All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1986

Book Review: Essays in the History of Liberty: Selected Writings of Lord Acton edited by J. Rufus Fears

Liberty Classics, 7440 N. Shadeland, Indianapolis, IN 46250 • 558 pages, $15.00 cloth; $7.50 paperback

Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton), 1834-1902, was a major figure in the Liberal Catholic Movement, and was instrumental in transforming the writing of English history into a rigorously scientific discipline based on the model of German scholarship. The themes Acton expounded in his philosophic and journalistic activities as essayist, lecturer, and reviewer were those of individual liberty, political self- government, and unfettered scientific research.

The book opens with Acton’s celebrated 1877 lectures on the history of freedom in antiquity and in Christianity. Acton argued that Christian civilization emphasized the dignity of the individual and offered him a gift of freedom beyond anything offered by Greece or Rome. He viewed the church as a force in society capable of limiting the power of the state; and “it is only by abridging the authority of states that the liberty of churches can be assured.” By the same token, Acton condemned any effort by the church to wield secular power, as being the “absolute power which corrupts absolutely.”

Here also are the essays on the Puritan Revolution and the rise of the Whigs. But of more interest to us are the essays on the colonies and on the American Revolution. A society emerged on these shores, Acton wrote, “more powerful, more prosperous, more intelligent, and more free than any other that the world has seen.”

Acton analyzes the philosophic issues underlying the Civil War in America, declaring that “the one ruling element in the American war, which reduces all others to comparative insignificance, is the defense of the rights of self-government against the theory that there is a supreme, irresistible, and irresponsible power.” Slavery, in his view, was not so much the cause of secession as the reason for the failure of secession and of the Confederacy. Acton felt that the Confederacy, apart from slavery, and viewing the Confederate Constitution as a political document, justified saying that “history can show no instance of so great an effort made by republicans to remedy the faults of that form of government (republican). Had they . . . called on Negroes to be partners with them . . . I believe that generous resolution would have conferred in all future ages incalculable blessing on the human race.” In a letter to General Lee, Acton wrote: “I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.”

Acton’s consistent rebel sympathies, which he extended to the Boers in South Africa, shaped his under standing of the issues at stake in the great struggle between Union and Confederation. Northern victory in the American Civil War, he argues, represented the triumph of political centralization over principles of federalism, self-government, and liberty under the law.

When Acton wrote that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he spoke to gen erations past and future. How often has this phrase, this principle, been aptly descriptive of contemporary af fairs! In an era when the state intrudes increasingly into the domain of the personal, the private and the spontaneous, Acton’s insight into the meaning of human liberty and the dynamics which threaten its promise and exercise, remains salient and timely.