Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Lord Acton's Ordeal: The Historian and Moral Judgment

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Lord Acton's Ordeal: The Historian and Moral Judgment

Article excerpt

Of all the eminent historians and scholars of Victorian England, the most peculiar in many respects and most different from the others was Lord Acton. In his day he enjoyed an immense reputation as one of the most learned men of the age and was part of a distinguished company of writers of history that included such names as Macaulay, Froude, Freeman, Green, Seeley, Stubbs, Lecky, Maine, Morley, Gardiner, Creighton, and Maitland; yet at the time of his death in 1902 he had never published a book. For many years he was known to be engaged on a great work on the history of liberty. In the 1880's he began to refer to this magnum opus half hopefully, half ironically as "the Madonna of the Future," a phrase borrowed from the title of Henry James's story about a painter who long meditated a masterpiece which was found following his death to consist merely of an empty canvas. Acton's history of liberty never saw the light of day and exists only in the copious notes and reflections he left on the subject. An indefatigable reader and student, he accumulated a huge scholar's working library of 60 to 70 thousand volumes which came as a posthumous gift to Cambridge University through the generosity of Andrew Carnegie and the historian and politician John Morley. His notes and other papers also passed to Cambridge as an acquisition from his son, the second Lord Acton. Charles Oman, a younger Oxford historian who visited the deceased Acton's library prior to its removal from Aldenham, his Shropshire country house, testified to the melancholy impression it created. With its shelves upon shelves of books filled with cross references and marked passages, and its pigeon-holed cabinets containing thousands of compartments crammed with notes on diverse points, it seemed to him a monument to wasted labor and the vanity of human learning.

In spite of his notorious failure to achieve his projected history of liberty, Acton was nevertheless a productive writer and thinker. During his lifetime he published many erudite historical essays and reviews in a variety of periodicals, delivered lectures and addresses on large themes to public audiences, and was recognized for his intellectual stature by honorary degrees from the universities of Munich, Oxford, and Cambridge. In 1895, at the initiative of the Liberal prime minister Lord Rosebery, he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, where his lectures and distinction of personality attracted and fascinated students. In the years following his death, four volumes of his lectures and essays were published as well as parts of his correspondence and selections from his notes. These made it possible to gauge the breadth of his mind, the nature and quality of his ideas, and the preoccupations and obsessions that dominated his intellectual life. While with several notable exceptions the English historians of the Victorian period have ceased to be read or are now consulted only by specialist scholars, during the past 40 years Acton's writings have attracted increasing interest and attention among students of politics and history. They have prompted investigations into his intellectual development and allegiances, and studies examining his ideas on history and historical method, politics, religion, liberty, democracy, nationality, and revolution.

II

Born in 1834, Acton was a lifelong liberal in the older 19th-century sense of the term, who worried about the state as the chief threat to liberty and the danger that the majority in democracies would stifle and suppress minorities. The growth of liberty was for him the main fact of modern history. Unlike the utilitarians, he did not value liberty as a means to other ends but as the highest political end in itself. By liberty he understood self-government by the political community through its representatives, full recognition of the rights of conscience and of freedom to dissent, and limits set to the state's authority by the law and the existence of independent religious bodies and other autonomous institutions of civil society. …

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