Acton, John

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ACTON, JOHN (1834–1902), British historian.

Lord Acton (John Edward Emmerich Dalberg Acton), a Catholic, a Liberal, and a historian, was the heir of English and European nobility prominent in national and continental politics and diplomacy. Educated in France, England, and Germany and fluent in three languages, he belonged to the intellectual, political, and Catholic establishments of the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition to his wide-ranging scholarship, the greatest personal influences upon him were contemporary German thinkers. Acton went to Munich as a boy of sixteen to study with Johann Josef Ignaz von Döllinger (1799–1890), the priest-scholar who became his closest friend and intellectual father until Acton repudiated him over a theological dispute. In 1865 Acton married a cousin, Marie Arco, who had little in common with him intellectually or emotionally. They had four surviving children. Acton loved the Arco family and especially Marie's mother, the Italian Countess von Arco-Valley, whom he often referred to as his "dear mamma" but for whom he may have had stronger feelings.

Assiduously collecting what was probably the largest library of his day, Acton wanted to spend his life studying human nature and history through books. Instead, he passionately fought three public battles. First, he wanted his church to respect historical truth and objective inquiry as part of a Catholic spiritual life. To achieve that end, from 1858 to 1864, he edited the Catholic periodical, The Rambler, which later became The Home and Foreign Review, and he attempted to influence Catholic policies through extensive personal contacts—his uncle was a cardinal—within and around the papacy. In 1859, to please his English family, he reluctantly entered Parliament as a Liberal Party representative for the Irish constituency of Carlow, but made little impression in the House of Commons during his seven years there. Second, through his friendship with William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898), the Liberal prime minister of Great Britain from 1868 to 1874, 1880–1885, 1886, and 1892–1894, he attempted to shape Liberal politics as an armchair advisor. Then, finally, for the happiest last seven years of his life, as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, he tried to repudiate the narrow nationalism and positivism that characterized the writing and teaching of history in England. All three efforts failed.

Although Acton opposed the Syllabus of Errors in 1863 and the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870, he submitted to the church's authority. Unhappily, he recognized that his political influence was circumscribed by his status as an outsider who was more European than English. Unlike his English colleagues, Acton insisted upon the role of moral judgment in history and believed dogmatically that history revealed moral ideas that transcended national boundaries to inform individual conscience, religion, and developments toward liberty. Acton could not persuade historians to accept his beliefs or to challenge the prevailing understanding of the past. He is remembered most for the dictum: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely," written in an 1887 letter to the Anglican Bishop Mandell Creighton (1843–1901).

Acton was recognized by his peers as a man of immense learning, even brilliance. His greatest ambition was to achieve a Kulturgeschichte, a unified history of human thought and morality, which recognized human evil and studied every aspect of experience, including science and religion. While he did undertake the editorship of the Cambridge Modern History in 1896, to realize his lifelong dream of demonstrating the broad role of ideas in the unity of history, he wrote nothing for it and died before the appearance of the first volume in 1902. All twelve volumes would have disappointed him by the narrowness of their approach.

Aside from some book reviews, the only historical work ever published in his lifetime was his inaugural address as Regius Professor of Modern History in Cambridge in 1895. In the early twenty-first century all that remains of his great projects are a diffuse collection of copious notes on slips of paper in the Cambridge University Library. No one has been able to explain satisfactorily why he never transformed those fragmentary scraps of thought into coherent and sustained written work. Those who knew him and subsequent commentators have suggested that, as a perfectionist, he never felt that he knew enough. Others have argued that he lacked the intellectual discipline to impose order upon his omnivorous reading. After his death, his students John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, although they were not his disciples, collected and published his Cambridge lectures. The only consistent evidence of the quality of Acton's mind appears in his letters to Mary Gladstone, the prime minister's daughter, and in other collections of letters, essays, and correspondence, all published posthumously. It is not clear whether the burden of his erudition left him unwilling, unable, or simply undone.

See alsoBurckhardt, Jacob; Catholicism; Gladstone, William; Ranke, Leopold von.


Primary Sources

Acton, John. Lectures on Modern History. Edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence. London, 1906.

——. Historical Essays and Studies. Edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence. London, 1907.

——. The History of Freedom and Other Essays. Edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence. London, 1907.

——. Lectures on the French Revolution. Edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence. London, 1910.

——. Letters of Lord Acton to Mary, Daughter of the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone. Edited by Herbert Paul. 2nd rev. ed. London, 1913.

——. Essays on Freedom and Power. Edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Boston, 1948.

——. Essays on Church and State. Edited by Douglas Woodruff. London, 1952.

——. Essays in the Liberal Interpretation of History. Edited by William H. McNeill. Chicago, 1967.

——. The Correspondence of Lord Acton and Richard Simpson. Edited by Josef L. Altholz, Damian McElrath, and James C. Holland. 3 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 1971–1975.

Secondary Sources

Chadwick, Owen. Acton and History. Cambridge, U.K., 1998. A perceptive series of essays reflecting a lifetime's grappling with Acton and his ideas.

Hill, Rowland. Lord Acton. New Haven, Conn., 2000. The most comprehensive and best study of Acton's life and times.

Reba N. Soffer