Think Piece

From Rio to Tokyo: Towards a Global Intellectual History of Empires

By Egas Moniz Bandeira and Caio Henrique Dias Duarte

In 1907, diplomats from all over the world gathered in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in The Hague, for the Second Hague Peace Conference. Among the first truly global diplomatic conferences, the event became a stage for an unusual transcultural encounter. The Brazilian delegate, Ruy Barbosa (1849–1923), a fierce defender of the principle of sovereign equality of nations, was the main protagonist in opposing a proposal by the US and the European powers to create an international arbitral tribunal with themselves as permanent arbiters. In his closing speech, he deplored that Europe only recognized the US in its political horizon, ignoring Latin America and Asia. Japan’s military victory in 1905, however, had secured the latter a place amongst the Great Powers, and Barbosa stressed that Brazil wished to accomplish the same by diplomatic means before it felt compelled to enter into the arms race itself. The Chinese ambassador, Lu Zhengxiang (1871–1949), subsequently wrote an euphoric report back home in which he adapted Barbosa’s speech to fit his country’s situation.  In view of the importance of military power in international relations, he urged his government to “amass military prowess” and to carry out constitutional reforms (in the broadest sense) in order to “shut up all countries.”[1] Whereas Ruy Barbosa saw the military path for ascension as a last resort that he hoped to avoid through diplomacy, Lu took his speech as an exhortation of a bellicose stance, which China should pursue as well.

Such encounters are still barely accounted for in the current Eurocentric epistemologies of Empire. As Robert Marks points out, Eurocentrism sees “Europe as being the only active shaper of world history, its ‘fountainhead’ if you will. Europe acts; the rest of the world responds. Europe has ‘agency’; the rest of the world is passive. Europe makes history; the rest of the world has none until it is brought into contact with Europe. Europe is the center; the rest of the world is its periphery. Europeans alone are capable of initiating change or modernization; the rest of the world is not.”  Since the end of the twentieth century, historians have called for the provincialization of Europe to counter this premise. In spite of their divergences, numerous historiographical approaches—ranging from comparative and transnational history, world history, big history, and global history to postcolonial studies and the history of globalization—agree in their objective of coming to terms with the connectivities of the past by moving beyond Europe.

Much has to be done, however, for this goal of showing a truly global circulation of ideas, from their theoretical construction in debates to its political and institutional applications, to actually be achieved. In March 2021, Oxford University Press published its two-volume Oxford World History of Empire, a massive handbook edited by Peter Fibiger Bang, Christopher Bayly, and Walter Scheidel. An ambitious enterprise, the Oxford World History of Empire enlisted contributors of the highest caliber to create a non-Eurocentric world history and show that “against the backdrop of world history, European colonial powers emerge unexpectedly as an especially unstable form of imperialism.” This followed an earlier volume by Routledge under the moniker History of Western Empires, which also brought refreshing approaches to the circulation of ideas. Despite the many relevant contributions in these and other handbooks, however, we should be paying attention to what is missing rather than what is present. Non-European Empires are often overlooked in such analyses; they are seen as either receptacles of a vertical transit of ideas or not seen at all. The Routledge volume, for example, still lacks a counterpart on Eastern or even African and Native American Empires, and in Oxford’s World History of Empire, the absence of case studies on the Empire of Brazil or the Empire of Japan, for example, raises questions about how much of the world is actually covered in this “non-Eurocentric world history.” 

For a truly in-depth analysis of how knowledge was and is built, a shift in perspective is necessary: rather than adopting the view of the central lighthouse that sheds light onto whatever it sees as it revolves, we ought to be looking into what happens in the shadows. Recent efforts such as that of Antonio Manuel Hespanha, who sought to understand how local networks of power in the Portuguese Empire consolidated its rule overseas, are noteworthy in this regard. With a historiographical focus on how such epistemologies emerged through the interaction between shadow locations, we may discover important actors and developments that evade the momentaneous glimpse of the center.


In Brazil’s case, we can detect intense interaction and knowledge-building in the shadows of colonial and imperial times. During the colonial period, the same borders that were debated in the palaces of Europe were to be constantly redrafted through intense disputes between local actors who took into consideration cultural factors deemed of little importance in the official diplomatic negotiations. Similarly, the Empire crafted its own tradition of equality of rights and of legal treatment between nations—isonomy as a principle of International Law—in its border disputes after the disruption caused by the Paraguay War (1864-1870). As the separate peace treaties signed with Paraguay shows, Brazil disagreed with its former allies on how to treat the defeated nation: while Argentina intended to annex a fair share of Paraguayan territory, Brazil defended the country’s territorial integrity. In the following years, surrounded by intense political disputes in the republics born out of Spanish America, the Empire and the Republic which succeeded it sought arbitration rather than war to solve the recurring border disputes. Whether their contestants were Great Powers such as the United Kingdom or smaller nations, such as Peru, Brazilian diplomacy drew from the cartographical knowledge amassed by the Portuguese diplomatic tradition, favoring the exclusivity of legal means to solve those disputes. This very same idea was brought to the Hague in 1907 by Ruy Barbosa and, from there, to China by Lu Zhengxiang.

Pedro II, whose reign spanned almost the entire duration of the Brazilian Empire, was a frequent traveler and an avid scholar. His participation in the 1876 Congress of Orientalists during a trip to Saint Petersburg is a testimony to the fact that such networks existed. Just as his Empire’s diplomats—most of them legal scholars—worked on crafting legal strategies to defend its interests, so did Russia: in its wars against non-European states and nations such as the Ottoman Empire, the Romanov Tsars combined a consolidation of war customs with the organization of international conferences to codify international law. Saint Petersburg (1868), Brussels (1874), and even the First Hague Convention (1899) were convened at the initiative of the Romanovs. Sadly, the interaction between the two Empires is still under-researched, although connections abound. The only substantial production is on the subject of the scientific expedition (1824-1829) by Baron Langsdorff during the reign of Pedro I in Brazil.

Congress of the Orientalists in the University of St. Petersburg. 20 of August 1876. Pedro II is on the right, in a separate chair. Drawing by E. Damuller.

While Latin America was trying to assert its presence in the international community through the “peaceful door,” as Ruy Barbosa put it, Japan entered it by way of the “war door” when it militarily defeated Russia in 1904/05. In the Oxford History of Empire handbook, Japanese history is only addressed in one chapter, where it is combined with the German experience in a context of “great power competition and the world wars.” Much beyond this comparison with its ally in the Second World War, though, Japan would merit a central place in any exploration of nineteenth- and twentieth century Empire that aspires to be “global.”

In 1905, Japan’s victory in what has been termed “World War Zero” not only sent political shockwaves throughout the world but also established Japan as an alternative model of imperial modernization on equal footing with the Euro-American imperial powers. While the Japanese state was pursuing aggressive policies of colonial and imperial expansion, such as the annexation of Korea under Resident-General Terauchi Masatake, the country’s vertiginous rise did not fail to exert considerable attraction to intellectuals struggling with their own countries’ existential crises, such as reformist thinker Liang Qichao in the Qing Empire and even the foreign minister of the Ethiopian Empire.

Indeed, Japan came to inform political reforms far beyond its close vicinity. In Lu Zhengxiang’s ailing Qing Empire, the Meiji reform served as the main, although not exclusive, blueprint for the constitutional reforms undertaken from 1906 onward. Beyond East Asia, the Japanese model was widely discussed in Siam and the Ottoman Empire, among others. The pinnacle of Japan’s trajectory as a global model of alternative modernization was reached in the early 1930s, when Ethiopian intellectuals and politicians identified the imitation of Japan as the secret to becoming a strong and powerful nation. In late 1931, a diplomatic delegation led by foreign minister Həruy Wäldä-Selasse embarked on a journey to Japan, where the party visited factories, offices, farms, zoos, theatres, railways, shrines, museums, and military training schools. Upon their return, Wäldä-Selasse published a book titled Mahdärä Bərhan Hägär Japan (The Place of Light: The Country of Japan). The Ethiopian Constitution, promulgated the same year, drew heavily from Japan’s 1889 constitution, thus becoming a legal testament to imperial encounters beyond the Euro-Atlantic circuit.

Visit of a delegation led by the Ethiopian foreign minister Həruy Wäldä-Selasse to Japan, 1931. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Rather than just offering an erudite exploration of the intellectual connections of such Empires, these seemingly unusual events can point us in a new direction of studies and discussions and cause us to revisit concepts while trying to understand how such Empires and their populations, institutions, and traditions interacted.

One field that has greatly benefited from this approach is the study of the history of slavery. Recent research has focused on the interaction between slaveholding elites, but also on how slave communities interacted among themselves through the Atlantic networks, consolidating identities, with researchers trying to understand the practices of resistance and, later, of abolitionist ideas and political action.

If we are to look at communities of practice and epistemic communities that work and interact in the shadows of our traditional gaze, we bring a series of challenges to standardized assumptions about Empire, such as that of essentialized identities frequently present in historical narratives. When defining the scope of historical analysis, such challenges are not a matter of discarding legal categories, political institutions or even cultural manifestations because of their geographical origin, but rather of trying to draw an enlarged map of the debates that constructed knowledge and dictated practices—thinking in networks rather than in categories.

[1] Lu Zhengxiang 陸徵祥, Juzou Baohehui qianhou shizai qingxing deng zhepian qing daidi you 具奏保和會前後實在情形等摺片請代遞由 [Memorial about the actual circumstances before and after the Peace Conference, &c.; with a request to retransmit], Guangxu 34/01/16 [February 17, 1908], file no. 02-21-004-01-003, Archives of the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taipei, [11].

Egas Moniz Bandeira holds a Ph.D. from the University of Tohoku (Japan) and is currently a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory in Frankfurt (Germany). His main research interest is global intellectual history with a focus on its refractions in modern East Asia. He is co-editor of the volume Planting Parliaments in Eurasia, 1850–1950: Concepts, Practices, and Mythologies (Routledge 2021).

Caio Henrique Dias Duarte is an MA student at the University of São Paulo (Brazil). He is coordinator of Amigos do Itamaraty, a cultural preservation initiative of the Diplomatic Museum and Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil. His research focus is on Russian and Brazilian foreign policies and legal and diplomatic practices during the 19th century.

Featured Image: A drawing of Recife, a relevant coastal town, that accompanied a description of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s Imperial capital, in a Meiji-era geography textbook. Shihan gakkō 師範學校. Bankoku chishi ryaku 萬國地誌略 [Sketch of world geography], 3 vols. (Tokyo: Monbushō, 1874), 3:29. Picture taken by the authors.

Think Piece

From Æthelflæd to Ælfthryth: The Idea of Queenship in Tenth-Century England

By Matthew Firth

There is an anachronistic element to looking for “queens” in early medieval Europe, and perhaps particularly so in the West Saxon kingdom of the ninth and tenth centuries. Precisely what makes a queen a queen varies between places and over time. As Janet Nelson identifies, in contrast to male categories of power in early medieval Europe “it is much harder to identify anything that could be called queenship” (p. 39). Historians have, nonetheless, adopted certain sub-categories of queenship based around a royal woman’s means of accessing authority that have broad application. As summarized by Theresa Earenfight, these are queen-regnant, queen-regent, queen-consort, queen-mother or dowager-queen (p. 6). Only one of these constitutes authority in its own right, the queen regnant. Queens-regnant, however, are not a feature of the political landscape of tenth-century England. Queenly agency was rather defined and delimited by each woman’s relationship with the king, the starting point of which was usually as queen-consort.

West Saxon queens rarely enjoyed ceremonial investiture of power nor recognized claim to formal title. The marriage of the Carolingian Princess Judith to the West Saxon King Æthelwulf (839–58) in 856 was cast as an extraordinary event by various medieval commentators because, at the ceremony at the royal palace at Verberie in Francia, she did not merely marry the reigning king of Wessex but was also consecrated as his queen. The Frankish cleric, Prudentius of Troyes, declared that, for Æthelwulf, this was “something not customary before then to him or his people” (p. 83). In recounting the event, Asser, the biographer of Alfred the Great (871–99), adds further detail, stating that “the West Saxons did not allow the queen to sit beside the king, nor indeed did they allow her to be called ‘queen’, but rather ‘king’s wife’” (p. 71). Asser perceives this to be a “perverse and detestable custom”, founded on the exemplar of the early tenth-century queen-consort Eadburh who was purported to have abused her queenly authority and ultimately to have poisoned her husband the king. Whatever truth may lie behind Asser’s tale, his observations of West Saxon attitudes to queenship seem to have a certain veracity. After Judith’s consecration, which in itself was informed by her status as a scion of the West Frankish royal family, no English queen is known to have again been anointed as such until over a century later in 973.

The matter of West Saxon attitudes toward queenship as an ‘office’ is particularly pertinent to the idea of queenship in England more widely in the tenth century. Alfred’s reign in the late ninth century marked a turning point in the fortunes of Wessex and the West Saxon royal family. The Viking incursions of the ninth century saw the decline and failure of most of England’s other kingdoms and royal families. Following Alfred’s successful defense of Wessex, he began a process of expanding West Saxon hegemony, while his descendants would go on the become the sole rulers of a reconstituted English kingdom. And the political milieu of the tenth century would bring several powerful women to the fore, whose authority would seemingly bely any exhortation against the dangers of female power. Yet it also remains that despite any personal agency, such women are only rarely named as queen.

The most famous of these powerful tenth-century women is, perhaps, Æthelflæd of Mercia. The conclusion that queenly authority derived from proximity to kingship here remains unavoidable, despite Æthelflæd’s remarkable personal agency. She was the daughter of King Alfred, sister to his successor King Edward the Elder (899–924), and wife to Ealdorman Æthelred, the proxy king in Mercia. Æthelred’s own authority was exercised under the overlordship of the West Saxon kings. Æthelflæd’s was an extraordinary position. Alongside her connections to West Saxon royalty, she was an heir of the Mercian royal house by matrilineal descent. For Æthelred, his marriage to Æthelflæd in the 880s did not then just cement a Mercian-West Saxon alliance, but brought additional legitimacy to his rule. This in turn granted Æthelflæd a remarkable degree of authority to the extent that, following Æthelred’s death in 911, she continued as sole ruler of Mercia until her own death in 918, albeit in partnership with her brother. Critically, however, Æthelflæd is largely ignored in West Saxon histories, while the Mercian evidence never calls her queen, but Myrcna hlæfdige or domina Merciorum[Lady of the Mercians]. This would, seemingly, be a legacy of the West Saxon reservation of bestowing queenship. As Pauline Stafford identifies, Welsh and Irish sources show little reservation in identifying Æthelflæd as queen.

Image 1: Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians © British Library Board, Cotton MS Claudius B VI, f.14 r.

There is, however, no evidence that Æthelflæd was anointed as a queen or given formal title. Indeed, while formal marriage can be assumed between Æthelred and Æthelflæd, there is no clear evidence for such ceremony either. And in a society where queens were rarely anointed, the status that came from being the legitimate wife of a king could be foundational to queenship. As Stafford argues, marriage raised women to queenly authority in the absence of consecration (pp. 127–9). At a fundamental level, what would now be identified as queenship was, in tenth-century England, predicated on marriage to the king. As a result, the distinction between a king’s wife and a king’s concubine was politically charged.

Many of England’s tenth-century kings have been characterized as serial monogamists, most notable among these being Edward the Elder and Edgar the Peaceful (959–75) who both had three consorts. In such cases, the blurred line between concubine and wife may have been intentional. A lack of formal marriage allowed the setting aside of one concubine in favor of a more politically attractive union relatively simpler. If there was no evidence of marriage, no public declaration of intent, no exchange of lands, then how simple for a king to set aside consort as a bed companion alone with no marital legitimacy. This was, no doubt, the approach taken by both Edward and Edgar to their unions with their first wives; it is no coincidence that it was most often a king’s first consort, a match made before he ascended the throne, who was identified as a concubine.

The difference in status could have political and ideological ramifications for a consort’s children and her legacy, especially where a queen-consort survived her husband, thus transitioning into roles as queen-mother or dowager-queen. In these cases, her continued authority rested on an ability to demonstrate the legitimacy of her union with the king. This was especially important where more than one consort had a son with the king. Whatever agency consorts were able to establish for themselves within male-dominated political spheres, the primary expectation of queens-consort was to produce heirs, legitimatesons. Thus, proving the legitimacy of a marriage could also serve to establish the primacy of a son as heir. For this reason, some of England’s most powerful tenth-century queens reached the apex of their authority as queen-mother. This is certainly the case for Edward and Edgar’s thirds consorts, respectively named Eadgifu and Ælfthryth.

There is no evidence of Eadgifu being crowned queen-consort (though David Pratt makes as case for it). She was also likely quite young at the time of Edward’s death and thus their sons would only have been children. Her stepson Æthelstan succeeded to the crowns of Wessex and Mercia in 924, and Eadgifu disappears from the historical record. However, she returns to power with her sons Edmund and Eadred. While she never claims the title queen, at least in contemporary records, she clearly takes up a position of power and regularly witnesses charters in a prominent position, subscribing as mater regis [mother of the king] over fifty times. Eadgifu’s fortunes vary during the reigns of her grandsons, but she does live long enough to witness a charter alongside Ælfthryth in 966. Here Eadgifu witnesses as aua regis [grandmother of the king], while Ælfthryth witnesses before her as legitima prefati regis coniuncx [legitimate wife of the aforementioned king]. This witnessing demarcates a new phase of queenship in England, one that has developed over the preceding century more slowly than this brief article has been able to outline and to which Eadgifu was integral. What is important here is that Ælfthryth’s clear delineation as legitimate wife, made very shortly after the birth of their first son, is an unambiguous declaration by Edgar of his third consort’s pre-eminence and the primacy of their son as heir.

Ælfthryth’s queenship was legitimated as no queen-consort’s had been since Judith’s coronation. She was a regular witness to Edgar’s charters, attesting as regina[queen] around twenty times, the first West Saxon consort to do so. She was a known intermediary with the king, at times receiving gifts for performing in that role. She was a landholder – the queen’s dower having increasingly become a traditional prerogative through the tenth century. She was codified in Regularis concordia as patron and protector of the kingdom’s female religious houses. Finally, she was formally crowned queen in 973 alongside her husband during the pageantry of his second coronation in Bath. Ælfthryth’s tenure as queen was remarkable for the shift toward institutional office that codification of duties and consecration implied – the latter an exemplar for her successors with coronation becoming the norm in the eleventh century.

Yet while this is an important moment in the evolution of early English queenship, it does exist on a continuum with earlier ideas around female power and queenly legitimacy. Edgar’s various methods of legitimising Ælfthryth and her children could not insulate her from dynastic unrest connected with the legitimacy the children of his earlier consorts could also call upon. Upon Edgar’s death in 975, factions formed around his surviving sons, with that backing Ælfthryth’s stepson Edward (975–78) attaining control of the throne. I have addressed the bloody end to Edward “the Martyr’s” reign and its impact on Ælfthryth’s legacy elsewhere. In the immediate term, however, upon Edward’s death in 978 Ælfthryth’s young son Æthelred II (978–1014/16) came to the throne, his mother by his side. Like Eadgifu before her, Ælfthryth took up a prominent role in her son’s court, witnessing as mater regis no fewer than sixteen times. But more than this, as Levi Roach identifies, Ælfthryth appears to have seized regency powers along with her closest allies in the early years of Æthelred’s reign (pp. 85–6). Thus, a century on from Asser’s cautions around the dangers of queenly power, a consecrated queen stood at the head of English government as mother and regent.

Ælfthryth’s regency is a good place to leave this overview of West Saxon ideas and ideals of queenship in from the late-ninth to late-tenth centuries. The agency of English queens had shifted dramatically from the time when Asser declared king’s wives could not claim that title, to Ælfthryth’s explicit use of the title regina and claiming of regency authority in the name of her young son. Nonetheless, there remains a certain truth to Asser’s assessment of West Saxon queenship even as it developed the trappings of institutional office as the tenth century progressed. Tenth-century English queenship remained fundamentally connected to a woman’s relationship to the king. To borrow Stafford’s words in closing, “queenship is thus no more or less than the crown on the head of wife and mother, at most the formalization of their roles.”

Matthew Firth is a PhD Candidate in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Flinders University, South Australia. His published works have appeared in The Court Historian, Royal Studies Journal and International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, among other venues, and focus on England’s pre-Conquest kings and queens and their legacies. He has a particular interest in how royal reputation was transmitted, adapted, and memorialised in the histories of later medieval writers. Matthew is currently writing a book for the Routledge Lives of Royal Women series, entitled Early English Queenship, 850–1000: Potestas Reginae. Matthew is also assistant editor for the Brepols series, East Central Europe.

Featured Image: King Alfred the Great, King Edward the Elder, Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians © British Library Board, Royal MS 14 B VI

Think Piece

That Sea Is History: Water Metaphors in Modern European Historiography

By Lucian Staiano-Daniels

I spent over twenty-four months in the Saxon State Archives in Dresden during my doctorate, researching soldiers’ lives in central Europe during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). I sifted less-read sources, like transcripts of military trials, for information about these men’s social interactions with one another. The first weeks were not very fruitful. One of the books I was reading then referenced a volume of legal documents from a single regiment in its footnotes. This volume had been compiled in 1625, and was the oldest unified military legal collection I had seen so far. The author did not know whether more books like it existed. When I typed the regiment’s name into the records, not one volume came up, but three: it was part of a manuscript series, broken up possibly since its acquisition. The other two books had been misfiled. These three rare and unusual manuscripts detailed every legal ruling this regiment’s authorities took during its lifespan.  Finding these missing books was a mystical experience, and I fell into the archives like a sea.


Comparing history or time to water is common in the Western canon, expressing uncertainty about historical truth and human beliefs, but also unexpected enlightenment. As Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius wrote (AD 161-180), “There is a kind of river in events and time is a violent stream; as soon as each thing is seen, it has been carried away and something else is being carried past and that will be carried away” (4:43, 27). Time changes objects, it carries off, it wears away. Time is a river because of its speed and its power; it relativizes the value humans place on perishable things: “Flows and changes constantly renew the universe,” he said, “as the unceasing movement of time makes boundless eternity for ever young. In this river, where it is impossible to stand, which of these things that are rushing past him could anyone place value on?” (6:15, 42).

Things that have passed no longer exist. They are not available to us. Marcus Aurelius returned to this metaphor: “hardly anything stands still, even what is near to us; and there is the yawning infinity of the past and the future into which everything vanishes” (Meditations, 5:23, 36). The river makes all things impermanent, and this is their youth, because they are renewed.

For the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who predated Marcus Zurelius by more than five hundred years, change itself was the river. Time was not a container for events which were fundamentally separate from it: “Into the same rivers we step and do not step; we both are and are not. ” German philosopher GWF Hegel invoked a similar metaphor in the early nineteenth century to describe his view of time: “Time is not, as it were, a receptacle in which everything is placed as in a flowing stream, which sweeps it away and engulfs it. Time is only this abstraction of destruction. It is because things are finite that they are in time; it is not because they are in time that they perish.” (35-36)

In Western historical writing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which emerged in the midst of profound sociopolitical changes, this metaphor was often intended to express a feeling of destabilization: if all things perish and cannot be prized, the same goes for veridical truth. The influential Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt began The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by stating: “In the wide ocean upon which we venture, the possible ways and directions are many; and the same studies which have served for this work might easily, in other hands, not only receive a wholly different treatment and application, but lead also to essentially different conclusions.” (19) For Burckhardt, history was the record of what one age finds interesting in another; since it was the art of evaluating, it could not make apodictically true statements. For each new voyage the sea is trackless.

The nineteenth century presented a dynamic universe as opposed to the contained, ordered κόσμος in which both Marcus Aurelius and Heraclitus believed. The mutability of contemporary life haunted Burkhardt, and the violent upheavals of the 1860s and 1870s convinced him there were parallels between past events and his own time. “We want to know on which swell of this great storm we are driven” (§131, 302), he said. But “we should like to know this wave upon which we float in the sea, however we are this wave itself” (§114 (I), 269). Historians could not contemplate the sea without realizing they were inextricably enmeshed in it.

The mid-twentieth-century philosopher Karl Löwith argued in 1959 that the philosophy of linear history that had emerged in the West was fundamentally theological and had reached a crisis point by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The “last religion” to which Burckhardt could cling was the idea of historical continuity (24-25), but for the German liberal Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch, historical study showed the relativity of all values: all ideas were historically and culturally conditioned and subject to change, including Christian dogma. Löwith claimed that without the ἔσχατον the flux of time would devour its own creations (18), but Troeltsch feared the flux was all there was. As he wrote in 1913:

Everywhere the dams that attempted to halt change through eternal, changeless truths are breaking. Eleatic, Platonic, Kantian ideas of the eternal a priori sought in vain to limit the flood and have themselves been drawn into it, becoming mere aspirations and approximations to the Absolute. All rationally necessary ideas of state and society have been swept into the vortex; there is no unchangeable code of conscience any more…The mood today is certainly no longer a victorious confidence in progress: it has become rather horror in the face of the alienating and relativizing boundlessness of the fragile conditions of existence.

Ernst Troeltsch, “Die Dogmatik der Religionsgeschichtlichen Schule,” 104-105

The fluidity of constant becoming was unnerving. If historical objects were context-dependent, this river in flood could sweep away normative systems. Value that was absolute belonged not to history, but to faith.

Historical research is a bitter sea. It requires you to give your all and displace yourself, and it may not reward you. Burkhardt compared the act of knowingly doing history to going to sea in a boat he did not trust: “As soon as we become aware of our position, we find ourselves on a more or less rickety ship, driven on one of a million great waves” (§114 (IV), 278-279).

But the sea did not only carry away. While the surface was violent, the deeper layers moved slowly. This was the metaphor of the great twentieth-century historian Fernand Braudel. A historian of a real and existent sea, the Mediterranean, Braudel also conceived of history as a sea with several layers. In The Mediterranean World, he asserted that the deepest layer, “whose passage is almost imperceptible,” was “that of man in his relationship to his environment, a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition, ever-recurring cycles.” The second, “on a different layer from the first,” had “slow but perceptible rhythms”; this was “social history, the history of groups and groupings.” Part of The Mediterranean World investigated how “these swelling currents” affected Mediterranean life in general. The third layer, finally, was at the surface of the sea: “history not on the level of man, but of individual men…the history of events: surface disturbances, crests of foam that the waves of history carry on their strong backs.” At the time of Philip II as in Braudel’s time, this world was characterized by “brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations”; at the time of Philip II as Braudel’s it was blind, “unconscious of the deeper realities of history, of the running waters on which our frail barks are tossed like cockleshells.”

According to Braudel, there was a surface and a depth to the sea of history. The violent change that abashed Burckhardt and Troeltsch was at the surface; deeper levels were slower. History was no longer what historians floated on top of, it was what they looked down or up through.

The sea hid something beneath, and preserved it; putting something under itself, the sea sublated it. As poet Derek Walcott observed, 

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?

Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,

in that grey vault. The sea. The sea

has locked them up. The sea is History.

Derek Walcott, “The Sea is History,” 1979

The bottom of the sea contained experiences without commemoration from hegemonic society, which had been forcibly denied to the descendants of the enslaved. The commemoration was the voice of the poet: what is at the bottom of the sea must be actively retrieved.

This change in the image of the sea was a literal change. The Mediterranean World was published in 1949 and Walcott’s The Star-Apple Kingdom, in which “The Sea is History” appeared, in 1979: by the mid-twentieth century, humans could dive down into the sea and look around for hours. But the idea that history showed the relativity of all supposedly objective verities was also no longer as challenging as it had been in the nineteenth century. Now historians question the idea of truth in historical evidence itself. Within this context, research based on the empirical analysis of large quantities of statistical data drawn from unpublished sources—“finding something at the bottom of the sea”—is not simply given as the way things are done; it requires a deliberate commitment to this approach as opposed to any other. Like Heraclitus’s river, the historian steps into it, breaking the surface. Inextricably part of these movements, he or she can also observe them. Change within time may throw our values into question, eliciting strong emotions, but at the level of nearly timeless statistics, both emotions and values are irrelevant. Although historical deconstruction is not an approach I share, you could argue that practicing history with statistics is one way to emotionally control the threat posed by the sea’s devouring power. Change is destabilizing, but what happened can also be analyzed dispassionately. The bottom of the sea is cold.


Discussing mystical experience implicitly raises the possibility that “only a god can save” history as practice, that the only remaining ground of historical truth must be something transcendent: the deluge on one hand and a god on the other. Waters have often been associated with monsters rather than gods, impedimentia rather than insight. The sea is the uncanny, that which we cannot reckon. The sea signifies otherness from the other. The sea on which we embark is the sea of what we cannot control; the world bobs on it like a scrap of wood. This causes earthquakes, said Thales (30-31). But divine power also burns inside that water. In Shaivite mythology the force that will consume the earth at doomsday, or Shiva himself, is a mare on fire within the sea. In Christian mythology, Christ’s immersion in the Jordan initiated his mission: nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest: neither any thing hid, that shall not be knowen, and come abroad. We need not ground historical ontology on the transcendent in order to think.

My intent is more modest; my memory is of a modest act. I received the manuscripts I found as insight, and this experience has shaped my approach to archival methodology ever since. I gather and strain data, I piece together scraps of information, and I am open to stumbling over something for which I did not look. And when I go to the archives I begin work floating on the surface of the sea; sheet-crumpled lead. I tip into the water. Blue darker than black; breathe out and sink. Liquid saturates my flesh, and I do not breathe in again. On the sea floor it is almost impossible to move. Inch by inch I creep after infinitesimal tesserae of gold, burning at the bottom of the sea.

The author would like to thank Craig Callender, Evan Kuehn, and Herman Paul.

Lucian Staiano-Daniels received a BA from St. John’s College (Annapolis/Santa Fe), an MA from NYU, and a PhD from UCLA in 2018. He was most recently a Dan David Postdoctoral Fellow at Tel Aviv University. He is finishing a book on the daily lives and social interactions of ordinary soldiers in seventeenth-century central Europe, which focuses on a German regiment stationed near Spanish Milan. He has written on social history, the history of violence, and intellectual history. In Foreign Policy, he also writes on current events and matters of interest.

Featured Image: Deep sea sample. Courtesy of the Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Think Piece

Math as “One of the Great Humanities”: Cassius Keyser, Doctrinal Functions, and the Valuing of American Mathematics

By Ellen Abrams

In the 2020 United States presidential election, one of the major candidates for the Democratic nomination, Andrew Yang, substituted the traditional American flag pin on his lapel for one that simply said “MATH.” Attached to this small pin were big assumptions about what “MATH” is and how it should be valued. Yet, both the meaning and value of mathematics in the United States have been up for debate and hard to pin down throughout the nation’s history. During the Cold War, Americans learned to value mathematics for its role in science and industry. “Math is everywhere,” students were told, and falling behind in the field was seen as a threat to national security. Prior to World War II, however, mathematics was not valued as highly in American society, and mathematicians often expressed concern about the cultural and financial status of their discipline. Like many do now, most researchers at the time pursued “modern,” abstract forms of mathematics. Their attention, in other words, remained focused on internally consistent, well-defined systems that were built and studied solely for the sake of their own development. There was very little, if anything at all, that related such abstract mathematical systems to the industrial or political concerns of modern America. As the president of the Mathematical Association of America warned in 1917, if American mathematicians continued to focus almost exclusively on formal abstractions “we must expect and we shall deserve public disdain and sincere doubt of our value to humanity.” Research funding and job prospects were at stake, as was the relevance of their young community. In response to these concerns, American mathematicians worked to cultivate various forms of prestige tied to differing conceptions of their discipline and its value to American society.

Although most American mathematicians were focused on abstract research in the early twentieth century, they nonetheless sought to bolster the status of their discipline by asserting its ties to science and industry. Columbia mathematician Cassius Jackson Keyser, however, took a notably different approach. While acknowledging the usefulness of mathematics, Keyser instead doubled down on its humanness. He understood this difference to be “much like the difference between one who greets a newborn day because of its glory and one who regards it as a time for doing chores and values its light only as showing the way.” Although mathematics in general could be associated with numeracy and an increasing role for quantification in the sciences, Keyser instead emphasized topics and approaches to the discipline that extended its categorization beyond the sciences. “Nothing is better entitled to rank as one of the great Humanities,” he claimed, “than Mathematics itself.”

While mathematics’ association with the sciences brought with it connotations of Anglo-Saxon, middle-class professionalism, mathematics’ affiliation with the humanities reinscribed a different, though similarly exclusionary, image of the discipline tied to celebrations of whiteness and elitism. Both ways of valuing mathematics spoke to either side of an assumed split between “thinking” and “doing.” In January 1924, Keyser addressed the Bureau of Personnel Administration in New York as part of a symposium on “Linking Science with Industry.” His goal was to garner support among an audience of businessmen for programs like the American Mathematical Society’s endowment campaign, which was designed to raise money but also to educate the public “concerning the basic character of mathematics in our present civilization and the importance of mathematical research in advancing that civilization.”[1] While for many “advancing civilization” meant advancing science and industry, to Keyser it meant advancing the cultural ideals of a civilized people and what he later called “the development of humanity’s manhood.” In his speech, Keyser argued that leaders in industry had a duty to support art and “pure” science, regardless of their industrial utility. The purpose of industry, which was not self-justified, was to allow communities of humans to “live a good life” through artistic and intellectual pursuits, which were self-justified.[2] By characterizing mathematics as a “civilized,” humanist pursuit, Keyser reinscribed exclusionary images of a supposedly inclusive discipline, constricting what it meant and whom it was for.

One of the primary ways Keyser worked to align mathematics with humanism and other self-justified pursuits was through the concept of “postulationalism.” In Mathematical Philosophy: A Study of Fate and Freedom; Lectures for Educated Laymen, he began by explaining that each branch of mathematics comprised a set of propositions that were either taken for granted and left unproven, called postulates, or proven through deduction from the others. Many have encountered this distinction in high school geometry class, where students are given a set of statements, like “two distinct points determine a line,” and are told to combine and manipulate them in order to derive various truths about lines and angles. Euclid of Alexandria famously formalized this type of reasoning and applied it to mathematics in the 3rd century BC. Yet, other systems, including “non-Euclidean” geometries, followed in the nineteenth century and were reformulated in David Hilbert’s 1899 Grundlagen der Geometry, or “Foundations of Geometry.” After the publication of Hilbert’s Grundlagen, which defined a new system of axioms, or postulates, for geometry, postulate systems became a distinct topic of interest among mathematicians in the United States. By studying the axioms of different fields of mathematics and fine-tuning different systems, American mathematicians helped to inaugurate a shift from Hilbert’s geometry, or “science of space,” to postulate systems of inherent interest. They focused, for example, on establishing generalizable features of postulate systems, such as consistency (no postulate contradicted any other) and independence (no postulate could be derived from any other). Keyser would eventually define “pure” mathematics as “postulationalism,” or the study of postulate systems themselves as a form of reasoning, separate from any application or content.

To define mathematics as postulationalism, Keyser relied on a concept he referred to as “doctrinal functions.” Hilbert’s Euclidean Geometry, for example, was best defined as a doctrinal function, meaning a system of propositional functions. Propositional functions were similar to functions (statements about the dependence of one or more things on something else) but with one or more undetermined variables to which different meanings could be assigned, such as sin x = cos y. A propositional function was neither true nor false but became true or false when specific constants were assigned to its variables. Although Hilbert’s postulates for geometry may have seemed like propositions with specific content, for example, they were actually propositional functions in disguise. Instead of “any three points not in the same straight line determine a plane,” Hilbert could just as easily have written, “Any three loigs not in the same boig determine a ploig.” In doing so, there would have been no change in the relationship between the postulates (propositional functions that were neither true nor false) and the theorems deduced from them (also neither true nor false). If the variables in a doctrinal function’s propositional functions were, however, replaced by constants, then the propositional functions would become propositions, and the system of propositions would become a doctrine. If the constants happened to include undefined concepts like points, lines, and planes, then the doctrine would be Euclidean Geometry. Defining variables as constants was considered an “interpretation” of the function, and, as Keyser pointed out, every doctrinal function admits of an infinite number of interpretations. Although E.H. Moore, a professor at the University of Chicago and one of the leading figures in American mathematics, also claimed to have established a similar concept to doctrinal functions, Keyser’s supporters credited him with the term.

Other American mathematicians (including Norbert Wiener, R. D. Carmichael, and Keyser’s own student, E. T. Bell) also wrote about mathematics as postulationalism; yet none extended the idea as much or in the same, particularly humanist, directions as Keyser. Even if they did not become full-on doctrinal functions, Keyser insisted that all fields of thought relied on starting principles—i.e., postulates. When saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the authors of the Declaration of Independence were saying “we lay down the following postulates.” Keyser also claimed there were foundational assumptions at the basis of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Marxian socialism, and Einstein’s theories of relativity. Like Euclidean Geometry, these doctrines applied specific content to the general form of postulation.

In many ways, Keyser’s attempts to define mathematics through doctrinal functions and to promote its ties to humanism were well situated within contemporary intellectual concerns and critiques of modern society. For some (notably white, upper-class) Americans, the social and cultural changes of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were in need of counteraction. Many feared that increasing urbanization, mechanization, and modernization would mean a loss of traditional values, a decline in intellectual culture, and a weakening of the human (specifically, Anglo-Saxon) race. Fewer men were craftsmen or landowners, and increasing numbers of women were diagnosed with a general weakness and nervousness condition (known as “neurasthenia”) that perpetuated conceptions of female fragility. The stress and chaos of modern life were thought to be too much for women and, by extension, were a threat to the continuance and continued dominance of the white race.

In Mathematical Philosophy, Keyser noted that a genuine understanding of postulates systems “cannot be gained by any of the get-rich-quick methods characteristic of our industrial and neurasthenic age.” In such critiques of modern society, Keyser both clashed and aligned with various strands of anti-modernism. His promotion of mathematics as relevant (often via his concept of doctrinal functions) to every possible human endeavor, for example, was at odds with a more conservative “New Humanist” movement that blamed mathematical reasoning for the corruption of earlier, purer forms of humanism. Other strands of anti-modernism, however, included certain forms of mathematics in its celebration of classical disciplines. Both versions of humanism involved a longing for perceived forms of cultural superiority. Both were imbued with whiteness and elitism.

In general, Keyser’s touting of mathematics as a self-justified, humanist pursuit held to one side of an ongoing struggle between enriching privileged lives and providing basic needs. Financial depressions, widespread poverty, and inhumane working conditions in the United States had spurred ongoing calls around the turn of the twentieth century for modern American leadership to justify its actions. As the retiring president of the Mathematical Association of America, Dunham Jackson, explained, “When the gentleman of leisure was the ideal of society, a gentleman whose activities were harmless was a good citizen. But this democracy which has happened so unexpectedly demands that you do something useful, or at least make out a case for the usefulness of what you do.”

Amid currents of anti-intellectualism, populist politics, and the needs of industrial capitalism, support for American mathematics in the early-twentieth-century was often defined by its usefulness. Nonetheless, ties between the image of the mathematician and the gentleman of leisure remained, in part through humanist commitments like Keyser’s. Both ways of valuing mathematics assumed a particularly white, male professional identity: one a businessman industrialist, the other a gentleman scholar. Keyser’s efforts to define mathematics as an inherently valuable human endeavor were necessarily refracted through his own conceptions of what it meant to be “valuable” and what it meant to be “human.” These conceptions, in turn, helped to shape the professional identity and cultural value of American “MATH” for decades to come.

[1] Council Minutes January 1, 1926, Box 12, Folder 91, American Mathematical Society Records, The John Hay Library, Brown University.

[2] Cassius Jackson Keyser, stenographic report of “Man and Men” presented January 4, 1924, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Cassius Jackson Keyser papers, Box 9.

Ellen Abrams is a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University and a visiting scholar at Cornell Tech. Her research spans the history of mathematics, data, and organizing.

Featured Image: Cassius Keyser. Scripta Mathematica vol 5, no. 2 (1938).

Think Piece

Torn-Out Pages: Pope Joan and the Persistence of Myth-Making

By Stefan Bauer

The Roman publisher Bibliotheka has recently reissued Le pagine strappate (Torn-Out Pages), a book that originally came out in 2014. In it, the Italian journalist and history teacher Pietro Ratto argues that the Catholic Church has destroyed embarrassing sources about its history. Ratto condemns the alleged “dirty tricks” that the Renaissance Church used to remove historical evidence about Pope Joan—a woman who many believe ascended the papal throne in the ninth century, duping the Roman establishment by dressing as a man, and who then tragically died in childbirth during a procession. It’s such a captivating story that, in a sense, we all want Joan to have existed.

Yet how much truth is there to the claim that the Catholic Church altered its history? Were embarrassing facts—such as the existence of Joan—hidden away? To answer such questions, it’s useful to look back at how history was written, interpreted, and challenged before and after the Reformation.

Pietro Ratto, Torn-Out Pages (Bibliotheka, 2020)

Before the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, the most innovative and critical historians were Renaissance humanists. Although humanists were engaged, to a large degree, in the study and imitation of ancient Latin, this also meant that they were necessarily aware of the development of the Latin language from antiquity through the Middle Ages and up to their own day. This taught them a sense of the historical distance that separated their times from antiquity. Classical literature was understood as a historical phenomenon. There was a spirit of criticism arising from this combination of both respecting and challenging antiquity. Regardless of whether humanists were backward-looking progressives or forward-looking conservatives, their engagement with the classics led them to critique the language, morals, and customs of their own age. Several humanists applied their philological skills to the text of the Bible and to church history.

Church history, however, was by no means a natural subject matter for humanists. The Vatican’s head librarian Bartolomeo Platina (ca. 1421–81), for example, faced the uneasy task of adapting the badly written medieval biographies of the popes to humanist expectations. Platina gave several justifications for his task, all typically humanist. First, unsurprisingly, history was didactic. Remembering the deeds of those who had built the ‘Christian republic’ would serve as an inspiration for posterity. Second, Platina put forward a stylistic argument. He lamented that many late antique and medieval authors did “not attempt any ornate speech, artistic composition or elegance.” So, in writing church history, the principal aim of fifteenth-century humanists was to restore the classical Latin style, and Platina’s book clearly expressed this belief.

As for source criticism, Platina called into question some legends deriving from late antiquity and the Middle Ages. For instance, with regard to the baptism of Emperor Constantine the Great, he stated, “I do not believe at all that, as is widely held, Constantine contracted leprosy and was cured of it by baptism.” Medieval tales about Pope Silvester II (r. 999–1003) claimed that the bones in his tombs rattled to foretell the death of other popes. Platina was amused by this story and commented sarcastically: “Let those popes whom it concerns judge whether it is true or not.” Commenting on the legend of Pope Joan, he took a cautious approach, stating that it was recorded only by unreliable and obscure authors.

After the Reformation, both Catholic and Protestant humanists faced the demands of their competing churches. The prevailing models of church history did not suit the Protestants’ view of a degenerate medieval Church, which not only precipitated their calls for reform but also required Protestant historians to re-invent the discipline. Some Reformers emphasized human fallibility and the deterioration of what had been, initially, good intentions for the religious life. Others adopted a more strident stance. Most notably, the authors of a Protestant church history known as the Magdeburg Centuries (1559–74) maintained that the false institution of the papacy, compounded by erroneous teachings and the watering down of the Gospel, had inevitably led to degradation. In response, Catholics deployed historical arguments to demonstrate the legitimacy of papal power, as a means of bolstering the primacy of the pope against the challenge mounted by Protestants.

Catholics, therefore, often clung to invented traditions, while Protestants were keen to dismantle them. In the case of Pope Joan, however, it was the other way round. Catholic church historians of the sixteenth century such as Onofrio Panvinio (1530–68) learned some of the tools of philology from their humanist predecessors. Panvinio, an Augustinian friar who received financial support from a wealthy cardinal, became one of the few full-time historians of his day, working on the history of both ancient Rome and the Church. He also edited and continued Platina’s Lives of the Popes. Among the best-known results of his research was his refutation, in 1562, of the story of Pope Joan. Panvinio employed a typical humanist argument: he pointed out that there were no contemporary or near contemporary sources that reported the story of the female pope, and consequently concluded that the legend of Joan was a later medieval invention. Panvinio was right: Joan—who is supposed to have lived in the ninth century—was never mentioned before the thirteenth century. The authors of the Protestant Magdeburg Centuries, who had a very different agenda, ignored humanist practice and brushed aside Panvinio’s argument about the lack of sources, maintaining instead that ninth-century ecclesiastical writers had “deliberately omitted Joan’s name and dates because of the disgrace and because she was a woman.”

In his book on “torn-out pages”, Pietro Ratto takes this view even further by claiming not merely that the earliest sources documenting Joan’s existence were destroyed by the Church, but also that Panvinio sought to conceal the fact that this had happened. It’s worth examining Ratto’s arguments more closely. Unable to explain exactly how the Church “erased” the traces of Joan from the ninth-century manuscripts, Ratto adopts a twofold strategy. He first tries to push back the date at which Joan appears in historical accounts, stating that the oldest references are from the eleventh century—not from the thirteenth century, as is the scholarly consensus today. Ratto’s aim in doing so is to narrow the gap in the source material by two hundred years; but he undermines his argument by conveniently ignoring the fact that the supposed eleventh-century references, such as those in Marianus Scotus’s Chronicle, were later interpolations in the manuscripts. Not even the journalist Peter Stanford—who in his The She-Pope (Heinemann, 1998) indulges in many other types of speculation—claims that any written references to Joan from before the thirteenth century have survived.

What is more interesting in Ratto’s book is his second strategy, by which he tries to show that, in Platina’s and Panvinio’s papal histories, dates and papal names were manipulated. Ratto rightly observes that the numbering of popes varied in the different posthumous editions of these histories: some of the editors counted Joan as Pope John VIII, while others did not assign her a number at all. This divergence, in practice, had ripple-on effects on the numbering of subsequent popes named John. According to Ratto, these variations are evidence of illicit tinkering with the sources by Panvinio and others. In reality, however, they were simply the result of the efforts of scholars to grapple with papal chronology. Up to the present day, there have been almost two dozen popes named John, beginning with John I in the sixth century and ending with John XXIII (1958–63). A number of these popes reigned in the eighth and ninth centuries, a period for which we have comparatively few contemporary sources. (The official, medieval series of lives of the popes, Liber pontificalis, broke off in 886, after which it was continued, not with proper biographies, but rather with short tables called catalogues that provided little information.) What’s more, some of the popes named John were antipopes—a fluid and contested category in papal history—contributing further to changes in the numbering. At any rate, none of the editorial interventions by Platina, Panvinio or their editors indicate that any ninth-century evidence about Joan was destroyed. Ratto’s smoking guns are imaginary.

Pope Joan is an example of the persistence of a myth, despite centuries of critical scholarship. This legend seems to provoke a particularly obstinate kind of resistance to critical argument, demonstrating how powerful the popular imagination, combined with the polemical uses of an attention-grabbing story, could be and, indeed, still is. Although the methods of inquiry that historians use today are grounded in humanist philology and rigour, some authors, like Ratto, forget, or perhaps disregard, the salutary lessons of humanist source criticism. Instead, they revive the medieval traditions of myth-making. More widely, like the legend of Joan, other forgeries in church history have also frequently been connected to historical processes involving both critical recognition and long-term denial—a theme which I hope to examine more fully elsewhere.

Dr. Stefan Bauer is Lecturer in Early Modern World History at King’s College London. He has written widely on church history, censorship, and religious polemic. His most recent book is The Invention of Papal History: Onofrio Panvinio between Renaissance and Catholic Reform (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Featured Image: Burgmair, [Pope Joan Giving Birth], ca. 1545. Courtesy of Cornell University Library.

Think Piece

From Factions to Parties: The Eighteenth-Century Debate

By Max Skjönsberg

When is party politics beneficial and when does it become so polarized and militant that it risks tearing societies asunder? This question has been central in Western politics for several years on both sides of the Atlantic. It became acute during the Trump presidency, especially during the 2020 Presidential election and its violent aftermath. This discussion emerged at the very beginning of party-based politics in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Britain, as well as the early years of the American republic.

The Whig and Tory parties emerged in the English parliament in 1679-1681 at the time of the Exclusion Crisis over the succession of the monarchy. “Whig” and “tory” were initially deployed as terms of abuse, and borrowed from earlier usages in Scotland and Ireland, but they were gradually adopted by the parties themselves. After the beginning of annual sessions of parliament in the wake of the Glorious Revolution in 1688-89, political parties became an entrenched part of political life. This quickly generated a debate about whether parties were an unavoidable part of modern parliamentary politics, and whether they were beneficial or pernicious.

In this debate, parties were blamed for encouraging a form of herd mentality in politics. George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax, likened parties to “an Inquisition, where Men are under such a Discipline in carrying on the common Cause, as leaves no Liberty of private Opinion.” More fundamental was the concern that parties exacerbated division and turned neighbors into enemies. As Joseph Addison wrote in the Spectator, “I am sometimes afraid that I discover the seeds of civil war in these our divisions.” What made things worse was that partisanship often seemed random. “There is a sort of Witchcraft in Party, and in Party Cries, strangely wild and irresistible,” wrote Thomas Gordon, co-author of Cato’s Letters. “One Name charms and composes; another Name, not better nor worse, fires and alarms.”

Most astute political commentators, however, realized that parties were not going away. They were a price worth paying for parliamentary politics and ultimately a sacrifice for political freedom. A state without parties was a state without liberty, as Montesquieu put it in his history of the Roman republic. A government without parties is an absolute government, since rulers without opposition are autocrats. Opposition, to be effective in a parliamentary system or in any system with an assembly, must be organized.

If the liberty of states depended on political parties, but certain parties could cause instability and even disintegration, this prompted another question: What made parties legitimate or illegitimate? The Whig parliamentarian Edmund Burke (1729/30-97) is traditionally considered the first defender of party. Others, however, preceded him. The French Huguenot historian Paul de Rapin (1661-1725), in his Histoire d’Angleterre (History of England), put forward the most important Whig interpretation of the English constitution in the eighteenth century. Before his History, Rapin had written a long pamphlet entitled A Dissertation on the Whigs and the Tories, published in 1717. This was a momentous text, not only for its historical insights but also in the sphere of political theory. It was the first text which offered a powerful argument in favor of political parties as distinguished from the social forces and private factions in the writings of Machiavelli.

Rapin argued that the two parties in Britain, the Whigs and Tories, represented the two pillars of the mixed and balanced constitution – parliament on the one hand, and monarchy on the other – and that both parties were necessary for the equilibrium between them. They were likewise necessary for balance in the religious sphere, which was as important as secular matters in public life at the time. The Tories favored the Church of England, the Whigs toleration for Protestant Dissenters, and the only way to achieve a sustainable equilibrium between the two extreme positions was competition and mutual checking and balancing between the parties. These parties would alternate in government and take turns to hold each other to account when out of power.

The Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume (1711-76), who read Rapin at an early age, wrote at length about party in general and in its British guise in a series of essays published as Essays, Moral and Political in different instalments starting in 1741. Hume believed that parties – or “factions,” terms he used interchangeably – based on “principles” were particularly pernicious and unaccountable. Religious principles had the potential of making people fanatical and ready to both proselytize and persecute dissidents. Because they were more transparent and less extreme, parties based on “interests,” meaning different economic interests, were more tolerable. His early essays on party, “Of Parties in General” and “Of the Parties of Great Britain” (both 1741) treated the phenomenon as inevitable since the British parliamentary system produced to Court and Country parties, or parties of government and opposition.

In later writings, Hume suggested that party politics could be necessary and possibly salutary for political societies. In “Of a Coalition of Parties” (1758), Hume opened by arguing that it may be neither possible nor desirable to abolish parties. This essay was an apologia for his own History of England (1754-61). In this earlier work, Hume had written that “while [the Court and Country parties] oft threaten the total dissolution of the government, [they] are the real causes of its permanent life and vigour.”

Even as he offered this limited, skeptical defense of party politics, Hume treated “party” and “faction” as synonymous terms. However, a distinction between the two was crucial for party to gain wider acceptance. In the first half of the eighteenth century, no one worked harder to distinguish party from faction than Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751). Since Bolingbroke was barred from taking his seat in the House of Lords after his short stint as Secretary at the Jacobite court – the rival court championing the claims of the Stuart pretender to the British Crown – in 1715-16, he picked up his pen and led the opposition to Robert Walpole’s Court Whig administration as a writer in his opposition journal, the Craftsman.

In the pages of the Craftsman, Bolingbroke justified the existence of an oppositional “Country party.” In Bolingbroke’s formulation, it would function as a constitutional party, and he argued that the government of the day (Walpole’s Whigs) had betrayed the core principles of the constitution by corrupting parliament and making the legislature dependent on the executive. In A Dissertation upon Parties (1733-4), Bolingbroke separated the political landscape into three camps: 1) enemies of the government but friends of the constitution, referring to his own Country party; 2) enemies of both, meaning the Jacobites; and 3) friends of the government but enemies of the constitution, that is, the Court Whigs. Only the first category was a legitimate party, whereas the other two were factions, according to Bolingbroke. To save the nation, he argued, the enemies of the constitution had to be opposed, and opposition must be systematic and concerted.

Burke, a Whig later in the century, was not favorable towards Bolingbroke’s Country Tory politics and even less so towards his Deistic and anti-clerical religious writings. Burke continued, however, to distinguish between party and faction in even more forceful terms than Bolingbroke, as he sought to justify his party connection, the Rockingham Whigs, in the 1760s and onwards. To defeat what he viewed as the Court cabal and the abuse of the royal prerogative in the reign of George III, Burke believed that party connection was essential to restore Britain’s mixed and balanced constitution. “When bad men combine, the good must associate,” Burke wrote in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), “else they will fall, one by one.” Politics was not about having a clean conscience but about making a difference, and party was a necessary instrument that could unite power and principle. As he famously defined party: “Party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” At the heart of this definition is a distinction between party and faction. Parties for Burke are devoted to promoting an understanding of the national interest, and they are united by principle, and not exclusively by interest, although that can be a supporting principle.

The core of Burke’s party was made up of major Whig aristocratic families such as Cavendish and Devonshire. In the Present Discontents, however, Burke stated that he was “no friend to aristocracy,” in the sense at least in which that word is usually understood, that is to say, as “austere and insolent domination.” What the Whig aristocrats possessed was property, rank, and quality which gave them a degree of independence, and this enabled them to stand up to both the Court and the populace. In this sense, Burke’s conception of party was indeed aristocratic, but it was not aristocracy for its own benefit but for the sake of the whole, and part of his defence of Britain’s mixed and balanced constitution.

The British party debate left an ambivalent legacy among early American political actors and thinkers. The most famous discussion of party and faction in the early American republic is found in James Madison’s Tenth Federalist. In this canonical essay, Madison argued that differences and “mutual animosities” could not be extinguished in free governments. He further agreed with Hume that parties of interest were generally more peaceful and governable than parties united and actuated by passion. His solution to party violence resembled Hume’s argument from “Of a Perfect Commonwealth” (1752): the effects of faction can be better controlled in larger states and federations than in city states. Thanks to the greater size and the scope of the United States, the impact of each faction would be mitigated

A less philosophical but comparably historically significant party argument surfaced in the 1790s. After Madison and Alexander Hamilton had co-operated as Publius in the Federalist Papers, they became rivals as the early American republic split into two political parties: Republicans and Federalists. Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation in 1793 led to a sharp disagreement between the two on the question of executive power in the constitutional order. In short, Madison associated with his old friend and fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, the  Secretary of State, to oppose Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s centralizing ambitions. In this political environment, a party argument emerged which had more in common with Bolingbroke, and to an extent Burke,  than it did with Hume. This was the idea of partisan opposition. The ideal for Jefferson and other opponents of the Federalists was national unity. However, because of what they perceived as the corruption of Federalists such as Hamilton, an opposition party in the shape of the Republican Party was necessary to defeat the enemies within. Jefferson believed that the Hamiltonians and the Federalists were monarchists, and he viewed the 1790s as an ideological battle between liberty and tyranny. In this struggle, partisanship became a necessary evil.

Many eighteenth-century thinkers contended that constitutional party politics were sometimes necessary to save liberty from authoritarianism and corruption. Indeed, party politics itself was a sign of liberty, since it enabled isolated individuals to participate, and thus gave life and vigor to politics. Such politics could generate “harmonious discord” and be as close an approximation of the common good as the imperfections and diversity of human society permit. But for this to materialize, the political debate must retain a degree of civility. Admittedly, most eighteenth-century partisans fell as short as we moderns in this regard. This is the reason why Hume sought to persuade partisans “not to contend, as if they were fighting pro aris & focis,” literally for altars and hearths, or for God and country.

For Hume, it was also crucial that parties were “constitutional.” According to him, “[t]he only dangerous parties are such as entertain opposite views with regard to the essentials of government,” be it the succession to the throne as in the case of the Jacobites, or “the more considerable privileges belonging to the several members of the constitution,” as with the great parties of the seventeenth century. On such questions there should be no compromise or accommodation since that type of party strife could turn into armed conflict. Eighteenth-century politics retained a civil-war edge on both sides of the Atlantic. Recent events, and indeed the nature of party politics itself, have shown that this is a history and a debate we forget at our peril.

Dr. Max Skjönsberg FRHistS (University of Liverpool) is the author of The Persistence of Party: Ideas of Harmonious Discord in Eighteenth-Century Britain(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Featured Image: William Hogarth, Triumph of the Deputies from Humors of an Election, 1755. Sir John Soane Museum, London. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.