Hill, Roland, Lord Acton, Yale University Press, 2000

For the great British historian, Lord Acton (1834-1902), study of the great books of the ages was essential in bringing a person to full intellectual and spiritual maturity. Such study was good for a man because it functioned…”to open windows in every direction, to raise him to the level of his age, so that he may know the twenty or thirty forces that have made our world what it is, and still reign over it; to guard him against surprises, and against the constant sources of error within; to supply him both with the strongest stimulants and the surest guides; to give force and fullness and clearness and sincerity and independence and elevation and generosity and serenity to his mind, that he may know the method and law of the process by which error is conquered and truth is won: discerning knowledge from probability and prejudice from belief; that he may learn to master what he rejects as fully as what he adopts; that he may understand the origin as well as the strength and vitality of systems and the better motives of men who are wrong; to steel him against the charm of literary ability and talent, so that each book, thoroughly taken in shall be the beginning of a new life and shall make a new man of him”. Lord Acton; quoted in Hill, p 285-286.

This man, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton -- Lord Acton of Aldenham – amassed a library at his Aldenham estate of well over 60,000 books and manuscripts! He also had many tens of thousands of other books at his other homes scattered across England and the continent. And he had read and studied many and perhaps most of them! This was a man who read, and read, as they say, voraciously! He was interested primarily in one big question: What was the relation of political order to religiousness and religion? He is worth reading (though he wrote few books himself) because he grappled so honestly with this huge question and because he came to solid insights that might yet help us today.

Acton was born in Naples, Italy on January 10, 1834. His grandfather, served as Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Naples while his father Sir Richard Acton, died when Acton was only three years old. His mother, Countess Marie Louise de Dalberg (from an ancient and distinguished Catholic family of Bavaria), remarried later to Lord Granville, William Gladstone's Foreign Secretary, and then moved the family to Britain. Thus Acton received his early schooling in Britain and grew up fluent in English, German, French, and Italian.

Barred from attending Cambridge University because of his Catholicism, his devout (Catholic) mother sent him to study at the University of Munich under the famous church historian, Ignaz von Döllinger. The close mentoring he received from Dollinger was a decisive experience for the young Acton. Through Döllinger's mentorship Acton discovered his own vocation to become a historian of church and state and to study the more fundamental link between liberty and religiousness.

As he neared the end of his university studies, his stepfather Lord Granville cajoled and sponsored him to stand for Parliament. He did so and won election in 1859 to the House of Commons representing the Irish constituency of Carlow. He did much like politics and did not distinguish himself in any particular way while in Parliament. On the other hand he met and became a lifelong friend of William Ewart Gladstone: the Liberal politician (thrice Prime Minister of England) who dominated Victorian politics for almost a half century. Thus Acton via his 40+ years of close friendship with Gladstone was never far from questions of practical politics. In 1869, Gladstone rewarded Acton for his efforts on behalf of Liberal political causes by offering him a peerage and a seat in the House of Lords. As we will see below Gladstone did this favor for Acton for other reasons as well…in particular to strengthen Acton’s hand in his struggles at the First Vatican Council.

As a young man however Acton was more interested in editing a journal of ideas than in distinguishing himself as a parliamentarian. He left parliament and subsequently launched a series of journals (such as the “The Rambler”, and the Historical Review…) giving them each a distinctly Catholic character and dedicating each to an analysis of social, political, and theological issues from a Catholic point of view. He became acquainted with the great convert John Henry Newman who supported Acton’s journalistic efforts and contributed to some of these journalistic efforts. Around this time he made a trip to America and met among others the great Catholic convert and philosopher Orestes Brownson. On his return to Britain he soon evidenced a profound admiration for the American revolution; seeing in it a great advance for liberty; praising in particular the Federalist papers, the balanced Constitution and the overall federal arrangement of power. Although he opposed slavery his sympathies ran more powerfully with the South as the South’s cause was bound up with the preservation of states rights in opposition to a centralizing Federal government. He apparently believed that slavery could be ended (as it had in Brazil) by the North offering to Southern slaves a sanctuary of freedom. The slaves would then simply desert to the North and all would be well! In this Acton was naïve as conditions in America were fundamentally different than in Brazil…(as Acton the historian and the Catholic should have realized). In Brazil there was a Catholic (missionary) legacy of defense of native’s and slaves rights while in the British-American colonies there was no strong missionizing tradition—no particular interest in the souls of slaves or Indians (they were not considered rational human beings by most protestant divines) except as labor to be exploited in the case of Black slaves or or as enemies to be displaced from their lands in the case of the Indians. The Quakers (and Eliot in Massachusetts) were the exception that proved the rule and except in Pennsylvannia were not in any case a strong national political force. Abolitionism in America achieved no political prominence until the 1840s. Thus the Slave power in the South was politically strong and able to get Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave act which required Northern states to return fugitive slaves to the South and their ‘owners’ thereby precluding a ‘Barzilian solution’ to the slavery problem. Acton also underestimated the almost limitless stupidity of the Southern slaveowners—they intransigently refused to limit the growth of slavery in any wise and in any of the new terroritories thus pushing the Northerners into increasingly extreme positions themselves. All this despite the original Constitutional compromise among the Northern and Southern Founding fathers which put a limit to slavery’s growth in the new Republic. On the other hand Acton was right to point out that the North’s aggressiveness centered around its attempts to build up the federal power in order to eliminate southern economic competition and to dominate international trade. Acton also rightly saw the genius, the nobility and the tragedy of the figure of Robert E. Lee. He wrote to him a letter of sympathy and praise (after the surrender at Appomotax) that Lee apparently treasured till the end of his days.

By the time of the American Civil War, Acton began to arrive at positions increasingly at odds with the Church hierarchy—in particular on the question of the temporal power of the papacy (which was in process of losing the territories called the papal states to Italian nationalism) and then with respect to the question of papal infallibility. Seeing the inevitability of being silenced by the hierarchy he chose to fold his journalistic operations. When the First Vatican Council was called (1869-1870) to discuss the issues of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and of Papal Infallability Acton moved himself and his new family (he had married and started to have children) to Rome where he became one of the leaders (along with Cardinals/Bishops Strossmayer, Darboy and Dupanloup) of the opposition (to infallibility). Interestingly, as mentioned above Gladstone made him at this time a Peer of the Realm (conferring on Acton a semi-official diplomatic status) in order to strengthen his hand in dealing with the Cardinals and Bishops. He regularly sent long letters on debates of the Council to Dollinger who then forwarded them to the World Press. These letters later became priceless documents for historians of the Council.

Through his principled, diplomatic and passionate opposition to Papal infallability Acton became known in Britain as one of the most articulate defenders of religious and political freedom. He saw no inherent contradiction between religion and political liberty. He also argued forcefully in essays and lectures that freedom of conscience was the bedrock of political liberty and that conscience had to be understood in the Catholic sense as not truly free until it was informed by revelation as embodied in holy writ, religious tradition and in the sacraments.

In the 1880s and 90s he began to develop what can only be described as a philosophy of history. Religion and liberty were at the core of the historical process with the gradual realization of individual and political liberty constituting the meaning and purpose of history. Given that political liberty depended on the vigilance and participation of free individuals who could and did consult their conscience on matters political, liberty itself depended on religiosity. Acton was fiercely critical of any historian who tended to whitewash the crimes of the church. There could be no excuses for St Bartolomew’s massacre or for the persecution or the Jews or Muslims or for the tortures perpetrated by the Inquistion. He believed that there had been a plot sanctioned by the Pope to murder Elizabeth I and he excorciated any historian who questioned the historicity of the charges. At one point he was asked to review a three volume history of the Popes and when he absolutely panned the book he penned a letter to the author that contained the now famous line: that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Despite his run-ins with the hierarchy Acton apparently was a devout man. He recited the Jesus Psalter every Friday night all his life. The Jesus Psalter was, like the rosary, made up of 150 repetitive petitions/prayers in 15 groupings –except the petitions were to the Holy Name of Jesus. It was a staple of English Catholic piety throughout the years of protestant persecution. The great Catholic aristocratic families preserved it for hundreds of years despite fierce persecution by the fanatics in charge of England. Acton was also devoted to Thomas a Kempis’ ‘Imitation of Christ’ calling it the ‘most perfect expression of Catholic thought” (quoted in Hill, p. 405). In 1895, Lord Acton was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. He lectured on the French Revolution (apparently some survivors of the carnage attended these lectures and listened in tears to Acton’s vivid descriptions of the terror) and talked of writing his universal history of development of Liberty and freedom. He argued that the historian had an obligation to make moral judgments on history, -that morality was central to understanding the significance of historical events. After the Gulag and the Holocaust few modern historians would dispute Acton’s position here. Acton died in 1902, never finishing his universal history.

Hill’s biography of this extraordinary man draws extensively on Acton’s letter to various correspondents (he was an inveterate letter writer) is filled with interesting anecdotes about Acton and his family while simultaneously giving us a portrait of Acton’s intellectual development across a whole lifetime. We also get an in-depth view of Acton’s long friendships with Gladstone and with Dollinger…all in all a great biography.