Lord Acton

Article excerpt

Lord Acton. By Roland Hill. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. xxiv + 548 pp. 60 illustrations. $39.95 (cloth).

Sadly, Lord Acton, the nineteenth-century diplomat and historian, is known today mainly because he penned a famous aphorism: "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The historical judgment crystallized in that well-known line was the fruit of a long and distinguished career, however. And although Acton's pithy remark originally appeared only in a private letter, it serves quite well as a summation of his life and thought. A champion of liberty, a great historian, and a leading Roman Catholic intellectual in a country hostile to his faith, Acton deserves to be better known. This excellent biography will reward anyone who wishes to know more about the man and about the intellectual currents and controversies of the Victorian age, among whose leading lights-Newman, Eliot, Dickens, Mill, Spencer, Arnold, Darwin, and statesmen of the caliber of Gladstone and Disraeli-Acton must be counted.

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton was born in Naples in 1834. His father was an English baronet who served at the court of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; his mother was the twenty-one-year-old only daughter of the Duke of Dalberg, of the distinguished family of Austrian nobility. She was also a pious Roman Catholic. Young John Acton was a cosmopolitan aristocrat of a kind Americans find difficult even to imagine. His family was closely connected to Italian nobility as well as the English and German aristocracy, and he grew up in several countries conversing with his close relations in German and Italian as well as English. He was later to marry a second cousin from the Dalberg side of the family. The sudden death of his father (of pneumonia) in Paris in 1837 left a young widow and her three-year-- old son, who inherited his father's title and the family's estate in England (Aldenham in Shropshire). After his mother remarried (the future second Earl Granville), young John Acton resided mainly in England, either at Aldenham or in London where his stepfather pursued a political career. He was schooled at Oscott, a Catholic preparatory school, but at sixteen was denied admission to three Cambridge colleges because he was a Catholic. Thus he was sent off to Germany for his education at the hands of the noted Catholic theologian Ignatz von Dollinger, at the University of Munich, and found himself a new home among his relatives on the Dalberg side of the family, where he stayed for several years.

The young Acton was fascinated by the study of history and especially archival history. Back in England, he began to assemble one of the great private libraries of Europe at Aldenham. He also embarked on a political career, as was fitting for men of his station, if not his religion. English Catholics still suffered what today is called "discrimination," dating back for centuries (even the Emancipation Act of 1829 imposed on Catholics an "obnoxious oath" (p. 85)). Acton was elected to Parliament in 1859, representing a borough in Ireland (it was difficult for a "papist" to be elected in Protestant England), and began to work with Gladstone, who led the Liberal party. He was never happy in Parliament, however, and spoke rarely. But his alliance with Gladstone continued for many years, and was to prove more important outside the House of Commons than in it, especially during the great battle over Papal infallibility a decade later.

At about the same time he was testing his abilities in politics, while still only in his twenties, Acton launched a second and more important career as writer and journalist, as a contributor to a journal of Roman Catholic opinion known as Rambler. Although its circulation was never large, this periodical served as the chief outlet for the views of a group of Catholic liberals-terms-- considered contradictory by many of Acton's contemporaries-who gathered-- around Acton (whose collaboration with Dollinger, and friendship with John Henry Newman, remained largely in the background). …