W(h)ig School of History

Daniel Hannan Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples made the Modern World 2013 (HarperCollins/ Broadside Press)

According to the story everyone in the English-speaking world learned before 1970, history was made by men with powdered hair or funny-looking wigs, knee-breeches, and is a story of constant improvement, with medieval barons forcing King John to sign Magna Carta so their descendants could be elected from rotten boroughs and eventually found the United States. Later students discovered that the men (all men) did this while happily oppressing the poor, the Catholic, the female, and the brown. Right? Oh, you said Whig history, not Wig History. Sorry. Let me step outside and try again . . .The “Whig School” of history is, in a sense, part of Human Wave history. The term refers to the English, later British, political party and the historians affiliated with it, either officially or in spirit. Whig history tends to lean toward what became classical liberal thought. The Whigs generally opposed expanding the power of the central government and complained about the corrupting nature of power (and politics). Whig history considers the past as a series of slow steps forward, from chaos to more order, from poverty to prosperity, and from absolutism and slavery to ever-increasing freedom for the individual. There are diversions from the “upward way,” and unfortunate detours, and disappointments, but all-in-all, history is the story of progress, and that progress is good.

Daniel Hannan’s book, Inventing Freedom, falls into the Whig school of history, in fact it celebrates its Whiggish tendency. Hannan, a Conservative-leaning-toward-libertarian British Member of the European Parliament, outlines in broad strokes the Anglo-Saxon heritage in law and culture that makes the Anglosphere so different from the rest of the world. While Europe shifted toward authoritarianism and more government centralization in the 1700s, England (Britain) and her colonies went the other direction. Hannan sees the Anglosphere’s difference tracing back to a twist in the Anglo-Saxon roots of Common Law, and the ideas of private property and individual rights that developed prior to the Norman conquest in 1066. He traces that strain through to the First and Second English Civil Wars, considers the American Revolution as a bit of a continuation of the above, and the US Civil War as a third English Civil War, as supporters of social order, stronger government limitations on individual rights, and high-church traditions battled more individualist, rights-centered, weak-government supporters (Cavaliers vs. Roundheads, Stewarts vs Parliament in 1688, Tories vs. Patriots 1775-1783, and Confederacy vs. Union).

Hannan also brings in his own observations from growing up in Peru and then working with (and against) the Eurocracy.  The English-speaking nations have led the world in individual freedom as well as economic development with ideas about free markets and the sanctity of private property, and Hannan argues that those ideas are worth preserving and encouraging. He is cautiously optimistic about the future.

The book is well written and you don’t have to be familiar with the history of the British Isles or Europe to follow the story, although it helps. I do wish he’d included a bibliography and chapter notes because I’d like to follow up on some of his comments, but in most cases he provides the author and title of works he draws from and quotes. There is little original research here, but the synthesis is excellent, and Hannan pulls a great deal of material together with a fresh perspective. There are lots of men in knee-breeches and wigs, but also in medieval garb, Victorian tropical khakis, and modern dress.

Inventing Freedom is a refreshing change from the current anti-Western, anti-Anglo patterns that seem to dominate historical writing. Hannan acknowledges the flaws and weaknesses in the Anglosphere, while reminding readers that other peoples practiced slavery, denied women certain rights, and limited the franchise (or lacked it all together). However, the good that has come from the Anglo-Saxon traditions of individual rights and property far outweigh, in Hannan’s opinion, the sins (or what moderns call sins) of the past. I recommend this book for a new perspective on Anglo-American history and as an example of good historical writing. But please, Mr. Hannan, if you ever do a second edition, please add notes and a bibliography!