A Blupete Biography Page

Lord Acton

"It is easier to find people fit to govern
themselves than people to govern others.
Every man is the best, the most responsible,
judge of his own advantage
The "profusions of virtues and accomplishments" of the man were described by Gertrude Himmelfarb:
"Those who met him did not know whether to be more impressed with his fabulous erudition or with his exalted social position ... When he was not himself entertaining on his English or Bavarian estate, he was likely to be a guest at one of the great houses of England or the continent ... He knew personally most of the distinguished historians and philosophers of Europe and America ... At table with his family he chatted in English with his children, in German with his wife, in French with his sister-in-law, and in Italian with his mother-in-law."2

John Emerich Edward Acton was born at Naples in 1834, the only son of Sir Ferdinand Richard Edward Acton. At the age of three years, John Acton, with the death of his father, inherited a large estate and became the eighth baronet of Aldenham Park in Shropshire. In 1840, his widowed mother married Lord Leveson (1815-91)3. At the age of nine years, young John was sent off to St. Mary's College at Oscott; at the age of fourteen he was sent for private tutoring at Edinburgh; and then, at age 16, unable to obtain admission to Cambridge (Catholics were not acceptable) he was sent to Germany (Munich) to be placed in the care of a theologian, one who had taken orders in the Catholic church, Dr. Dollinger, with whom he was to have a life long connection. Other accruements to his education were to be had early in his career, when, as but a young man, he was to attend with certain key political players (through his stepfather's connections, no doubt) to international events in such places as Russia and America. In this process, Acton received a superb education, though he was never enrolled at any university.

In 1859, Acton became the "co-proprietor" and editor of the English periodical, The Rambler: the organ of the "Liberal Catholics." He wrote pieces for his own magazine, and, for a number of others; and thus he became a man of letters and was so all of his life. It was too, in 1859, that Acton was elected as a Whig (following family traditions) for the borough of Carlow. (His parliamentary career, however, came to an end in 1868.4) In 1859, Acton closed down The Rambler but it soon arose as a quarterly with another name, The Home and Foreign Review. Through the years, as already mentioned, Acton was to contribute articles to other periodicals, including, the Chronicle and the North British Review.5

With his mother's death in 1860, Acton took Lady Granville's position as the head of the family estate the seat of which was located in the Rhineland. In 1865, Acton married Countess Marie Anna Ludomilla Euphrosyne Arco-Valley6; and, was thus to fulfill a pledge made to his mother while at the side of her death bed.

The other significant dates in the progress of Acton's life were: 1886, when he founded the English Historical Review; 1888 and 1889, when he received honourable degrees from Cambridge and Oxford; 1891, when he was appointed Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria; and, 1895, when he was appointed Regius Professor of modern history at Cambridge (the very same institution that refused him admission, circa 1850).

Acton was a Catholic; and, a Catholic in England was at a considerable political disability.7 However, this disability was significantly offset because of family connections.8 Though a lifelong Catholic, his beliefs did not jibe with the characteristic doctrines of Catholic orthodoxy. Acton was one of a group of Catholics labeled, "Liberal Catholics."9 They were critical of the church in respect to its authoritarian organization (specifically, the Infallibility of the Pope10), and critical too of its past history (as for example: the Index, the Inquisition and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew11). Much of Lord Acton's writings dealt with these matters. His positions were to get him into difficulty with Rome and he came very close to being excommunicated, indeed, his mentor, Dr. Dollinger, did get excommunicated. As for Acton, he was one of the laity (unlike Dollinger), and one with high connections in the Protestant countries of Great Britain and Germany. Though his views were unorthodox, Acton, nonetheless, was a professed Catholic and the church recognized how important it was to it to have him in the ranks.12

Though what we immediately recall when Lord Acton is brought to mind are his political remarks such as those that he made in respect to political power, he was more the historian than the political theorist. For years he cast about with a view to writing a comprehensive history (he eventually determined it was to be the history of liberty). Acton, however, never did produce a single full-sized volume for publication, in any subject. We know him to-day by posthumous collections of his periodical pieces, correspondence and lectures.13 He was, as Himmelfarb observed, to continually refer to the history he worked on and intended to write as one piece, as his "Madonna of the Future." Henry James wrote a story of an artist who dedicated his life to the creation of a single piece of art, a painting of the Madonna; and, at his death, they entered the studio of the artist and found on his easel but a blank canvas. Lord Acton, however did not leave behind a blank canvas but rather a wealth of rich diggings. I have his collected works, his Essays, in 3 volumes.14 The first volume contains the work which Acton did on the History of Liberty with essays on the Puritan Revolution, the English Revolution, Edmund Burke, Lord Macaulay, the Colonies, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War. The second volume contains his work on the Study and Writing of History, viz., the French Revolution, Charles II, Wolsey and the Divorce of Henry VIII, Machiavelli, et al. And, in the third volume, we see Acton's work on Religion, Politics, and Morality.

Though it is not my intention with this brief biographical sketch to deal with Acton's writings to any extent, I cannot help but touch upon of what Acton thought the role of government should be. Acton was against "programmes of reaction" and thought that there could be great reliance on those institutions that came about as the result of slow evolution.15 That, ultimately, what was to be trusted were those "changes arising from special historical situations rather than from the minds of presumptuous men [such as Comte and Rousseau]."16

To conclude, I shall resort to quoting Sir Harold Butler, who wrote of Lord Acton:

"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. 'Popular power may be tainted with the same poison as personal power.' The authority of the people must be restrained by constitutional checks and balances [Acton in later life came to admire the American constitution] to safe guard freedom and the protection of minorities. 'The will of the people cannot make just that which is unjust.'"17

A featured sketch in a book


Biographical Sketches: The Thinkers


1 Lord Acton, as quoted by Himmelfarb in her work, Lord Acton, 1952 (University of Chicago Press, 1960) pp 172-3.

2 Ibid., pp 1-2.

3 Acton's stepfather, Lord Leveson, George, was to become the 2nd Earl of Granville. Lord Leveson was educated at Eton and Oxford (he was a Protestant). He was to be a very influential man in British politics, becoming foreign secretary in 1851, president of the council in 1853, and leader of the House of Lords in 1855. Lord Leveson, as the 19th century wore on, was to have important positions in the governments of Palmerston and of Gladstone. (Chambers.) Thus Acton was to have a stepfather, who, had to exercise a powerful influence throughout most all of our hero's life. However, one biographer, Hugh Tulloch, was of the view that "Granville never really understood his extraordinary stepson; the gulf separating them was too wide, and there are hints, nothing more, of psychological trauma suffered by the young Acton on his beloved mother's remarriage." [Acton (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988).]

4 Acton was not of the temperament to enjoy the hurly-burly of political life. As Himmelfarb observed, "-- the role of a Member of parliament was uncongenial, and he returned, with genuine relief, to the life of a scholar and journalist." (Op. cit., p. 93.)

5 See chronological details as listed at pp. 378 and 379 of Archbishop David Matthew's work, Lord Acton and His Times (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1968).

6 Acton's wife was to live a long life, dying in 1923. They had four daughters: Mary Elizabeth (1866-1955), Annie (1868-1917), Elizabeth (1874-1881) and Jeanne Marie (1876-1919); and two sons: Richard Maximilian (1870-1924) and John (1872-1873).

7 Catholicism and Protestantism, for most of the last half of the previous millennium, distinguished groups of people by their political beliefs as much as their religious beliefs (in fact, there is not much religious difference between Anglicans and Catholics, at all!). In 1778, the laws were changed in England so that Roman Catholics should have the same rights in England as everyone else. (This move was to bring on the Gordon Riots of 1780 when Lord George Gordon, declared that such laws were but a scheme designed to put "papists" in power and make the rest, second class citizens. Gordon's speeches appealed to the average Englishman. Riots broke out in London.)

8 Himmelfarb, p. 4.

9 "A Liberal Catholic, he was too Liberal for the Catholics and too Catholic for the Liberals." (Himmelfarb, p. 3.) As for his philosophy, Acton thought that those who subscribed to the "materialist, relativistic secularism" were sterile.

10 It is interesting (as a boy I was taught by the Jesuits; I am now a long since lapsed Catholic) I was of the view that the Infallibility of the Pope was something of long standing, you know, going back to St Peter. Well, it is not! The pope was but the leader of the Catholic church and had always been given much respect and deference by the Bishops of the church; but he was never considered infallible. It was during the reign of Pius IX (1792-1878) at the Vatican Council of 1869-70, the first to be called for near 300 years, that there was issued a solemn proclamation, that, in respect to church matters, the pope was infallible. Lord Acton was formally invited to this Vatican Council, but in spite of his eloquent arguments, the matter was predetermined by the ultramontane party which was firmly in control. William Lecky (1838-1903), the Irish historian and philosopher, present during the proceedings, was to observe that the "bishops entered the council shepherds, they came out of it sheep." (As quoted by Himmelfarb, p. 106.)

11 The Massacre of St. Bartholomew: it was on the day that commemorates this saint of the church, in 1572, premeditated and carried out by the Catholics, that there did occur the massacre of thousands of French Huguenots. This event, this butchery, to many minds, including that of Lord Acton's, was a perpetual stigma burnt on the hide of the church.

12 Himmelfarb, p. 36. There was then, as I imagine still exists today, much political strive in the Church of Rome. In the days of Lord Acton there was the Liberal Catholics who were opposed to the principles and practice of the ultramontane party who espoused the doctrine of absolute papal supremacy.

13 Himmelfarb, p. 2.

14 J. Rufus Fears, Ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985).

15 Himmelfarb, p. 71.

16 Ibid. Himmelfarb continues at p. 73: "He [Acton] had no more sympathy than Burke [for whom he had much respect] for the utilitarian conception of the State as a conglomeration of individuals assembled together to promote their common interests. If the end of society was happiness, as Macaulay's utilitarianism [?] would have it, Acton saw the way open for a democratic sovereignty, the right of each generation to legislate for itself in defiance of law and tradition. On the same grounds that he distrusted Utilitarianism, he also rejected the 'atheistical' theory that located the origin of the State and of civil rights in a social contract, for in that case, right would become 'a matter of convenience, subject to men, not above them.'"

17 Sir Harold Butler's foreword to G. E. Fasnacht's, Acton's Political Philosophy (London: Hollis & Carter, 1952).


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2011 (2019)

Peter Landry