The Growth Of British Policy Quotes

"History Is Past Politics, And Politics Present History"

Context: A brilliant product of the classical tripos at Cambridge University in 1857, John R. Seeley soon abandoned the classics for his greater interests in religion and history. His most widely read and remarkable work was Ecce Homo (1865), which dealt with the humanity of Christ, appeared anonymously, and provoked stormy replies. Seeley was Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, 1869-1895. From the beginning his lectures stressed the subordination of history to politics. Reflecting the critical scholarship of the "scientific" historians of the late nineteenth century, Seeley disparaged the essentially literary works of Macaulay and Carlyle. The importance of history was its utility as a school for statesmen. Thus, for Seeley historical narrative was of little value without generalizations, and generalizations were primarily important for their application to current political problems. He adopted in his lectures, though he did not formulate, the view that "history is past politics, and politics present' history." Yet the political history which concerned Seeley most was not the domestic and constitutional themes of most previous British historians but the history of states acting and reacting on an international scale. Seeley's The Expansion of England (1883) dealt with the colonial and commercial aspects of Britain's struggle with France, 1688–1815. What was to have been a parallel study of Britain's foreign policy became instead a major survey of the foundations of the British empire from the reign of Elizabeth I to that of William III. The Growth of British Policy was published in 1895, the year of his death. Both works reflected and contributed to the enthusiasm for empire which characterized the British mood at the end of the nineteenth century. Seeley, however, apparently did not coin the phrase which is associated with his name, for in the Memoir prefixed to his book G. W. Prothero says:

. . . In his lecture [his Innaugural Lecture at Cambridge] he laid down the lines which he constantly followed throughout the whole tenure of his professorship. Though he did not coin the phrase "History is past politics, and politics present history," it is perhaps more strictly applicable to his own view of history than to that of its author. . . .