Lord Acton's Revolution

By Russello, Gerald J. | New Criterion, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Lord Acton's Revolution


Russello, Gerald J., New Criterion


John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton was not one to hide his views. In his inaugural lecture on the study of modern history, delivered in 1895 at Cambridge, he wrote, "opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity." That moral law demanded the recognition of liberty as the highest historical principle The moral law also required those who studied the past to condemn those who had traduced that principle.

Published a century ago, his Lectures on the French Revolution, originally given while Acton served as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, was the perfect subject for his conviction that both liberty and cruelty lay at the heart of historical development. In the France of the 1780s, all spoke of liberty, and many saw the reign of the Capetian kings as the epitome of feudal darkness. Yet, these very defenders of liberty would turn on one another and on the populace of entire regions, such as the Vendee, and recast liberty to mean full submission to the will of the people as expressed by the organs of the state.

That kind of revolutionary rhetoric has spawned endless epigones; the constitutions of the developing world are frayed and faint copies of the Rights of Man, and the Communist world completed the false equation of the state with the voluntas populi announced by the fall of the Bastille. Our own more recent calls for "hope" and presidential announcements that "this is our time" still carry the faint ring of the Jacobin tocsin. Since the 1960s, obsession with equality, rights, and the deification of the state as the solution to all problems has become our common political language.

Baron Acton, in contrast, seems distant from our own age, even though he died in 1902. While Acton was no reactionary, his conservative outlook--and recognition that revolutions often devour their children--make him seem old-fashioned. Descended from aristocracy across Europe, widely learned, and deeply enmeshed in the Catholic and other elites of his day, Lord Acton was centered in the thicket of European history in a way that is difficult to imagine today. His work represents a trans-European heritage that has become almost impossible to replicate, in part because the notion of a unified "European culture" is foreign to current European elites. Among contemporary historians, perhaps only John Lukacs or Jacques Barzun come close to Acton's reach.

Fluent in numerous European languages, he was of impossibly ancient lineage from both sides of his family, inheriting estates in Italy, Germany, and England. Born in Naples in 1834, he and his mother returned to England from Paris after the death of his father, when Acton was three. He was educated at Oscott, a Catholic seminary near Birmingham, under the formidable Nicholas (later Cardinal) Wiseman. Although Acton applied to three different Cambridge colleges, he was denied entrance because of his Catholic faith. Thus rejected, Acton first went to Edinburgh and then to Munich, engaging in private study, primarily with the Munich professor and priest Ignaz von Dollinger.

Acton returned to England in 1859, and entered political life; that same year, he took over from John Henry Cardinal Newman editorship of a journal called The Rambler. Around this time, he also began a long association with William Gladstone, for whom he served as an advisor on the question of Irish Home Rule. After serving as MP for two constituencies in the 1860s, he was raised to the peerage and created Baron Acton in 1869. In 1895, Acton was named Regius Professor, the first Catholic to hold that post since the Reformation, without ever publishing the great history of liberty he had been planning for the previous quarter-century, or indeed without completing a flail-length book at all. Shortly thereafter, he was asked to assume general editorship of what became the Cambridge Modern History, which is his clearest institutional legacy. …

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