Acton, J.E.E.D.

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Acton, J.E.E.D.



Born in Naples in 1834, John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, historian, was a cosmopolitan by inheritance, education, and temperament. From early childhood he spoke several languages fluently and traveled extensively. His paternal ancestors had been English baronets for centuries, and the Dalbergs on the maternal side belonged to the aristocracy of the Holy Roman Empire. Acton also had close ties to the Whig aristocracy of nineteenth-century England, through his mother’s second marriage to Lord Leveson, later the earl of Granville, foreign minister under Russell and Gladstone.

The Dalbergs had always been Roman Catholic, and the Actons had been converted to Catholicism in the eighteenth century. John Acton’s education was supervised by some of the most prominent Catholics of the time: Monsignor Félix Dupanloup in Paris, Bishop Nicholas Wiseman at Oscott College in England, and Professor Johann Döllinger at the University of Munich. Dupanloup and Döllinger were liberal Catholics, in contrast to Wiseman, who was known as an ultramontanist—a supporter of the papal authority in church affairs and of the authority of the church in secular affairs. It was Döllinger who exerted the strongest influence on Acton, inspiring him with a deep passion not only for religious liberalism but also for historical scholarship.

Conflict with the church. When Acton became editor of the Rambler, an English liberal Catholic periodical, in 1859, he sought to put into effect Döllinger’s principles. Almost every issue found occasion to point out these morals: that faith and knowledge, religion and science, have to be pursued independently and fearlessly; that the church and the state have to respect each other’s province and interest. The journal (later known as the Home and Foreign Review) was under constant attack from the ultramontane English hierarchy, and in 1864 Acton suspended publication, announcing that he wished neither to change his views nor to flout the church.

This conflict with the Roman Catholic church in England was the prelude to a more serious conflict with Rome. Döllinger and Acton were publicly opposed to the proclamation of papal infallibility, which was the avowed purpose of the ecumenical council convoked by Pope Pius IX in 1869. Although a layman, Acton was the virtual leader of the “minority,” as the anti-infallibilists in the Vatican Council were called. Even after the passage of the decrees of infallibility in 1870, he continued to denounce them, intimating that they were not legitimate and therefore not binding on members of the church. When challenged by Archbishop Manning, however, Acton avoided a direct denial of orthodoxy and was thus spared excommunication.

Conception of liberty. After the crisis in his relations with the church—perhaps provoked by this crisis—Acton turned his attention to his projected chef-d’oeuvre, the “History of Liberty.” Two essays, “History of Freedom in Antiquity” and “History of Freedom in Christianity,” were delivered as lectures in 1877. Other essays, book reviews, hundreds of boxes of notes, and a vast library of annotated volumes and rare manuscripts testify to the devotion and scholarship that he brought to the subject. Yet, as early as 1880 he began to suspect that the “History of Liberty” would become another “Madonna of the Future”—the story, by Henry James, of an artist who dedicated his life to a single, divinely inspired picture, which after his death was revealed to be a blank canvas.

If the “History of Liberty” was indeed the “greatest book that never was written,” as has been suggested, the reasons for its nonbeing lie deep in Acton’s sense of both history and liberty. For Acton, all history, at least all significant history, was part of the history of liberty. And not only history in its conventional sense—diplomatic, political, military, institutional, and social history—but intellectual, cultural, religious, and even scientific history. There was little that was irrelevant. There was also little that was not vastly more complicated than was supposed, so that an infinite expenditure of scholarship was required to elicit the truth about every detail. Acton’s remarks about Döllinger might be taken to apply to himself: “He knew too much to write” ([1858–1895] 1907, p. 434); “he would not write with imperfect materials, and to him the materials were always imperfect” ([1858–1895] 1907, p. 432). The editor of the English Historical Review described Acton as probably the most erudite Englishman of his generation; but no amount of erudition, no single lifetime, was sufficient for the task he had set himself.

Acton’s conception of liberty was equally frustrating, for it embraced two contradictory ideas. The first, which particularly dominated his early years, was liberty in the Burkean sense—as a product of history and tradition, of compromise and expediency, of checks, balances, and countervailing forces. It was this view of liberty that made Macaulay appear to be a “violent liberal,” respecting no principle but the will of the people and willing to subordinate the whole of the past to the interests of the present. And it was the same view that made the Northern abolitionists, during the American Civil War, seem to be acting “without consideration of policy or expediency,” and thus reflecting an “abstract, ideal absolutism” ([1861–1910] 1948, p. 246).

Later, the very terms in which he had once denounced this “violent” species of liberalism became the terms in which he was to defend it. Abstract, absolute liberty pursued without consideration of policy, expediency, or history became his ideal. His experiences during and after the Vatican Council were largely responsible for this shift. He had discovered that even those who had joined him in opposing the dogma of infallibility—even Döllinger, who permitted himself to be excommunicated rather than submit to it—did not share his conviction of its absolute sinfulness. They did not take their stand on the clear and absolute precepts of morality; instead, he charged, they allowed the claims of extenuating circumstances, of differing customs and temperaments, of sins committed in good causes, and of errors that were not sins. And this moral laxity applied to secular as well as religious affairs. “Have you not discovered,” he wrote to Mary Gladstone, “what a narrow doctrinaire I am, under a thin disguise of levity? … Politics come nearer religion with me, a party is more like a church, error more like heresy, prejudice more like sin, than I find it to be with better men” (1904a, p. 314). Burke, he now complained (but it was probably Döllinger he really had in mind), thought that politics was an empirical subject teaching what is likely to do good or harm, not what is right and wrong, innocent or sinful. Acton himself adhered to the principle of the Stoics: “That which we must obey, that to which we are bound to reduce all civil authorities, and to sacrifice every earthly interest, is that immutable law which is perfect and eternal as God Himself” ([1861–1910] 1948, p. 52).

Politics. That Acton did not think of this principle as utopian or inappropriate to politics is apparent from his strong political ambitions. Oddly enough, it was while he was still an ardent Burkean that he had had the opportunity to realize such ambitions and had failed to take advantage of it. In 1859 his stepfather, Lord Granville, had obtained a seat for him in the House of Commons, and although Acton sat in Parliament for six years and twice afterward tried unsuccessfully to be re-elected, he had little respect for the Liberal party and apparently little interest in political affairs. He became an ardent Liberal and supporter of Gladstone only after his elevation to the peerage in 1869. But even then, instead of trying to distinguish himself in the House of Lords, Acton sought a political career in diplomacy, with the same lack of success. Several times he entertained hope for important ambassadorial appointments, but each time he was passed over. In 1892, when Gladstone became prime minister for the fourth time, Acton was indiscreet enough to confide his expectation of a cabinet position. Instead, he was offered the trivial and, as it seemed to his friends, demeaning post of lord-in-waiting to the queen. Perhaps because he did not want to embarrass Gladstone, Acton surprisingly accepted, making the best of the situation by exploring the royal libraries and cultivating what he called the “backstairs” history of the court. At the same time, he ably, if unenthusiastically, represented the Irish Office in the House of Lords.

Conception of history. A more fitting position for Acton was found by Gladstone’s successor, Lord Rosebery, who in 1895 appointed him regius professor of modern history at Cambridge. Acton’s inaugural lecture, the “Study of History,” expressed all the themes and passions that had long engaged him. The essence of history, he said, was the history of ideas, since it was ideas that ultimately moved men and determined events. And the essence of modern history was to be found in those ideas that have “subverted the notions of the world,” revolutionizing government, law, and authority, production, wealth, and power. Indeed, the very idea that men should be ruled by ideas was both uniquely modern and intrinsically revolutionary. The most important idea ushering in modern history and inaugurating the “revolution in permanence” was the doctrine of rights. “Laden with storm and havoc,” the idea of inalienable, God-given rights was the “indestructible soul of Revolution” ([1861–1910] 1948, p. 15).

Acton was aware of the irony of his role—the role of the historian as revolutionist. “What is to become of us, docile and attentive students of the absorbing past? The triumph of the revolutionist annuls the historian” ([1861–1910] 1948, p. 15). Or would annul the historian, if it were not for the existence of an absolute moral code that redeemed him. The truly objective historian, Acton held, the truly attentive student of the past, was not dispassionate and disinterested on the model of Ranke, who pretended to pass no judgments while, in fact, justifying and legitimizing everything that succeeded. In an earlier controversy with Bishop Creighton, Acton had argued that objectivity required the historian to judge the leading actors in history more, not less, severely than ordinary men: “Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men …” ([1861–1910] 1948, p. 364). In the inaugural lecture, he returned to the theme: “The weight of opinion is against me when I exhort you never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong. … Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity” ([1861–1910] 1948, pp. 25, 28).

Yet the ambiguities of Acton’s position—of the revolution that annuls history, of the historian as a “hanging judge”, and of liberty as an absolute ideal—were not entirely resolved by the invocation of moral law. In his later lectures at Cambridge (a series on modern history and another on the French Revolution), these ambiguities came to a focus in his discussion of the American and French revolutions. The American Revolution, he said, introduced a new phase of political history because it was fought not against tyranny but purely out of principle, and not in the name of historic rights and liberties but in the name of abstract rights and liberties. In a letter to a friend, he put the issue even more boldly. He wrote that the Americans had posed the ultimate problem of politics: Should a man or a nation be prepared to risk everything for a purely speculative idea sanctioned by no law or religion? “The affirmative response,” he declared, “is the Revolution, or as we say, Liberalism” (1917, p. 278).

Toward the French Revolution, however, his attitude was more ambivalent. He agreed that the French had been inspired by the same devotion to principle as the Americans, that like the Americans they were rebelling not against this or that abuse but against the whole of the “unburied past.” Yet, whereas the Americans consolidated their revolution with a pacific, conservative settlement, the French permitted their revolution to degenerate into a new tyranny, so that France was given over to “bare cupidity and vengeance, to brutal instinct and hideous passion” (1910, p. 226). The new tyranny, he maintained, was brought about by the conjunction of violence and democracy, each perilous to liberty and together fatal. Liberty could only have been secured by following the example of the American constitution, with its checks and balances, or the British system, with its respect for tradition, compromise, and expediency; both of these examples the French repudiated. At the same time, however, Acton conceded that the very logic of the French Revolution—the idea of rebelling against the whole of the unburied past—required the French to reject the American and British patterns and to embrace both violence and democracy.

This ambivalence toward revolution implied an ambivalence toward ideals and ideas. Acton’s private notes express this more candidly than his lectures:

Government by idea tends to take in everything, to make the whole of society obedient to the idea. Spaces not so governed are unconquered, beyond the border, unconverted, unconvinced, a future danger.

Government that is natural, habitual, works more easily. It remains in the hands of average men, who do not live by ideas. Therefore there is less strain by making government adapt itself to custom. An ideal government, much better, perhaps, would have to be maintained by effort, and imposed by force. (Acton as quoted in Himmelfarb 1952, p. 219)

In place of the “History of Liberty,” which was vitiated as much by internal contradiction as by difficulties of research, Acton devoted his last years to the editing of the Cambridge Modern History. By a “judicious division of labour,” he sought to accomplish part of the task that he could not accomplish alone. This collective effort, utilizing the combined resources of the most distinguished historians of the world, would, he hoped, produce a universal history in which ideas rather than nations were the governing motifs. In this project, as in the other, he was finally thwarted. After issuing an ambitious prospectus and writing countless letters to contributors, the History was only beginning to take shape when he suffered the paralytic stroke that caused his retirement and finally his death.

Acton died in 1902, leaving behind scores of essays, reviews, lectures, and notes, but not a single sustained book. Yet his fragmentary work has earned him a higher reputation than that enjoyed by far more prolific historians, and his ambiguities and dilemmas are more instructive today than the certainties of others. Toynbee is not alone in praising him as one of the greatest minds among modern Western historians.

Gertrude Himmelfarb

[For the historical context of Acton’s work, seeFreedom; Powerand the biographies ofBurkeandMacaulay.]


(1855–1871) 1953 Essays on Church and State. Edited and with an introduction by Douglas Woodruff. New York: Viking.

(1858–1895) 1907 The History of Freedom and Other Essays. London: Macmillan.

(1858–1899) 1907 Historical Essays and Studies. London: Macmillan.

(1861–1910) 1948 Essays on Freedom and Power. Selected and with an introduction by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Boston: Beacon.

1904a Letters of Lord Acton to Mary Gladstone. London: Allen.

(1904b) 1913 Letters of Lord Acton to Mary, Daughter of the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone. 2d ed. London: Macmillan.

1906a Lectures on Modern History. London: Macmillan. → A paperback edition entitled Renaissance to Revolution; the Rise of the Free State: Lectures on Modern History was published in 1961 by Schocken Books.

1906b Lord Acton and His Circle. Edited by Francis Gasquet. London: Burns & Oates.

1910 Lectures on the French Revolution. London: Macmillan.

1917 Selections From the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton. Edited with an introduction by John Neville Figgis and Reginald V. Laurence. London: Longmans. → Volume 1: Correspondence With Cardinal Newman, Lady Blennerhassett, W. E. Gladstone and Others. Only Volume 1 has been published.


Himmelfarb, Gertrude 1952 Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Kochan, Lionel 1954 Acton on History. London: Deutsch.

Mathew, David 1946 Acton: The Formative Years. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.