Namier, L. B

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Namier, L. B

Contributions to historiography



Sir Lewis Namier (1888-1960), British historian, was born Ludwik Bernstein at Vola Oksheyska in Russian Poland. He was the son of Joseph Bernstein (who later resumed the older family name of Namierowski), a lawyer trained at the University of Warsaw and subsequently a landed proprietor in Austrian East Galicia. The family had moved to Galicia by 1890, and Namier was raised on his maternal grandfather’s estate near Tarnopol. His parents were of Jewish origin and in Namier’s youth they were freethinkers, but during World War i, long after Namier had left home, they became Roman Catholics. Their style of life was patterned on that of the Polish landed gentry. Until he was ten, Namier frequently attended the Uniat (Roman Catholic Eastern Rite) church with a nurse, but subsequently he passed the compulsory Gymnasium religious examination in Judaism. Throughout his life he demonstrated a strong Jewish ethnic, even racial—but not religious—consciousness; yet at the same time he was evidently struggling with the problem of group identification. (In his first entry in Who’s Who, he rather selfconsciously described himself as “a Russian subject by birth, naturalised British; a Jew by race.”) The cultural and social ambiguity of his parents’ position, in part repeated in his own life, gives retrospective poignancy to the emphasis in his politics and his scholarship upon the importance of social and geographical roots.

After completing his education at the Tarnopol Classical Gymnasium in 1906, he studied briefly at the University of Lausanne, where he attended lectures by Vilfredo Pareto, and at the London School of Economics, before entering Balliol College, Oxford, in 1908. At Balliol, Namier initially read law under Edward Hillier but soon switched to history under Arthur Lionel Smith and F. F. Urquhart. The Balliol years were crucial in his development: it was then he discovered English history as a field of intensely satisfying if dispassionate intellectual interest (quite different from the warm engagement he felt in Polish nationalism and the Jewish question); then too he began to identify strongly with English life: he became an Anglican (a full communicant in 1947) and a British subject, and in 1910 he changed his name to Lewis Bernstein Naymier (later Namier), after his family’s older name. In all this acculturation, however, he never lost the advantage of the outsider’s point of view, which sometimes makes it possible to perceive relationships obscure to the native.

After taking first-class honors in modern history in 1911, Namier stayed on at Oxford for another year. He shared the Beit prize in imperial history for 1912-1913 but failed to win a fellowship (research appointment) at All Souls College. After a visit to his parents in 1913, when he experienced at first hand the tensions that preceded the coming war, he spent a year in New York on business. Visiting in England at the outbreak of the war in 1914, he concealed his poor eyesight and enlisted in the 20th Royal Fusiliers. The deception was discovered, and he was discharged in 1915. He spent the next few years as a civilian in public service: in the Propaganda Department from 1915 to 1917 (his first publications date from these years); in the Political Intelligence Bureau of the Department of Information from 1917 to 1918; and in the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office from 1918 to 1920.

Namier’s return to scholarship involved many difficulties. He found that as a temporary lecturer at Balliol in 1920-1921 he had little time for his own research. On several occasions he was considered for fellowships at various Oxford colleges, but without success; his extremely direct, even abrasive, personality was usually blamed. After two disheartening years in business, 1921-1923, during which he represented British firms in Vienna and Czechoslovakia, he determined to return to scholarship. From 1923 to 1929 he devoted himself to research and writing, without academic affiliation and at the cost of considerable personal hardship; he was forced to depend in part on gifts and loans from friends. These were the most difficult years of his life, but they were also the most productive. It was during this period that he wrote the two great books on which his reputation is primarily based: The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929) and England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930). His early career was neither easy nor characteristic of the historical profession, but it was not without its compensations. As early as 1928 he could note with characteristic Olympianness, “Looking back at the time in the Army, the Civil Service, and in business, and at the influence those years have had on my historical work, I am able to appreciate Gibbon’s dictum that ‘the Captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers... has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire’” ([1929] 1957, p. x).

From his school days, Namier had been deeply influenced by Pilsudski’s Polish national socialism and was for a long time emotionally engaged in the whole nationality struggle in eastern Europe, of which “the Jewish question” was seemingly only a part. By the early 1920s, however, he reacted to the anti-Semitic tone and activity of the new Polish state by becoming a deeply committed and active Zionist. From 1929 to 1931 he served as political secretary to the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the recognized Zionist administrative organization under the League of Nations mandate. His role in the Zionist movement was executive, rather than policy-making, for he was unconnected with any of the mass Zionist organizations and as a “cultural” or “national” Zionist was suspect to the religious Zionists who formed the bulk of the movement.

Namier’s most creative years were marked by an unusually well-balanced division of interest between his political engagement and his scholarly commitment. His political engagement found vent in Zionist action, his scholarly commitment in writing. This impressive compartmentalization broke down under the pressure of Hitler’s rise and World War II, and Namier shelved his eighteenth-century interests for about 15 years; only with the defeat of Hitler, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1949, and the consequent cooling of his Zionist and antifascist passions could he return to his Georgian studies.

Namier was professor of history at the University of Manchester from 1931 until his retirement in 1953, at the age of 65. Except for his Ford lectureship at Oxford in 1934, honorific recognition came very late: fellow and Raleigh lecturer of the British Academy in 1944; Waynflete lecturer, Magdalen College, Oxford in 1946-1947; honorary fellow of Balliol College in 1948; knighthood in 1952; Romanes lecturer, Oxford, and Creighton lecturer, London, in 1952; honorary doctorates (D. LITT.) from Durham in 1953, Oxford in 1955, Rome in 1956; an honorary D.C.L. from Oxford in I960; an honorary LITT. D. from Cambridge in 1957; and the Leslie Stephen lectureship in 1958-1959. In 1956 a particularly distinguished Festschrift, edited by Richard Pares and A. J. P. Taylor, was presented to him.

In 1947 Namier married Iulia de Beausobre, a Russian émigrée widow (see De Beausobre 1948). When he died in 1960, he received an Anglican burial.

Contributions to historiography

Namier’s career as a historian can be easily divided into four periods: (1) the years 1923-1930, when he worked exclusively on the eighteenth century and published his two great works; (2) his first years at Manchester, when his eighteenth-century work gradually yielded place to an increasing concentration on nineteenth-century central European history, culminating in 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals (delivered 1944, published 1946); (3) the later Manchester years, when he wrote on the diplomatic origins of the war of 1939; and (4) the quieter, honor-filled years of his retirement, 1953-1960, when he returned to the study of the eighteenth century.

Namier discovered his general interest in English history while he was at Balliol, but it was only gradually that he defined his special field of interest and his approach. In 1912, he started to work on a project he called “the imperial problem during the American revolution.” The topic is characteristic of the period when England, Oxford, and particularly Balliol College were very imperial-minded. In the United States it was the heyday of the “imperial school” of North American colonial historians (G. L. Beer, H. L. Osgood, C. A. Van Tyne, C. McL. Andrews). The young Lawrence Gipson had returned from Oxford to start his lifework, the British Empire Before the American Revolution. At first Namier’s research centered primarily on America, but during his stay in the United States in 1913-1914, he met Andrews, who told him, “On this side, there are ever so many of us doing the work; why do you not contribute something from your own side?” Only slowly, however, did Namier’s attention move from America to England and from the amorphous “imperial problem” to the precise delineation of “the House of Commons which, in so ill-fated a manner, undertook the work of preserving the First British Empire.”

The structure of parliaments

The problem Namier set himself was to explain how the eighteenth-century parliaments, in trying to meet imperial problems, lost the empire. But his documentary evidence revealed that the House of Commons was not, in fact, trying to meet imperial problems. It lacked a comprehensive collective identity or policy; instead, it was a collection of factions, of local and family interests. Few of these factions or interests had any great consciousness of empire or imperial needs; most narrowly pursued their parochial or egotistical goals. Struggling with evidence of great volume and complexity, Namier, the romantic conservative, dispassionately reconstructed a vanished social organism; Namier, the admirer of a landed patriciate, showed how negative was the role of the independent landed gentry in the eighteenth century; finally, Namier, the passionate Burkean, coldly revealed the ineptness of king and lords.

Namier’s greatest success came in structural analysis. He related Parliament to its social context. He considered elections a register of social weight and analyzed the House of Commons that resulted from the electoral process for its economic and social composition, for geographic and family connections, and even for less obvious ties of friendship or dependence that brought one man under the influence of another. Finally, he showed that the traditional labels of Whig and Tory were relatively meaningless, compared with the stronger bonds of the family-based “connection.”

Namier was less successful as a writer of sustained narrative. England in the Age of the American Revolution is a collection of special studies on the political behavior of individuals and groups during the confused years 1760-1762, when the wartime Pitt-Newcastle coalition gave way to the peace ministry of Lord Bute; it is not, however, a comprehensive history of even those two years. Namier was so impatient of post hoc ergo propter hoc generalizations, so interested in the microscopic analysis of the political process, that he was little attracted to the grand narrative of the Macaulay tradition.

Namier’s emphasis on quantification and on studying political behavior rather than constitutional theory probably made him the single most important influence in the introduction of modern social science methodology into British political history. His critics (usually to the left of him politically) have accused him of “taking the mind out of history,” that is, of failing to ascribe sufficient importance to rational purposiveness and idealism in individual behavior and to formal ideology in group behavior. Namier never denied these charges very strenuously. Most mass political action was to him, indeed, irrational. He became increasingly fascinated by the problem of irrational individual behavior as well, and he elegantly analyzed such behavior in his essays “King George III” and “Charles Townshend(Crossroads of Power, pp. 124–140, 194–212).

Diplomatic history

By the late 1930s, the impact of Hitler and of the coming world war had deflected Namier from his Georgian studies to more modern central European history. Deeply disturbed by Hitlerite anti-Semitism, Namier seemed to be asking himself, “Where did Germany go wrong?” The most important work of this phase of his study was his 1944 Raleigh lecture, 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals, perceptive if somewhat unbalanced essay, in which he characteristically exposed the lack of consistency between the formal ideology of the 1848 revolutionaries (particularly in central Europe) and their national and social prejudices and commitments.

His important works on the diplomacy of the 1930s were also controversial. Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939, he began a searching analysis of the documentary collections that the different foreign powers published to justify their conduct. The resulting essays were published in the Political Quarterly during the war years, and the research that went into them led Namier into a major project: a diplomatic history of the origins of the war. He combined the wartime essays with new material in Diplomatic Prelude: 1938-1939(1948). The postwar flood of memoirs, war trial testimony, and documentary publications was too great to assimilate into this first attempt at a general history; several examples of the new evidence were, however, subjected to his characteristically rigorous scrutiny in a series of essays appended to the book. Although at one time Namier hoped to incorporate these findings and subsequent analyses of new publications into a revised edition of Diplomatic Prelude, he chose ultimately to return instead to parliamentary history. Before carrying out that decision, however, he contributed to diplomatic studies a series of penetrating essays, analytical reviews, and detailed commentaries in which he dissected various new publications. The best of these were collected in Europe in Decay (1950) and In the Nazi Era (1952a). In some ways these volumes provide the same sort of critical survey of the origins of World War II that the successive editions of G. P. Gooch’s Recent Revelations of European Diplomacy provide for the origins of World War I.

Namier’s contribution to recent diplomatic history is fourfold. First, through personal interviews and correspondence and by revealing and publishing otherwise inaccessible documents, he added to the available evidence. Second, by his methodologically rigorous and sophisticated analysis, he demonstrated that it was possible to provide a scholarly, viable explanation of the events leading up to the war, even from limited data. His sharp perception suggested many tentative conclusions since substantiated by new evidence. In spite of some oversimplification, Diplomatic Prelude remains the starting point for the subject. Third, his generally caustic but always helpful reviews of, for example, French and German memoirs are of permanent use. By revealing the clumsy distortions, contradictions, and fabrications, as well as the commoner sorts of inaccuracies, Namier attempted to warn the serious reader against both current apologists and future myth makers. Fourth, Namier’s work has had great influence in shaping the attitude of a whole generation of historians toward the diplomatic origins of the war. Not all share his severe judgments, e.g., his denunciation of appeasement. Yet his combination of meticulous dissection of evidence with a firm moral judgment has provided a secure conceptual framework for viewing the whole that is used even by those who come to some different conclusions.

The “History of Parliament.”

In his retirement years, 1953-1960, Namier returned to the eighteenth century and served on the editorial board of the “History of Parliament” project. It was largely his advocacy that moved the British government to give considerable financial support to the compilation and publication of a biographical dictionary of the parliaments of England from the Middle Ages to 1832. (This project, first suggested by him in 1928, had been started by Col. Josiah Wedgwood with private support in the 1930s, but was stopped by the war.) The biographies for each forty- or fifty-year period are to be accompanied by an introductory volume that statistically analyzes and interprets the social, economic, and political character of the parliamentary membership and its voting record. When completed, the vast undertaking should become the primary tool for writing the political history of England.

At the time of Namier’s death, the biographies for the period 1754-1790—for which he himself had assumed editorial responsibility—were substantially completed; the accompanying interpretative material was later prepared for publication by John Brooke (Namier & Brooke 1964a). If completed substantially as planned, the “History of Parliament” will undoubtedly be the most lasting monument to Namier’s intellectual contribution to British historiography: that is, that the political historian should ask questions about status, interest, and behavior that can be answered only by minute observation and precise quantification.

Namier’s work in modern European history has failed to produce a lastingly definable school; whether his more important eighteenth-century work will do so remains to be seen. His work was not in harmony with the ideological bent of the 1930s; in the twenty years following the appearance of the Structure of Politics in 1929, only Robert Walcott’s work was directly influenced by Namier, although J. L. Neal was doing independent analogous work on the sixteenth century. Not until the 1950s did Namier’s influence become visibly widespread in the work of John B. Owen, John Brooke, Ian Christie, Gerrit P. Judd iv, Douglas Brunton, Donald H. Pennington, and Mary Freer Keeler, and more tangentially in that of Lucy S. Sutherland, Richard Pares, Norman Gash, H. J. Hanham, and others. Whether or not this influence will persist will depend largely on the fate of the “History of Parliament.”

Jacob M. Price and Gerhard L. Weinberg

[See alsoHistory.]


(1929) 1957 The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III. 2d ed. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martins. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by St. Martins.

(1930) 1962 England in the Age of the American Revolution. 2d ed. New York: St. Martins. → A paperback edition was published in 1961.

1937 Additions and Corrections to Sir John Fortescue’s Edition of the Correspondence of King George the Third (Vol. 1). Manchester Univ. Press.

(1946) 1957 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals. Oxford Univ. Press. → First published in Volume 30 of the British Academy, Proceedings.

1947 Facing East. London: Hamilton.

1948 Diplomatic Prelude: 1938-1939. London: Macmillan.

(1950) 1963 Europe in Decay: A Study in Disintegration, 1936-1940. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith.

1952a In the Nazi Era. London: Macmillan.

1952b Avenues of History. London: Hamilton.

1955 Personalities and Powers. London: Hamilton; New York: Macmillan.

1958 Vanished Supremacies: Essays on European History: 1812-1918. London: Hamilton; New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

1964a Namier, Lewis B.; and Brooke, JohnThe House of Commons, 1754-1790. 3 vols. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → Published after Namier’s death. These are the first three volumes of the projected “History of Parliament,” dealing with the House of Commons from 1264 to 1832.

1964b Namier, Lewis B.; and Brooke, JohnCharles Townshend. London: Macmillan. → Published after Namier’s death.

Conflicts: Studies in Contemporary History. London: Macmillan, 1942. → Essays written between 1918 and 1942.

Crossroads of Power: Essays on Eighteenth-century England. New York: Macmillan; London: Hamilton, 1962. → Essays written between 1928 and 1952; includes “King George III: A Study of Personality” (1953) and “Charles Townshend: His Character and Career” (1959).

In the Margin of History. London: Macmillan, 1939. → Essays written between 1925 and 1939.

Skyscrapers, and Other Essays. London: Macmillan, 1931. → Essays written between 1914 and 1929.


Berlin, Isaiah 1966 L. B. Namier: A Personal Impression. Encounter 27, Nov.:32-42.

Brooke, John 1965 Namier and His Critics. Encounter 24, Feb.:47-49.

Butterfield, Herbert (1957) 1959 George III and the Historians. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan. → An extremely critical evaluation of Namier’s work and influence.

De Beausobre, Iulia 1948 The Woman Who Could Not Die. With a preface by Rebecca West. London: Gollancz.

Mansfield, Harvey C. Jr. 1962 Sir Lewis Namier Considered. Journal of British Studies 2, no. 1:28-55.

Pares, Richard; and Taylor, A. J. P. (editors) 1956 Essays Presented to Sir Lewis Namier. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martins.

Price, Jacob M. 1961 Party, Purpose, and Pattern: Sir Lewis Namier and His Critics. Journal of British Studies 1, no. 1:71-93.

Sutherland, Lucy S. 1962 Sir Lewis Namier: 1888-1960. British Academy, Proceedings 48:371-385. → The best biographical sketch.

Talmon, J. L. 1962 The Ordeal of Sir Lewis Namier: The Man, the Historian, the Jew. Commentary 33: 237-246. → A view of Namier’s personality by one who knew him in his later years.

Toynbee, Arnold 1961 Lewis Namier: Historian. Encounter 16, Jan.:39-43. → Reminiscences by a friend.

Walcott, Robert 1964 “Sir Lewis Namier Considered” Considered. Journal of British Studies 3, no. 2:85-108. → A comment on Mansfield 1962.

Winkler, Henry R. 1963 Sir Lewis Namier. Journal of Modern History 35:1-19.