By James C. Holland
What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our army and our navy. These are not our reliance against tyranny. All of those may be turned against us without making us weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defence is in the spirit which prized liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere.
Abraham Lincoln, 1858
With thousands of books published on the subject of freedom before and after Lord Acton’s addresses, delivered at a local community gathering in England in 1877, why read what is presented here? We live in an era when satellite communications, the mass media, and an ever increasing outpouring of scholarly publications threaten to overwhelm us with information about the struggles for freedom and the horrors of tyranny in all parts of the planet. Minorities the world over struggle for varying degrees of freedom—from the most basic freedom to live to the freedom to enjoy the higher and more refined benefits of a peaceful existence. Yet precisely because of the sheer volume of the information and the tendency of individuals and groups to concentrate on highly specific issues, we often lose sight of the broader picture, of the underlying spirit, of the understanding of how day to day pursuits relate to the larger questions of liberty and the public good.
We are all, understandably, too readily disillusioned by the ugliness of war, the meaner aspect of politics, the violent, cruel side of human nature. Doubtless, this is where Lord Acton can be helpful. Though his mentor called him a “hanging judge” because of his harsh moral judgments on the conduct of individuals and institutions in history (“Great men are almost always bad men”), he was, nonetheless, passionate in his defense of freedom. Despite or perhaps even because of his awareness of the pervasiveness of corruption, weakness, and confusion in history, he was able to look beyond human frailty to the larger picture and keep his eye on the historic struggle for the precious rewards of liberty. He understood that the fragile yet enduring struggle for freedom from ancient to modern times has always been sustained by the underlying spirit of the quest:
The history of institutions is often a history of deception and illusions; for their virtue depends on the ideas that produce and on the spirit that preserves them, and the form may remain unaltered when the substance has passed away.
An awareness of the age-old pursuit of freedom is as crucial to individuals in our own time as ever before, and it is this writer’s view that no student has described the nature of that struggle more profoundly than has Lord Acton.
Although he was not a major public figure, Acton had access to the inner circles of power in England, Germany, and Italy. He lived virtually his entire life, save four years, during the long, eventful reign of Queen Victoria, with whom he fashioned an agreeable if limited association. But Acton was the most unlikely of Victorians. Even though he moved with ease and familiarity within that society, he was but half English in blood and nearly all Continental in mind. In part because he was a Roman Catholic in a deeply Protestant nation, and in part because he chose to study power rather than to pursue it in public life, he confounded, and possibly intimidated, most of his English contemporaries. In many of the diaries, letters, and memoirs of the Victorians, Acton is portrayed as a man of mysterious parts, held in awe. Writing shortly after Acton’s death, Lord Bryce took the measure of the man: “When Lord Acton died on 19th June 1902, at Tegern See in Bavaria, England lost the most truly cosmopolitan of her children, and Europe lost one who was, by universal consent, in the foremost rank of her men of learning.” Bryce then relates an unforgettable vignette concerning Acton on the history of freedom:
Twenty years ago, late at night, in his library at Cannes, he expounded to me his view of how such a history of Liberty might be written, and in what wise it might be made the central thread of all history. He spoke for six or seven minutes only; but he spoke like a man inspired, seeming as if, from some mountain summit high in air, he saw beneath him the far-winding path of human progress from dim Cimmerian shores of prehistoric shadow into the fuller yet broken and fitful light of the modern time. The eloquence was splendid, but greater than the eloquence was the penetrating vision which discerned through all events and in all ages the play of those moral forces, now creating, now destroying, always transmuting, which had moulded and remoulded institutions, and had given to the human spirit its ceaselessly-changing forms of energy. It was as if the whole landscape of history had been suddenly lit up by a burst of sunlight. I have never heard from any other lips any discourse like this, nor from his did I ever hear the like again.
John Morley, who was not always kindly disposed to Acton, wrote of the breadth and depth of his powers:
He saw both past history as a whole and modern politics as a whole. He was a profound master of all the lights and shades of ecclesiastical systems; a passionately interested master of the bonds between moral truth and the action of political system…Once, after a great political gathering in a country town, owing to some accident of missing carriages, he and I had to walk home three or four miles along a moonlit road. I mentioned that I had engaged to make a discourse at Edinburgh on Aphorisms. This fired him, and I was speedily and most joyfully on the scent of a whole band of German, French, Italian, and Spanish names ample enough to carry me through half a score discourses. I never had a shorter walk.