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constitutional history

constitutional history once held a dominant and still holds a respectable position in historical output. The triumph of a reformed British Parliament in the 19th cent., and the desire to recommend parliamentary government to other nations as a guarantee of liberal stability, encouraged interest in its origins, in the evolution of the constitution, and in the Stuart period as its testing time. Two remarkable historians helped to establish the subject. In the preface to Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History (1866), William Stubbs wrote that he aimed to examine ‘a distinct growth from a well-defined germ to full maturity’. He followed it with The Constitutional History of England in its Origin and Development (1873–8). S. R. Gardiner's contribution was Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution (1889), and a sober and detailed History of England from James I (1863–), which reached sixteen volumes and 1656 before death intervened in 1902. One by-product of their initiative was the cult of documents. Volume after volume followed, and though the process was rather dull, the teaching sometimes mechanical, and the documents often divorced from their wider contexts, it was defended as systematic consultation of the evidence. The 20th cent. was less in awe of Parliament and a counter-attack developed. R. G. Usher, an American historian, launched a sharp attack on Gardiner's historical method in 1915. After the First World War, Herbert Butterfield and L. B. Namier, though differing on much else, agreed that the previous approach had been Whiggish and teleological. Interest in constitutional history waned as Britain's world position declined, in much the same way as imperial history dropped out of favour, and it suffered from competition from new forms of history, administrative, social, and economic. Though much work on constitutional history continued to be done, the emphasis was more on everyday working than on constitutional theory. The History of Parliament, which recommenced publication in 1964, eschewed documentary commentary or political narrative in favour of biographies of MPs and sketches of their constituencies.

J. A. Cannon

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