Self-Satisfied Whiggism

Jonathan Swainger of the University of Northern British Columbia knows me. I don’t believe he’s met me or read any of my books. But he knows my arguments and he thinks they are passé. They’re “old fashioned.”

He writes: “There once was a time when Canadian history undergraduates were expected to navigate through at least one course dedicated to Canada’s constitutional development. Admittedly, these surveys were often tinged with a self-satisfied and whiggish celebration of the nation’s attainment of responsible government and, in time, political, military, and judicial independence, all within the benevolent ambit of English constitutional governance. Thanks in large part to the waning of ‘old-fashioned’ political history, these surveys have all but disappeared and one suspects that few students are saddened by the retreat.”

I’ve been saying it for years! Candians used to study their constitutional history and now they don’t. They used to read about the struggle for responsible government and the overthrow of the colonial oligarchies: the Family Compact, the Chateau Clique, government by “official party” in the Maritimes. They used to study the growth of Canadian independence in the world of nations. No longer.

By Swainger’s lights, I’m a “self-satisfied” whig. I’m “old-fashioned.” I love it. Overturning oligarchy and establishing parliamentary democracy is cause for satisfaction, I’d say. Promoting and defending the independence of a free country is reason to celebrate.

And I’ll bet there are students today who would like to know how the these things were done. Is there a formula? Supposing there’s a formula, is it the kind of thing that works only for some peoples and some cultures? Can it be adapted for use in the twenty-first century?

Swainger’s sanguine about the “waning” of old-fashioned political history. I say that we should bring it back, and begin to ask some old fashioned questions.

Professor Swainger made his remarks in a review of John T. Saywell’s The Lawmakers (Canadian Historical Review, 85-1 2004)

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2 Responses to “Self-Satisfied Whiggism”


  1. 1 John Carpay September 2, 2009 at 1:27 am

    I like your post here, and agree we are poorer by not knowing history.

    another reminder to me to read your book (the one re: Canada’s founding fathers and Locke)

    it’s on my “to do” list

    Kind regards,

    John Carpay

    P.S. — hope you will come to the law conference October 2-4 in Toronto

  2. 2 janetajzenstat September 2, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Thanks John. We very much wanted to come to the conference sponsored by the Canadian Constitutional Foundation but are otherwise engaged. The book, The Canadian Founding, John Locke and Parliament has just been awarded the Osgoode Society’s John T. Saywell Prize for the best book on Canadian constitutional and legal history for the years 2007 and 2008.


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