Acton, Lord (1834-1902)
John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, First Baron Acton of Aldenham, was born in Naples, Italy, on January 10, 1834. Harold Laski, the eminent British socialist, wrote of Acton that, together with Alexis de Tocqueville, “a case of unanswerable power could, I think, be made out for the view that [they] were the essential liberals of the nineteenth century.” His father, Sir Richard Acton, was descended from an established English line, and his mother, Countess Marie Louise de Dalberg, came from a Rhenish family that was considered to be second in status only to the imperial family of Germany. Three years after his father’s death in 1837, his mother remarried Lord George Leveson (later known as Earl Granville, William Gladstone’s foreign secretary) and moved the family to Britain. With his cosmopolitan background and upbringing, Acton was equally at home in England or on the Continent, and he grew up speaking English, German, French, and Italian.
Barred from attending Cambridge University because of his Catholicism, Acton studied at the University of Munich under the famous church historian, Ignaz von Döllinger. As the formidable influence of his life, Döllinger inspired Acton to pursue the study of history—and, in particular, the history of liberty. As a historian living in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, Acton came to believe that history had to be judged on how human freedom was safeguarded by institutions of authority, such as the church and the state. Acton has been known as the “Magistrate of History” precisely because of how he judged historical events and underscored the relationship between religion and liberty.
Acton saw the history of liberty as the unfolding resolution of the tension that exists between moral conscience and corruption. Liberty, he professed, is the only appropriate context for religious virtue, but without religious values as an ultimate orientation and guide, liberty would inevitably disintegrate into license. Acton claimed that “liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” His penetrating insights into the nature of liberty situated him comfortably within the classical liberal tradition.
Convinced that an authentic history of liberty could only be known through exposure to primary sources, Acton spent a good portion of his life combing through historical archives. Consequently, his search for historical truth disposed him to extensive travel. He prescribed a scientific approach to historical research that sought to establish true objectivity in the field. By reading the actual letters, persona papers, and correspondence of history’s many personalities, Acton believed that the truth of history would transcend the biases and coverups so characteristic of historical writing up to his own day. Because he sought to master the field of history prior to publishing, he was never able to finish his life’s work, The History of Liberty.
Acton’s Catholic faith nurtured within him a great love for the Church, but a love that refused to turn a blind eye to the many human weaknesses and follies that littered Church history. His often-critical appraisal of Church history more than once placed him in tension with ecclesiastical authorities. One such occasion was during the First Vatican Council, when he and others spoke out publicly against the formal definition of papal infallibility. Cardinal Manning, a staunch infallibilist at the Council, had Döllinger, his teacher, excommunicated. However, due to the testimony of his local bishop concerning his orthodoxy, Acton remained for the rest of his life in communion with the Church.
Acton identified himself in a long line of Christian liberals, including Cordara, Montalembert, and Tocqueville. Acton, although being a firm believer in limited government and freedom from unnecessary external restraint—in essence, a negative liberty—also shared the Christian view of a positive liberty, which he summed up with one of his more famous quotes, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” This view of freedom was not only compatible with a support for limited government, but in a sense required limited government for the sake of religious and moral liberty.
The 1870s and 1880s saw the continued development of Lord Acton’s thoughts on the relationship among history, religion, and liberty. Acton spoke of his work as a “theodicy,” a defense of God’s goodness and providential care of the world. In 1895, Lord Acton was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. While serving in this position, he deepened his view that the historian’s search for truth entails the obligation to make moral judgments on history, even when those judgments challenge the historian’s own deeply held opinions.
When he died in 1902, Lord Acton was considered one of the most learned people of his age, unmatched for the breadth, depth, and humanity of his knowledge. He has become famous to succeeding generations for his observation— learned through many years of study and first-hand experience—that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Acton, John E. E. D. The History of Freedom. Grand Rapids, MI: The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 1993.
Chadwick, Owen. Professor Lord Acton: The Regius Chair of Modern History at Cambridge, 1895–1902. Grand Rapids, MI: The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 1995.
Hill, Roland. Lord Acton. New Haven, CT, & London: Yale University Press, 2000.
Originally published .