In 1968, Queen Elizabeth conferred knighthood on a professional historian and Methodist lay preacher named Herbert Butterfield. During a long career of nearly a half century at Cambridge University, Butterfield published numerous books and articles on a dazzling array of subjects: statecraft, diplomacy, liberty, Christianity, and science. His name, however, remains most closely linked with a thin volume, published in his youth, on historical writing, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931).
On April 23-24, Liberty Fund, “a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals,” invited fifteen scholars to Indianapolis, Indiana, to discuss “Herbert Butterfield: History, Truth, and Liberty.” Barry Shain, Professor of Political Science at Colgate University, led the discussion, which was comprised of four sessions: “Whiggish History and Its Perils,” “History and Moral Judgment,” “The Goals of History,” and “History, Politics, and Society.” Participants focused on The Whig Interpretation of History and one of Butterfield’s subsequent works, The Englishman and His History (1944). In assessing both books, some critics have discerned what they call “the Butterfield Problem”: On the one hand, in the first book, Butterfield offered a searing critique of the kind of history often practiced by lawyers and activists who tend to cherry-pick information in the past so as to enshrine their favored current values; on the other hand, in the subsequent book, Butterfield himself glorified the Whig tradition in England for embracing in its practice of politics continuity and reform over the “disadvantages of the arrogant militancy of the revolutionary type of politics.” On close inspection, the so-called Butterfield problem dissolves into a paradox, which can be explained by the line Butterfield draws between the practice of professional history and the practice of modern politics.
“For decades Liberty-Fund colloquia have served as a well in the desert for thousands of humanists and social scientists thirsting on their own campuses for serious, intellectual conversations away from the campus totalitarians,” said Paquette. “Liberty Fund not only funds scores of conferences every year all over the country, the organization sponsors them with exemplary taste and hospitality. The good folks at Liberty Fund truly make it hard to return home.”
Participants at the colloquium, in addition to Shain and Paquette, included Jonathan C. D. Clark, University of Kansas; David M. Fitzimons, Rhode Island School of Design; Mark A. Kalthoff, Hillsdale College; Edward J. Larson, Pepperdine University; Jeremy Rabkin, George Mason University; Peter C. Mentzel, Liberty Fund Senior Fellow; R. M. Douglas, Colgate University; Paul E. Gottfried, Elizabethtown College; John Kekes, Union College; Kenneth B. McIntyre, Sam Houston State University; Emily Fisher Gray, Norwich University; Jack P. Greene, the Johns Hopkins University; and Kathryn R. Kennison, Ball State University.