Of the various influences that shaped Lord Acton’s distinctive understanding of history, none was as decisive as his education. His intellectual formation was in fact unique, the product of social position, conditions within English and Continental Catholicism, revolutionary ideas in the Germanic world pertaining to the study and methods of history, and the epic debate in North America over the nature and future of the Union of the States. All of these developments converged in Acton’s life during the decade of 1848-1858, at the end of which he entered an aggressive public life in journalism and scholarship that established his name in the pantheon of the great minds of the Western tradition.
Born into a cosmopolitan family which was prominent in English, German and Italian life, a Catholic with easy access to the highest levels of Whig society by virtue of his mother’s second marriage, the young Acton began life with all the blessings of privilege, both complicated and enriched by his religious legacy. At his mother’s insistence, his early schooling occurred in a seminary setting, initially in Paris, then at Oscott, near Birmingham. Oscott had become an English Catholic entrepót for a steady stream of prominent converts to Catholicism, including John Henry Newman. In 1848, Lord Granville, Acton’s step-father, insisted that the boy receive two years intensive study in Edinburgh under private tutors in preparation for Cambridge or Oxford. Granville, a major Whig leader in Parliament (who served as foreign minister under Lord John Russell, 1851-2, and William E. Gladstone, 1870-4, and 1880-5), was also concerned that Acton’s education should not be devoid of respectable familiarity with the foundations of the Whig Ascendancy. It was during this “polar exile”, as Acton later called it, that his interest in America was sparked by reading extensively in Burke’s writings, notably the “Speech on American Taxation”, the “Speech on Moving Resolutions for Conciliation with America”, and the “Letter to the Hon. Charles James Fox, on the American War”. In addition, he immersed himself in Macaulay’s books, including the recently published first two volumes of the History of England. After being refused by the English universities because he was Catholic, Acton left Edinburgh for Munich in 1850, where other family contacts found an eminent scholar, Ignaz von Döllinger, to oversee his university studies. Acton departed from Scotland a thorough Whig–temporarily at least–which is to say that, however imperfectly, his mind was set on the theme of liberty.
Intellectually, the Munich of Professor Döllinger was an exciting place in 1850, part of the larger nineteenth century cultural exhilaration of the Germanic world. With regard to the study of history, new canons of “scientific” methodology in testing and weighing evidence, coupled with the opening of Europe’s archival collections, created among scholars high expectations and an acute sense that the secrets of the ages were about to be divulged. Döllinger, ever after “the Professor” to Acton, had gained esteem for his church history; in addition, he enjoyed renown as University Librarian and bibliographer to Munich’s Royal Library. Acton had access to all this and more, notably a celebrated faculty, several of whom–especially Peter Ernest von Lasaulx – showed him new vistas in historical understanding. The net result was a fervent belief in the existence of objective historical truth that can be known through free intellectual inquiry. This unshakable conviction became the hallmark of his intellectual life.
What was most remarkable about Acton as a student was the extraordinary energy of his efforts and his dauntless ambition. As a child, he once wrote to his mother from Oscott, “I am going to write a sort of compendium of the chief facts, in history, for my own occasional reference.” An earlier letter was signed, “Caesar Agamemnon John Dalberg Acton.” Already a serious reader, at Munich he became a prodigious one, achieving a life-long habit of reading a book a day, and demonstrating extraordinary powers of retention. He was an aggressive book buyer, eventually assembling a personal library of 60,000 volumes. He accompanied Döllinger to the homes and work places of the famous – clergy, intellectuals, politicians – from whom he gained much in specific knowledge, and even more in understanding the workings of power and the course of history. He came away from Munich with the belief that one must “get behind” the historian, that the history of history – including the history of archives – is the key that unlocks the secrets of the past.
Acton’s university education was tutorial in nature. Though he attended the lecture hall on numerous occasions, the crux of his academic work involved direct, close, and frequent dealings with his respective professors. There were seemingly endless lists of books to be read in several languages, frequent papers to be written and defended in person, and, above all, countless hours of questions and answers exploring the smallest corner of a subject. Acton mastered the colloquy quite early, becoming a formidable conversationalist. He attracted special attention from all of his teachers. He made a memorable presence and was soon thought of as the greatest student of the venerable Döllinger, the man to whom he would remain bound in affection, if not intellect, for the rest of his life.
Midway through his Munich years, Acton interrupted his studies to visit the United States. Again it was Granville who made the decision in 1853. Acton was to accompany the British delegation to the New York Exhibition, itself a consequence of the great Crystal Palace Exhibition in London two years prior. Elaborate plans were made for Acton, then 19, to travel extensively in the North and South, but an outbreak of malaria forced cancellation of plans to visit a South Carolina plantation. This was especially disappointing to Acton, who had developed intense interest in the great sectional conflict in America; he was quite familiar with the complex issues and multiple compromises fashioned to preserve the nation. Since it was the specter of slavery that threatened to ruin the republic, Acton wanted to examine it firsthand, but the southernmost point reached was Emmitsburg, Maryland, barely south of Mason’s and Dixon’s Line.
What he did experience in some depth was life and culture in the Northeast, between New York and Boston, where he conversed with many lights of the intellectual and political establishment: Orestes Brownson, Richard Henry Dana, Horace Greeley, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, William H. Prescott, Charles Sumner, George Ticknor, and James Walker, among others. He was not at all impressed with the condition of learning at Harvard College, where he sat in on oral examinations and visited with several professors. On June 25th, he sat with Dana in a session of the Massachusetts constitutional convention and found the proceedings uninspiring. Interestingly, he wrote to the Professor that he worshipped John C. Calhoun above all Americans, no doubt reflecting the depth of his interest in the sectional crisis and his admiration for the originality of Calhoun’s political philosophy.
Acton returned to his studies in Munich where he continued to engage in activities vitally important in defining his intellectual outlook. He and the Professor resumed their travels to universities, libraries, and the homes of noted scholars and others in high ecclesiastical and political circles; through discussions with scholars and archivists, together with extensive work in major archival collections, they made dramatic discoveries, some of them quite sobering. One of the most disturbing revelations came in Rome, in 1857, where they were shocked to discover a deplorable state of learning regarding the use and care of archives. Among the happiest times was when he and Döllinger visited with Newman at Birmingham in the spring of 1851. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was already 5 years old, and Newman was now quite preoccupied with his idea of a university for Ireland. One can imagine with much delight the range of that three-way conversation.
When, finally, the time came for Acton to return to England to prepare for a public life in journalism, his mind was filled to the brim with enthusiasm for the new learning. Excited by the promise and prospect that he could impart to his contemporaries the vast treasure built up in his mind during his years of formal education, he set out to accomplish his ends in the pages of The Rambler. That story is the stuff of greatness.
This article first appeared in the 1996 January – February issue of Religion & Liberty.