Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




H. W. McCready


Richard A. Rempel


In recent years, detailed studies have been made of a number of major figures in Victorian historiography, such as Thomas Arnold, James Anthony Froude, John Richard Green, and others. Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-1892), British historian and controversialist, was regarded during his lifetime as one of Britain's most skilled and formidable historical authorities, yet he has not had his work examined thoroughly and justly by contemporary historians. Freeman's contributions to historical writing and thinking, while admittedly limited, were influential and valuable, yet they have been largely ignored in this century or presented in exaggerated caricature.

This thesis deals with several aspects of the life and work of E. A. Freeman. It does not pretend to be a definite biographical examination of Freeman's rich and active career. Rather, it is directed toward his historical thought and the influences on the formation and development of that thought. The work is divided into ten chapters, opened by a short review of biographical and bibliographical details of Freeman's career.

Three chapters which follow examine Freeman's historical methodology; how he thought history should be written and how he actually went about executing his own historical design. One chapter reveals Freeman as a crusader for broadening the number of approaches to historical material, including the employment of information and techniques developed in auxiliary sciences such as geography, philology, and numismatics. A second re-evaluates Freeman's devotion to and skill at source criticism, adopting a position somewhat less adulatory that that of his contemporaries and less unsympathetic than most critics of this century. Finally, attention is given to Freeman's own halting attempts to make use of comparative method in his history and to his influence in promoting comparison to younger scholars.

A second section is devoted to analysis of the major features of Freeman's philosophy of history. While Freeman himself often boasted that he had no historical philosophy, his work reveals a relatively coherent body of thinking about history which is here explored. Freeman is shown in the three chapters of this section to believe strongly in the scientific character of historical study, but this apparent streak of positivism was mitigated by his belief that history was capable of achieving only a limited degree of certainty. History, however, was ultimately only slightly more uncertain than the vaunted physical sciences, themselves far from unerringly certain. Freeman also made a significant contribution to the continuing debate over the place of moral judgments in historical writing. It is clear that while he, with many other historians of his day, made moral and character judgments an important part of his narrative, those judgments were almost always tempered by a profound historical sense and thoughtful personal empathy. Finally, the examination of Freeman's historical philosophy undertakes to clarify this historian's very poorly understood vision of the unity of history. Both the grandeur and limitations of this "magnificent, but appalling doctrine" are explored; and attention is given to the way in which this theory influenced Freeman's own writing and the ways in which it came to influence the work of later historians.

The study takes up the question of Freeman's place in a trans-Atlantic school of "Teutonists." In this examination of Freeman's conception of and work in national history, it becomes clear, for example, that he held dearly a number of suspect theories regarding the origins and character of the English people, especially before 1066. Yet this analysis of Freeman's serious historical work on the subject indicates that he was neither the blind racist nor the uncritical nationalist that he is often portrayed as being. Indeed, while Freeman's work was a powerful impetus to the study of national history and the search for national origins in both England and the United States, no evidence can be found to indicate that Freeman consciously or seriously distorted history in the service of his cherished vision of the early English people.

Finally, some of the key principles of Freeman's political philosophy are examined. The historian who today is most widely known for his provocative remark that "History is past politics and politics present history" did to some degree permit his political views to give direction to his history. In most contemporary studies, Freeman's complex and unusual political philosophy is only poorly understood and improperly labeled. Furthermore, it was most often the case that Freeman's politics stemmed directly from his historical study and the information and attitudes developed thereby. In fact, it is only by considering Freeman's political stances as the fruit of his historical research that one can find a real coherence in what might seem to be a superficial political faith that ranges across the spectrum from radical to reactionary.

The study attempts not only to analyze Freeman's history but to place it in the wider context of British and nineteenth-century historiography. A transitional figure, Freeman, by training and temperament a visionary, universal historian of the mold of Niebuhr and Arnold, became an advocate of a more detailed, scientific, and professional type of history-writing. The marriage of the two was not always happy in Freeman's own writing, but he strove to impart a loftier vision and more sober and scholarly methodology of history to both historians and the general public.

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