIntire had his own encounter with Herbert Butterfield while he was editing and publishing part of the historian’s essays on Christianity and history.

McIntire is able to use secondary sources with friends, critics, colleagues and family that do fit into his writing quite well. Butterfield had an early exposure to Harold Temperley and his writings reflected this, McIntire wrote in his book. Butterfield’s experiences inspired his first academic publication on the minutiae of Napoleonic diplomacy. Butterfield explained that the research technique he used as free of religious, ethnic, and ideological partisanship.

A scientific history approach was his theory, but there is an interesting fact that Butterfield did not write another book from 1929 to 1968 on that subject or anything to enhance that topic. Another interesting fact was in the next fifty years of his life he kept assuring everyone that he was working on a book about Charles James Fox, but that book never came about. In addition, it caused guilt throughout Butterfield’s career, McIntire wrote.

Soon though with Butterfield’s love of the legacy of Lord Action, his attentions focused from technical history towards the broader questions of historical thought. McIntire shows how all of Butterfield’s major works came from “The Wig Interpretation of History” and out of that came his numerous other writings “The Origins of Modern Science”, “Man on His Past” and his inaugural address as Regius Professor, “The Present State of Historical Scholarship”.

In the book, the author points to Butterfield’s status as an outsider that influenced his behavior as being a dissenter. “His idiosyncratic Methodism reinforced his sense of self as a clever lower middle class grammar school boy with a funny Yorkshire accent immersed in an academic environment filled with Anglican gentlemen bred at exclusive public schools. The result was a reactive compulsion to every rule; an attitude that did not always serve Butterfield well for it contained elements of the childishness.

As J. H. Plumb noted, deep down he loved to shock” (McIntire 86). McIntire portrayal is more of a shy and humble man, instead of what many viewed him. They considered his views as more of a moral and intellectual vanity of a self-centered person. In addition, believing that “his own views as the wave of the future in historical study” (McIntire 151) once again showing his complex problem. At one point, Butterfield publicly praised Marxist historical method but many believed he did not know what he was talking about when he said it.

In the 1930’s Butterfield publicly praised Marxist historical method, although it is not clear from the author’s writings if Butterfield, a devout Christian, really understood the core of Marxism. During the era of appeasement, Butterfield criticized any moral judgments directed at Nazi Germany, wishing instead “that the enemies of the Fascists could be gentler” (McIntire 105). He never lived down his foolish decision to undertake a lecture tour of Germany after the 1938 Munich Conference.

The question he gave seemed to blame Britain for the conflict. “What did we do wrong? What could we have done to prevent the Germans from feeling that they must turn to Hitler? ” (McIntire 112). Butterfield admitted proudly that he almost never voted. Political quietism supposedly came from Butterfield’s principled insistence upon the segregation of history from moral and political questions, the core of his argument in “The Whig Interpretation of History”.

In the 50’s and 60’s, Butterfield vocally denounced U. S. foreign policy, while demanding with Soviet Russia and unilateral disarmament by the West. He denied any inconsistency saying, “I am as an historian against all governments” (McIntire 170). I felt the book was more of the moral standings of the man. Butterfield did write on science, religion, and historiography, but I felt the author lacked showing the connection it had to events in Butterfield’s life and how the connection was to the academic or scientific community.

The reader swims through explanation after explanation of the same concept as McIntire analyses a succession of publications in chronological order, with not enough of Butterfields’s own words to support. Maybe that way some light on the thoughts of the man instead of McIntire’s interpretations. The book was difficult to follow and the length of the book made it tough to read. I was not impressed with the book, but I did get to know another viewpoint of another historian, on a subject I knew nothing about.

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