Brian Birdnow

Margaret Thatcher’s death on Monday, April 8th at the age of 87 brought a flood of reminiscences from many in the chattering classes who are old enough to remember her and her remarkable eleven-year tenure as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Dame Margaret’s many conservative allies recalled her friendship with Ronald Reagan and her championing of the “special relationship” between Britain and the USA. Others praised her free market reforms, which reinvigorated a moribund British economy, tamed inflation, and made London a major international financial and banking center once again. Needless to say, Dame Margaret’s critics on the left refused to remain silent. From reports of unseemly celebrations at the news of her passing to liberal media outlets ponderously lecturing on the suffering that her reforms inflicted on certain favored leftwing constituencies, the liberals showed that they never forgot an old foe, especially one who so often bested them.

Through it all admirers and critics alike noted Thatcher’s “formidable” nature, her “vigorous” style, her “iron will”, and her “steely determination”. While the late Prime Minister seems to have cornered the metallurgy market in these descriptions, what appears to be missing from these post-mortem assessments is, perhaps, Mrs. Thatcher’s greatest triumph, namely her refutation of the determinist school of historical interpretation.

In order to understand the importance of this achievement we must explore a little background information. In the 1830s Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish literary historian, postulated an idea which came to be known as the “Great Man” theory of history. Carlyle, in his historical works, argued that history turned on the decisions and actions of “heroes” and he offered a sophisticated analysis of the heroic nature of such diverse figures as Muhammad, Shakespeare, Martin Luther, Frederick the Great, and especially Napoleon as illustrative of his theory. Other prominent philosophers and historians including Hegel, Jacob Burckhardt, and Henry Adams, among others, echoed Carlyle’s general idea.

Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.