From Some Mountain Summit High in the Air: Lord Acton and History
Among all eminent Victorian scholars, Lord John Emerich Acton was the most renowned by his contemporaries – and the most peculiar. Admired for his vast erudition, scholarship, and magnetic lecturing, he was indeed a moving and contrary force in the field of history. Historian and bishop Mendel Creighton, whose books on the Papacy during the Renaissance Acton had criticized, called him “the most learned Englishman alive.”
Contradictions in Acton’s life and views abound: although he never graduated from university, he received several prestigious honorary doctor’s degrees and from 1895 to his death held the chair of Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, where he delivered his first lecture at the age of 60. As he had no college degrees, before he could start in his new profession and enjoy some of the professorial privileges, he was granted a Master of Arts Degree; when his head was measured to make sure the cap fit correctly, it turned out that he had the largest head on record at the university; ruefully, he commented in a letter that he imagined that poet Robert Browning, who also had a large head, might have taken umbrage.
At his various residences, Acton accumulated a scholar’s library of about 67,000 volumes, many of them marked by him with cross-references and underlined passages, and many filled with research notes, some original thoughts of his own, some quotations from other scholars’ works, and miscellanea. His interests and research were extraordinary, but notwithstanding all his lectures, magazine articles, and the editorship of the Cambridge Modern History series, he never published a book. His miscellanea has thus far been published in seven substantial volumes, and his notes and manuscripts in the Cambridge library fill some 50,000 pages, but there is no one self-contained and singular work later generations could link to his name.
Sir Charles Oman, an Oxford historian who visited Acton’s study and library in Aldenham, Shropshire, after Acton’s death, was saddened by the melancholy of the place and reflected:
I never saw a sight that more impressed on me the vanity of human life and learning. A quarter of the time that had been spent on making those marginal annotations, and filling those pigeonholes might have produced a dozen volumes of sound and valuable history – perhaps an epoch-making book that might live for centuries. But all the accumulated knowledge had vanished … intensive research, even by the most competent researcher, is wasted, unless the results are put together and printed.
Was Oman right? Had most of Acton’s research and knowledge been in vain, lost and gone to the tomb with him?
Acton’s planned magnum opus, a History of Liberty, a book he never got around to writing, would have argued that achievement of individual freedom is the aim of life. Yet Acton, in another contradiction, supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War, condoned slavery as a necessary evil, and wrote to General Lee in 1866 that he was in favor of states’ rights against a powerful federal government. In the same vein, his belief that historians should judge historical figures on the basis of their morality was at odds with his lengthy and intimate association with Prime Minister Gladstone, some of whose private behavior was at least bizarre.
Despite these contradictions and the discordance between the promises of his intellect and scholarship and the meager scholarly output, Acton continues to attract wide attention and his theory of history, historical methods, and his ideas on the intersection of large topics such as religion, politics, power, freedom, democracy, and revolution continue to be of interest to all thinking persons. Of course, he is the author of one of the most memorable lines to ever come from an historian: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton was born in Naples, Italy, in January 1834, the son of Sir Ferdinand Richard Edward Acton and Maria Louisa von Dalberg, the daughter of a diplomat and the duke of a German principality. The family lived in Naples, where baby John’s grandfather, Sir John Acton, had been a long time resident and prime minister in the government of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Indeed the family was very prominent in Naples and lived in a recently built grand villa with palm tree-shaded garden on the Riviera di Chiaia near the sea promenade; the villa had been designed on commission for Richard Acton by leading Neapolitan architect Pietro Valente in the neo-classical style of Roman Pompeian villas..
John’s father died in 1837, when he was three. His mother remarried in 1840 to Lord George Levenson, 2nd Earl of Granville, and the family moved to England. Lord Granville was a man of influence in British politics and held positions such as Foreign Secretary and leader of the House of Lords. This in time gave John Acton entrée` in many circles but, according to biographer Hugh Tullock, “Granville never really understood his extraordinary stepson; the gulf separating them was too wide …” Granville, as Matthew Arnold remarked, had studied in the book of the world rather than in the world of books and was not interested either in ethics or history, but in practical liberal politics and the relation between states.
Young John was first educated at a Catholic seminary in England. Unable because of bigotry against Catholics to obtain admission to Cambridge University, in 1850 he was sent to Munich, Germany, to study privately with Dr. Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, a priest, theologian, and church historian, who in 1871 would be excommunicated for opposing the dogma of papal infallibility. Although Acton never attended university, Dollinger’s tutorship was vital and led to Acton being later awarded many honorary degrees for his professional work: Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Munich (1873), Doctor of Laws from Cambridge University (1889), and Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford University (1890).
Dollinger was also one of Europe’s most distinguished historians, and Acton learned the historian’s craft under his rigid but supportive tutelage. As he wrote home:
I breakfast at 8, then two hours of German – an hour of Plutarch and an hour of Tacitus. This proportion was recommended by the professor. We dine a little before 2 – I see him then for the first time in the day. At 3 my German master comes. From 4 till 7 I am out – I read modern history for an hour – having had an hour’s ancient history just before dinner. I have some tea at 8 and study English literature and composition till 10 – when the curtain falls.
The young John Acton also traveled widely throughout Europe with Dollinger, examining manuscripts and documents and consulting with fellow historians and other intellectuals. In France, he became a friend of Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America, Catholic historian Charles Montalembert, and Fustel de Coulanges, whose Cité Antique was justly famous in European intellectual circles.
An early admirer of English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, he later became a fan of Edmund Burke, and was influenced by the views of German historian Leopold von Ranke, who preached that the role of the historian, after consulting primary sources, is solely to explain and to tell it like it was, not to judge historical figures or events. Lutheran theologian Richard Rhote, whose book Ethics Acton recommended to his Catholic friends, also influenced him. Friendship with Munich intellectuals, such as professor Peter Ernest von Lasaulx, convinced him that objective historical truth could be discovered through free and thorough intellectual inquiry.
In 1853, Acton took temporary leave of his studies to travel to the United States with his relative, Francis Egerton, Lord Ellsmere, as part of the British delegation to the New York Exhibition, a world’s fair, which followed the highly successful London Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851.
John Acton, then nineteen, wanted to travel both in the North and the South, but was unable to go any farther south than Emmitsburg, Maryland on the Mason-Dixon Line since there was an outbreak of malaria in the South at the time.
He did, however, travel extensively in the Northeast visiting, New York (“the city cannot be seen for it is very flat and quite surrounded by shipping”), Niagara Falls, and the Boston area. There, he rubbed shoulders and had discussions with many of the area cultural and political luminaries, such as Longfellow, Dana, Greeley, Lowell, Prescott, Sumner, Ticknor, and others. He sat for an oral exam at Harvard, but was not impressed by the venerable college, and expressed often his admiration for South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun.
In 1856 he also accompanied his stepfather to Moscow for the coronation of Alexander II as Czar of Russia. There, he also associated with distinguished intellectuals, who, in the words of the Edinburgh Review, were amazed by the young man’s “vastness of … knowledge and his mode of exposition.”
In 1859, Acton became the part owner and editor of The Rambler, the periodical of the English Liberal Roman Catholics, started to write articles both for it and for other publications, and was elected to Parliament as a member of the Whig Party, which supported the prerogatives of Parliament against the monarch.
With his mother’s death in 1860, John Acton became the head of the German branch of the family and in 1865 married Countess Marie Anna Arco-Valley. They had known each other since he had moved to Munich as a youngster and indeed it had been her father who had introduced the young English gentleman to Father Dollinger. The couple had six children and the marriage was stable; the countess was also interested in history and religion. Acton was an accomplished linguist and often during meals spoke German with his wife, French to his sister-in law, Italian with his mother-in-law, English with his children, and even a fifth language if they had a foreign guest for dinner.
As a Catholic and an intellectual, Acton opposed orthodoxy and was often critical of the Church position as an authoritarian organization and its efforts, sometimes violent, to enforce strict compliance in doctrinal matters.
Acton had been in Rome from April to June 1857 and in his notebook had strongly criticized the doings of the Church and the manner in which Pope Pius IX seemed to have abdicated his responsibilities to his Secretary of State, Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli. Pope Pius IX, who had begun his pontificate as a moderate liberal following the revolutionary uprising of 1848-49, had turned conservative, indeed become a reactionary.
In 1864, Pius XI issued the Syllabus of Errors, a ten-part document condemning various beliefs, both religious and political (such as socialism, liberalism, rationalism, Bible societies, etc.), asserting the rights of the Catholic Church, (including that of having its own state, and defining the proper relationship between the church and civil society).
The Syllabus was an extraordinarily conservative document and created dissension and divisions within the church, while also rendering bilateral relations between the Holy See, Italy, and various northern European states more difficult.
Acton was one of those whose activities and writings were perilously close to the tolerable margin of unorthodoxy. In fact, he had criticized the Church for its institution, support, or silence about the Index of Prohibited Books, the Inquisition, and the French Massacre of St. Bartholomew.
When the pope called the First Vatican Council (December 8,1869 – October 20,1870) and it became known that one of the propositions that would be pursued was the Pontiff’s Doctrine of Infallibility, Acton switched to the offensive. He went to Rome right away and started to meet with participant theologians, bishops, and cardinals to convince them not to adopt this doctrine.
He stayed in Rome until he realized that his efforts, despite his hard work, were doomed to fail. He would meet with as many bishops and other delegates as he could daily, retreat in the evening to a rented apartment, and write up his notes, which he would then forward through the British diplomatic pouch to Father Dollinger in Munich. Dollinger would then compile the raw material into scholarly theological articles; these were published in the Allgemeine Zeitung under the name Quirinus and found their way back to Rome within days, to the distress of the Vatican bureaucracy.
Some delegates were convinced by Acton and Dollinger’s arguments against declaring that the pope was infallible, but not many – not more than 20 % – and their reasons varied. Some thought the proposed doctrine was false, other thought its timing was wrong, and still others feared another schism or Catholic difficulties in Protestant countries. Unable to vote in its favor, sixty bishops left Rome before the issue came up for a vote, and on July 18, 1870, the Vatican Council, by a vote of 433 to 2 declared that the Pope, when speaking on matters of faith or morals, is infallible. An observer ironically said that the bishops went to the council as shepherds and came back to their sees as sheep.
While Father Dollinger, who would not conform, was excommunicated, Acton chose to remain silent and Cardinal Henry Manning, the English Catholic primate tried to press him on the issue in a letter asking whether Acton ought not to say that he submitted to the decrees of the Council. Acton replied on 18 November 1874 with an answer worthy of that Sir Thomas Moore had given to Henry VIII, carefully avoiding an open conflict by semantic evasions and word-splitting legalism, saying in part, that, “The acts of the Council alone constitute the law which I recognize …” and on December 4 told Cardinal John Henry Newman, another English convert, “I cannot accept his [Manning’s] tests and canons of dogmatic development and interpretation and must decline to give him the only answer that will content him, as it would, in my lips, be a lie.”
In 1879, Acton parted from Dollinger’s intellectual company because of a serious disagreement on how history should be written. Dollinger had decided that the role of the historian was only to describe and explain, but to withhold judgment on the responsibilities and morality of its actors. Acton believed that morality played a role in the writing of history and that it was wrong to remain silent about actions that are considered universally immoral, such as murder. Speaking of the Inquisition, he wrote:
The Papacy contrived murder and massacred on the largest and also the most cruel and inhuman scale. They were not only the wholesale assassins, but they made the principle of assassination a law of the Christian Church and a condition of salvation.
He told his writer friend, Countess Charlotte Blennerhasset von Leyden, how he had arrived at such juncture:
Let me try as briefly as possible and without argument to tell you what is in fact a very simple, obvious, and not interesting story. It is the story of a man who started in life believing himself a sincere Catholic and a sincere Liberal; who therefore renounced everything in Catholicism that was not compatible with liberty, and everything in politics which was not compatible with Catholicity … Therefore I was among those who think less of what is than what ought to be, who sacrifice the real to the ideal, interest to duty, authority to morality.
He maintained such views, although they were unpopular, until his death.
In February 1887 a historian and Anglican bishop Mandell Creighton published the last two volumes of a History of the Papacy, covering specifically the lives and actions of three Renaissance Popes, Sixtus IV, Alexander VI, and Julius II.
Creighton maintained a balanced non-judgmental stance and took into account the temper and morality of the times. He said that he had attempted, “to deal fairly with the moral delinquencies of the popes without, I trust, running the risk of lowering the standards of moral judgment,” and believed that it had been “neither necessary to moralize at every turn in historical writing, nor becoming to adopt an attitude of lofty superiority over anyone who ever played a prominent part in European affairs, nor charitable to lavish indiscriminating censure on any man.” Thus, at least in Acton’s view, Creighton had failed to castigate any of the three, particularly, Alexander VI, who was not only immoral but was also suspected to have acquiesced to murder. Creighton felt that all three had been bad, but Alexander VI only looked worst “largely due to the fact that he did not add hypocrisy to his other vices.”
Creighton requested Acton to review the books and the hostile review Acton published created an acrimonious exchange of letters between the two, each propounding his own views of historical writing. Acton, who on reflection had apparently toned down his harsh first draft of the review considerably, said that Creighton had tried “to pass through scenes of raging controversy and passion with a serene curiosity, a suspended judgment, a divided jury, and a pair of white gloves.”
Creighton espoused a relativist theory, while Acton took a moralistic/judgmental normative view. Creighton used the pulpit and his sermons, which were regularly published in
The Times of London
, to reply to Acton. In one particular sermon, he lamented the current trend of criticizing publicly men of authority. Acton, in a stinging public letter, described his somewhat pessimistic view of human nature and history in a memorable passage:
… I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. 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, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it …
On this issue, Acton’s views and judgment were morally commendable but opposite to those of most other historians. As American historian Henry C. Lea said in a 1903 speech, “the historian who becomes an advocate or a prosecutor instead of a judge forfeits his title to confidence, and if he aspires to be a judge, he should not try a case by a code unknown to the defendant.”
Sometimes, Acton’s views and his logic departed from his rigid moralism. Despite his lifelong aversion to slavery, and his self-description as “a partisan of sinking ships,” he was tone-deaf to strains of the great struggle on this issue and during the American Civil War, and later, took the side of the Confederacy. In November 1866, he wrote General Robert E. Lee, then President of Washington University in Lexington, Virginia:
I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belong to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of the principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battle of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.
His views in this respect did not evolve. He continued to believe that the Emancipation Proclamation had been an act of war necessity rather than human rights (and he was right). He maintained that although slavery, as it had been practiced in the U. S., was essentially immoral, he wrote in Essays in the History of Liberty:
If my present theme were the intuition of slavery in general, I should endeavour to show that it has been a mighty instrument not for evil only, but for good in the providential order of the world. Almighty God, in His mysterious ways, has poured down blessings even through servitude itself, but awakening the spirit of sacrifice on the one hand, and the spirit of charity on the other hand.
In the same book, he also states:
Democracy inevitably takes the tone of the lower portions of society, and, if there are great diversities, degrades the higher. Slavery is the only protection that has ever been known against this tendency, and it is so far true that slavery is essential to democracy … This is a good argument too, in the interest of all parties, against the emancipation of the blacks.
He even went as far stating that the U.S. Constitution does not forbid slavery and quoted one of St. Paul’s letters (1st Corinthian) to support his views. Was liberty only for well-educated well-to-do whites?
Not quite, since he thought deeply about the plight of the poor and about the best way to improve their lot. He was one of the first to read Marx’s Das Capital and was familiar with the work of German political economist Wilhelm Roscher. He was not complacent with the status quo and wrote:
The old notions of civil liberty and of social order did not benefit the masses of the people. Wealth increased, without relieving their wants. The progress of knowledge left them in abject ignorance. Religion flourished, but failed to reach them. Society, whose laws were made by the upper class alone, announced that the best thing for the poor is not to be born, and the next best, to die in childhood, and suffered them to live in misery and crime and pain. As surely as the long reign of the rich has been employed in promoting the accumulation of wealth, the advent of the poor to power will be followed by schemes for diffusing it.
The questions of social order and political power were personal as well as theoretical for Acton, since he was an intimate personal friend of four-time British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, who insured that Acton was raised to the peerage and thus became Lord Acton. The two men admired each other, and Lord Acton frequently gave advice to Gladstone on matters of policy. Gladstone, in anyone’s estimation, was a man of exceptional vigor and intelligence. He was in the maelstrom of British politics for over sixty years, a great orator and polemicist, a competent economist, and he became, along with his principal political rival Benjamin Disraeli, the very epitome of Victorian England.
As a Liberal, Gladstone led successive reform administrations, tackling many of the most urgent social problems of Victorian England. He passed a comprehensive education reform bill, made the act of voting a ballot secret, disestablished the Anglican church in Ireland, and enacted a forward-looking land tenure bill for Ireland.
In pursuing his vision of a more just society, Gladstone could also be doctrinaire, puritanical, controlling, volatile, passionate, and maddening; even Queen Victoria at times thought that he had gone mad and in private referred to him as a “mischievous firebrand, arrogant, tyrannical and obstinate … half-crazy and in many ways ridiculous, wild and incomprehensible old fanatic.”
In the early 1840s, with his wife’s consent, Gladstone got into his mind that one of his life’s charitable missions was to save prostitutes from a sinful life on the streets. Thus, many nights after Parliament had adjourned, he prowled the gas-lit seedy streets of London’s slums, engaging prostitutes in conversation and often, if they were receptive, helping them with money, a place to stay, and other forms of assistance, inviting them to his home, and referring them to a ‘house of mercy’ from which after rehabilitation they would be directed to employment, marriage, or emigration.
Lord Acton, although he implicitly trusted his friend’s morality, thought that Gladstone’s after-hours behavior could put him in political danger if his charitable actions toward London’s prostitutes were misinterpreted or distorted by his enemies. Acton wrote to Dillinger in Munich, “I understand he is being spied upon. He could be ruined.” At another time he wrote, “A nasty story is making the rounds about Lord Palmerston but serves only to add to his popularity. That sort of thing would mean ruin for Gladstone.”
Lord Acton was referring to the fact that the Foreign Secretary Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, while at Windsor Castle where the young queen Victoria was in residence, had attempted to seduce, or rape, one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting. Lord Palmerston had entered uninvited Lady Barbarina Brand Dacre’s bedroom, and when she started screaming, had left claiming he got confused and thought he was in his assigned bedroom. Queen Victoria wanted him fired, and he was saved only by the intervention of Prime Minister William Lamb, Lord Melbourne. Of course, the move to save Palmerston was prompted not only by political considerations and the avoidance of a scandal but also by the fact that Lamb’s sister, Lady Emily Lamb Cowper, who was a widow, was Palmerston’s lover and the two were planning to marry soon.
This was not likely to have been the result if Gladstone’s activities became widely known and misconstrued. Regardless of the reasons for Gladstone’s behavior, Lord Acton remained his true friend. The feeling was reciprocated fully and in 1890 when Lord Acton became financially needy and put his 60,000 plus-volume historical library on sale, Gladstone found him a generous purchaser, Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie paid Acton £9,000 (equivalent to over $1 million today) and let him keep the books. When Acton died in 1902, Carnegie donated the collection to Lord John Morley, Gladstone’s biographer, who promptly gave it to Cambridge University.
In 1892, Lord Acton hoped that Gladstone, again prime minister, would appoint him to a cabinet position or to a ranking diplomatic post in Germany. It did not happen, as Gladstone’s power was on the wane, and he could only get for his friend a honorary post as Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard and lord-in waiting for the queen, posts with a meager stipend.
In 1895, Archibald Philip Primrose, Earl of Rosebery, who followed Gladstone as prime minister, appointed Lord Acton as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. There, his inaugural lecture, The Study of History, his wise counsel to many upcoming historians, and his erudite lectures carried great influence. In his inaugural lecture he said:
The historians of former ages, unapproachable for us in knowledge and in talent, cannot be our limit, [because] we have the power to be more rigidly impersonal, disinterested and just than they…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.
His lectures at Cambridge were attended by many and always crowded, a mostly unusual occurrence. One student recalled:
Never before had a young man come into the presence of such intensity of conviction as was shown by every word Lord Acton spoke. It took possession of the whole being, and seemed to enfold it in its own burning flame. And the fires below on which it fed were, at least for those present, immeasurable. More than all else, it was perhaps this conviction that gave to Lord Acton’s Lectures their amazing force and vivacity. He pronounced each sentence as if he were feeling it, poising it lightly, and uttering it with measured deliberation. His feeling passed to the audience, which sat enthralled.
Historian and political leader James Bryce, Acton’s contemporary, recalled:
Acton spoke like a man inspired, seeming as if, from some mountain summit high in the air, he saw beneath him the far winding path of human progress from dim Cimmerian shores of prehistoric shadow into the fuller yet broken and fitful light of the modern time. The eloquence was splendid, but greater than the eloquence was the penetrating vision which discerned through all events and in all ages the play of those moral forces, now creating, now destroying, always transmuting, which had moulded and remoulded institutions, and had given to the human spirit its ceaselessly-changing forms of energy. It was as if the whole landscape of history had been suddenly lit up by a burst of sunlight.
Some of Acton’s students at Cambridge had remarkable careers: George Peabody Gooch methodically wrote some of the books Acton had planned to write but didn’t; George Macaulay Trevelyan became a brilliant historical narrator, combining accuracy with a felicitous and interesting style; John Neville Figgis, after Acton’s death became an Anglican minister and wrote many brilliant books on church and state. While travelling to the United States in 1915 to lecture on Nietzsche, his ship was torpedoed by the Germans, but he survived; in 1918, another ship on which he was embarked suffered the same fate; he again escaped alive, but never recovered and died in a mental institution in 1919, aged 53.
One occasional Acton student, Lytton Strachey, ended up subverting one of Acton’s theories. Acton believed that most historical figures are worse than they appear and only after they are dead and a suitable period has elapsed will historians reading documents and letters discover the true self of these individuals. Strachey, particularly in his book Eminent Victorians, argued that historically prominent persons are likely frauds who should be exposed as such. Although in his book he only covered four Victorian idols, even before he wrote the book he wrote to Virginia Woolf that Victorians “seem to me a set of mouth bungled hypocrites,” and the book, in the estimation of British politician Roy Hattersley more than exposed them. He wrote: “Lytton Strachey’s elegant, energetic character assassinations destroyed for ever the pretensions of the Victorian age to moral supremacy.”
A few years before his death, Acton also planned and edited The Cambridge Modern History (12 Volumes), published in November 1902, shortly after his death. Before work on this history was started in 1899, Acton advised the various distinguished contributors to strive for impersonal objectivity. He noted in a prospectus: “Contributors will understand that… our Waterloo must satisfy French, and English, German and Dutch alike; that nobody can tell, without examining the list of authors, where the Bishop of Oxford (i.e. historian William Stubbs) laid down his pen, and whether Fairbairn or Gasquet… took it up.”
He always said that he also intended to write a comprehensive History of Liberty, but never got around to it, referring to it as his Madonna of the Future. In 1873 Henry James had written a story with this title about an artist who strived all his life to paint a perfect Madonna, but who at his death was found staring at a blank canvas. Surely, Lord Acton was familiar with the story.
His idea of freedom, however, was not one of permissive license. He believed that a free society must remain on vigilant guard since, “Popular power may be tainted with the same poison as personal power,” and “The will of the people cannot make just that which is unjust.” Thus, in his view, “The authority of the people must be restrained by constitutional checks and balances to safeguard freedom and the protection of minorities,” and “liberty occupies the final summit… it is almost, if not altogether, the sign, and the prize, and the motive in the onward and upward advance of the race… A people adverse to the institution of private property is without the first element of freedom… Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.”
In his notes, Acton penned more than two hundred definitions of liberty. One, delivered to an audience of Shropshire farmers, said:
By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere…In ancient times the State absorbed authorities not its own, and intruded on the domain of personal freedom. In the Middle Ages it possessed too little authority, and suffered others to intrude. Modern States fall habitually into both excesses. The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. Liberty, by this definition, is the essential condition and guardian of religion.
In the spring of 1901 Acton became ill with gout and retired to his mountain chalet, the Villa Arco, on the shore of Tegernsee in south Bavaria. There, on June 19, 1902, after suffering a stroke, he died and was buried in his crimson Cambridge robes in the local cemetery. Sir Harold Butler wrote of him:
With his vast erudition and universal outlook Acton was better equipped than any modern English thinker to expound the true nature of the problems which now beset us. … Democracy was a revolt against the political autocracy of absolute monarchs or dictators, but democracy itself might breed a new kind of despotism.
His colleague at Cambridge, classicist Henry Jackson, in a letter published in the Daily News in 1902 dispelled the notion that Acton had spent his entire life accumulating knowledge that was lost when he died:
If he studied the detail of history, it was in order that he might the better elicit its significance and its teaching. He was slow to express an opinion; but in his judgments there was never any indecision. In the advocacy of intellectual freedom he was eager: in the denunciation of tyranny and persecution he was at a white heat. He was a man who loved to prove all things, and to hold fast that which is good.
Luciano Mangiafico is a retired U.S. diplomat who served, among many postings abroad, as consul in Milan and Consul General in Palermo.