John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton

John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton
The Right Honourable
The Lord Acton
Member of Parliament
for Bridgnorth
In office
25 July 1865 – 1866
Serving with John Pritchard
Preceded by Henry Whitmore
Succeeded by Henry Whitmore
Member of Parliament
for Carlow Borough
In office
19 May 1859 – 25 July 1865
Preceded by John Alexander
Succeeded by Thomas Osborne Stock
Personal details
Born John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton
10 January 1834
Naples, Two Sicilies
Died June 19, 1902(1902-06-19) (aged 68)
Tegernsee, Bavaria
German Empire
Nationality British
Political party Liberal
Alma mater Oscott College
Occupation Historian, politician
Religion Roman Catholic

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, KCVO, DL (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902), known as Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th Bt from 1837 to 1869 and usually referred to simply as Lord Acton, was an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer. He was the only son of Sir Ferdinand Dalberg-Acton, 7th Baronet[1] and a grandson of the Neapolitan admiral Sir John Acton, 6th Baronet.[2][3] He is famous for his remark, often misquoted: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."[4]


Early life

Lord Acton's grandfather, who in 1791 succeeded 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. However, by the extinction of the elder branch, the admiral became head of the family. His eldest son, Richard, married Marie Louise Pelline, the only daughter and heiress of Emeric Joseph Wolfgang Heribert, 1st Duc de Dalberg, a naturalised 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. After Sir Richard Acton's death in 1837, she became the wife of the 2nd Earl Granville (1840).[1] Comtesse de Dalberg was heiress of Herrnsheim in Germany. She became Acton's mother. John Dalberg-Acton was born in Naples.[2][3]

From an ancient Roman Catholic family, young Acton was educated at Oscott College under Dr (afterwards Cardinal) Wiseman until 1848 and then at Edinburgh where he studied privately. At Munich, Acton resided in the house of Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, theologian and forerunner of the Old Catholic Church, with whom he became lifelong friends. He had endeavoured to procure admission to Cambridge, but was not permitted to attend because he was a Catholic.[3] Nonetheless, Döllinger had inspired in him a deep love of historical research and a profound conception of its functions as a critical instrument. He was a master of the principal foreign languages and began at an early age to collect a magnificent historical library, with the object—which, however, he never realized—of writing a great "History of Liberty." In politics, he was always an ardent Liberal.[3]


Portrait of John Acton by Franz Seraph von Lenbach, circa 1879

Although not a notable traveller, Acton spent much time in the chief intellectual centres of Europe and in the United States and numbered among his friends such men as Montalembert, Tocqueville, Fustel de Coulanges, Bluntschli, von Sybel and Ranke. In 1855, he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Salop.[1] A year later, he was attached to Lord Granville's mission to Moscow as British representative at the coronation of Alexander II of Russia.[5]


In 1859, Sir John Acton settled in England, at his country house, Aldenham, in Shropshire. He returned to the House of Commons that same year as member for the Irish Borough of Carlow and became a devoted admirer and adherent of Gladstone. However, he was not an active MP, and his parliamentary career came to an end after the general election of 1865, when, having headed the poll for Bridgnorth, a scrutiny of the ballot led to his losing his seat. He contested Bridgnorth again in 1868 but to no avail.[5]

Acton took a great interest in America, considering its Federal structure the perfect guarantor of individual liberties. During the American Civil War, his sympathies lay entirely with the Confederacy, for their defense of States' Rights against a centralized government that, by all historical precedent, would inevitably turn tyrannical. His notes to Gladstone on the subject helped sway many in the British government to sympathize with the South. After the South's surrender, he wrote to Robert E. Lee that "I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo," adding that he "deemed that you were fighting battles for our liberty, our progress, and our civilization."[6]

In 1869 Acton was raised to the peerage by Queen Victoria and became the first Baron Acton. He was an intimate friend and constant correspondent of Gladstone, 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."[5]

Religion and writings

Meanwhile, Acton became the editor of the Roman Catholic monthly paper, The Rambler, in 1859, on John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman's retirement from the editorship. In 1862, he merged this periodical into 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 Döllinger'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.[5]

In the March 1862 Rambler, Acton wrote "The Celts are not among the progressive, initiative races, but among those which supply the materials rather than the impulse of history, and are either stationary or retrogressive. The Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Teutons are the only makers of history, the only authors of advancement. Other races possessing a highly developed language, a speculative religion, enjoying luxury and art, attain to a certain pitch of cultivation which they are unable to either communicate or to increase. They are a negative element in the world." And: "Subjection to a people of a higher capacity for government is of itself no misfortune; and it is to most countries the condition of their political advancement."[7]

In 1870 came the great crisis in Catholicism over the First Vatican Council's promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Lord Acton, who was in complete sympathy on this subject with Döllinger, 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 hand of so competent and influential an English layman. It was in this context that, in a letter he wrote to scholar and ecclesiastic Mandell Creighton, dated April 1887, Acton made his most famous pronouncement:

But if we might discuss this point until we found that we nearly agreed, and if we do agree thoroughly about the impropriety of Carlylese denunciations and Pharisaism in history, I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III. ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.[4]

Thenceforth he steered clear of theological polemics. He devoted himself to reading, study and congenial society. With all his capacity for study, he was a man of the world and a man of affairs, not a bookworm.[5] His only notable publications were 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 the University of Munich; in 1888 Cambridge gave him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, and in 1889 Oxford the Doctor of Civil Law; and in 1890 he was made a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.[5]

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 ultimately disagreeing with 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 Holy See to leave him alone. In spite of his reservations, he regarded "communion with Rome as dearer than life".[5]

Personal life

In 1865 Acton married Countess Marie Anna Ludomilla Euphrosina von Arco auf Valley, daughter of the Bavarian Count Maximilian von Arco auf Valley, by whom he had six children[8]:

  1. Hon. Mary Elizabeth Anne Dalberg-Acton (1866–1951), married Lt-Col. Edward Bleiddian Herbert and had issue.
  2. Hon. Annie Mary Catherine Dalberg-Acton (1868–1917)
  3. Richard Lyon-Dalberg-Acton (1870–1924)
  4. Hon. John Dalberg Dalberg-Acton (1872–1873)
  5. Hon. Elizabeth Mary Dalberg-Acton (1874–1881)
  6. Hon. Jeanne Marie Dalberg-Acton (1876–1919)

His nephew was Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley (1897 - 1945), a German count and political activist, and assassin of socialist Bavarian president Kurt Eisner († 1919).

Death and legacy

Acton's reputation for learning gradually spread abroad, largely through Gladstone's influence. Gladstone 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. 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 felt most. The Cambridge Modern History, though he did not live to see it, was planned under his editorship.[5]

Lord Acton became ill in 1901 and died on 19 June 1902 in Tegernsee. He was succeeded in the title by his son, Richard Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, 2nd Baron Acton. His 60,000 volume 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 Andrew Carnegie and presented to John Morley, who forthwith gave it to the University of Cambridge.[5]

According to Hugh Chisholm, editor of the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica:

"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."[5]

Notable quotes by Lord Acton

  • “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[4][9][10][11]
  • "Great men are almost always bad men."[12][4]
  • “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”[4]
  • “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” [13]
  • “Be not content with the best book; seek sidelights from the others; have no favourites.”[14]
  • "The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks."[15]
  • "Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity."[16]
  • "The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern."[17]
  • "There is no error so monstrous that it fails to find defenders among the ablest men."[17]
  • "At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition."[18]
  • “Universal History is . . . not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.”[19]
  • "There is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success." (said of Oliver Cromwell)[20]
  • “The strong man with the dagger is followed by the weak man with the sponge.”[21][22]
  • "The science of politics is the one science that is deposited by the streams of history, like the grains of gold in the sand of a river; and the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to making the future."[23]
  • "Save for the wild force of Nature, nothing moves in this world that is not Greek in its origin."[24]
  • "Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought."[25]

Writings, lectures and speeches

See also


  1. ^ a b c Dod, Robert P. (1860). The Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage of Great Britain and Ireland. London: Whitaker and Co.. pp. 83. 
  2. ^ a b Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0550160108, p.6
  3. ^ a b c d Chisholm, Hugh. "Acton (1st Baron)", Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911, v1, p159
  4. ^ a b c d e Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887 published in Historical Essays and Studies, edited by J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907)
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Chisholm, Hugh. "Acton (1st Baron)", Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911, v1, p160
  6. ^ 4 Nov 1866, letter to Robert E. Lee, The Acton-Lee Correspondence at, accessed 2011-02-21.
  7. ^ The History of Freedom and Other Essays, eds. J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907). Chapter: VIII: MR. GOLDWIN SMITH’S IRISH HISTORY
  8. ^ John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton of Aldenham at
  9. ^ Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. 2002 at
  10. ^ Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 14th Edition (1968), edited by Emily Morison Beck, p. 750
  11. ^ The International Thesaurus of Quotations (1970) edited by Rhoda Thomas Tripp, p. 493
  12. ^ Dalberg-Acton, John Emerich Edward (1949), Essays on Freedom and Power, Boston: Beacon Press, p. 364
  13. ^ "The History of Freedom in Antiquity" (1877) at
  14. ^ Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History, 1895 Accessed 2011-02-22.
  15. ^ As quoted in Maxed Out : Hard Times, Easy Credit, and the Era of Predatory Lenders (2007) by James D. Scurlock
  16. ^ Letter (23 January 1861), published in Lord Acton and his Circle (1906) by Abbot Francis Aidan Gasquet, Letter 24
  17. ^ a b Letter to Mary Gladstone (24 April 1881); later published in Letters of Lord Acton to Mary Gladstone (1913) p. 73
  18. ^ The History of Freedom in Antiquity (1877)
  19. ^ Lectures on Modern History (1895) Appendix I. at Project Gutenberg.
  20. ^ Lectures on Modern History (1895) Lecture XI, The Puritan Revolution. at Project Gutenberg.
  21. ^ Lectures on the French Revolution (1910) Macmillan, p92, at Project Gutenberg.
  22. ^ quoted in Forbidden Knowledge (1996) by Roger Shattuck, p236
  23. ^ A Lecture on the Study of History, 1895 Macmillan (1911), p3, at Project Gutenberg.
  24. ^ John Acton Quotes from Accessed 2011-02-21.
  25. ^ as quoted in The American Political Science Review vol.56, 1963 from The Rambler (1860) p146.

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
John Alexander
Member of Parliament for Carlow Borough
Succeeded by
Thomas Osborne Stock
Preceded by
Henry Whitmore
John Pritchard
Member of Parliament for Bridgnorth
1865 – 1866
With: John Pritchard
Succeeded by
Henry Whitmore
John Pritchard
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baron Acton
1869 – 1902
Succeeded by
Richard Lyon-Dalberg-Acton
Baronetage of England
Preceded by
Ferdinand Dalberg-Acton
(of Aldenham)
Succeeded by
Richard Lyon-Dalberg-Acton

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  • Acton — biographical name 1st Baron 1834 1902 John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton English historian …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Acton — /ak teuhn/, n. 1. Lord (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron), 1834 1902, English historian. 2. a former municipal borough in SE England, now part of the London borough of Ealing: center of Puritanism at the time of Cromwell. 3. a city in …   Universalium

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