Esmond Wright: Historian and MP
Mullen, Richard, Contemporary Review
LONG-time readers of Contemporary Review will have become quite used to seeing the name of Esmond Wright frequently in these pages over many decades. His death in August at the age of 87 deprives us both of further articles and reviews and also his service as a Director of the journal.
Esmond Wright blended the career of historian and, albeit briefly, Member of Parliament. At one time this was an oft-seen combination in Britain. Our two most celebrated and eloquent historians, Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay were both MPs. The first one sat 'in the humble station of a mute' while the second was rarely quiet either in Parliament or at the dinner table. Both left behind historical works of glorious prose and enduring value. Gibbon saw that 'The eight sessions that I sat in Parliament were a school of civil prudence, the first and most essential virtue of an historian'.
In their time, of course, the word 'historian' had not been copyrighted by professors laboriously producing heavily subsidised monographs. Although Esmond Wright had a distinguished career in two of Britain's most prestigious universities, he never surrendered himself to the idea that the prime function of the historian is to produce unreadable tomes for other historians in the same narrow field. Instead he was motivated, in his life as an historian and his political work, by a desire to educate people in the broadest sense of the word. He was able to use his skills both as an entertaining lecturer and a clear writer to bring history alive for people.
'Northumbrian by birth, with Scottish parents and grandparents' is how Esmond Wright described himself in one article for Contemporary Review (April 1999). In another article, 'The Making of a Conservative' (Contemporary Review, August and September 2000), he traced the roots of his Conservative approach to his grammar school in Newcastle on Tyne, King's College, Newcastle (then part of the University of Durham) and then studying for his MA at the University of Virginia, to which he won a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship in 1938.
Study at the University of Virginia, still breathing amid its elegant colonnades the spirit of its founder Thomas Jefferson, gave the young Wright a fascination with the American Revolution. Yet his conservative outlook eventually drew him not so much to the idealistic Jefferson but to the more practical George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, on both of whom he would write distinguished books.
Esmond Wright received his Masters degree in June, 1940 and it was presented by President Franklin Roosevelt himself who presided at the ceremony. When Wright's name with the phrase 'from Newcastle on Tyne, England' was read out, the audience burst into applause to show their support for Britain's lonely struggle. Roosevelt, in one of his first public gestures on the war, lifted his own arms above his head in the classic pose of a boxer proclaiming victory. One of the attendant White House policemen was so overcome, that he ceased to guard the President and enthusiastically continued to shake the young Englishman's hand. The next day a fellow student, Franklin Roosevelt Jnr, told Wright 'I have a special message from my father: remember you got your degree from the President of the United States not from some White House policeman'.
Abandoning any thought of a doctorate, Wright returned to Britain. He refused an offer to lecture to the troops, instead volunteering for 'special duties'. After training with the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry near York, he was transferred to the Intelligence Corps and reached North Africa just in time to take part in Alamein. He recalled, it was 'sand, sand, and sand again--and still sand--in everything in food and drink and clothing'. Later he was overheard saying that he had once succeeded his father as the treasurer of a local church funeral benefit club. Because of this background in social welfare, he was assigned to the newly created Bureau of Current Affairs as the Eighth Army needed someone to lecture on the Beveridge Report. …