John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton (1834-1902), was a major English scientific historian and Catholic philosopher. His work is distinguished by the application of rigorous standards of accuracy and ethical principles to history.

John Acton was born on Jan. 10, 1834, in Naples. He was educated in England at Oscott College and in 1848 went to Munich, then a center for the general revival of Catholic scholarship. Ignaz von Döllinger, a member of the Munich group and follower of Leopold von Ranke, introduced Acton to Ranke's new scientific history and to recent developments in Catholic scholarship.

When Acton returned to England in 1859, he succeeded John Henry Newman as editor of the Catholic monthly Rambler (after 1862 the Home and Foreign Review). Acton advocated the application of scientific historical methods to Christianity, believing it possible to reconcile Christianity with the findings of history and thus to strengthen the Roman Catholic Church. Acton's Review was publicly censored in 1862 by Cardinal Wiseman. In 1864, after Pius IX rejected Döllinger's appeal for a less hostile attitude toward historical criticism of Christianity, Acton abandoned his editorship of the Review. During the controversy in 1870 over papal infallibility, Acton attacked papal temporal power and continued to criticize the misuse of history. He further provoked English Roman Catholic circles in 1874 with his letters to the Times, citing historical examples of papal inconsistency.

Acton's historical writings consist largely of lectures. However, his importance resulted less from his published works than from his personal influence, his insistence on scientific methods, and his prescient concern with political morality. His essay "Democracy in Europe" (1878) and two lectures delivered at Bridgnorth in 1877 (published in 1907)—"The History of Freedom in Antiquity" and "The History of Freedom in Christianity"—are the only completed portions of his projected History of Liberty. Influenced by Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, Acton saw liberty threatened by democracy and socialism as well as by the evils of highly concentrated state power. Conscience, the fount of freedom, had higher claims than those of the state. He was a critic of racism and nationalism, with his liberalism rooted in Christianity.

Acton was one of the founders of the English Historical Review and wrote an essay on modern German historians for the first volume (1885). He was appointed professor of modern history at Cambridge University in 1895. His inaugural lecture, "The Study of History, " and his courses, "Lectures on the French Revolution" and "Lectures on Modern History," made a great impression on scientific historiography at the time. Acton was to be the editor of the great multivolume Cambridge Modern History, but only the first volume appeared before his death in 1902.

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Further Reading on John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton

The best book on Acton is Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952). Other works are David Mathew, Acton: The Formative Years (1946), and Lionel Kochan, Acton on History (1954).

Additional Biography Sources

Chadwick, Owen, Acton and Gladstone, London: Athlone Press, 1976.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude, Lord Acton: a study in conscience and politics, San Francisco, CA: ICS Press, 1993.

Mathew, David, Acton, the formative years, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974.

Schuettinger, Robert Lindsay, Lord Acton: historian of liberty, LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1976.

Tulloch, Hugh, Acton, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.