Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg
ACTON, JOHN EMERICH EDWARD DALBERG
Historian; b. Naples, Italy, Jan. 10, 1834; d. Tegernsee, Bavaria, June 19, 1902. The later eighth baronet and first baron, Acton was the only child of Sir Richard Acton and Marie Louise Pellini de Dalberg. At the age of three, upon the death of his father, he succeeded to a baronetcy in England. With his mother as his guardian, he was brought to his estate at Aldenham. After spending a year at St. Nicholas, a preparatory school near Paris (1842), he enrolled for four years at St. Mary's College, Oscott, whose president was Nicholas (later Cardinal) wiseman. Acton continued his studies at Edinburgh under a private tutor, Dr. Logan, a former vice president of Oscott. Unable to gain admission to Cambridge University, Acton went to Munich in 1850 to become the pupil and traveling companion of Johannes Ignaz von dÖllinger. He traveled widely throughout Europe and visited the U.S. in 1855. His German training developed in him a profound love for historical learning and critical scholarship. His cosmopolitan background and knowledge of languages assisted him greatly in his historical pursuits.
Acton returned to England in 1859 with the intention of introducing the isolated English Catholic community to progressive Catholic thought. He believed that England, better than any other Western country, had preserved a true Catholic spirit in its political institutions and that Catholics had a special duty to maintain the Christian character of the English constitution. He sat as a Whig member of Parliament for Carlow, an Irish constituency (1859–65). During this period he formed a close friendship with William gladstone and became his lifelong political supporter and confidant. With his interests and talents, Acton found the world of practical politics thoroughly uncongenial, and he took little part in parliamentary affairs. In 1858 he purchased part ownership of a liberal Catholic journal, the Rambler (called in 1862 The Home and Foreign Review ). Until 1864 he devoted most of his energies to writing articles and reviews for this enterprise. This was his most prolific period as a writer and saw the production of some of his best works.
Encouraged by newman and ably assisted by Richard simpson, Acton followed a progressive line that gave offense to the ultraconservatives who represented the dominant group in the Church. Because of his insistence, often in provocative, arrogant fashion, that the Catholic scholar should be free to discuss without restriction all religious questions that were not defined doctrines, and his coolness toward the papal temporal power, the English hierarchy and Rome viewed him with suspicion. By 1864, when Pius IX issued the syllabus of errors, Acton was convinced that the Holy See favored a restrictive policy that ran counter to his own deepest convictions. In a spirit of frustration he withdrew from Catholic journalism. He continued to contribute to the Chronicle (1867–68) and the North British Review (1867–71), but his most productive period was at an end. On Gladstone's recommendation he was raised to the peerage in 1869.
During vatican council i, Acton was one of the most vociferous opponents of a solemn definition of papal primacy and infallibility. Despite his close association with Döllinger, he refused to identify himself with the German scholars who repudiated the conciliar definitions
of the papal prerogatives and who were, as a result, excommunicated (see old catholics). Although fanatically opposed to the growing ultramontanism, he taught his son in 1890: "A Church without a pope is not the Church of Christ." He remained a devout Catholic in his private life, but after 1875 he grew more isolated from his coreligionists.
Contemporary ideas of progress and human perfectibility exercised a powerful influence on his thoughts. Acton came to view the course of history as one of progress toward freedom. With a fervor that at times approached hysteria he denounced all forces, past or present, that restricted liberty. He subjected the popes to special condemnation, and he was no less severe on saints who had countenanced the inquisition. He collected voluminous notes for a major work on the history of liberty that was never completed. He was one of the founders of the English Historical Review (1886). On the nomination of Lord Rosebery, Acton was appointed (1895) regius professor of modern history at Cambridge. As his final project Acton drew up the plans and acted as editor for the Cambridge Modern History, but this 14-volume monument of cooperative scholarship appeared (1902–12) only after his death.
Apart from periodical articles, Acton published little during his lifetime. Since his death, however, most of his major essays and lectures have appeared in book form. His writings reflect immense learning and moral earnestness, but they are marred occasionally by a Whig bias that led him to be unfair in his historical judgments. His influence on Catholic thought during his lifetime was minimal, but he has since been recognized as the most farsighted Catholic historical thinker of his generation.
Bibliography: Works. Lectures on Modern History, ed. j. n. figgis and r. v. laurence (London 1906; repr. 1930); Historical Essays and Studies, ed. j. n. figgis and r. v. laurence (London 1907); Essays on Freedom and Power, ed. g. himmelfarb (Boston 1948); Essays on Church and State, ed. d. woodruff (New York 1953); Letters to Mary Gladstone, ed. h. paul (New York 1904); Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton, ed. j. n. figgis and r. v. laurence (London 1917); Lord Acton and His Circle, ed. f. a. gasquet (New York 1906). a. watkin and h. butterfield, "Gasquet and the Acton-Simpson Correspondence," Cambridge Historical Journal 10 (1950–) 77–105, points out defects in Gasquet's editing. v. conzemius, ed., Ignaz von Döllinger: Briefwechsel 1820–90 (Munich 1963–), to be completed in 5 v., contains D's correspondence with Acton. Literature. u. noack, Katholizität und Geistesfreiheit nach den Schriften von J. Dalberg-Acton, 1834–1902 (Frankfurt 1936). f. engel-janosi, "Reflections of Lord Acton on Historical Principles," American Catholic Historical Review 27 (1941) 166–85. f. e. lally, As Lord Acton Says (Newport, R.I. 1942). d. mathew, Acton: The Formative Years (London 1946). h. butterfield, Lord Acton (London 1948), pamphlet; "Acton: His Training, Methods, and Intellectual System," in Studies in Diplomatic History and Historiography in Honour of G. P. Gooch, ed. a. o. sarkissian (London 1961) 169–98. g. himmelfarb, Lord Acton (Chicago 1952). h. a. macdougall, The Acton-Newman Relations (New York 1962). g. e. fasnacht, Acton's Political Philosophy (London 1952). l. kochan, Acton on History (London 1954). j. l. altholz, The Liberal Catholic Movement in England (London 1962).
[h. a. macdougall]