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Originally published: 1860-1862, 1877,    
530 pages
Chapter 9


Lord Acton
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 consumption.
     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. Civil War
(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 compromise;


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 Lord Acton.
     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 in


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


in power will exercise diligence for them with almost invariably predictable results.  
     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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