Accidents happen


Every time I go back to Sir Lewis Namier, I think of Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher – after him comes a lot of blue sky before you get to the next bloke.  He is a clean cut above the rest.  He is one of those writers who soon assure you that you are in the hands of a commanding intellect.

Namier certainly revolutionised our notions of history.  It would be tart to say that he said that it should be based on evidence – but that looks to me to be the gist of the revolution.  Rather than talk about what groups of people may be said to have done, Namier looked in great detail at the hard evidence of what named people really did, and he then worked on framing a narrative.  His period was eighteenth century England, but his microscopic research into and cataloguing primary sources led him to focus on the year or so following the accession of George III.  In the result we get an account of the political manoeuvrings leading to the first election of that reign and its consequences that looks as detailed as an account of an election held last year.

What you get are flashes of insight that you do not get from the standard histories of the Hanoverians.  The notion of ‘parties’ goes out the window for that period, but we get a full understanding of what they called patronage and we call corruption.  A lot of it makes the Godfather look like a novice.  And every so often, the author permits himself what might be called a philosophical observation that shows the breadth and depth of this historian’s mind.

In 1760, Pitt was the leader, the Minister for Measures, and the Duke of Newcastle was the machine man, the Minister for Numbers.  But Lord Bute had the ear and trust of the new young and innocent king.  Namier and history formed a low view of both Bute and Newcastle, but how would that minuet play out?

The game which in November 1760 started between Bute and Newcastle provides material for an exquisite comedy.  But historical comedy is never written.  Authors of historical novels have merely to imagine the past as the readers like to see it.  Writers of serious biography have critically to examine records of fact as handed down by the actors or their contemporaries, and then, without smile or grin, adopt what Meredith describes as an ironical habit of mind – ‘to believe that the wishes of men are expressed in their utterances’……It is more difficult to grasp and fix the irrational and irrelevant than to construe and uphold a reasonable but wrong explanation, and this is the greatest difficulty both in dealing with contemporaries and in writing history.

There it all is in one hit – especially as Namier, like Carlyle, sees history as a bundle of biographies.

….History is made up of juggernauts, revolting to human feelings in their blindness, supremely humorous in their stupidity.  [The author illustrates this point by referring to the famous painting of Goya of the execution by Napoleonic troops of Spanish peasants, and the ‘Fall of Icarus’ by Breughel’ – ‘the true humour of the tragedy is not so much the pair of naked legs sticking out of the water, as the complete unconcern of all the possible onlookers.’]  History of infinite weight was to be made in the absurd beginnings of a reign which was to witness the elimination of those who had hitherto governed England, the speedy and irretrievable grace of him who brought about their downfall, the lunacy of the man who meant to be King, the ruin of the life and achievements of the greatest statesman of the age, the break-up of an Empire such as the world had not seen since the disruption of the Roman Empire – history was to be started in ridiculous beginnings, while small men did things both infinitely smaller and infinitely greater than they knew.  For purposes of historical comedy, and with a view to destroying some beautiful and rational legends, it will pay to follow up in some detail the duel between these two reputed leaders and statesmen, Newcastle and Bute.

And that is what Namier does for the rest of the very substantial book called England in the Age of the American Revolution.  Have you seen a better job description for a historian?

Much earlier in the book, Namier had said:

Those who are out to apportion guilt in history have to keep to views and opinions, judge the collisions of planets by the rules of road traffic, make history into something like a column of motor accidents, and discuss it in the atmosphere of a police court.

All this is very deep.  It is not surprising that Namier got up the nose of the establishment, but a distinguished contemporary, Sir Geoffrey Elton (another immigrant with an Anglicised name) said much the same thing: ‘the general theories err in seeking profound causes for what is in truth a series of accidents tied together by a quite small number of personalities on either side.’

Hindsight badly blurs the role of luck – or accident.  All history turns on accidents.  My favourite example is the second day at Gettysburg when a young colonel from Maine, a lecturer in rhetoric, saved the day with the most cool valour under murderous fire – but for his survival and command, the day and then the battle could well have been lost – and with it, the Union, and the bulwark of Europe against Germany in the next century.  Another example occurred nearly 20 years before Waterloo on 10 May 1796 when French troops under the command of a young general bent on making a name for himself showed enormous courage to storm and take a wooden bridge 200 yards long in the face of constant fire and repeated grapeshot cannonades   The French troops named their general le petit corporal for his courage, but if one Austrian bullet had deviated an inch or two and killed Napoleon Bonaparte, the whole history of Europe and the world would have been different.  I would not be here, and God only knows what the view outside would be like.

While giving his views about the tawdriness of the ‘duel; between Bute and Newcastle, Namier said: ‘The greater a man’s power, the less can he gauge the outcome of his own actions; and it is only a truly humble recognition of his own limitations that lifts the great, sincere, religious man beyond the realm of historic comedy.’

Sir Lewis then referred to an anecdote about Lord Salisbury who was three times Prime Minister of England at the turn of the nineteenth century.  (According to Wikipedia, Clement Atlee was asked in 1967 who was the best PM in his lifetime, and he nominated Salisbury immediately.)  Salisbury had been entertaining guests at the family estate at Hatfield.  It was a time of the most acute international crisis, and the guests were keen to offer Salisbury their condolences for the grievous responsibility bearing upon him.  He was relieved when they left.  He was about to take a walk.

I didn’t understand what they were talking about.  I should understand if they spoke of the burden of decision – I feel it now trying to make up my mind whether to take the greatcoat with me.  I feel it in exactly the same way, but no more, when I am writing a despatch upon which peace or war may depend.  Its degree depends on the materials for decision that are available and not in the least upon the magnitude of the results which may follow….With the results I have nothing to do.’

We can see why those remarks of his Lordship may have appealed to Sir Lewis Namier.

[if you click on the book title at the head of this post you should get some remarks about Namier from a book I wrote.]