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In Search of the Historian of Freedom

The quality biographer provides a portrait of his subject that extends beyond a summary description of the events central to a life. The superb biographer examines an individual life in the context of the cultural and historical milieu in which his subject lived, remaining sensitive to the forces that shaped personal and intellectual development. This, in turn, lays a foundation for appreciating a historical figure’s enduring legacy. In Roland Hill, Lord Acton has found a superb biographer.

In his new book, Lord Acton, Hill, a retired journalist who has written widely on Acton since the 1950s, uses extensive archival and print material to analyze the many facets of Acton’s life in the context of the political and religious scene of nineteenth-century Great Britain. Hill explores Acton’s family history, religious faith, intellectual endeavors, political activities, and media experience. Together, these facets form the fabric of a life committed above all to the search for truth, the encouragement of personal responsibility, and the promotion of liberty.

In an admirable introduction to Hill’s book, Professor Sir Owen Chadwick, the distinguished authority on Acton and eventual successor to Acton as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, points out that writing a biography about a polymath such as Acton is no easy task.

The sheer breadth and depth of Acton’s surviving materials pose challenges from the outset. The best source of Acton’s personal papers is an enormous collection of loose notes now housed in the Cambridge University Library. These are difficult to use confidently. Acton was a compulsive note taker and collector of interesting quotations, and his notes often do not distinguish between his thoughts and those of others. Acton’s correspondence is housed in locations across Western Europe. Furthermore, Acton became involved in a divisive controversy in the Catholic Church during the late 1860s and early 1870s that influenced the extent to which his heirs permitted access to certain letters.

Despite his lifelong Roman Catholic piety, Acton challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility (prior to its promulgation) and the papacy’s increasing temporal power during the Italian Risorgimento. He was deeply involved in the intellectual exchanges over this doctrine–so much so, that he anticipated receiving a formal rebuke from Rome. This did not happen. However, Acton’s principal heirs, his children, who did not share their father’s views on the papacy, were sensitive to his participation in the controversy. Therefore, some important letters from this period were not made available to scholars until the 1960s by Acton’s granddaughter, Mia Woodruff.

Hill overcomes these challenges to offer readers the first full-length history of Acton’s life. This is not an intellectual biography but a rich analysis of a sometimes enigmatic man whose preoccupation with the history of freedom underscored his manifold contributions to fostering liberty. Hill’s discussion about the Victorian English Catholic and Liberal political scenes places Acton in precisely the right context. Hill introduces readers to a variety of influences on Acton’s thought at various stages in his life that contributed to the development of his classical liberalism rooted firmly in Christian belief. However, identifying an evolutionary pattern to the development of Acton’s classical liberalism is challenging. Rather than pointing to a natural progression in Acton’s mind, Hill sheds light on key phases of Acton’s education and experience that were integral to his later thought, notably Acton’s early schooling and “undergraduate” education, his travels in the United States, and changes in intellectual emphases that occurred when Acton reached his middle years. Before examining these, however, Hill introduces readers to Acton’s extended family.

Complicated, Cosmopolitan, and Distinctive

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton of Aldenham and eighth Baronet Acton, was born in Naples in 1834, the only son of Sir Ferdinand Richard Acton by his marriage to Marie Louise Pelline von Dalberg. The Dalberg family came second only to the imperial family in the ranks of German nobility. The Acton family history was complicated, cosmopolitan, and distinctive by the standards of Victorian England.

Hill begins by tracing a series of family events in the eighteenth century that led to the presence of a cadet branch of the Acton family in Naples, various members of which served the Royal House of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in political and military capacities. Lord Acton’s grandfather, John Francis Edward Acton, became prime minister of Naples under King Ferdinand I. When the head of the Acton family in England, Sir Richard Acton, died without male issue, the title and property of the senior branch passed to Lord Acton’s grandfather and eventually came to Lord Acton himself on the premature death of his father.

In 1840 Acton’s widowed mother married Lord Levenson, the future Lord Granville and Liberal foreign secretary. This alliance brought the young Acton into early and intimate contact with leading members of the Whig-Liberal establishment, which was noted for its preference for political reform and parliamentary authority.

At age eight, “Johnny” Acton was sent to St. Mary’s College, Oscott. When he completed his course at the age of fourteen, Acton was sent into what he described as “polar exile” in Edinburgh for two years of private tuition to prepare for entry to university. Acton’s tutor, Dr. Henry Logan, a Scot and former vice president of St. Mary’s, encouraged the family to take advantage of Edinburgh’s reputation as one of the finest centers for secondary education in Great Britain. It was here that Logan first introduced Acton to the works of Edmund Burke and Thomas Babington Macaulay, both of whom influenced Acton’s early thinking on problems of human freedom, the use of reason, and questions of historical methodology. Hill points out that although Acton was enriched by his Scottish sojourn, his three applications to various colleges at Cambridge University were rejected on the grounds of his Catholicism. Eventually, after much discussion between Acton’s mother and his cousin in Munich, Acton was sent to study there with the church historian Ignaz von Döllinger. The leading German Catholic scholar of his day, Döllinger was in regular contact with John Henry Cardinal Newman and Bishop Nicholas Wiseman, former head of the English College in Rome.

Döllinger guided Acton through vast intellectual horizons that formed the bedrock of his mature interest in history, theology, and philosophy, and Hill’s penetrating examination of the relationship between tutor and student is one of the most intriguing parts of his book. Döllinger cultivated Acton’s keen and observant mind, and for some time was as much a father figure to the young man as he was an instructor. Döllinger urged Acton to take advantage of the intellectual openness that pervaded Munich during the first half of the nineteenth century. Although Munich’s university was backed by the resources of the state, a situation Döllinger disliked, lecturers enjoyed degrees of academic freedom. Acton’s primary responsibility was to perfect his German in order to attend formal lectures, which he complemented with extensive reading across disciplines.

A Liberal of the English Burkean Sort

Döllinger introduced Acton to the works of François Fénélon and Jean-Baptiste Massillon, famous preachers at the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV, whose sermons were emblematic of the French classical tradition that imparted truths of religion in elegant prose. Apparently, Döllinger did not inquire deeply into questions of personal religion. He was an enlightened conservative Catholic who dwelt on “folly and ignorance” as man’s chief defects, the antidote to which was a strong measure of duty and self-command.

On many travels together around Europe, Döllinger introduced his student to numerous intellectuals who also fostered Acton’s liberalism. Chief among these was Baron Ferdinand Eckstein, the son of a German Jew born in Denmark who converted to Catholicism and settled in France after Napoleon’s death. Eckstein believed passionately in the cause of civil and religious liberty. Like Döllinger, who was a member of the Ultramontane Party that called for church affairs to be controlled by church officials, Eckstein defended religious liberty against state absolutism and strongly advocated toleration.

Acton had ample opportunities to test his liberal beliefs while still Dollinger’s student. In 1853 Lord Granville arranged for his stepson to accompany Granville’s cousin, the first Earl of Ellesmere, to the New York industrial exhibition. Ellesmere was a devotee of George Canning, who was a strong proponent of free trade in English political circles, and who discussed economics with his young protégé. Acton met many American luminaries, including the scholar-statesman Edward Everett, then secretary of state and former ambassador to the Court of Saint James; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and Archbishop John Joseph Hughes of New York. Acton admired American ingenuity but had little regard for its institutions of higher learning (which he considered inferior to those of Germany) or its standard of political debate. Nevertheless, he wrote, “My ideas will be set in order by this journey, and I shall have gained a great interest in the country.” His hoped-for second visit to the United States never took place, but Hill points out that in later life Acton deepened his interest in American history, especially in the Civil War and the concept of democracy. (Like many in Great Britain, Acton supported the Confederate cause.) Acton came to believe that political freedom originated among the Quakers of Pennsylvania. In his last lecture at Cambridge as Regius Professor some fifty years later, Acton expressed his admiration for American federalism, which “has produced a community more powerful, more prosperous, more intelligent, and more free than any other which the world has seen.”

Acton became, and essentially remained, a liberal of the English Burkean constitutional sort, supporting limited state intervention in education and trade. He searched for ways to combine scientific inquiry with religious truth to promote a wholeness of intellectual knowledge. Like Newman, Acton believed that religion and knowledge were not opposed to each other. As a religious man, Acton believed that conscience was the font of freedom and that its claims upon the individual were superior to those of the state. As a historian, Acton was motivated by the unique quest for moral truth in human experience. These core tenets did not change after Acton reached middle age; however, there was a shift of emphasis in him that Hill suggests divides the “early Acton” from the older man.

In his early years, Acton tended to be “diffuse and creatively discursive.” Later, Acton became the “stern historian and moral critic who could be awesome in his black silences and whose style was almost too concise.” Hill suggests that Acton’s overly precise nature, combined with the fact that he was a slow writer, contributed to the fact that he published little in his lifetime, despite planning a series of masterworks including, “A History of Liberty.”

Acton entered the House of Commons in 1859 as a member for the constituency of Carlow in Ireland. Hill pays close attention to Acton’s friendship with William E. Gladstone and the Liberal establishment. Gladstone eventually rewarded Acton for his commitment to Liberal politics by offering him a peerage to which Acton was eventually elevated in 1869. Readers are given rare glimpses of Acton’s sense of humor in Hill’s accounts of his dealings with Queen Victoria, to whom Acton was appointed Lord-in-Waiting. The Queen, who shared the British establishment’s traditional uncertainty about Catholics, was won over by Acton’s loyalty, erudition, and continental sophistication. Acton was often able to assuage tension because of the strong personal regard in which so many of his peers held him, but he suffered profound feelings of intellectual and religious isolation that contributed to periods of immense frustration.

Matters of Moral Judgment and Human Action

Hill concludes that regardless of which activity concerned him at any given moment, Acton’s thoughts always returned to matters of moral judgment and human action. The problems that puzzled him, Acton once told Gladstone’s daughter, Mary, were “not in religion or politics so much as along the long wavy line between the two.” Hill leaves the impression that as to the matter of a precise evolution to his classical liberalism, Acton perhaps deliberately kept his own counsel. He believed that each has to find his own way, and the sources that influence one may appear in random fashion.

Hill reminds us that Acton wrote more than two hundred definitions of liberty in his notes. We conclude with one of the most moving of them. In a lecture on the history of liberty to an audience of Shropshire farmers, Acton said,

By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere.… In ancient times the State absorbed authorities not its own, and intruded on the domain of personal freedom. In the Middle Ages it possessed too little authority, and suffered others to intrude. Modern States fall habitually into both excesses. The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. Liberty, by this definition, is the essential condition and guardian of religion.

Acton emphasized to his audience the importance of their native qualities of perseverance, moderation, and individuality, and upon his conclusion, received a standing ovation.

The portrait of Lord Acton that emerges from Hill’s book is that of great scholar and historian, deeply reserved but able to open his mind to a select group of friends and relatives. Hill advances our understanding of this defender of liberty, whose genius belied a sympathetic amiability.