|Originally published: 1860-1862, 1877, |
ESSAYS IN THE HISTORY OF LIBERTY
Lord Acton's most enduring intellectual contribution to the study of society
and its evolutionary processes was his effort to transform the consideration
and recording of history in two ways: first, to elevate it to the level of
rigorous scientific exercise; second, to cause it to be used as a method of
achieving moral progress through judgment and discrimination. He notes,
"Political progress is a process of adaptation, not a result of
speculation; this distinguishes reform from revolution." He strongly
asserts, as does Edmund
Burke (Chapter 36), that history plays a role of paramount importance in
any society and in any political process: "As growth is one of the laws
of life, reform becomes one of the principles of government."
A member of the aristocracy, Lord Acton had the
leisure to view the world from his perch at the pinnacle of society. His
understanding of liberty and the place of government in the life of any
people lead him to conclude,
Liberty is not a means to a higher political end, it is itself the
highest political end.
He argues that the state should intervene in the lives of its citizens
only to the extent that it fosters the ability of individuals to secure
their liberty; that is, their freedom from oppression, injustice, despotism,
tyranny. Liberty is a concept that, in order to be understood, needs context
to define it. The intention of the materials contained in First
Principles is to offer a definition of liberty under law. Lord Acton
sought the same end thus his views are a primary resource.
As a close student of the New World experiment Lord
Acton applied his considerable experience and judgment to the American model
to see how well words matched deeds. Because the country had been formed out
of whole cloth woven from threads of historical experience, judging the
outcome of its efforts in relation to its stated goals allowed for both
practical and philosophical utility. There was uniform European interest in
America in Lord Acton's time; he took the lessons taught by American
ingenuity and political freedom and postulated the full potential of a free
society's social and governmental causes and effects for European
For Lord Acton morality was the foundation of
social interaction, whether in the halls of government or between
individuals or among nations. His introduction of moral judgment into the
writing of history in the nineteenth century was probably his most direct
contribution to the fight against totalitarianism in the twentieth century.
Lord Acton saw history as more than just facts. He viewed it as a drama with
a noble end and he believed that the story it told must not be ignored lest
it play out over and over again, to no avail. His opinion of the importance
of virtue and rectitude in making judgments on history is reflected in his
writings. In Essays, when discussing the American Revolution, he writes of
"principles which override precedents." With regard to the U.S.
(which he watched develop) he notes, "The absolute subjection of the
individual to the State is against the laws of political morality…."
Melding historical judgment with historical
precedent yields progress by reducing the likelihood of recurrent mistakes.
In order to learn the most from the study of history Lord Acton urged his
followers to "Take up a problem, not a period." In this manner the
student can see more than facts, he can discern conditions and influences
not just actors. Lord Acton felt that progress is imbedded in the
recognition of errors as much as in the discovery of new methods. In fact,
without the former, the latter has often been delayed for decades, if not
centuries. As the American democratic republic was the newest of mankind's
inventions Lord Acton found fertile ground for observation and comment.
Although his investigations, through his essays,
cover the history of the evolution of government, he was especially
intrigued by the American Civil War: first, because it was a war between
citizens; second, because its subtext-human slavery-would suffer no
and third, because American government was founded on the
English system of equity and therefore one would expect a certain outcome as
a result of that history. (It is important to recall that the Civil War was
not fought over slavery; its subject was the legitimacy of the secession of
the Southern states from the Union, though slavery was resolved as a result
of the conflict.)
Lord Acton viewed the victory of the North as
inevitable for practical reasons (manpower, industrial capability,
resources-financial, human, and natural). Yet he also saw it as antithetical
to liberty-to the right of self-governance under law-because the
Constitution did not prohibit secession. In his analysis this glaring
omission not only justified secession, but reflected the essence of the
American form, that is, government by the consent of the governed. If
the governed no longer concurred in whatever was extant how could they be
compelled to remain?
Lord Acton argues that the North's approach, which
forced a nation to exist, was a form of state despotism. His conclusions had
broader implications than just the effects and outcome regarding the
specific cause of the war. It was clear to him that if the national
government could rule the states it could just as well rule the citizens.
This undermined liberty not just collectively but fundamentally.
The issues he discerned then are the same issues
with which we deal today. How much liberty can the citizenry demand while
recognizing the need of the body politic to compromise widely differing
views? How much cohesion can we enforce while not destroying the
individuality to which each person is entitled? To try to answer some of
these issues Lord Acton went back centuries.
He began his investigation of liberty with the
Greeks-whose society he saw as incomplete. Essentially, he found that within
the Greek polity democracy was born but justice was not. And justice was the
goal-but it was the result and the means of attaining it that were
equally paramount-thus began his view that judging history was as necessary
as reporting it.
In his essays he discusses the development of the
free exercise of government. The crowning moment for his own country came by
means of the English Revolution (c. 1642-1651):
[I]t is the greatest thing done by the English nation. It established the
State upon a contract, and set up the doctrine that a breach of contract
forfeited the crown….Parliament
gave the crown, and gave it under conditions….The king became its
servant on good behaviour….
After this revolution, Parliament, with some fits and starts, became
supreme in overseeing both the administration of government and the
legislation that set the rules that would judge everyone's conduct. But,
again, this revolution was not whole, for there was still the potential of
the "oppression of class by class, and of the country by the
State." In order to achieve a more equitable balance as time passed and
real life intruded upon the misty visions first imagined, the need for
continued adjustment, conciliation, and compromise surfaced. As history has
born out, these methods did work to help effect a more perfect union of
government and citizens, and therein lies their enduring value-and that of
This volume is a compendium of Lord Acton's most
important essays on freedom. While freedom is itself timeless, we must
consider the times in which the essays were written, as well as the man who
wrote them. While we contemplate Lord Acton's moral understandings and
judgments (formed in the era of Victorian England, 1840-1900) we will also
find that Edmund Burke's philosophy of liberty (formed 1750-1790) is
reflected in Lord Acton's reporting of history. The long chronicle of
monarchical domination experienced by European nations caused Lord Acton to
comment on the effects of statism-which is democracy/bureaucracy gone too
far. His remarks were recorded as a democratic Parliament became supreme in
Britain. He echoes the concerns of Alexis
de Tocqueville (Chapter 8), in addition to those of Burke, regarding the
leveling consequences of majority rule:
[D]emocracy, like monarchy, is salutary within limits and fatal in excess.
He also predicts, with a prescience that must be
noted, the tendency toward socialism inevitably bred by equalitarian (versus
egalitarian) goals formed in a democratic setting:
Socialism, [is] the infirmity that attends mature democracies.
His dissection of the progression from liberty
to oppression, as it developed in the democratic nations of Europe, presaged
much of the politics that evolved as socialism was imposed again and again
the first half of the twentieth century, and as we see happening in the
modern welfare state ascendant in most Western nations.
Lord Acton spent the latter part of his career
formalizing his method and his philosophy of history which he intended to
publish as the History of Liberty. Although he never finished that
project the pieces he did complete captured the essence of his thinking.
Many are included in this volume. The foundation of his intended narrative
is condensed in the oft-expressed idea that democracy can just as easily
become a form of despotism as can monarchy because "popular power may
be tainted with the same poison as personal power." Thus, coming to a
moral judgment as to the goals and effects of any particular majority was as
useful and valid as judging the effects of oligarchy or monarchy, where
either may be benevolent or dictatorial. As Lord Acton succinctly observes,
The will of the people cannot make just that which is unjust.
America's solution to this dilemma-a solution
that Lord Acton views as wise and effective-was twofold: first, there is the
system of checks and balances embodied in the separation of powers (he was
especially enamored of the power of the courts to hold the other two
branches in check); second, there was the citizenry's constant vigilance
exercised through frequent elections to both test the government's power
and, if necessary, change its personnel or policies. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist
No. 70, first enunciates specifically the duties of the polity under the
proposed Constitution to protect both itself and the country:
The ingredients which constitute safety in the republican sense are a
due dependence on the people, and a due responsibility.
This theme is iterated often by the authors in First
Principles and is repeated in various texts herein because of its
paramount import. No matter how well our systems and institutions are
designed, no matter how precise and pointed our laws, those who participate
in and those who benefit from these systems need to recall that the primary
check against public abuse of any type is a political one. Vigilance and
action are required if these democracies are to work in the manner
contemplated. If the people are not watchful, then, by default those
power will exercise diligence for them with almost invariably predictable
Because his ideas were not willingly embraced
during his lifetime Lord Acton considered himself both an intellectual and
professional failure. Nowadays, however, his insight, foresight, and methods
are universally embraced in a world that enjoys more freedom than it
otherwise would were it not for his intellectual contribution. Reading these
essays and watching Lord Acton develop the foundation for assessing history
as more than just facts is a valuable exercise in today's world where moral
relativism is undermining our ability to form valid or practical opinions
about our social and political foundations and interactions.
About the Book
In addition to the essays themselves, the Liberty Fund's presentation of
Lord Acton's writing contains several shorter pieces that are either reviews
of contemporaneous publications or accounts of concurrent events. The reader
is advised to focus on particular sections of this book for an understanding
of what Lord Acton's writings bring to our comprehension of liberty.
Obviously, the remaining sections may be read as well, but they are not
necessary to complete the essential picture of this author's contributions.
The most relevant pages are: 2-97, 189-367, 377-88, 409-33, 505-30.
About the Author
John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton was considered by many to be the most
educated man of his era. He was both an historian and a political
philosopher. Born of English parents in Italy in 1834, he was educated in
Germany and England. He never earned a formal degree because, as a Catholic,
he was barred from English universities. His faith initially played a strong
part in guiding his career. He later broke with the church politically,
though not religiously, because he felt it was too mired in both the past
and the idea of papal infallibility. He was the founder and editor of two
widely read periodicals in which his views appeared. He wrote and commented
on history and social progress throughout his life as an essayist and
reviewer. In his later years, he became a professor at Cambridge University,
an institution from which he had been barred as student forty years earlier because
of his Catholicism. Lord Acton was a member of Queen
Victoria's court though he was also elected to Parliament for a short time
in the 1850s. He acted as a personal advisor to Prime Minister William
Gladstone (elected British prime minister four times between 1868-1894) and
helped guide Gladstone's liberal programs (using the classical European
definition of the term "liberal"). Lord Acton died in 1902.
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