Published Humanitas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2009
Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter, by C. T. McIntire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. xxv + 499 pp. $50
In his biography of Herbert Butterfield, C. T. McIntire recounts how the distinguished Cambridge historian was invited to write for William F. Buckley’s National Review in the late 1950s. The invitation, subsequently turned down, was offered in response to Butterfield’s defense of individual liberty against encroachments from the state. A friend at the British embassy dissuaded Butterfield from writing by warning him against associating with the “right-wing” magazine. At the time, there was enough reason to think that Butterfield was on the conservative side of the political spectrum, or at least on the American conservative side. Yet his political identity has been the subject of debate among historians for many decades. Even so, his political views are worth re-examining since they provide insight into his intellectual contribution to the study of history.
Butterfield was born at the start of the twentieth century and died in his seventy-ninth year. During that time, he earned the respect of fellow historians and enjoyed a kind of celebrity status among his non-academic admirers, on both sides of the Atlantic. Butterfield wrote twenty-two books; became Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in 1944; was appointed Master of Peterhouse, his college, in 1954; and was elected Regius Professor of History in 1963. As vice-chancellor of Cambridge from 1959 to 1961, he earned a reputation as a defender of the independence of colleges vis-à-vis the university and of universities in their relations with the state. While many of his books covered the traditional fields of political and diplomatic history, particularly during his early career, his most original intellectual contributions were in relatively new fields: history of science and historiography.