Lord John Acton (1834–1902)
Lord John Acton, the great liberal academic who dominated the field of history during the latter part of the Victorian Age, was born into a family of the upper echelon of society in Italy and moved to England at the age of three. There, Acton faced persecution for his Catholic religious beliefs. Lord Acton went on to become a member of the first Vatican Council, where he advocated for political and religious freedom. At times throughout his career, he was highly critical of the Vatican for intolerance and persecution. He attended university in Germany, was elected a member of the House of Commons in 1859, and acquired and was the editor of the periodical the Rambler, which he shaped into a liberal journal of Catholicism. In 1895, Acton was appointed the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. He began work on a universal history that would track religious virtue and the expansion of liberty, but he died before completion.
Acton can be characterized as being critical of excessive power in only a few hands at the national level, in his Catholic Church as well as in government. Acton is best known for the famous phrase ‘‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’’ He was suspicious of unchecked nationalism, meaning a political system that governs by a general will for an entire state, since it stood to undermine traditional liberties. For example, he hailed the secession of the South from the Union in the Civil War as the realization of states’ rights as the only check on absolutist rule.
Acton favored the slow evolution of institutions above broad-sweeping reactionary measures; law ought to parallel, not spur, history. He called for expanded personal freedom but viewed the central government as a hindrance to society’s progress on this front. He believed that a national government must have its authority divided in order safeguard liberty, akin to checks and balances. Acton also believed that liberty encompassed the rights of minorities— persons who fall outside the so-called majority group that controls the government. Acton’s views on nationalist power and liberty for all are manifest in the American system of checks and balances. This includes the Supreme Court’s protection of the civil liberties of so-called minority groups from laws that persecute them, such as the Amish or Jehovah’s Witnesses, while striking a necessary balance with majoritarian rule.
JAMES F. VAN ORDEN
References and Further Reading
- Acton, Lord John Emerich Edward. Lectures on Modern History. London: Macmillan and Co., 1930
- Matthew, David. Lord Acton and His Times. University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1968
- Watson, George. Lord Acton’s History of Liberty: A Study of His Library, with an Edited Text on His History of Liberty Notes. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1994.