Skip to main content

Lord Acton’s Ordeal: the Historian and Moral Judgment

ISSUE:  Winter 1998

Of all the eminent historians and scholars of Victorian England, the most peculiar in many respects and most different from the others was Lord Acton. In his day he enjoyed an immense reputation as one of the most learned men of the age and was part of a distinguished company of writers of history that included such names as Macaulay, Froude, Freeman, Green, Seeley, Stubbs, Lecky, Maine, Morley, Gardiner, Creighton, and Maitland; yet at the time of his death in 1902 he had never published a book. For many years he was known to be engaged on a great work on the history of liberty. In the 1880’s he began to refer to this magnum opus half hopefully, half ironically as “the Madonna of the Future,” a phrase borrowed from the title of Henry James’s story about a painter who long meditated a masterpiece which was found following his death to consist merely of an empty canvas. Acton’s history of liberty never saw the light of day and exists only in the copious notes and reflections he left on the subject. An indefatigable reader and student, he accumulated a huge scholar’s working library of 60 to 70 thousand volumes which came as a posthumous gift to Cambridge University through the generosity of Andrew Carnegie and the historian and politician John Morley. His notes and other papers also passed to Cambridge as an acquisition from his son, the second Lord Acton. Charles Oman, a younger Oxford historian who visited the deceased Acton’s library prior to its removal from Aldenham, his Shropshire country house, testified to the melancholy impression it created. With its shelves upon shelves of books filled with cross references and marked passages, and its pigeon-holed cabinets containing thousands of compartments crammed with notes on diverse points, it seemed to him a monument to wasted labor and the vanity of human learning.

In spite of his notorious failure to achieve his projected history of liberty, Acton was nevertheless a productive writer and thinker. During his lifetime he published many erudite historical essays and reviews in a variety of periodicals, delivered lectures and addresses on large themes to public audiences, and was recognized for his intellectual stature by honorary degrees from the universities of Munich, Oxford, and Cambridge. In 1895, at the initiative of the Liberal prime minister Lord Rosebery, he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, where his lectures and distinction of personality attracted and fascinated students. In the years following his death, four volumes of his lectures and essays were published as well as parts of his correspondence and selections from his notes. These made it possible to gauge the breadth of his mind, the nature and quality of his ideas, and the preoccupations and obsessions that dominated his intellectual life. While with several notable exceptions the English historians of the Victorian period have ceased to be read or are now consulted only by specialist scholars, during the past 40 years Acton’s writings have attracted increasing interest and attention among students of politics and history. They have prompted investigations into his intellectual development and allegiances, and studies examining his ideas on history and historical method, politics, religion, liberty, democracy, nationality, and revolution.


Born in 1834, Acton was a lifelong liberal in the older 19th-century sense of the term, who worried about the state as the chief threat to liberty and the danger that the majority in democracies would stifle and suppress minorities. The growth of liberty was for him the main fact of modern history. Unlike the utilitarians, he did not value liberty as a means to other ends but as the highest political end in itself. By liberty he understood self-government by the political community through its representatives, full recognition of the rights of conscience and of freedom to dissent, and limits set to the state’s authority by the law and the existence of independent religious bodies and other autonomous institutions of civil society.

Acton’s most famous and widely quoted words are the dictum that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Invariably dropped from this quotation is the less lapidary statement immediately following that “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.” For Acton the truth of this proposition was a manifest conclusion of historical knowledge which must not be ignored or rationalized away. His concern with the corrupting effects of power upon men and institutions caused him to assign to the ethical dimension of history a central importance in the work of historical understanding. Among his numerous declarations of this view was an arresting passage in his Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge in 1895 as Regius Professor of Modern History, a discourse that was in many ways his formal confessio fidei as a historian. Although he acknowledged that the weight of opinion was against him, he nonetheless exhorted historians “never to debase the moral currency or lower the standard of rectitude, but 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 claim that moral judgment on past crimes and misdeeds is one of the supreme duties of the historian was at odds with the entire trend of historiography in his time and set him apart by its rigor from all the noted historians and thinkers about history of his own generation and thereafter. His tortured adherence to this conviction in full awareness of the isolation it brought upon him gives to his life, together with his failure to realize his aim of a history of liberty, a genuinely tragic character.

Acton arrived at his conception of the historian and moral judgment over a period of years and as a result of certain experiences. The Actons were an old Shropshire gentry family, Catholics by faith, whose ancestor had been made a baronet by Charles I. Acton, the eighth baronet, inherited the title at the age of three following the death of his father Sir Ferdinand Acton. He was born, raised, and educated as a Catholic, remaining loyal to Catholicism throughout his life; but he was also something of an anomaly among English Catholics of the time, being likewise a liberal and hence a liberal Catholic. His liberalism was reinforced by his widowed mother’s marriage in 1840 to Lord Leveson, later second Earl Granville, a prominent politician, statesman, and colleague of the Whig and Liberal prime ministers Lord Palmerston and Gladstone. It was through Gladstone that Acton, whose political sympathies lay with the Liberal party, was created a peer in 1869, the first Catholic to be given a peerage since 1688.Reared in a cosmpolitan social environment, he had influential family connections in Italy, France, and Germany. His grandfather had been prime minister of the kingdom of Naples, and his uncle was a cardinal. His mother sprang from the dukes of Dalberg, an ancient German noble family of the Rhineland. When he married, he took as his wife Countess Marie Arco-Valley, the daughter of an old Bavarian noble house. He was thus equally at home both in England and on the continent and developed an extraordinarily wide acquaintance during his life with European political men, social, religious, and intellectual luminaries, historians, and scholars. When the time came for him to attend a university, he was refused admission by several Cambridge colleges on account of his Catholicism. In 1850 he was therefore sent to Munich to study under the guidance of Dr. Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, a priest and professor at the University of Munich.

Born in 1799, Döllinger, in whose house Acton lived, was a great scholar of ecclesiastical history and historical theology who was held to be the foremost Catholic historian in Germany. A man of broad culture and independent mind, his historical researches and great knowledge of the church’s past made him increasingly opposed to ultramontanism, the view that endorsed the most extreme claims of papal absolutism. By the same token he found himself more and more critical of the pontificate of Pope Pius IX (1846—1878) as the embodiment of this absolutism. During the mid- and later 19th century, Catholicism was divided by an internal conflict between ultramontanists and liberal Catholics over a constellation of issues involving the church’s relationship and attitude to modernity. Döllinger’s evolution in this period led him gradually to align himself on the side of a liberal Catholicism not only hostile to various papal actions but unwilling to subject historical knowledge to the rule of dogma and desirous that the church should accommodate itself to the progress of modern thought.

Although Acton heard the lectures of other professors, Döllinger became his model, his master, and the strongest, most lasting influence in shaping his mind. Despite their disparity in age, the two were good friends and companions, taking trips and visiting archives together, including a journey to Rome in 1857. Through the older man Acton was initiated into the great field of history as a critical and scientific discipline and taught to see the history of Christianity and the church as a process of change and development rather than as a fixed system of doctrine and dogma. More generally, one may say that his years in Munich and the prospects they opened for him gave him his vocation as a historian and helped to make him into a historicist, i.e., one who holds that the best way to understand any human phenomenon is to study its existence as a process of development. In the aftermath of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, much of European thought in the 19th century was affected by historicism and the consciousness of the historical dimension of everything. During most of this period, German historical scholarship led the way in Europe by its great achievements in ancient, medieval, and other fields of history, its mastery of the critical analysis of sources, and its investigations of documents and archives as the necessary foundation of historical knowledge. Acton grasped and rejoiced in these advances, which profoundly influenced his life as a historian.

His studies in Germany lasted from 1850 to around 1858 with intermittent breaks for travel. When he returned to live in England, it was with the self-imposed aim of improving the intellectual standards of English Catholics, educating them in liberal principles, and informing them of new developments in historical knowledge. He also hoped to combat English Protestant prejudice by demonstrating that Catholics could be honest, impartial scholars who placed truth above all other interests. Up through the 1860’s he was associated with a succession of liberal Catholic periodicals as editor and journalist, producing for them many historical and political articles and reviews. The independence and critical spirit with which these periodicals discussed church history and political topics bearing on Catholic interests angered the bishops of the English Catholic hierarchy, who made known their complaints not only to the offenders but to the Vatican. Among the things Acton and his collaborators did not hesitate to criticize was the pope’s temporal power, his position as temporal sovereign and ruler of the city of Rome, at that time not yet incorporated into a united Italy. Pius IX clung stubbornly to his temporal power, which ultramontanists zealously defended, while liberal Catholics regarded it as a liability that complicated and exacerbated the relationship between the church and the newly created Italian state. The opinions Acton expressed in his articles were frequently disapproved of by his ecclesiastical superiors. He was convinced that Catholics had nothing to fear from the progress of knowledge and the discovery of truth. Nevertheless, his archival researches and enormous historical reading led him to the overwhelming realization that Catholics had committed many great evils for the sake of what they considered the higher interests of the church. Catholic historians and controversialists, moreover, had repeatedly distorted, concealed, and falsified the truth for pious reasons. The papacy, ecclesiastics, and Catholic rulers were guilty of the religious murder of the countless victims killed by the Inquisition and other agencies of persecution they had authorized. In a notable essay in a Catholic journal on the subject of the St. Bartholomew massacre in France in 1572, in which Catholic mobs instigated by the French king Charles IX and his mother Catherine de’ Medici slaughtered thousands of Protestants in Paris and the provinces, Acton spoke of “the permanent and incurable perversion of the moral sense wrought by a distorted piety.” Pronouncing the massacre an “extraordinary crime” of which the pope had approved, he placed responsibility for it not only on religious intolerance and fanaticism but on the 16th century’s “abject idolatry of power,” which allowed kings to dispose of their subjects’ lives without any form of justice; and he noted that “the Church herself, whose supreme pontiff was now an absolute monarch, was infected with this superstition.”


Towards the end of Acton’s journalistic activity the conflict between ultramontanism and liberal Catholicism came to a head in the Vatican Council of 1870. In the preceding years Pius IX’s autocratic actions had aroused considerable misgivings among liberal Catholics. In 1854 he had defined and proclaimed on his own sole authority the dogma of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary as an article of faith. Ten years later he issued an encyclical against the opinions of the age accompanied by a Syllabus of Errors which named these opinions. Included among them were rationalism, liberalism, the doctrine of religious toleration, and the questioning of the papacy’s temporal power. Also denounced was the belief, which expressed the hope of Acton and others like him, that the Roman pontiff can or should be reconciled to progress, liberalism, and modern civilization. The main object for which the Vatican Council was summoned was to approve and promulgate the doctrine of papal infallibility as church dogma. Supported by the ultramontanists, the doctrine was anathema to liberal Catholics. Before the council opened, Döllinger wrote some widely noticed newspaper articles which were then pseudonymously published as a book entitled The Pope and the Council. A critique of the claim of papal infallibility, it showed with impressive erudition that this claim had no foundation in earlier church history and Catholic theology and was designed to exempt the papacy from any human control. The work was promptly reviewed by Acton in an English Catholic journal where he referred bluntly to the despotism of the popes, their attempt to place themselves above all law ecclesiastical or civil, and their systematic warfare against freedom of conscience, of science, and of speech. Unlike Döllinger in his book, he expressed doubt that the advocates of papal infallibility could be sincere in their belief in view of the many historical facts against it that had come to light with advances in knowledge. He went on further to state that “a man is not honest who accepts all Papal decisions in questions of morality, for they have often been distinctly immoral; or who approves the conduct of the Popes in engrossing power, for it was stained with perfidy and falsehood; or who is ready to alter his convictions at their command, for his conscience is guided by no principle.”

Although Döllinger was not included in the theologians called by the pope to advise the Vatican Council, Acton was present in Rome during most of its meeting and played a conspicuous part from without in trying to rally the minority of bishops opposed to the new dogma of infallibility to stand firmly by their position. The council’s membership, agenda, and officials were controlled by the pope, while those in the minority, which was under-represented, were subjected to many pressures and the procedure unfairly weighted against them. In the end they were convinced that further resistance was hopeless. At the council’s final session in July 1870, the constitution Pastor Aeternus, incorporating the dogma that the pope was infallible when speaking ex cathedra in matters of faith and morals, was adopted by 533 bishops with only two dissenting voices.

In 1871, Döllinger, after being ordered by the archbishop of Munich to declare his submission to the infallibility decree, announced his refusal and was excommunicated. Acton, who considered the supporters of papal infallibility guilty not of ignorance but of mendacity in the face of the historical and theological evidence against it, wished neither to accept the dogma nor to leave the church. In the Vatican Council’s aftermath he ceased his contributions to Catholic periodicals. Pressed In 1874, however, by Cardinal Manning, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, to state whether or not he accepted the Vatican Council’s decree, he returned several equivocal answers while protesting that he was a true Catholic. His replies were eventually accepted as sufficient and he was never excommunicated, though he continued to be distrusted by ecclesiastical authority.

It was out of these experiences, which demonstrated to him that Catholic churchmen, apologists, and ultramontanists were all too often willing to disregard morality and to falsify or ignore the truth, that Acton was led in his later years to maintain his very rigorous conception of moral judgment as a paramount duty of the historian. This conception, however, was not as simple as it may appear to be; and to understand it fully and do it justice, one must see it in its relationship to some of his other ideas concerning historical knowledge and understanding.


I have called Acton a historicist, a term he used himself in his Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge to describe the historical-mindedness that pervaded a considerable portion of 19th-century thought. He traced the origin of historicism chiefly to the influence of romanticism, which overcame the abstract rationalism of the 18th-century Enlightenment and thereby made possible an enriched and deeper understanding of earlier eras. The historicist rejoices in the variety and individuality in the life of the past. He seeks to comprehend the manifestations of this life, whether in institutions, beliefs, ideas, religion, art, culture, politics, social movements, particular events or personal biography, as belonging to a process of historical development. He wishes likewise to know and explain these things in their full historical context and therefore in their relationship to the specific features of their time and place. He is also likely to approach whatever part or aspect of the past that interests him not only with impartiality but equally with a feeling of sympathy and a desire to enter into the thoughts and experience of the human beings he is studying.

In many respects Acton embraced these principles. He expressed his historicist quest when he told his faithful friend and correspondent Mary Gladstone, Prime Minister Gladstone’s daughter, that “my life is spent in endless striving to make out the inner point of view, the raison d’étre, the secret fascination of powerful minds, of systems of religion and philosophy, and of politics . . .and one finds that the deepest historians know how to display their origins and their defects, but do not know how to think or feel as men do who live in the grasp of the various systems.” To his mind, each age was “worthy of study [and] to be understood for its own sake, for the way in which it has met its problems, and its share in the suffering of mankind—not as a stepping stone to the present.” To understand the past, moreover, was very difficult. “It takes long,” he commented, “to be really at home in many ages, to feel with them, to limit one’s knowledge and adapt one’s ideas to theirs.” For him sympathy and impartiality went hand in hand in the historian’s treatment of the past. We should estimate an historian, he believed, “much less by his own ideas than by the justice he does to the ideas which he rejects—not for his national, his religious, his political views, but for his appreciation of nations, religions, parties not his own.” The historian must be “fearless, truthful, disinterested, [stretching] a point in favour of those whom personally he dislikes—patient and accurate, just.” He should have “the best qualities of a confessor, mercifulness.” Acton’s insistence on sympathy, as well as his exigent standard of moral judgment, would not permit him to regard success as a criterion of historical significance. He would have the historian extend his sympathetic understanding to lost causes, and pointed out that there is “much more to say, than anyone now supposes, for many a lost cause. For sorcery, physiocracy, the [papal] deposing power, the Ptolemaic system. . . .”

The very great importance he attributed to archival investigation and discovery and to the grounding of historical studies in the widest range of sources and documents was an essential part of his historicism. Only by such means did he think that the truth about the past could become adequately known and the historical facts secured against partiality, error, and falsehood. Owing to the “enmity between the truth of history and the reason of state and official secrecy,” the evidence of archives seemed to him the only way “to compel assent, or to crush interest or prejudice.” He told students at Cambridge that “to renounce the pains and penalties of exhaustive research” was to remain a victim to ill-informed, designing writers and to conventional mendacity. By turning, however, from books to manuscripts and from the library to the archive, “we exchange doubt for certainty, and become our own masters. We explore a new heaven and a new earth, and at each step forward, the world moves with us.”

While to a great extent a historicist, Acton nevertheless departed decisively from historicism when he insisted that the historian has the obligation to pronounce moral judgment. He never doubted that such a judgment could possess an absolute character; yet as many writers on historiography have pointed out, historicism is a form of thought that leads easily to a relativization of all values. Friedrich Meinecke, the German historian whose classic work on the development of historicism (he termed it Historismus or historism) rightly described it as one of the greatest revolutions that has ever occurred in Western thought, recognized its relativistic consequences. Seeing everything in its historical context meant seeing it in a relative light. Sympathy with historical agents, the study of the past for its own sake along with the attempt to understand previous societies in terms of their own concepts and standards, bred a comprehension that soon became indistinguishable from universal tolerance of all that has been. To understand everything could amount to excusing and forgiving everything, and end in a total skepticism or anarchy of values. Noting the “corrosive poison” contained in this historical outlook, Meinecke wondered whether “historicism and the relativism that is its special product” had the power to heal the wounds it inflicted.

Acton strove to escape the effects of historicism by enthroning moral judgment as one of the most exalted functions of the historian. The murders, massacres, and assassinations committed in the name of religion; the crimes of popes and other historical personages; the ways in which power at all times degraded and demoralized great men, who were almost always bad men; all these had to be brought to light and branded by the historian with eternal infamy. He knew why historians as a rule refused moral judgment according to a fixed standard. As he explained in his Cambridge Inaugural Lecture, it was due to the influence of the historicist school, which had made the Middle Ages and distant eras understandable. Developing out of the reaction against Enlightenment rationalism, this school maintained that there is no common code, that moral notions are fluid, that it was necessary to consider the times and class to which men belonged, the varied influences upon them, and the obscure movements they obeyed, and so in the end, he said, “responsibility is merged in numbers, and not a culprit is left for execution.”

Acton, however, did not accept that moral principles were fluctuating and changeable, and he proposed to transcend the relativism inherent in the historicist perspective by basing moral judgment on a permanent, generally acknowledged standard. This standard was the sanctity of life. Homicide was the worst of crimes and therefore provided the historian with a criterion. The judgment of men, politics, and systems, he stated, “is determined by the lowest point they touch. Murder, as the conventional low-water mark, is invaluable as our basis of measurement” and serves as a kind of scientific zero from which to start. Expounding this thesis to his good friend, the learned Lady Blennerhasset, he argued that moral judgment in history is founded neither in religion, philosophy, or individual opinion, but, instead, in the universal principle of the sacredness of life. That was “the holy Ark” and hence no one more decidedly deserved condemnation than the man who shed blood. Since murder thus outweighed all other considerations, by using it as a test the historian raises himself above opinion and becomes scientific. He fixes responsibility, moreover, by his exacting canons of research, which involves subjecting evidence and testimony to rigorous cross examination. It was from this standpoint that Acton felt competent to deliver such a severe condemnation of the papacy and ultramontanists, who authorized, approved, or defended the murders committed by the Inquisition, an institution which was the peculiar creation and instrument of the popes. He was resolved to adhere rigidly to the principle he propounded, averring in his Cambridge Inaugural Lecture that if the historian erred, it was better to do so by excess of rigor than of indulgence. He justified this position with the claim that “opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity.” He was thus convinced that the sphere of values lay beyond subjective preference and personal opinion, and that when the conscientious historian, relying on an absolute standard, pronounces a moral judgment, his sentence belongs to the domain of objective facts and becomes a part of historical science.


Although Acton did not suppose that many historians agreed with him, he assumed for a long while that he and Döllinger thought alike on the subject of the historian and moral judgment. The two men were close friends, seeing and writing to each other often. They shared the same interests and the same liberal standpoint as Catholics. Acton, moreover, looked upon Döllinger as his master, while the latter felt, as he once told Acton, that only to him could he open his mind fully and reveal his innermost thoughts. In 1879, however, Döllinger published some remarks concerning the recently deceased Frenchman, Bishop Dupanloup of Orléans, in which he took a charitable view of the bishop and refrained from condemning him despite the fact that he was a defender of the Syllabus of Errors and had shown a readiness at the Vatican Council to compromise on the issue of papal infallibility and then submitted to the decree. Acton, who had a poor opinion of Dupanloup, was greatly troubled by Döllinger’s tolerant attitude, which came as a shock and seemed to open up a gulf between them. Their disagreement in this matter, thus disclosed in 1879, precipitated a discussion continuing over a number of years, in which Acton made anguished efforts to explain his position and convince Döllinger of the necessity of strict moral judgment by the historian. Döllinger was often inclined to attribute their divergence to his friend’s younger age, predicting that as Acton became older and riper, he would be milder and more lenient in judging people. He objected too that Acton failed to allow for different times and circumstances, and that people often erred through ignorance, not wickedness. Acton responded that when he was a younger man, he implicitly believed and trusted eminent Catholic authors until by further study he reluctantly discovered that they were dishonest in order to uphold the authority of the church. He did not direct his judgment, he said, against error, but against conscious falsehood and deceit by great Catholic figures, the sacrifice of morals to religion, and the murders and persecution for which the popes and other Catholic dignitaries, even saints, bore responsibility. For him “the central point” was “ethics, not dogma,” and what he condemned was “not error but crime.”

The exchanges between the two men in letters and personal meetings failed to reconcile their views. In 1883 Döllinger, who always took their difference less seriously, said to Acton that it was time for their conversations on the subject “to cease for this world.” Yet three years later Acton, who never found Döllinger’s answers satisfactory, was still trying to argue his case. Although they remained friends, their disagreement wounded him deeply and left him with a desolating sense of loss and personal isolation. “I am absolutely alone in my essential ethical position, and therefore useless,” he recorded in some notes in 1883, in which he also expressed his despair of ever doing good or exerting any influence, since no one agreed with him. When Döllinger died in 1890, he wrote that his old teacher had never understood him nor “why I place in the forefront as much as I can the idea of crime in place of that of error and sin.” Although he planned a biography of Döllinger, it never materialized. Its only fruit was an essay containing an appreciative assessment of Döllinger’s historical work which took note of his dislike of moral judgment and his belief that the historian should be impersonal, humble, self-denying in not intruding his own opinions, and always conscious of his susceptibility to error.


During the last years of his life, Acton was a frequent contributor to the English Historical Review, of which he was one of the founders in 1886. This association provided him with a last occasion for a controversial discussion of moral judgment in history. The occasion was the publication in 1887 of the third and fourth volumes of A History of the Papacy During the Reformation, a work by Mandell Creighton, the first editor of the English Historical Review, which he asked Acton to review. Acton had previously (1882) written a favorable notice of the first two volumes. Although Creighton was an Anglican clergyman who later became a bishop, he was much less inclined to moral condemnation than Acton was. The fourth volume of his history covered the later 15th century down into the pontificate of the notorious Borgia pope, Alexander VI, a period that he called in his preface one of the most ignoble epochs in papal history. He proceeded to explain, however, that it would be unfair to isolate the popes from their surroundings and hold them up to exceptional ignominy, even if one could not forget their high office and lofty claims. He had tried, he said, “to deal fairly with the moral delinquencies of the popes without, I trust, running the risk of lowering the standards of moral judgment.” At the same time, he considered it “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.”

It is easy to imagine what Acton thought of these sentiments. An earlier draft of his review was apparently so severe that he decided to alter and soften it before publication. As printed in 1887, it was a masterly discussion of various details, packed with erudition and in many respects quite favorable; but it contained the deadly comment that Creighton wished “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.” Of the work’s moral stance he was especially critical. Questioning that every age ought to be tried by its own standards and that allowances ought to be made for those with power, he charged that the view in Creighton’s preface not only tended to debase the moral standard but exclude it. Such a treatment of the popes, he maintained, failed to provide any key to the reasons why the Protestant Reformation occurred. In rejection of Creighton’s attitude, he gave as his own credo that “it is the office of historical science to maintain morality as the sole impartial criterion of man and things and the only one on which honest minds can be made to agree.”

The original version of Acton’s review led to an exchange of letters with Creighton which allowed him to elaborate his position. It was here that he penned the famous sentence, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” His essential complaint was Creighton’s moral leniency toward the great, his mild opinion of religious persecution, and his failure to hold popes like Sixtus IV responsible for such things as the terrible system of persecution they instituted in authorizing the Spanish Inquisition. “I cannot accept,” he wrote, “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 holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for legal responsibility.” His letter ended with some striking precepts to writers of history. They warned the historian to beware of every kind of prejudice springing from personal attachment to a philosophy, class, church, and country; the ethics of history were non-denominational and took precedence over dogma, party, and nationality. The historian was to put conscience above everything else, judging by a moral code not new but universally accepted in Europe both past and present. According to this code, time and place did not excuse. Men were to be estimated by their worst actions and the greatest crime was homicide, the accomplice being no better than the assassin, while the theorist who justified it was even worse. Worst of all morally was killing for religious reasons.

In his reply, Creighton admitted that he may not have held Pope Sixtus IV sufficiently responsible for authorizing the Spanish Inquisition; but he countered that wrongdoing for an idea, an institution, or an accepted view of the basis of society was not the same as personal wrongdoing; it was more difficult to prove and did not offend the moral sense of contemporaries or the doer. He could not, he further explained, judge the question of persecution as rigorously as Acton did, because the men who conscientiously believed that heresy was a crime might be accused of an intellectual mistake, but were not necessarily morally criminal. Regarding the powerful figures of the past, Creighton held to the belief that they were men like himself, much tempted by the possession of power and trammeled, as the popes most certainly were, by the representative position they occupied. He could only look on them with pity: “who am I,” he asked, “that I should condemn them? Surely they know not what they did.”

In this exchange two antithetical conceptions of moral judgment in history met squarely. Creighton’s attitude only served to underscore Acton’s isolation in this, for him, most fundamental of matters. His creed of moral judgment failed to commend itself to his contemporaries and has never been accepted by 20th-century historians or theorists of history. Within a year of his death the great American historian Henry C. Lea, the author of magisterial studies of the medieval and Spanish Inquisitions, on which subject he was the foremost scholar of his time and later, directly attacked Acton’s view. In “Ethical Values in History,” a presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1903, Lea denied that there existed an absolute and invariable moral code by which people of all epochs and degrees of civilization could be tried, convicted, or acquitted. The historian, he argued, should not hold morally responsible those who obeyed their consciences even if this led them into what was later conceived to be wrongdoing. He summed up his criticism in the statement that “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.”

The place of moral judgment in history will perhaps always be in some measure a disputed one. As the offspring of a great humanistic tradition, however, historiography has never been, and cannot be, indifferent to moral considerations. Unlike Acton, though, historians know that they possess neither the power nor authority to speak as the voice of History and pronounce its verdict for all time. Nor do they think it proper as a rule to intrude their moral opinions and award merits and demerits to historical characters. The most they can hope to do is to exemplify a respect for truth by striving to present a truthful, impartial account of the life of human beings in the past; and beyond this, by the sensitivity and perceptiveness of their descriptions and analyses of persons and events, the narratives they relate, and the explanations they propound, to convey their moral perspective and the worth of the values that underlie their judgment of human beings and actions.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading