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Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg, first Baron Actonlocked


Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg, first Baron Actonlocked

  • Josef L. Altholz

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902)

by Eveleen Myers, 1890s

Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg, first Baron Acton (1834–1902), historian and moralist, was born at Naples on 10 January 1834, the only child of Sir Ferdinand Richard Edward Acton, seventh baronet (1801–1837), and Marie Louise Pelline de Dalberg (1812–1860), the French-bred heir of Emeric Joseph, duc de Dalberg, the last survivor of an eminent German noble family with its seat at Herrnsheim. After his father's early death in Paris, his mother took him to England where she married (2 July 1840) Granville George Leveson-Gower, Lord Leveson, later second Earl Granville, the Liberal statesman. The Acton family had long been settled at Aldenham in Shropshire, receiving a baronetcy in 1643 for loyalty to Charles I. Acton was descended from a Roman Catholic cadet branch of the family which had settled in France. The baronetcy passed in 1791 to the eldest of that line, Sir John Francis Edward Acton (1736–1811), who had entered the Neapolitan naval service, reorganized it and the army, and eventually became prime minister of Naples. Because of his harsh repression of rebels, it is said, his grandson refused the income from his Italian estates. In 1799 General Acton married his brother's daughter by papal dispensation. Their younger son, Charles Januarius Edward Acton (1803–1847), became a cardinal.

Education and early career

Cosmopolitan by birth and breeding, speaking several languages and related to the nobilities of south Germany, France, and Italy, Acton was only in part an Englishman. His education was similarly varied. In 1842 he was sent to a school in Paris under Félix Dupanloup, passing in 1843 to Oscott College, then under the future cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, who made Oscott a centre of the Roman Catholic revival in England. In 1848 he went to Edinburgh for two rather unsatisfactory years under the tutelage of Dr Henry Logan. Then, in 1850, he found the master who formed his mind: he went to Munich for six years of private study under Professor Ignaz von Döllinger, living in his house. Döllinger was the foremost Roman Catholic church historian in Germany, a major figure in the scientific school of historians of whom Ranke was the leader. Under Döllinger's training Acton became a scientific and critical historian, particularly critical in dealing with the history of his church. Döllinger also initiated him in Burkean liberalism, cultivating a hatred of all forms of absolutism whether in church or state. The ethical effect of Döllinger's teaching was a deep commitment to the value of truth, especially in historiography, and to the sovereignty and freedom of conscience. Finally, Döllinger introduced Acton to the liberal Catholic movement of the continent, particularly on his annual visits with him to France, where Acton met the leading figures such as Montalembert and Broglie. Introduced early to eminent men, Acton had little opportunity to interact with his contemporaries.

In 1853 Acton accompanied Lord Ellesmere, commissioner to an industrial exhibition, to the United States, meeting many eminent figures. In 1856 he was attached to the mission of Lord Granville to the coronation of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. In 1857 he travelled with Döllinger to Italy, where he had connections, particularly Marco Minghetti, later premier, a relative and correspondent. Most important was his visit to Rome, where he was introduced to Pope Pius IX. From this Roman visit Döllinger dated his own disillusionment with the papacy. Acton was merely cool; personally devout, he was unimpressed by Roman institutions.

Returning to England in 1857, Acton settled at Aldenham, where he built his great library; but he did not have the tastes of a country squire. He sought to enter politics, and a seat was found for him in the whig interest at Carlow, where he was elected without making a personal appearance in 1859. He was not a suitable representative for this unruly Irish constituency, and he turned to his neighbouring borough of Bridgnorth in the 1865 election. He was elected by a majority of one but unseated in 1866 on a scrutiny. A second candidacy at Bridgnorth in 1868 was a failure. Acton was unsuited for competitive political life. He spoke only three times in the House of Commons, and when made a peer he appeared infrequently in the House of Lords. A failure as a practical politician, he was to achieve success as the confidant and adviser of William Ewart Gladstone.

On her deathbed in 1860, Acton's mother arranged a marriage between her son and his cousin, Countess Maria (Marie) Anna Ludomilla Euphrosina (1841–1923), second daughter of Count Johann Maximilian von Arco-Valley and his wife, Anna Margareta Maria Juliana Pelina, Countess Marescalchi; she viewed it as a dynastic alliance of two noble houses. Acton wooed his bride through her mother, of whom he was very fond. Considered too young to marry in 1860, she eventually became attached to another suitor, who was however disqualified by epilepsy. The engagement with Acton was once broken off, but later resumed after intervention by Döllinger. The couple were married on 1 August 1865 at St Martin in Austria, and despite the adverse circumstances of the union, it does not seem to have been initially unhappy. Acton's letters to his bride in 1865 and his pregnant wife in 1870 were full of tenderness. But the pair proved to be intellectually incompatible: Acton was unsuccessful in using his letters to Marie as a means of testing out his thoughts on serious questions, as he later did with Mary Gladstone. But it was in the intellectual sphere that Acton's true career lay.

Liberal Catholicism and The Rambler

One of Acton's objectives on his return to England was to develop an active intellectual life among English Catholics, introducing them to the critical scholarship he had learned on the continent. For this purpose he needed a periodical organ, which he found in 1858 when he acquired a principal share in the proprietorship of The Rambler, a monthly founded in 1848 by an Oxford convert, John Moore Capes, which had originally served as an organ for the converts, better educated than their ‘old Catholic’ co-religionists. Already, especially under the editorship of Richard Simpson, The Rambler had moved to a liberal Catholic position, supporting freedom of scholarship and philosophic speculation and coming into conflict with Cardinal Wiseman and his organ, the Dublin Review. In 1859 the bishops forced Simpson's resignation as editor. He was succeeded by John Henry Newman, who himself was forced to resign after two numbers. Acton then took the editorship, consolidating The Rambler's position as the organ of the liberal Catholic movement in England. He contributed several articles, some of which have been republished, and numerous reviews. The conflict with the ultramontanism of Wiseman, Henry Edward Manning, and William George Ward intensified. Partly to avert episcopal censure, the journal was transformed into the quarterly Home and Foreign Review in 1862; but the review was itself censured by Wiseman and William Bernard Ullathorne, bishop of Birmingham. None the less, the Home and Foreign Review established itself not only as the rival of Ward's Dublin Review but as one of the great periodicals of the age, notable for its learning and its European rather than insular character, winning the praise of Matthew Arnold for its knowledge and play of mind. Its excellence was especially displayed in numerous short notices of books in many languages, many of them written by Acton, a voracious reader and knowledgeable critic.

In late 1863 Acton attended a congress of Catholic scholars at Munich, where Döllinger gave an address urging a progressive historical rather than scholastic theology and demanding freedom of Catholic scholarship. Acton hailed this enthusiastically in the Home and Foreign Review (Jan 1864). But it aroused the direct hostility of Roman authority, and a papal brief to the archbishop of Munich asserted that Roman Catholic thought was bound by the decisions of Roman congregations. This was an explicit rejection of the fundamental principles of the review, denying any distinction between fixed dogma and theological opinion. Acton, knowing that a direct confrontation with Rome could only lead to a condemnation by an authority higher than English bishops, chose to 'sacrifice the existence of the Review to the defence of its principles, in order that I may combine the obedience which is due to legitimate ecclesiastical authority, with an equally conscientious maintenance of the rightful and necessary liberty of thought'. This statement, reasserting both his principle of freedom of thought and his loyalty to the authority of Rome, appeared in an article entitled 'Conflicts with Rome' in the final issue of the Home and Foreign Review in April 1864. This was the end of the liberal Catholic movement in England. The movement was decisively condemned in December 1864 by the encyclical Quanta cura and its appended Syllabus of Errors, the pope's refusal to 'come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization'. Acton could not endorse the Syllabus and spoke in 1865 of belonging 'rather to the soul than the body of the Roman Catholic Church'. His sacramental piety was not impaired, but his hopes for explicitly Catholic intellectual activity were dashed.

Acton turned to pure historical research, making several tours of archives throughout Europe between 1864 and 1868 for a variety of projects, none actually published. It was in the course of these archival tours that he became indignantly aware of the mendacity regularly practised by Roman Catholic historians to further the interests of their church. Also during this time he developed his hatred for religious persecution, which he regarded as nothing other than murder. These two concerns raised his opposition to Rome from the ecclesiastical to the ethical plane, leading to the rigorous moralism of his later years.

The liberal Catholics were able to return to literary endeavours, though not as a religious movement, when they founded a weekly journal, The Chronicle, in 1867, underwritten by Sir Rowland Blennerhassett and edited by T. F. Wetherell, Acton's former sub-editor. Acton served as Roman correspondent for The Chronicle and wrote several articles. The journal, too liberal for Catholics and too Catholic for liberals, lasted only a year. In 1869 the Acton circle, again with Wetherell as editor, took over the former organ of the Scottish Free Church, the North British Review, keeping it going until 1871. Acton contributed weighty articles, notably 'The massacre of St Bartholomew' (October 1869), where his scholarship was marred by his sharp anti-papal bias. Both these periodicals were secular rather than religious in character, devoted primarily to Gladstonian Liberalism. Acton was also able to express his thoughts on recent history with lectures delivered to the Bridgnorth Literary and Scientific Institution on the American Civil War in 1866 and on the Mexican empire in 1868.

Acton, Gladstone, and the First Vatican Council

During these years Acton's friendship with Gladstone became one of intimacy and mutual admiration. Acton, much younger, treated Gladstone with the respect due his seniority, but the younger man had the greater influence upon the elder. Gladstone shared his moralism and respected his learning and wisdom. Acton influenced Gladstone more than any other man, on subjects ranging from his support of the South during the American Civil War to his eventual conversion to home rule. Their friendship grew steadily from 1866, when they were in Rome together. On 11 December 1869, Acton was created a peer, on Gladstone's recommendation, as Baron Acton of Aldenham, one of the first two Roman Catholic peers created since emancipation. There were political reasons: he and his fellow, Lord Howard of Glossop, had recently lost seats, and more Liberal peers were needed in the Lords. But Gladstone, aside from wishing to compliment his friend, had the additional motive of seeking to strengthen Acton's position at Rome, where he was already working to organize opposition to the impending definition of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council.

Acton played a remarkable role for a layman during the council. He was Gladstone's personal agent and observer, and he urged him to have Britain join other powers in diplomatic action to prevent the definition. This was foiled not, as has been alleged, because of Manning's influence on Odo Russell, the British diplomatic agent, but because Gladstone found resistance in the cabinet led by the foreign secretary, Lord Clarendon. Acton also sought to influence European public opinion by writing detailed accounts of the council to Döllinger at Munich, who combined them with others in a series published in the Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung under the name of Quirinus. They were published as a book at Munich and translated into English as Letters from Rome on the Council (1870). Acton was responsible only for fifteen of the letters, and he differed from Döllinger on some of the others, Döllinger opposing infallibility as untrue and Acton because it was immoral, the symbol of papal absolutism and the ultramontane system of untruthfulness and justification of persecution. Acton's most important activity was within the council itself, where, although not a member, he organized the minority of opposition bishops, urging them to hold together in resistance, and in general functioning as a sort of minority whip. His ability was recognized by all, but most of the opposition bishops were unreliable for his purpose, opposing the definition only on the ground of its being inopportune. Expecting defeat, the minority withdrew from Rome, allowing the dogma to be adopted in July 1870. Acton had already left.

From Tegernsee, his wife's family home, Acton issued his Sendschreiben an einen deutschen Bischof des vaticanischen Concils (1870), quoting from anti-infallibilist statements and asking whether the bishops still maintained their resistance. They did not; within a year all the bishops had submitted. This was a grave moral crisis for Acton but in a way it eventually made it easier for him to live with the newly defined dogma. He could argue, as his correspondent Archbishop Kenrick of St Louis did, that the consent of the church at large remedied any defects in the council itself and that he need not give internal assent to the dogma; he could trust, as a believer in the development of doctrine, that in time infallibility could be acceptably incorporated into the body of Roman Catholic dogma. So he did not leave the church. Döllinger, whose quarrel was with the dogma itself rather than the existing system which it represented, could not submit and was excommunicated; and other opponents formed a small secessionist ‘Old Catholic’ communion.

Acton's position was unchallenged until 1874, when Gladstone published his pamphlet on The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance, inspired in part by Acton's letters to him during the council. Acton had advised against publication, and he responded to Gladstone in letters to The Times, vindicating the loyalty of British Catholics by showing that they had disregarded papal instructions in the past and that the practical power of the papacy was not increased by the decrees. He struck a final blow at ultramontanism, showing by historical examples that church authorities had for centuries committed political crimes without the aid of the dogma of infallibility. This was a defence of Catholics at the expense of the church as an institution, and when reproached for this Acton asserted the duty of uttering historical truth, which might disgrace churchmen but could never tarnish the holiness of the church. Archbishop Manning, by now an enemy, demanded an explanation (November 1874); Acton evaded an outright acceptance of infallibility, saying only that he submitted to the acts of the council, relying on God's providence in the government of the church. Manning was dissatisfied and referred the matter to Rome. But Acton had satisfied his diocesan bishop as to his orthodoxy; he was a layman and a peer; and Rome took no action. For months, however, Acton expected to be excommunicated, a fate especially dreadful to one whose simple devotion was centred on the sacraments. When he said that communion with Rome was dearer than life, the emphasis should be placed on ‘communion’. Retaining that, he withdrew from religious controversy.

Historical writings

Acton turned to the study of history, for which he had built a library of some 60,000 volumes. In 1863 he had published a tract, Human Sacrifice, and an edition of Les matinées royales, alleged memoirs of Frederick the Great which he later found to be spurious. He edited Nicholas Harpsfield's Narrative of the Divorce and Letters of James II to the Abbot of La Trappe for the Philobiblon Society (1872–6). But his original publications were few. He would not write until he had read all the sources, a rule which was fatal in the era of the opening of archives. The spur of journalism was no longer available to him. He published an article in the Quarterly Review, 'Wolsey and the divorce of Henry VIII' (January 1877), and a review of Sir Erskine May's Democracy in Europe (January 1878) which displayed his learning, and a substantial article on George Eliot in the Nineteenth Century (March 1885). In 1886 he was one of the founders of the English Historical Review, contributing to the first number a massively learned article, 'German schools of history' (German trans. 1887), part of his programme of introducing German scholarship to England, and later publishing some substantial reviews. He also served the cause of learning as a trustee of the British Museum and a member of the Historical Manuscripts Commission. But he published no book, though he formulated several book projects. The greatest of these was a 'History of liberty', which occupied him from 1877 to 1883. The only result, aside from a mass of notes, was a pair of lectures at Bridgnorth in 1877 on the 'History of freedom' in antiquity and in Christianity, published in French translation in Paris in 1878. Of his other projects, a biography of Döllinger yielded an article, 'Döllinger's historical works', in the English Historical Review (1890). Acton was a natural essayist, of the monographic sort, with a somewhat difficult and allusive style and a flair for aphorisms.

Another reason why Acton wrote no book was his sense of isolation. He was not isolated from intellectual society; he was a member of Grillion's, the Club, and the Athenaeum among other clubs, met the best intellectual society and corresponded copiously. But he was isolated in his intellectual position by his rigorous moralism. He insisted on an absolute moral standard in history, the basic test being murder, with the historian as judge condemning not only the murderer but even more those who encouraged or justified the murder; this required him to condemn the leaders of his own church most of all for their justification of persecution. In 1879 he discovered that Döllinger, for all his opposition to infallibility, did not share this fundamental criticism of the pre-1870 church, and a painful correspondence of several years ended in their intellectual separation. The shock left Acton's creative faculties almost paralysed for a time. He was indeed isolated, as he found later when he wrote a severe review of Mandell Creighton's History of the Popes (1887), faulting him for being insufficiently condemnatory of medieval popes. In the ensuing correspondence, in which Creighton made the better case, Acton uttered his best-known aphorism, 'power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely' (Acton to Creighton, 3 April 1887, cited in L. Creighton, Life … of Mandell Creighton, 1904, 1, chap. 13). The standard of morality was not always compatible with his other standard of impartiality, and in practice Acton did not always adhere to either, having a whig bias toward seeing history as progress to liberty.

Although publishing little and isolated in his fundamental principles, Acton was known and appreciated in the intellectual world for his erudition, which he freely shared. An American visitor called him the nearest approach to omniscience he had met. Honours came to him: in 1872 the University of Munich gave him an honorary doctorate of philosophy, and he became an FSA in 1876. In 1888 he was made an honorary LLD at Cambridge, in 1889 an honorary DCL at Oxford. In 1891, at Gladstone's suggestion, he received an honorary fellowship of All Souls.

Finances and lordship-in-waiting

Acton suffered financial troubles during these years. Although the Aldenham estate of some 6000 acres had a nominal rental of about £7500, it was heavily encumbered; Acton paid little attention to management, and the 1870s were years of agricultural depression. In 1879 he had to sell his house at Herrnsheim and let that at Aldenham, taking out a large loan as well. Henceforth he lived mostly abroad, at Tegernsee and Cannes. In the late 1870s and 1880s, his marriage seems to have suffered too: there are definite signs of unhappiness, even estrangement. His financial situation was finally eased in 1890 when, at Gladstone's suggestion, Andrew Carnegie purchased his great library, allowing Acton to keep it for his lifetime. (After Acton's death, Carnegie gave the library to John Morley, who gave it to Cambridge University Library, where it is separately housed.) It is unclear, however, how long-lived Acton's marital difficulties were.

When forming his fourth ministry in 1892, Gladstone wished to include Acton, who avidly sought a place; but no place could be found for him more consequential than lord-in-waiting. His political role was to speak for the government on Irish issues in the Lords. As a courtier, he won the favour of Queen Victoria, whose German interests he shared. She made him a KCVO in 1897.

Regius professor and the Cambridge Modern History

Acton was destined to achieve eminence neither as politician nor as courtier, but as a scholar. In 1895 Lord Rosebery, whom Acton had helped to bring into the 1892 cabinet, nominated him to become regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, where he took up residence at Trinity College. On 11 June 1895 he delivered an impressive inaugural lecture on the study of history, urging his favourite themes, the unity of modern history as the progress of liberty, the importance of the critical scientific method of research, and the duty of the historian to uphold the moral standard in history. The lecture was published with Germanic footnotes of extensive quotations; it was translated into German in 1897.

Acton entered fully into Cambridge life and professorial work, and his Cambridge years were the happiest of his life. His pleasure in his college rooms, bachelor digs, may have been connected to his marital problems. He gave a course of lectures on the French Revolution, followed a few years later by a course on modern history, both published after his death. The lectures were well attended by dons, students, and the public. Their impressiveness was enhanced by Acton's striking dignity, his flowing beard, and the deep voice in which he read from his text. But his work at Cambridge was not limited to lecturing. He revitalized the history school, stagnant under his predecessors Charles Kingsley and Sir John Seeley. He entertained his colleagues and gave freely of his wisdom to don and undergraduate alike.

In 1896 the syndics of the Cambridge University Press approached Acton with a proposal for a collaborative work which became the Cambridge Modern History. He accepted the editorship, drew up the plan of chapters for the twelve volumes, and began to solicit contributors. That part of the work was the hardest, as he had to deal with collaborators none of whom shared his historical moralism and many of whom opposed each other on other issues; all he could do was exhort them to be impartial. The strain broke him down; characteristically, none of his own chapters was completed. Yet the first volume was in type before he died; and the plan of work is his monument.

Death and reputation

Acton suffered a paralytic stroke in 1901 and withdrew to Tegernsee, where he died, after receiving the sacraments of his church, on 19 June 1902, and where he was buried. He was survived by his widow, three daughters, and a son, Richard Maximilian (1870–1924), who succeeded him as the second Baron Acton. The cosmopolitan character of the Acton family is illustrated by the fact that the second lord, a British diplomat, found it advisable to obtain a private act of naturalization in 1911.

Aside from periodical articles, Acton published in his lifetime only scattered lectures and edited works. After his death, the extent of his writings was revealed by the publication of his two courses of lectures (1906, 1910) and two volumes of collected essays (1907), all edited by J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence, who also edited his selected correspondence (1917). Two other volumes of letters appeared shortly after Acton's death, and several further volumes both of essays and letters have subsequently been published (the greatest compilation is the three-volume Selected Writings edited by J. Rufus Fears, 1986–8). A bibliography of Acton's writings was edited by W. A. Shaw for the Royal Historical Society in 1903, but there is still no truly complete and accurate bibliography. Acton's notes, in Cambridge University Library, are a mine of aphorisms.

Acton's reputation was revived after the Second World War, when his defence of liberty against absolutism was perceived as a prophetic warning against totalitarianism. This aspect of the Acton revival has been misappropriated by neo-conservative ideologues; but it produced Gertrude Himmelfarb's biography (1952). There was also a renewed interest in Acton as a historian, under the auspices of Herbert Butterfield. A third aspect of the Acton revival has come from interest in his liberal Catholicism. There has been some reaction against this revived study of one whose life was largely a failure. But others may feel that failure is especially worthy of study when it reveals the fierce integrity of Acton's devotion to conscience, to truth, and to liberty.


  • G. Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: a study in conscience and politics (1952)
  • R. Hill, Lord Acton (2000)
  • Briefwechsel [von] Ignaz von Döllinger, ed. V. Conzemius, 1–3 (Munich, 1963–71)
  • The correspondence of Lord Acton and Richard Simpson, ed. J. L. Altholz, D. McElrath, and J. C. Holland, 3 vols. (1971–5)
  • Letters of Lord Acton to Mary Gladstone, ed. H. Paul (1904)
  • J. L. Altholz, The liberal Catholic movement in England: the ‘Rambler’ and its contributors, 1848–1864 [1962]
  • D. McElrath and others, Lord Acton: the decisive decade, 1864–1874 (1970)
  • H. Tulloch, Acton (1988)
  • R. L. Schuettinger, ‘Bibliography of the works of Lord Acton’, Lord Acton: historian of liberty (1976), 191–35
  • Charlotte, Lady Blennerhassett, ‘The late Lord Acton’, EdinR, 197 (1903), 501–34
  • H. Butterfield, Lord Acton (1948) [Historical Association pamphlet G9]
  • O. Chadwick, Acton and History (1998)
  • O. Chadwick, Acton and Gladstone (1998)
  • G. Watson, Lord Acton's History of Liberty (1994)


  • CUL, corresp. and papers
  • CUL, draft proposal and letters relating to Cambridge Modern History
  • Downside Abbey, near Bath, letters to Richard Simpson
  • Shrops. RRC, corresp., mainly relating to historical and religious interests
  • Birmingham Oratory, letters to J. H. Newman
  • BL, letters to Lord Gladstone, Add. MSS 46044–46055, passim
  • BL, letters to Mary Gladstone, Add. MS 46239
  • BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44093–44094
  • BL OIOC, letters to Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff, MS Eur. F 234
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lord Bryce
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to H. A. L. Fisher
  • CUL, Blennerhassett MSS
  • King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning
  • NL Ire., letters to Alice Stopford Green
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Rosebery
  • Pembroke College, Oxford, corresp. with Sir Peter Renouf
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Granville, PRO30/29
  • TNA: PRO, letters to Odo Russell, FO918
  • Trinity Cam., letters to Lord Houghton
  • Trinity Cam., letters to Henry Sidgwick
  • U. St Andr. L., letters to Wilfrid Ward


  • F. S. von Lenbach, oils, 1879, NPG; copy by L. Arco-Vallery, Trinity Cam.
  • E. Myers, photograph, 1890–99, NPG [see illus.]
  • F. Sargent, pencil, NPG
  • photograph, repro. in Abbot Gasquet, Lord Acton and his circle (1906), frontispiece
  • photograph, Bettmann archive, New York
  • photograph, CUL
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