Blogs > Liberty and Power > Acton Rocks!

Jan 13, 2006 10:31 pm

Acton Rocks!

"The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern."--John Emerich Edward Dalberg
It would be remiss of me to neglect the anniversary of John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton's (Lord Acton or First Baron Acton of Aldenham--01/10/1834-06/19/1902) birth in Naples, Italy. Historian of the first water, classical liberal, author of "the greatest book never written" as well as many other works, could comment on any and all events of his time and of world history. Based on his cosmopolitan background, family (only son of Sir Ferdinand Richard Edward Acton, he inherited a large estate and was to become the eighth baronet of Aldenham Park in Shorpshire at the age of three--his step-father was Lord George Leveson--Earl Granville, William Gladstone's Foreign Secretary), life-long thirst for knowledge, and his studies under studied at the University of Munich under Ignaz von Döllinger, he emerged as a prominent Catholic liberal with a passion for classical liberalism.

Acton pursued electoral politics and entered the House of Commons (1859-1868) for the Irish constituency of Carlow. Gladstone would reward him for his support for classical liberalism through a peerage (1869).

Acton became the part owner and editor of the English periodical, The Rambler (1859), the organ of the"Liberal Catholics." He wrote for The Rambler and for others, including, the Chronicle and the North British Review. When Acton closed down The Rambler, it soon arose as a quarterly, The Home and Foreign Review.

It was through The Rambler and his involvement in the first Vatican Council, that Acton became known as one of the most articulate defenders of religious and political freedom. He argued that the church faithfully fulfills its mission by encouraging the pursuit of scientific, historical, and philosophical truth, and promoting individual liberty in the political realm.

The 1870s and 1880s saw the continued development of Acton's thought on the relationship between history, religion, and liberty. During that period he began to construct outlines for a universal history.

Acton was to found the English Historical Review (1886). He received degrees from both Cambridge (1888) and Oxford (1889). He was appointed Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria (1891), and became Regius Professor of modern history at Cambridge University (1895). From this position, he deepened his view that the historian's search for truth entails the obligation to make moral judgments on history. Although he never finished his anticipated universal history, Acton planned the Cambridge Modern History series and lectured on the topics upon which his later books were culled from.

Upon his death in 1902, Acton was considered one of the most learned people of his age, unmatched for the breadth, depth, and humanity of his knowledge. He was a true classical liberal in the best sense of the term. As Harold Butler said:

"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 to safeguard freedom and the protection of minorities. "The will of the people cannot make just that which is unjust.""--foreword to G.E. Fasnacht's, Acton's Political Philosophy (London: Hollis & Carter, 1952).

Just a thought.
Just Ken
CLASSical Liberalism

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Kenneth R. Gregg - 1/14/2006

You know, Mark, I just don't know. I've read all of his writings over the years (many of them numerous times) and believe that more than a few of the essays would have been included in his projected sonnum bonnum, but I can't give you more than speculation.


Mark Brady - 1/14/2006

An excellent post about a notable scholar and classical liberal.

One question for Ken or anyone else? You write, "Although he never finished his anticipated universal history." But did he ever write more than his preparatory notes? See George Watson's Lord Acton’s History of Liberty: A Study of His Library, with an Edited Text of His History of Liberty Notes (Scolar Press, 1994).