Lord Acton

Almost fifty years ago, introducing my biography of Lord Acton, I wrote: “He is of this age, more than of his. He is, indeed, one of our great contemporaries.” A decade and a half later, in an essay on Acton, I described him as being “totally out of sorts with his times”—but I no longer ventured to claim him for our times. Today, almost a century after his death, he seems to me to be even more out of sorts with our age than with his. His governing passions were liberty and morality, religion and history. If he found them all defective in his age, he would have been far more dismayed by what we have made of them.

Yet it is one of the many paradoxes of this extraordinary man that today he is a hero to so many people of such different persuasions and dispositions—liberals and conservatives, libertarians and traditionalists, Catholics, non-Catholics, and non-believers. An eminent Chicago-school economist, after professing the greatest admiration for Acton, once asked me, in all seriousness, how a man so brilliant, so learned, so utterly devoted to the cause of liberty, could also be a pious Catholic. One might more justly ask how a man so averse to the postmodernist spirit of our times can continue to be published, read, and quoted— and not only his celebrated aphorism about power. There are currently four substantial volumes of his essays and lectures in print and eight books (including my own) about him. The Acton Institute, under the energetic direction of Father Robert Sirico, sponsors lectures and monographs promoting his name and ideas. And now we have the first full biography of Acton, not an intellectual biography but a conventional one.

His governing passions were liberty and morality, religion and history.

There are good reasons why such a biography has been so long delayed, among them the reluctance of the family, until recently, to make available correspondence critical of the Catholic Church. But the main reason may lie with Acton himself, who passionately believed in ideas as the moving force in history and whose own life was so dramatic a testament to the power of ideas that it naturally lends itself to intellectual biography and commentary. The present work by Roland Hill1 is welcome, not only because it is meticulously and comprehensively researched—Hill is an English journalist who has written a book worthy of a professional historian—but also because it fleshes out little-known details of his personal life and relationships, his travels, financial difficulties, and the like. No less important, it inspires us to return to Acton’s own writings and to reevaluate a mind that is far more complicated and challenging than we may have thought.

The barest account of Acton’s life helps explain one of the most curious facts about him, that this eminent Victorian (his life was almost coterminous with the reign of Queen Victoria) was even more untypically Victorian than were other eminent Victorians. In a sense, Acton was not a Victorian at all, because he was not really an Englishman. By birth, education, and disposition, he was thoroughly cosmopolitan. The Actons were descended from an old English family of squires and baronets, the estate at Aldenham in Shropshire dating back to the early fourteenth century. In the eighteenth century Sir Richard, the head of the family, converted to Catholicism, and other members of the family, also converts, sought their fortunes abroad. With the death of Sir Richard, the title and estate reverted to a John Acton who was then the prime minister of Naples. John’s eldest son, Richard, married Marie, the only daughter of the Duke of Dalberg (the Dalbergs, residing in the Rhineland, held the premier dukedom in the Holy Roman Empire) and of his wife, who came of an ancient Genoan family. The Dalbergs, like the Actons, had wandered from their ancestral home, one of them becoming a nationalized French citizen during the Napoleonic Wars and a peer of France after the restoration. It was into this multinational, multilingual family that the son of Richard and Marie, John Edward Emerich Dalberg Acton, was born in Naples in 1834.

Acton’s father died when the boy was only three, and his mother’s remarriage brought the family into yet another, very different social milieu. Lord Leveson, later the second Earl Granville, met Marie Acton in Paris, when he was Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Whig government and his father was the English ambassador to France. (The Dalbergs, who were part of Talleyrand’s entourage, and the Actons, who maintained a house in the faubourg St. Honoré, spent the “season” in Paris.) If Acton proved to be an untypical Victorian (if a Victorian at all), his stepfather was the quintessential Victorian aristocrat, a member of one of the grand Whig—and, of course, Anglican—families. The marriage was not without its tensions, for Acton’s mother was a devout Catholic, as was her son, who resisted the social life and political career that his stepfather thought natural and proper.

At every point, Acton’s life reflected the complexities and anomalies of his heritage. Refused admission to three Cambridge colleges because he was Catholic, he pursued a decidedly un-English course of studies at Munich under the tutelage of the eminent Catholic theologian Johann Ignaz von Döllinger; when he went to Cambridge toward the end of his life it was as the Regius Professor of Modern History. His first position was as editor of the Rambler, a small Catholic journal; his last as editor of the monumental Cambridge Modern History. As a young man, on the urging of his step-father, he reluctantly served in parliament for one undistinguished term; later, as the friend and adviser of Prime Minister Gladstone, he entertained the hope of a cabinet post, but received instead the position of Lord-in-Waiting to the Queen, the most onerous of his duties being dining with the Queen and royal family. He was relieved of that task by his appointment (not by Gladstone but by his successor, Rosebery) to the Regius Professorship, whereupon he delivered an inaugural lecture so allusive and abstruse that reviewers complained that they could not understand it.

These are only the more superficial paradoxes and ironies of Acton’s life. Others are more serious, even tragic. A pious Catholic, for whom membership in the church was, as he said, “more than life itself” (Hill describes him as a man of “childlike faith”), he found himself passionately engaged in one of the most contentious Catholic events in modern times, the controversy over the doctrine of papal infallibility; very nearly excommunicated as a result, he was spared that fate by his influential political connections. A liberal, who was as zealously devoted to liberty as to religion, he had as little in common with the laissez-faire, utilitarian mode of liberalism prevalent in his day as with the welfare-state liberalism of our own. And a historian, who was perhaps the most learned and intellectually ambitious of his generation, he is known today as the author, so to speak, of the most famous book that was never written, “The History of Liberty,” and as the inventor of the aphorism (generally misquoted), “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

A liberal, who was as zealously devoted to liberty as to religion.

The most dramatic, indeed climactic, event in Acton’s life was his battle against the doctrine of papal infallibility. He was well prepared for that battle by his theological and historical studies in Munich, his earlier conflict with the English Catholic hierarchy over his editorship of two liberal Catholic journals, and his relationship with Granville and Gladstone which gave him a special standing at the time of the Vatican Council. And he carried the scars of that battle throughout his later life, as is evident in his falling out with his mentor Döllinger, his sense of intellectual frustration and isolation, and his failure to write what should have been his magnum opus, the history of liberty. Long before the end of his life, he began to speak privately of this work as his “Madonna of the Future,” a reference to Henry James’s story of an artist who devotes his life to the creation of a single masterpiece which after his death is exposed as a blank canvas.

Acton was in Rome when the Vatican Council met in 1870 and, although a layman, was influential in formulating the case against infallibility, publicizing it within the council and to the outside world, and coordinating the activities of the minority of bishops who opposed the doctrine. Papal infallibility, he insisted, was a perversion of both history and religion; it could only be supported by denying the spirit of Christianity, falsifying the history of the church, and subverting the legitimate relationship of pope and church. He delivered that uncompromising message to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In an influential English journal, he wrote:

The passage from the Catholicism of the Fathers to that of the modern Popes was accomplished by willful falsehood; and the whole structure of traditions, laws, and doctrines that supports the theory of infallibility, and the practical despotism of the Popes, stands on a basis of fraud.

Acton never deviated from that position, even after the promulgation of the doctrine when he formally professed obedience to the church, being careful, however, not to profess belief in the doctrine of infallibility itself. He bitterly reproached those Catholics, like Newman, who had also opposed the doctrine and had then, all too easily, in Acton’s opinion, submitted to the church. More serious, and far more painful, was his disillusionment with Döllinger, who refused to submit and was excommunicated. But even he, Acton believed, did not appreciate the enormity of the doctrine itself, for by objecting to it on theological rather than historical grounds, he implicitly sanctioned all the evils in the “pre-July Church”— that is, before the promulgation of the doctrine.

The shadow of infallibility hovered over Acton the rest of his life, dominating his thinking not only about the church, but also about all of philosophy, politics, and history. Before the Vatican Council he had eulogized Edmund Burke as “the law and the prophets,” the “teacher of mankind,” the exponent of a “purely Catholic view of political principles and of history.” One can hear the unmistakable echo of Burke in Acton’s defense of the South at the time of the American Civil War and in his criticism of the abolitionists for exhibiting an “abstract, ideal absolutism, which is equally hostile with the Catholic and with the English spirit”—very different, Acton maintained, from the church, which sought to “reform mankind by assimilating realities with ideals, and accommodating herself to times and circumstances.”

The shadow of infallibility hovered over Acton the rest of his life.

After the Vatican Council, as Acton’s judgments of Döllinger and Newman became harsher, so did his judgment of Burke. The pragmatic, accommodating, “Catholic” Burke was now rebuked for encouraging men to “evade the arbitration of principle,” to think of politics “experimentally,” as an exercise in “what is likely to do good or harm, not what is right or wrong, innocent or sinful.” For Acton, Burke became the quintessential, opportunistic Whig as opposed to the principled liberal. In his notes and letters he made much of this distinction between Whiggism and liberalism. Where the Whig revered “legality, authority, possession, tradition, custom, opinion,” the liberal respected only “what ought to be, irrespective of what is.” The Whig believed in the “repression of the ideal,” the liberal in its affirmation. “The Whig governed by compromise; the Liberal begins the reign of idea.” “To a Liberal, all the stages between Burke and Nero are little more than the phases of forgotten moons.”

The “History of Liberty” was meant to trace the development of this idea of liberalism. Bits and pieces of that history survive: in two lectures on the history of freedom in antiquity and Christianity, delivered in 1877 to a local historical society and published in their journal; in a score of essays and reviews on a variety of subjects in the following decades; and in his lectures on the French Revolution delivered in Cambridge in the late 1890s and published posthumously as a volume. These essays and lectures are full of brilliant analyses and insights, recondite facts, provocative assertions, and a host of references to wide- ranging and often obscure sources. It would take a corps of researchers to elucidate all of his cryptic allusions: “the greatest man born of a Jewish mother since Titus” (identified elsewhere as the German statesman and philosopher Friedrich Julius Stahl—but did Titus have a Jewish mother?), or “the most prodigal imagination ever possessed by man” (the Renaissance poet Ariosto). An industrious young historian could embark upon a career by documenting and amplifying a single one of Acton’s essays, or even one of his dense paragraphs. The whole adds up to a story so complicated that it defies easy summation or generalization. And it becomes even more complicated when these lectures and essays are supplemented by the vast amount of notes that reflect not only the extraordinary breadth and depth of his scholarship, but also the boldness and passion of his ideas.

Early in the lecture on antiquity, Acton cited, seemingly approvingly, the “famous saying of the most famous authoress on the continent” (Mme de Staël) that liberty is ancient and despotism modern. He then qualified that assertion so abundantly that little was left of it. The great contribution of the Greeks was the principle of representation, government by consent. But by failing to limit the power of the sovereign people or to provide for any law superior to the lawgiver, the principle of democracy undermined the principle of liberty. “The vice of the classic State” (Acton apologized for the anachronism) “was that it was both Church and State in one… . In religion, morality, and politics there was only one legislator and one authority.” That fatal flaw was corrected by Christianity, whose dictum, “Render unto Caesar …” gave to the civil power “a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged,” thus laying the ground for “the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom.” Civil liberty was the result of the ensuing conflict between church and state, each aspiring to absolute authority and each limited by the other. The Middle Ages furthered the cause of freedom by extending representative government, abolishing slavery, recognizing the right of insurrection, and acknowledging duties “superior to those which are imposed by man.” But even before the Reformation, and still more after, the church undermined freedom when it became the instrument of the ruling monarchs. Thus the kings of Spain appropriated the tribunal of the Inquisition, and the absolute monarchy of France was built up by “twelve political cardinals.” “In the ages of which I have spoken,” Acton sadly observed toward the end of his lecture on Christianity, “the history of freedom was the history of the thing that was not.”

In antiquity and Christianity, Acton saw the first tentative overtures toward freedom, but only in modernity did it emerge in its true nature. Protestant sects in seventeenth-century England discovered that “religious liberty is the generating principle of civil, and that civil liberty is the necessary condition of religious.” But not until the American Revolution had “men sought liberty knowing what they sought.” Unlike earlier experiments in liberty, which had been tainted by expediency, compromise, and interest, the Americans demanded liberty simply and purely as a right. The three-pence tax that provoked the revolution was three-pence worth of pure principle. “I will freely spend nineteen shillings in the pound,” Acton quoted Benjamin Franklin, “to defend my right of giving or refusing one other shilling.” Acton himself went further. The true liberal, like the American revolutionist, “stakes his life, his fortune, the existence of his family, not to resist the intolerable reality of oppression, but the remote possibility of wrong, of diminished freedom.” The American Constitution was unique in being both democratic and liberal. “It was democracy in its highest perfection, armed and vigilant, less against aristocracy and monarchy than against its own weakness and excess… . It resembled no other known democracy, for it respected freedom, authority, and law.”

The French, unhappily, did not follow the example of the Americans. In his lectures on the French Revolution, Acton traced the course of events and the logic of ideas by which the revolution, starting with the promise of liberty, ended in tyranny and terror.2 The two fatal flaws in this revolution were the predilection for violence, which exhibited itself as early as the attack on the Bastille, and the commitment to the idea of equality: “The passion for equality made vain the hope of freedom.” Unlike the Americans, who wisely complemented their declaration of rights with a mixed constitution, the French permitted nothing to stand in the way of equality. In a passage reminiscent of Tocqueville, Acton explained the potential for tyranny in democracy:

It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason.

This barebones summary of Acton’s “History of Liberty” is almost a travesty of the original; it does not begin to convey the complexity and density of his lectures and essays. And the subject is further complicated by his views of history in general—the writing of history as well as the actuality of history. The audience at his inaugural lecture on “The Study of History” may have found much of it obscure, but there is no mistaking the moral fervor that inspired it and the moral burden it laid upon the historian. The historian, Acton declared, is a “hanging judge.”

The weight of opinion is against me when I exhort you [the student of history] 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.

The idea of a moral law that is absolute and immutable is a recurrent, almost obsessive, theme in his notes and correspondence. Murder is the “low-water mark,” the ultimate, objective fact that carries with it the ultimate, objective moral judgment. Historians who fail to abide by this test are more culpable than the murderers, for they are imperilling history as well as morality. “History ceases to be a science,” Acton warned us, if the moral currency is debased.

The idea of a moral law that is absolute and immutable is a recurrent theme.

History as “science”—Acton did not at all mean by this what latter-day positivists do, for his science, so far from being morally neutral (“value-free,” we now say), was predicated on a moral absolute. His instructions to the contributors to the Cambridge Modern History have been much cited and derided. The idea of a “scientific” history written by scholars so objective as to be virtually anonymous seems quixotic in itself, and it is even more so when conjoined to the idea of a universal history, which was to be not so much a history of nations as a history of ideas, an “illumination of the soul.” To Acton there was nothing utopian in these ideas, for both derived from a morality that was fixed and absolute. “The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history.”

It is this view of history that lies behind the much quoted, and misquoted, maxim about power. It is not all power that corrupts, but power that tends to corrupt; and it is only absolute power that corrupts absolutely. Although Acton was careful to introduce such qualifications—“tends,” “almost always,” “in most cases,” “the uncounted majority”—they are overshadowed by the passion of the idea itself:

Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority… .
The experience of history teaches that the uncounted majority of those who get a place in its pages are bad… . The Men of the Time are, in most cases, unprincipled, and act from motives of interest, of passion, of prejudice cherished and unchecked, of selfish hope or unworthy fear… .
History is not a web woven with innocent hands. Among all the causes which degrade and demoralize men, power is the most constant and the most active.

This view of history is hardly conducive either to the pursuit of liberty or to the writing of a “History of Liberty.” One can account for Acton’s failure to write that history by saying of him what he said of Döllinger, that “he knew too much to write.” Or one can cite Acton’s lament when he discovered that even Döllinger did not share his moral views (Döllinger having criticized the church for its “errors” rather than “crimes”):

I am absolutely alone in my essential ethical position, and therefore useless… . The probability of doing good by writings so isolated and repulsive … is so small that I have no right to sacrifice to it my own tranquillity and my duty of educating my children.

But the problem is more fundamental still. It lies in an idea of liberty so morally rigorous, so absolute, that it could not be implemented, still less sustained, without fatal consequences.

The absoluteness of that idea is sometimes explicit, more often implicit, in his essays and lectures, but his notes carry it to its ultimate conclusion—to revolution as the culmination of absolute liberty. Liberalism inaugurated the “reign of ideas,” and “the reign of general ideas [is that] which we call the Revolution.” So too, the liberal theory of history, which requires that “what ought to be” take precedence over “what is,” implies nothing less than a “revolution in permanence.” His notes repeat this theme again and again:

The principle of the higher law signifies Revolution… .
Liberalism essentially revolutionary. Facts must yield to ideas. Peaceably and patiently if possible. Violently if not… .
The story of the revolted colonies impresses us first and most distinctly as the supreme manifestation of the law of resistance, as the abstract revolution in its purest and most perfect shape.

“Revolution in permanence”—shades of Trotsky’s “permanent revolution”! And shades of the French Revolution, whose degeneration from a “Republic of Virtue” into a Reign of Terror Acton so graphically described. But even as he was lauding this idea of liberty he was acutely aware of the perils of any idea so absolute.

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, that is of 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.

It might have been Burke who wrote this trenchant criticism of “government by idea.” But then it was not Burke who was trying to write a “History of Liberty.” A Burkean (or Whiggish, as Acton would say) History of Liberty would be difficult enough; an Actonian (or liberal, again in Acton’s sense) is impossible—and especially an Actonian one that had lingering traces of Burkeanism. Acton’s “History of Liberty” invites comparison with Croce’s History as the Story of Liberty. If the latter was written (and published), it was perhaps because Croce had all the confidence of a philosophical idealist whose ideals were immanent in history, whereas Acton had all the angst of an ethical idealist whose ideals were always being violated by history.

If my Acton is a more complicated, more tragic figure than Roland Hill’s, it is perhaps because any conventional biography of a man like Acton, the drama of whose life was entirely the drama of his ideas, inevitably mutes that drama—domesticates it, as it were, by placing it in the context of the more mundane aspects of life. A conventional biographer is necessarily limited in the amount of space and attention he can give to ideas as dense, convoluted, often inconsistent and ambiguous as Acton’s. Yet Hill’s Acton, although blander than mine, is essentially the same Acton, an Acton “out of sorts” with his age and, even more, with ours. If Acton found his contemporaries insufficiently committed to the absolute value of truth and morality, what would he have made of those in our own time who have only the most relativistic sense of those values, or, worse, of those who dismiss and deride the very ideas of truth and morality as illusory, pawns in the struggle for power and “hegemony”?

Yet Acton does speak to us today—to those of us, at least, who are also out of sorts with our times. Whatever reservations we may have about his views on one or another subject, rereading him today is exhilarating, stimulating, illuminating, and often wonderfully prophetic. Historians may quarrel with his excessively idealistic interpretation of the American Revolution, but not with the contrast he draws between the American and French revolutions. We may find fault with an absolute liberty that has, as its necessary corollary, revolution, or an absolute morality that takes murder as its “low-water mark,” or a view of the historian as a “hanging judge.” But a generation that has experienced the horrors of totalitarianism and the atrocities of the Holocaust can appreciate, as his contemporaries could not, the importance he attached to the principles of liberty and morality. And we may well marvel at his extraordinary prescience in warning us against evils that have become all too real—the corrupting effects of power, or the despotic implications of “government by idea,” or the potential for illiberalism in movements, such as nationalism, that most liberals of his time thought entirely commendable. Hill quotes the historian G. M. Trevelyan who, in his autobiography published after World War II, confessed that he had found Acton “always interesting, but sometimes strange”: “I remember, for instance, his saying to me that States based on the unity of a single race, like modern Italy and Germany, would prove a danger to liberty; I did not see what he meant at the time, but I do now!” (That conversation took place some fifty years earlier, well before the First World War, let alone the Second.)

Catholics today have special reason to admire Acton. If they were once discomfitted by his trenchant criticisms, not only of the doctrine of infallibility, but also of the Inquisition and a multitude of other “crimes” committed by the church, they will now find him at least partially vindicated by their highest authority. Pope John Paul II’s first major address in the new millennium was a plea for forgiveness for “the past and present sins” of the “sons” and “brothers” of the church. This “purification of memory,” as the pope put it, recalls Acton’s insistence upon the need to restore the true history of the “pre-July” as well as the “post-July” church. Moreover, Acton’s special kind of “liberal Catholicism” is much more in the spirit of John Paul II than of those who generally assume that label. Acton did not wish to alter or dilute the dogmas, rituals, or traditions of the church; indeed, he opposed the “Old Catholic” sect that Döllinger joined because it did just that. Acton’s liberal Catholicism consisted in reconciling the church with science and secular learning, observing the separation of church and state, and respecting the civil and political liberties of individuals.

Catholics today have special reason to admire Acton.

“I never had any contemporaries,” Acton once said. He would be pleased to know how many he now has. For dissidents today, he stands as an exemplar of intellectual courage, recalling us to first principles that are even more unfashionable today than they were in his time, and challenging us to reconsider how those principles may be incorporated into the practical realms of ethics and politics.


1 Lord Acton, by Roland Hill; Yale University Press, 548 pages, $39.95.

2 Those who deplore Acton’s failure to fulfill his potentialities as a historian sometimes overlook this substantial volume. It is all the more remarkable because it is the work not of a specialist on the French Revolution but of one for whom this was only one of many interests, and by no means the major one.