John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton 1st Baron Acton

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John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton (1834-1902), was a major English scientific historian and Catholic philosopher. His work is distinguished by the application of rigorous standards of accuracy and ethical principles to history.

John Acton was born on Jan. 10, 1834, in Naples. He was educated in England at Oscott College and in 1848 went to Munich, then a center for the general revival of Catholic scholarship. Ignaz von Döllinger, a member of the Munich group and follower of Leopold von Ranke, introduced Acton to Ranke's new scientific history and to recent developments in Catholic scholarship.

When Acton returned to England in 1859, he succeeded John Henry Newman as editor of the Catholic monthly Rambler (after 1862 the Home and Foreign Review). Acton advocated the application of scientific historical methods to Christianity, believing it possible to reconcile Christianity with the findings of history and thus to strengthen the Roman Catholic Church. Acton's Review was publicly censored in 1862 by Cardinal Wiseman. In 1864, after Pius IX rejected Döllinger's appeal for a less hostile attitude toward historical criticism of Christianity, Acton abandoned his editorship of the Review. During the controversy in 1870 over papal infallibility, Acton attacked papal temporal power and continued to criticize the misuse of history. He further provoked English Roman Catholic circles in 1874 with his letters to the Times, citing historical examples of papal inconsistency.

Acton's historical writings consist largely of lectures. However, his importance resulted less from his published works than from his personal influence, his insistence on scientific methods, and his prescient concern with political morality. His essay "Democracy in Europe" (1878) and two lectures delivered at Bridgnorth in 1877 (published in 1907)—"The History of Freedom in Antiquity" and "The History of Freedom in Christianity"—are the only completed portions of his projected History of Liberty. Influenced by Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, Acton saw liberty threatened by democracy and socialism as well as by the evils of highly concentrated state power. Conscience, the fount of freedom, had higher claims than those of the state. He was a critic of racism and nationalism, with his liberalism rooted in Christianity.

Acton was one of the founders of the English Historical Review and wrote an essay on modern German historians for the first volume (1885). He was appointed professor of modern history at Cambridge University in 1895. His inaugural lecture, "The Study of History, " and his courses, "Lectures on the French Revolution" and "Lectures on Modern History," made a great impression on scientific historiography at the time. Acton was to be the editor of the great multivolume Cambridge Modern History, but only the first volume appeared before his death in 1902.

Further Reading

The best book on Acton is Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952). Other works are David Mathew, Acton: The Formative Years (1946), and Lionel Kochan, Acton on History (1954).

Additional Sources

Chadwick, Owen, Acton and Gladstone, London: Athlone Press, 1976.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude, Lord Acton: a study in conscience and politics, San Francisco, CA: ICS Press, 1993.

Mathew, David, Acton, the formative years, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974.

Schuettinger, Robert Lindsay, Lord Acton: historian of liberty, LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1976.

Tulloch, Hugh, Acton, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988. □

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Acton, Sir John, 1st Baron Acton (1834–1902). Historian and liberal Roman catholic. From an old Shropshire family on his father's side, Acton had a German mother and was brought up as a Roman catholic mainly on the continent, and especially in Germany. He first came to public attention writing articles for liberal catholic periodicals, many of them reprinted in The History of Freedom and Lectures and Essays in Modern History. He reported the 1870–1 Vatican Council from a liberal catholic perspective, opposing papal infallibility. Acton was an MP 1858–65 (for Carlow) and was created a peer by Gladstone in 1869. He was a lord-in-waiting at court, 1892–5. To this point, Acton had a great reputation as a cosmopolitan historical polymath, whose great work on the history of liberty awaited publication. In 1895 he became regius professor at Cambridge, and delivered a famous inaugural lecture (11 June 1895). He edited, but did not contribute to, the Cambridge Modern History, which set the pattern for a century for the Cambridge approach to multi-authored textbooks. Acton never finished any of his own grand projects (his note-boxes in Cambridge University Library reflect a mind almost mad with compilation) but his published output was far larger than is often allowed. Central to Acton's interest in history was the role of freedom and the capacity of the individual, if correctly imbued with moral and political righteousness, to promote freedom and progress in church and state. Gladstone, for Acton, most nearly epitomized this capacity. Though not an easy author to read, Acton was a sharp epigrammist; his most famous epigram—‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’—was written in a letter to Mandell Creighton on 3 April 1887.

H. C. G. Matthew

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John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton Acton, 1st Baron, 1834–1902, English historian, b. Naples; grandson of Sir John Francis Edward Acton and of Emmerich Joseph, duc de Dalberg. Denied entrance into Cambridge because of his Roman Catholicism, he traveled to Munich, where he studied with Fr. Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger. Acton became (1859) a Liberal member of Parliament and editor of the Rambler, a Roman Catholic monthly. William E. Gladstone, his close friend, nominated him to the peerage (1869), and in 1892, Acton was made lord-in-waiting. Acton's genuine and ardent liberalism gave frequent offense to Roman Catholic authorities. His hatred of arbitrary power and all forms of absolutism led him to oppose the syllabus of errors issued by Pius IX and the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility, but he accepted them after their pronouncement rather than risk excommunication.

In 1895 Acton was appointed professor of modern history at Cambridge and in the following years planned the Cambridge Modern History, of which only the first volume appeared before his death. Acton never completed a book. Rather, his influence was felt through his lectures, his writings for periodicals, and his personal contacts with the leading historians of his time. Many articles, essays, and lectures were brought together after his death in Lectures on Modern History (1906), History of Freedom (1907), and Historical Essays and Studies (1907). Some of these were reprinted in Essays on Freedom and Power (1948) and Essays on Church and State (1952). His impressive personal library, consisting of more than 59,000 volumes, was bought by Andrew Carnegie after his death and donated to Cambridge.

See his correspondence with Richard Simpson, ed. by J. L. Altholz (2 vol., 1970–73); biographies by H. Tulloch (1989) and R. Hill (2000).