The English historian Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier (1888-1960) was a major force in introducing stronger empirical methods and social analysis into the study of 18th-century politics.
Lewis Namier was born Ludvik Bernstein near Warsaw on June 22, 1888. He studied briefly at Lausanne and the London School of Economics before entering Balliol College, Oxford. The Oxford years, from 1908 to 1912, were crucial in his development. There he acquired a British self-identity, changing his name to Namier (derived from his family's older name, Niemirowski); there he also acquired a deep and permanent interest in British history of the 18th century.
Throughout his life Namier was strongly attracted to the world of power and policy making. At the start of World War I, he enlisted in the British army but was discharged in 1915 because of poor eyesight. As a civilian, he served in the Propaganda Department (1915-1917), the Department of Information (1917-1918), and the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office (1918-1920). He attended the Versailles Peace Conference as a technical expert on eastern European affairs.
Namier started his serious work on the "imperial problem during the American Revolution" while a postgraduate student at Oxford in 1912 and continued these researches while in business in New York in 1913-1914. In 1920 he returned to academic life at Balliol College. Finding that this did not allow him sufficient time for research, he resigned to go into business during 1921-1923, hoping to save enough to support his serious studies. Without any regular income, living on grants, loans, and savings, he devoted the years 1924 through 1929 entirely to research and writing. From these fruitful years came his two great works on 18th-century politics.
During the 1920s Namier became active in the Zionist movement and in 1929 accepted the position of political secretary of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Finding that he lacked the personal political skills necessary for such a delicate job, he resigned after 2 years. From 1931 until his retirement in 1953, Namier was professor of modern history at Manchester University. He was knighted in 1952 and received many academic honors during the 1950s. Sir Lewis died in London Aug. 19, 1960.
Historical Work: 18th Century
Namier's scholarly reputation is based primarily on his two related works on 18th-century politics. In The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929), he attempted a static analysis of political society and the political process as it existed from 1754 until 1762, during the ascendancy of the Duke of Newcastle. In this great work he broke forever the remnants of the "Whig myth," deriving ultimately from Horace Walpole and Edmund Burke, which saw the politics of the first 2 decades of the reign of George III as adhering to the two-party model of the 19th century. He showed parliamentary politics to be based not upon coherent parties but, rather, on a congeries of familial-personal factions and interests, with a significant element supporting the government of the day regardless of its composition and another congenitally but unstably "independent." In most constituencies, family favor and personal dependency best explained voting patterns.
In England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930), Namier moved from static analysis to narrative history, in which he was less masterful. He intended to follow volume 1, which covered only 1760-1762, with other volumes but was deflected by teaching, other scholarly interests and international events.
In his work on 18th-century parliaments, Namier collected data on hundreds of members of Parliament. He realized that the work of all scholars doing such work would be immensely aided by the compilation of a biographical dictionary of all members of the House of Commons, with collective analysis where possible. As early as 1928 he helped publicize the project for such a history of Parliament, and after World War II, when the reorganized project obtained government support, Namier joined the new editorial board and devoted the years after his retirement in 1953 to editing the volumes on the period 1754-1790. His History of Parliament (3 vols., 1964) is a tool of inestimable value for students of pre-Victorian politics.
Historical Work: 19th and 20th Centuries
Namier was deeply interested in European history, particularly central and east-central Europe, in the years since 1815. Starting with a propaganda piece, Germany and Eastern Europe (1915), he published a number of short interpretive essays (many republished in Vanished Supremacies, 1962) rich in insight and fresh interpretation. On a somewhat larger scale was his 1848: Revolution of the Intellectuals (1946), which measured the formal liberal ideology of the central European revolutionaries against their class and national prejudices.
After 1940 Namier became involved in the problem of the diplomatic origins of World War II. Using government publications, early memoirs, and interviews with exiled officials in London, he published a series of articles, starting in 1943, on the diplomatic origins of the war. These were republished in 1948 as Diplomatic Prelude 1938-1939. He continued to publish articles and review essays in this area, subsequently republished in Europe in Decay (1950) and In the Nazi Era (1952). These were important for the rigorous scrutiny he gave to the dubious evidence and arguments advanced by some self-or national apologists.
Though he did not produce a major work on the 19th century, Namier had considerable influence on A. J. P. Taylor and others working since 1945 on central European history. His work on the diplomatic origins of World War II has stood up well and is still the starting point for all students in the field. The influence of his 18th-century studies is likely to last, for it has given us a whole new way of approaching the historical study of political behavior.
Further Reading on Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier
For Namier's life see Julia Namier, Lewis Namier: A Biography (1971). His work is discussed by Catherine Sims in Herman Ausubel and others, eds., Some Modern Historians of Britain (1951), and Herbert Butterfield, George III and the Historians (1957; rev. ed. 1959).
Additional Biography Sources
Colley, Linda, Lewis Namier, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Rose, Norman, Lewis Namier and Zionism, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.