ACTON (JOHN EMERICH EDWARD DALBERG ACTON), IST BARON (1834-1902), English historian, only son of Sir Richard Acton, 7th baronet, and grandson of the Neapolitan admiral, Sir J. F. E. Acton, 6th baronet, was born at Naples on the 10th of January 1834. His grandfather, who had succeeded in 1791 to the baronetcy and family estates in Shropshire, previously held by the English branch of the Acton family, represented a younger branch which had transferred itself first to France and then to Italy, but by the extinction of the elder branch the admiral became head of the family; his eldest son, Richard, had married Marie Louise Pelline, the daughter and heiress of Emerich Joseph, duc de Dalberg, a naturalized French noble of ancient German lineage who had entered the French service under Napoleon and represented Louis XVIII. at the congress of Vienna in 1814, and after Sir Richard Acton’s death in 1837 she became (1840) the wife of the 2nd Earl Granville. Coming of a Roman Catholic family, young Acton was educated at Oscott till 1848 under Dr (afterwards Cardinal) Wiseman, and then at Edinburgh, and at Munich under Dollinger, whose lifelong friend he became. He had wished to go to Cambridge, but for a Roman Catholic this was then impossible. By Dollinger he was inspired with a deep love of historical research and a profound conception of its functions as a critical instrument. He was a master of the chief foreign languages, and began at an early age to collect a magnificent historical library, with the object, never in fact realized, of writing a great History of Liberty. In politics he was always an ardent Liberal. Without being a notable traveler, he spent much time in the chief intellectual centers of Europe, and in the United States, and numbered among his friends such men as Montalembert, De Tocqueville. Fustel de Coulanges, Bluntschli, von Sybel and Ranke. He was attached to Lord Granville’s mission to Moscow, as British representative at the coronation of Alexander II. in 1856. In 1859 Sir John Acton settled in England, at his country house, Aldenham, in Shropshire. He was returned to the House of Commons in that year for the Irish borough of Carlow, and became a devoted admirer and adherent of Mr. Gladstone; but he was practically a silent member, and his parliamentary career came to an end after the general election of 1865, when, having headed the poll for Bridgnorth, he was unseated on a scrutiny; he contested Bridgnorth again in 1868, but without success.
Meanwhile he had become editor of the Roman Catholic monthly paper, the Rambler, in 1859, on J. H. Newman’s retirement from the editorship; and in 1862 he merged this periodical in the Home and Foreign Review. His contributions at once gave evidence of his remarkable wealth of historical knowledge. But though a sincere Roman Catholic, his whole spirit as a historian was hostile to ultramontane pretensions, and his independence of thought and liberalism of view speedily brought him into conflict with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. As early as August 1862, Cardinal Wiseman publicly censured the Review; and when in 1864, after Dollinger’s appeal at the Munich Congress for a less hostile attitude towards historical criticism, the pope issued a declaration that the opinions of Catholic writers were subject to the authority of the Roman congregations, Acton felt that there was only one way of reconciling his literary conscience with his ecclesiastical loyalty, and he stopped the publication of his monthly periodical. He continued, however, to contribute articles to the North British Review, which, previously a Scottish Free Church organ, had been acquired by friends in sympathy with him, and which for some years (until 1872, when it ceased to appear) actively promoted the interests of a high-class Liberalism in both temporal and ecclesiastical matters; he also did a good deal of lecturing on historical subjects. In 1865 he married the Countess Marie, daughter of the Bavarian Count Arco-Valley, by whom he had one son and three daughters. In 1869 he was raised to the peerage by Gladstone as Baron Acton; he was an intimate friend and constant correspondent of the Liberal leader, and the two men had the very highest regard for one another. Matthew Arnold used to say that “Gladstone influences all round him but Acton; it is Acton who influences Gladstone.”
In 1870 came the great crisis in the Roman Catholic world over the promulgation by Pius IX. of the dogma of papal infallibility. Lord Acton, who was in complete sympathy on this subject with Dollinger (q.v.), went to Rome in order to throw all his influence against it, but the step he so much dreaded was not to be averted. The Old Catholic separation followed, but Acton did not personally join the seceders, and the authorities prudently refrained from forcing the hands of so competent and influential an English layman. In 1874, when Gladstone published his pamphlet on The Vatican Decrees, Lord Acton wrote during November and December a series of remarkable letters to The Times, illustrating Gladstone’s main theme by numerous historical examples of papal inconsistency, in a way which must have been bitter enough to the ultramontane party, but demurring nevertheless to Gladstone’s conclusion and insisting that the Church itself was better than its premises implied. Acton’s letters led to another storm in the English Roman Catholic world, but once more it was considered prudent by the Vatican to leave him alone. In spite of his reservations, he regarded “communion with Rome as dearer than life.” Thenceforth he steered clear of theological polemics. He devoted himself to persistent reading and study, combined with congenial society. With all his capacity for study he was a man of the world, and a man of affairs, not a bookworm. Little indeed came from his pen, his only notable publications being a masterly essay in the Quarterly Review of January 1878 on “Democracy in Europe”; two lectures delivered at Bridgnorth in 1877 on “The History of Freedom in Antiquity” and “The History of Freedom in Christianity”—these last the only tangible portions put together by him of his long-projected “History of Liberty”; and an essay on modern German historians in the first number of the English Historical Review, which he helped to found (1886). After 1879 he divided his time between London, Cannes and Tegernsee in Bavaria, enjoying and reciprocating the society of his friends. In 1872 he had been given the honorary degree of doctor of philosophy by Munich University; in 1888 Cambridge gave him the honorary degree of LL.D., and in 1889 Oxford the D.C.L.; and in 1890 he was made a fellow of All Souls.
His reputation for learning had gradually been spread abroad, largely through Gladstone’s influence. The latter found him a valuable political adviser, and in 1892, when the Liberal government came in, Lord Acton was made a lord-in-waiting. Finally, in 1895, on the death of Sir John Seeley, Lord Rosebery appointed him to the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Cambridge. The choice was an excellent one. His inaugural lecture on “The Study of History,” afterwards published with notes displaying a vast erudition, made a great impression in the university, and the new professor’s influence on historical study was felt in many important directions. He delivered two valuable courses of lectures, on the French Revolution and on Modern History, but it was in private that the effects of his teaching were most marked. The great Cambridge Modern History, though he did not live to see it, was planned under his editorship, and all who came in contact with him testified to his stimulating powers and his extraordinary range of knowledge. He was taken ill, however, in 1901, and died on the 19th of June 1902, being succeeded in the title by his son. Richard Maximllian Dalberg Acton, 2nd Baron Acton (b.1870). Lord Acton has left too little completed original work to rank among the great historians; his very learning seems to have stood in his way; he knew too much and his literary conscience was too acute for him to write easily, and his copiousness of information overloads his literary style. But he was one of the most deeply learned men of his time, and he will certainly be remembered for his influence on others. His extensive library, formed for use and not for display, and composed largely of books full of his own annotations, was bought immediately after his death by Mr. Andrew Carnegie, and presented to Mr. John Morley, by whom it was forthwith given to the university of Cambridge.
See Mr. Herbert Paul’s excellent Introductory Memoir to the interesting volume of Lord Acton’s Letters to Mrs. Drew (1904), and the authorities cited there; also Dom Gasquet’s Lord Acton and his Circle (1906). A Bibliography of the works of Lord Acton, by W. A. Shaw, was published by the Royal Historical Society in 1903. The Edinburgh Review of April 1903 contains a luminous essay; and Mr. Bryce has a chapter on Acton in his Studies of Contemporary Biography (1903). Lord Acton’s Lectures on Modern History, edited by J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence, appeared in 1906; and his History of Freedom and other Essays and Historical Essay’s and Studies (by the same editors) in 1907.
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