All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1996

Lord Acton–Political Power Corrupts

Lord Acton Saw Political Power as a Source of Evil

Mr. Powell is editor of Laissez Faire Books and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, American Heritage, and more than three dozen other publications. Copyright © 1996 by Jim Powell.

Few recognized the dangers of political power as clearly as Lord Acton. He understood that rulers put their own interests above all and will do just about anything to stay in power. They routinely lie. They smear their competitors. They seize private assets. They destroy property. Sometimes they assassinate people, even mark multitudes for slaughter. In his essays and lectures, Acton defied the collectivist trend of his time to declare that political power was a source of evil, not redemption. He called socialism “the worst enemy freedom has ever had to encounter.”

Acton sometimes rose to commanding eloquence when he affirmed that individual liberty is the moral standard by which governments must be judged. He believed “that liberty occupies the final summit . . . it is almost, if not altogether, the sign, and the prize, and the motive in the onward and upward advance of the race. . . . A people adverse to the institution of private property is without the first element of freedom. . . . Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.”

Although Acton increasingly stood alone, he was admired for his extraordinary knowledge of history. He transmitted to the English-speaking world the rigor of studying history as much as possible from original sources, pioneered by nineteenth-century German scholars. His estate at Cannes (France) had more than 3,000 books and manuscripts; his estate at Tegernsee (Bavaria), some 4,000; and Aldenham (Shropshire, England), almost 60,000. He marked thousands of passages he considered important. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Munich (1873), honorary Doctor of Laws from Cambridge University (1889) and honorary Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford University (1890)—yet he never earned an academic degree in his life, not even a high school diploma.

To be sure, Acton had some big blind spots. Science didn’t interest him. Although he expressed concern for the poor, he spurned as materialistic the Manchester Liberals who cared about raising living standards. He knew little about economic history which tells how ordinary people fared. He imbibed the cliché that free markets enabled the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer, when in fact free markets—such as the Industrial Revolution of his time—saved millions from starvation.

What was Acton like? Published photographs generally show him with a long beard. He had piercing blue eyes and a high forehead. “He was of middle height and as he grew older he developed a full figure,” added biographer David Matthew. “He was renowned as a conversationalist, but his talk was on the German model, full of facts and references . . . he enjoyed walking, traversing the lower slopes of the Bavarian mountains or wandering on the lip of the Alpes Maritimes, where they fall towards the sea.”

Acton conveyed tremendous passion. “There was a magnetic quality in the tones of his voice,” recalled one student who heard his Cambridge lectures. “Never before had a young man come into the presence of such intensity of conviction as was shown by every word Lord Acton spoke. It took possession of the whole being, and seemed to enfold it in its own burning flame. And the fires below on which it fed were, at least for those present, immeasurable. More than all else, it was perhaps this conviction that gave to Lord Acton’s Lectures their amazing force and vivacity. He pronounced each sentence as if he were feeling it, poising it lightly, and uttering it with measured deliberation. His feeling passed to the audience, which sat enthralled.”

Family Background

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton was born January 10, 1834, in Naples. His mother Marie Pelline de Dalberg was from a Bavarian Catholic family with roots in the French aristocracy. His father Ferdinand Richard Edward Acton was an English aristocrat. Acton’s father died when he was three years old, and by the time he was six his mother had remarried Lord Leveson, later to become the second Earl of Granville, an influential English Whig who served as foreign minister in the Liberal cabinets of John Russell and William Ewart Gladstone.

Acton was mainly educated as a Catholic—Saint Nicholas (France), St. Mary’s, Oscott (England), the University of Edinburgh (Scotland), where he studied two years, and the University of Munich (Bavaria), where he went after being refused admission to Cambridge and Oxford because of his Catholicism.

Johann Ignaz von Dollinger, among Europe’s most distinguished historians, was Acton’s most important teacher. Soon after Acton arrived in Munich in June of 1850, he began his apprenticeship to become a historian. “I breakfast at 8,” he wrote his stepfather, “then two hours of German—an hour of Plutarch and an hour of Tacitus. This proportion was recommended by the professor. We dine a little before 2—I see him then for the first time in the day. At 3 my German master comes. From 4 till 7 I am out—I read modern history for an hour—having had an hour’s ancient history just before dinner. I have some tea at 8 and study English literature and composition till 10—when the curtain falls.”

Acton and Dollinger traveled in Austria, England, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, visiting libraries and bookstores. They analyzed manuscripts and met with poets, historians, scientists, and statesmen.

Acton’s blind spots were apparent from his observations about the United States which he visited with his stepfather in June 1853. Ever the aristocrat, he was turned off by rude manners and by the emphasis on practical things. He missed the colossal energy of American commerce as he wrote off New York—“the city cannot be seen for it is very flat and quite surrounded by shipping.”

At the same time, though, this American trip afforded some rare human glimpses into a 19-year-old who had skipped from youth to adulthood. “The ices,” he recorded in his diary, “are skillfully made, not too sweet, in order not to excite thirst, and they give you as much as two London ices for less money. . . . In the evening we played at prisoner’s base in a field close to the [Niagara] Falls. Here I lost my hat.“

When Acton began to study with Dollinger, he had been captivated by Thomas Babington Macaulay, the eloquent Whig historian who championed liberty and human progress. Acton described himself as “a raw English schoolboy, primed to the brim with Whig politics.” But Dollinger cured Acton of Macaulay, and the young man became a fan of the Edmund Burke who early on opposed the French Revolution. While with Dollinger, Acton attended lectures by the great German historian Leopold von Ranke who stressed that the role of an historian was to explain the past, not to judge it.

An Early Conservatism

Those familiar with Acton’s famous blasts against tyranny will be startled at his early conservatism. For instance, unlike Manchester Liberals such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, but along with most Englishmen, Acton sided with the South during the American Civil War. “It is as impossible to sympathize on religious grounds with the categorical prohibition of slavery as, on political grounds, with the opinions of the abolitionists,” he wrote in his essay “The Political Causes of the American Revolution” (1861). Five years later, in a lecture about the Civil War, Acton remarked that slavery “has been a mighty instrument not for evil only, but for good in the providential order of the world . . . by awakening the spirit of sacrifice on the one hand, and the spirit of charity on the other.” Acton told a friend: “I broke my heart over the surrender of Lee.”

In “The Protestant Theory of Persecution” (1862), he refused to condemn persecution across the board. He seemed to defend Catholic rulers who claimed persecution was the only way of keeping society together. He suggested Protestants like John Calvin were worse because they persecuted people just to suppress dissident views. In private, Acton was more outspoken: “To say that persecution is wrong, nakedly, seems to me first of all untrue. . . .”

Yet Dollinger and Acton became outspoken critics of Catholic intolerance. Their contemporary targets were the Ultramontanes who sought to suppress intellectual freedom. Dollinger and Acton took issue with Vatican policy, especially after Pope Pius IX issued his notorious Syllabus of Errors (1864), which condemned alleged heresies of classical liberalism, including the scandalous idea that “The Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile himself to, and agree with, progress, liberalism and recent civilization.”

Acton contributed to a succession of Catholic journals whose mission was to help liberalize the Church: the bimonthly Rambler (1858-1862), quarterly Home and Foreign Review (1862-1864), and weekly Chronicle (1867-1868). These efforts were defeated in 1870 when the Vatican Council declared that the Pope was an infallible authority on Church dogma. Because Dollinger was a priest, his refusal to submit resulted in excommunication. Acton, a layman, wasn’t required to officially acknowledge the Vatican Council decrees, and he remained within the Church.

It was during this period that Acton wrote one of his most prophetic essays, “Nationality” (1862), which offered an early warning about totalitarianism: “Whenever a single definite object is made the supreme end of the State, be it the advantage of a class, the safety or the power of a country, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the support of any speculative idea, the State becomes for the time inevitably absolute. Liberty alone demands for its realisation the limitation of the public authority, for liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition.”

Meanwhile, in 1865, Acton at 31 had married a cousin, Countess Marie Anna Ludomilla Euphrosyne Arco-Valley. She was the 24-year-old daughter of Count Johann Maximilian Arco-Valley. The Count had introduced Dollinger to Acton, so he and the young Countess had known each other ever since he began his studies in Bavaria. She seems to have shared his interests in religion and history. They had six children, four of whom survived into adulthood. At meals, Acton spoke German with his wife, Italian with his mother-in-law, French with his sister-in-law, English with his children, and perhaps another European language with a visitor.

Religion was always on Acton’s mind, and he became much more of a hardliner than Dollinger, declaring that historians must denounce evil. In February 1879, he split with Dollinger after the professor had retreated to the view that a historian’s role was only to explain events, even if this meant remaining silent about terrible crimes. Acton insisted that evil actions, like murder, were always evil. “The papacy contrived murder and massacred on the largest and also on the most cruel and inhuman scale,” he wrote, referring to the Inquisition. “They were not only wholesale assassins, but they made the principle of assassination a law of the Christian Church and a condition of salvation.”

Acton lamented that “I am absolutely alone in my essential ethical position.” He confided to his friend Charlotte Blennerhasset: “Let me try as briefly as possible and without argument to tell you what is in fact a very simple, obvious, and not interesting story. It is the story of a man who started in life believing himself a sincere Catholic and a sincere Liberal; who therefore renounced everything in Catholicism which was not compatible with liberty, and everything in Politics which was not compatible with Catholicity. . . . Therefore I was among those who think less of what is than what ought to be, who sacrifice the real to the ideal, interest to duty, authority to morality.”

Acton faced not only intellectual shocks but hard times during the 1870s. Much of his livelihood came from his inherited agricultural land, but farm income plunged amidst the prolonged agricultural depression of this period. He sold a number of properties in 1883. He sublet his Aldenham estate. He sought a respectable salaried position.

Acton and Gladstone

Thanks to his stepfather, Acton had served as a Member of Parliament for a half-dozen years starting in 1859, and there he met Gladstone, who was to become Prime Minister three times. In 1869, three years after Acton lost a bid for re-election, Gladstone named Acton a baron, and he sat in the House of Lords, but during all the years he was in Parliament, he never participated in a debate. He quietly supported Gladstone, whom he viewed as a great moral leader. They shared a passion for discussing history and religion.

In critical reviews, Acton faulted Anglican priest Mandell Creighton, author of History of the Papacy during the Period of the Reformation, for not condemning the medieval Papacy—promoter of the Inquisition. But Acton and Creighton had a cordial correspondence which led to Acton’s most unforgettable lines, written on April 5, 1887: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Acton, the devout Catholic, shifted his views so far that he reproached his friend Gladstone, who had written an unqualified defense of Christianity against attacks by popular novelists. Acton noted that unbelievers deserved credit for combating “that appalling edifice of intolerance, tyranny, cruelty” which the Christian Church had become.

What to do with his prodigious learning? Acton pursued one book idea after the other, only to drop it. He did research for a history of the Popes, a history of books banned by the Catholic Church, a history of England’s King James II and a history of the U.S. Constitution. He contemplated some kind of universal history, the theme of which would be human liberty. This became his dream for a history of liberty.

Author James Bryce recalled, Acton “spoke like a man inspired, seeming as if, from some mountain summit high in the air, he saw beneath him the far winding path of human progress from dim Cimmerian shores of prehistoric shadow into the fuller yet broken and fitful light of the modern time. The eloquence was splendid, but greater than the eloquence was the penetrating vision which discerned through all events and in all ages the play of those moral forces, now creating, now destroying, always transmuting, which had moulded and remoulded institutions, and had given to the human spirit its ceaselessly-changing forms of energy. It was as if the whole landscape of history had been suddenly lit up by a burst of sunlight.”

The History of Freedom

Acton covered part of his beloved theme in two lectures, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity” (1877) and “The History of Freedom in Christianity” (1877), as well as his lengthy review of Sir Erskine May’s Democracy in Europe (1878). He traced liberty’s origins to the ancient Hebrew doctrine of a “higher law” which applies to everyone, even rulers. He explained how, uniquely in the West, competing religions created opportunities for individuals to break free. He told how democracy emerged from commercial towns. He talked about the radical doctrine that individuals may rebel when rulers usurp illegitimate power. He chronicled epic struggles against tyrants.

These essays abound with memorable observations. For example: “[Liberty] is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization. . . . In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food. . . . At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous. . . . The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. . . .”

Why did liberty become more secure in America than almost anywhere else? “Liberty,” wrote Acton to Gladstone’s daughter Mary, “depends on the division of power. Democracy tends to the unity of power . . . federalism is the one possible check upon concentration and centralism.”

Acton, unfortunately, lacked the singleminded focus for a big project. His voluminous papers don’t even include an outline for a history of liberty. He never started it. All he left were some 500 black boxes and notebooks mainly filled with disorganized extracts from various works. Much of the material is about abstract ideas rather than historical events. Later historian E.L. Woodward remarked that Acton’s history of liberty was probably “the greatest book that never was written.”

In 1895, Cambridge historian John Seeley died, and it was Prime Minister Rosebery’s responsibility to name a new Regius Professor of Modern History. Although Acton hadn’t taught a class in his life, he was recommended because of his learning, his loyalty to the Liberal cause and his need for a salary. And so Acton, rejected when he tried to enter Cambridge as an undergraduate, got the prestigious appointment.

In his famous inaugural lecture, he insisted that politicians should be judged like ordinary people: “I exhort you never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.”

“History,” he continued, “does teach that right and wrong are real distinctions. Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity.”

“The principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged; and I neither now do, nor ever will admit of any other.”

During his last years at Cambridge, Acton delivered only two series of lectures—on modern history and on the French Revolution—but colleagues viewed him with awe. Recalled historian George Macaulay Trevelyan:

His knowledge, his experience and his outlook were European of the Continent, though English Liberalism was an important part of his philosophy. He at once created a deep impression in our somewhat provincial society. Dons of all subjects crowded to his oracular lectures, which were sometimes puzzling but always impressive. He had the brow of Plato, and the bearing of a sage who was also a man of the great world. His ideas included many of our own, but were drawn from other sources and from wider experience. What he said was always interesting, but sometimes strange. I remember, for instance, his saying to me that States based on the unity of a single race, like modern Italy and Germany, would prove a danger to liberty; I did not see what he meant at the time, but I do now!

He accepted a Professorial Fellowship at Trinity, and at first lived in his rooms at Nevile’s Court. There he was to be found at all hours, accessible to any Cambridge historian from [Frederic] Maitland or [William] Cunningham to the humblest undergraduate, ready to help anyone from the profound stores of his knowledge. He sat at his desk, hidden away behind a labyrinth of tall shelves which he had put up to hold his history books, each volume with slips of paper sticking out from its pages to mark passages of importance.

He was very kind to me. I remember a walk we had together, and the place on the Madingley road where he told me never to believe people when they depreciated my great-uncle [Thomas Babington Macaulay], because for all his faults he was on the whole the greatest of all historians.

Since Acton came to recognize he would never write a history of liberty, he agreed to edit a series of books which would gather contributions from many respected authorities. Thus was born the Cambridge Modern History, a mundane series which squandered his last energies.

Acton suffered from high blood pressure, and in April 1901, after having edited the first two volumes, he had a paralytic stroke. He retired to his home in Tegernsee, Bavaria. A little over a year later, June 19, 1902, he died as a priest administered last rites. He was buried in a nearby churchyard.

The Acton Legacy

After Acton’s death, his 60,000-volume Aldenham library—his principal collection on liberty—was purchased by American steel entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie and given to John Morley, among the last English classical liberals. Morley, in turn, presented the books to Cambridge, so they would always be kept together.

During the next several years, Cambridge lecturers John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Lawrence gathered Acton’s most important works, and they appeared as Lectures on Modern History (1906), The History of Freedom and Other Essays (1907), Historical Essays and Studies (1908), and Lectures on the French Revolution (1910), followed by Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton (1917).

But he became a forgotten man as “Progressives,” New Dealers, socialists, Communists, fascists, Nazis, and other collectivists amassed monstrous political power which sacrificed liberty in the name of doing good. Then came the death toll—nearly 10 million dead from World War I, another 50 million dead from World War II, plus tens of millions people killed by Russia’s Stalin and China’s Mao, just to name the biggest butchers. Hundreds of millions more are subject to powerful states whose tax collectors take 40 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent and more of their hard-earned money.

Amidst collectivist carnage, some people began to remember Acton’s warnings about the evils of political power and his call to cherish human liberty. “It appears that we are privileged to understand him as his contemporaries never did,” observed historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. “He is of this age, more than of his. He is one of our great contemporaries.”

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.