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Lord Acton: Victorian Luminary

ISSUE:  Winter 2001
Lord Acton. By Roland Hill. Yale University Press. $35. 00.

Can a man be famous for a book that never saw the light and for a long awaited masterpiece that failed to be born? The answer is yes, if the man is Lord Acton. For many years Acton, who was reputed to be the most learned historian in England, planned a great history of liberty, a work that he ironically referred to in the course of time as the Madonna of the Future. It turned out to be an unrealized dream of which all that remained were some stray essays and the thousands of notes he made from his vast reading. Although it may seem cruel to his memory to mention this project, it is a well known part of his personal history. But if he failed to produce his grand opus or any other book he had hoped to write, he was nevertheless the author of an impressive body of work in the form of lectures, essays, and reviews of such intellectual weight and individual character that they sufficed to secure his continuing reputation in the century since his death.

One of the numerous company of eminent Victorians, Acton, although typical of his period in some ways, such as his moral seriousness and political liberalism, was essentially an idiosyncratic and exceptional figure among his contemporaries. An aristocrat who inherited his title of Sir John Acton eighth baronet in 1837 at the age of three, created a peer in 1869, he differed from the great majority of his class in being born a Roman Catholic, a religion to which he remained faithful throughout his life. What really made him unique, however, was his European outlook derived from his many aristocratic family connections and friends in Italy, France, and Germany, his German higher education in Munich under the supervision of the distinguished Catholic priest and historian Dr. Döllinger, and his cosmopolitan upbringing and associations. There was probably no 19th-century English author or historian who could rival Acton in his direct personal knowledge of European politics or his wide acquaintance with royalties, politicians, scholars, and intellectuals in continental Europe.

All this and a great deal more is fully and sensitively described in Roland Hill’s very readable new biography of Acton. It is a book that fills a longstanding need, for despite the numerous studies devoted to Acton, including several brief lives, and the renewed interest that has developed since the 1950’s and 60’s in his historical and political writings, there has been no detailed and comprehensive biography of him until now. Based on the mass of his notes and papers in the Cambridge University Library, pertinent materials in other archives, and the considerable published literature relating to Acton, Hill’s biography is a sympathetic but objective portrait which gives a thorough account of Acton’s career. To those who are well informed about him, it will not offer any surprises; but the amount of information it contains about various episodes in his history, his relationship with his mother, wife, and others in his family and with such notables as John Henry Newman, Döllinger, and the Liberal prime minister Gladstone, his struggle against ultramontanism in the Catholic church, and his work as a journalist, historian, and as Regius Professor of History at Cambridge in his final years, throws fresh light on his life and provides many insights into his character.

The great crisis of Acton’s career was the first Vatican Council held in Rome in 1870, at which he fought to prevent the council from decreeing the dogma of papal infallibility. In previous years, as a publisher and writer in English Catholic journals, he had striven to imbue his readers with liberal principles opposed to papal absolutism and to teach them the necessity of strict standards of historical truth in exposing the immorality and intolerance which could be found in the history of the church. For this he incurred such disapproval and distrust from the Catholic hierarchy in England and Rome that he was forced to give up writing for Catholic periodicals. When it transpired that Pope Pius IX’s main purpose in calling the Vatican Council was to affirm the dogmatic status of the doctrine of papal infallibility, Acton, working energetically outside the council, became the main organizer of the oppositionist minority of bishops. Both he and Döllinger condemned the doctrine as harmful to the church and devoid of historical or theological justification. Church history in particular showed many instances of papal error and wrongdoing. Some of the best chapters in Hill’s biography are the ones describing the council’s intrigues and Acton’s indefatigable activity in Rome as he strained every nerve to rally and coordinate the resistance to papal infallibility. He failed, of course, as he foresaw early on that he would. The minority, never united, lacked the will to maintain its opposition and on 13 July 1870 in the constitution Pastor Aeternus the council approved the dogma. Acton’s dire warnings and predictions of its dangerous consequences have proved wrong, however, because it has never been invoked by any of Pius IX’s successors. Following the council, Döllinger was excommunicated for his unwillingness to submit to the infallibility decree and remained so for the rest of his life. Acton went through some verbal contortions and equivocations to evade giving his assent and was fortunate as a layman in never being asked directly by his unfriendly ecclesiastical superior Archbishop Manning of Westminster whether he accepted the dogma or not. He was therefore never excommunicated.

The victory of ultramontanism and infallibility at the Vatican Council left Acton feeling very isolated in his position as a Catholic and played a vital part in fortifying his conviction that moral judgment was one of the historian’s supreme duties. Although wide ranging in his interests, as a peculiar Catholic liberal he cared most about the history of political, religious, and intellectual liberty, and his historical studies taught him that Catholic writers and scholars had often been willing to conceal and falsify the truth about the church’s past and the evil and immoral actions of pontiffs, saints, and princes in what they deemed the higher interests of Catholicism. For Acton this was inexcusable. He came to think that nothing was more important in the historian’s dealing with the past than to stigmatize wrongdoing, especially deeds like murder, assassination, persecution, and massacres carried out in the name of religion. The more powerful the worldly position of the culprits, he felt, the more they were to be condemned, and he considered that the authors and apologists who tried to justify or hide their crimes were even worse than the perpetrators. In the light of this belief, one is inclined to wonder what he would have said of the failure of Pope Pius XII to use the moral authority of his office during World War II to speak out against Germany’s destruction of the Jews.

Acton was certain that great men are nearly always bad men, and this explains his much quoted comment that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So convinced was he of the responsibility of the historian to expose the criminal actions of kings, popes, and other historical personages and brand them with eternal infamy that this idea became something of an obsession with him. It was a conviction not shared by other historians, and it led in his later years to a painful difference with his beloved teacher and friend Döllinger, who, unable to accept that the historian should sit as a judge of the past, maintained that Acton made no allowance for different times and standards and that people often erred less through wickedness than ignorance.

Among the significant aspects of Acton’s life explored in Hill’s biography is his relationship with Gladstone, the leader of the Liberal Party and four-time prime minister. Politically well-connected, Acton sat in the House of Commons as a Liberal member between 1859 and 1865, and if he had chosen might perhaps have had a career in politics, but he was not attracted to public life. Both Gladstone and the latter’s daughter Mary became his close friends. Beside sharing a political creed and many intellectual interests with Acton, Gladstone, a devout Anglican, held him in high regard for his liberal Catholicism, historical erudition, and political knowledge, and often consulted him. During the 1880’s, as Hill shows, Acton felt himself at the center of power as a major influence in determining Gladstone’s policy of Home Rule for Ireland, his last great struggle in office. Acton was in complete sympathy with the claim of the Irish people to govern themselves, but Home Rule went down to defeat and the policy split the Liberal Party. Hill observes that “Acton’s regard for Gladstone had almost a mystical quality.” When the prime minister, aged 89, died in 1898, Acton’s obituary measured him with Chatham, Fox, Pitt, Canning, and Peel to rank him as one of the greatest of English statesmen and parliamentary orators.

Among the major figures who appear intermittently in Hill’s pages is Cardinal Newman, the preeminent English Catholic author of the 19th century, with whom Acton had a complex and ambivalent relationship. Newman, a famous convert to Catholicism, collaborated with him in several of his journalistic undertakings and seemed at first to share some of the same goals in the church. But he deplored Acton’s outspoken criticism of the Catholic past, and Acton grew increasingly disillusioned with him, especially after he showed himself in favor of the dogma of papal infallibility. While cognizant of Newman’s genius as a religious thinker and writer, he disliked his reverential attitude to authority and distrusted him as a subtle compromiser who did not accord primacy to historical truth. In 1890, when Newman died, Acton wrote that he felt forced to call Newman great in the same ambiguous sense that Napoleon, Bismarck, and Hegel were great, and that he would have to quarrel with almost every friend “if I said all I know, or half of what I think, of that splendid Sophist.”

Acton’s historical and political essays continue to make stimulating and enjoyable reading, though the later ones often contain gnomic passages and can be dense with unexplained allusions. Complexity and a certain measure of sententiousness are among the characteristics of their style. Acton liked to detect forgeries and falsehoods in historical memoirs and official documents and to uncover the secrets of courts and governments which would reveal their misdeeds. As a historian he emphasized the prime importance of investigating archives and the private papers of statesmen in order to discover suppressed and hidden truths. Today his writings are especially esteemed by American conservatives, who regard him as an exceptional source of political wisdom in a line of descent from Edmund Burke. It was a conservative foundation in Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, that not long ago brought out a three volume, moderately-priced new edition of many of his essays under the imprint of Liberty Classics. Although Hill often touches upon Acton’s political ideas, if there is anything missing in his excellent biography, it is a systematic discussion of this subject. As a 19th-century liberal, Acton looked upon political liberty as a highest end of government. He wished to limit the power of the state and feared that democratic rule would lead to despotism. He was concerned about the effect of majorities, custom, and authority in curtailing the freedom of groups and individuals. “The most certain test,” he stated, “by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.” Opposed to nationalism and the forces it released that subverted the 19th-century European order, he refused to deify the nation-state and recognized the value of multi-national federal states combined with self-government. In present-day terminology, he wished to see civil society strong and independent with respect to the state. It was on this account that he emphasized the importance of the existence of autonomous, voluntary associations and institutions, especially churches and religious bodies, exempt from government authority. Acton’s liberalism was never doctrinaire and was deeply informed by his historical knowledge and continual reflection on the French revolution and 19th-century political developments. He perceived the injustice of contemporary society in which masses of people lived under laws made by the rich and were too poor and ignorant to benefit from civil liberty. In many respects, however, his political thinking has become dated. His belief, for instance, that democracy is destined to end in despotism, which was based chiefly on the example of France and the seizure of power by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799 and Louis Napoleon in 1851, has proved to be mistaken. As 20th-century history has largely shown, wherever democratic societies possess strong and vital traditions of political freedom, the rule of law, and security for individual rights, civil liberties, and political dissent, they will be capable of peaceful reform and evolution and are likely to endure as stable liberal democracies.

Acton, who died in 1902, belongs to a vanished age, and the world he knew has changed almost immeasurably. The discipline of history too has become far different from the one he practiced, with its concentration on politics, religion, and Europe. His own life was rather sad in his later years, marked by financial difficulties, the necessity of selling his great library, and the failure to produce his history of liberty. If we wonder why he was unable to succeed in this enterprise, the principal reason is probably that its subject was far too big to be manageable and his standards of research too exacting to permit him to complete so large a work. A further reason may be that he felt deeply conscious of being alone and without support, since no one agreed with him in his conception of the role of moral judgment in history. When the Liberal prime minister Lord Rosebery secured his appointment to the Regius Professorship of History at Cambridge in 1895, he found a position in which he enjoyed a gratifying success. He was not an academic but a man of the world who knew many celebrated people, a distinguished personality whose learning was universally recognized and who fascinated his undergraduate audience by his densely composed lectures and breadth of knowledge. Roland Hill’s fine biography should help to make Acton known to a new generation of students and will also greatly interest those who have read some of his work and wish to gain a fuller understanding of his personal history.


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