Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Acton, John Francis Edward

ACTON, Sir JOHN FRANCIS EDWARD, sixth baronet (1736–1811), prime minister of Naples under Ferdinand IV, was descended from an old family who from the beginning of the fourteenth century were possessors of Aldenham Hall, Shropshire. His father, the son of a goldsmith in London, while accompanying the father of Edward Gibbon the historian as physician, stayed a few days at Besançon, where, finding a favourable opening for his profession, he settled permanently and married a French lady; and there Sir John Acton was born in 1736, the date of his baptism being 3 June (Blakeway, The Sheriffs of Shropshire). Under the auspices of his uncle he entered the naval service of Tuscany. While captain of a frigate in the joint expedition of Spain and Tuscany against Algiers in 1775, he performed some daring exploits in covering the retreat; and he had risen to high command, when his merits became known to Prince Caramanico, a favourite of Queen Caroline of Naples. On the advice of Caramanico she induced her brother, the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, in 1779 to permit Acton to undertake the reorganisation of the Neapolitan navy. Acton thus became associated with Neapolitan affairs at a very critical period of the country's history. The direction both of the internal administration and the foreign policy of the kingdom was soon entirely in his hands. It was absolutely necessary that he should seek to carry out the ambitious purposes of the queen, but apart from the question as to the wisdom of these purposes, his general administration of affairs was exceptionally able. By a succession of rapid steps he reached in a few years the highest pinnacle of power. To rid himself of the dangerous rivalry of Caramanico, he sent him ambassador to London, then to Paris, and finally got him promoted viceroy of Sicily. The sudden death of Caramanico in 1794 aroused suspicions both of foul play at the hands of the emissaries of Acton, and of suicide from mortification; but the supposition that he died from other than natural causes was never substantiated.

The aim of the Queen of Naples was to play a prominent part in the politics of Europe — an aim which rendered the reorganisation of the navy and army a prime necessity. The skill of Acton as minister of marine led to his appointment as minister of war; and he was also promoted generalissimo of the sea and land lorces. The fleet, which, when he entered the service of Naples, had practically no existence, comprised in 1798 as many as 120 sail with 1,200 cannon, while the land forces were increased from 15,000 to 60,000. To devise methods for meeting the increased expenses of the kingdom, he was chosen minister of finance, and ultimately his paramount influence was formally recognised by appointing him prime minister. It was undoubtedly in a great measure due to him that the ascendency of Spain in Neapolitan affairs was overthrown, and an alliance was concluded in 1793 with Austria and England against France. In no degree, however, were the interests of Naples promoted by the vainglorious policy thus inaugurated, and it speedily resulted in disaster. Acton had set himself to extend the commerce of the country by increasing the facilities of internal communication and restoring some of the principal ports, but the increased taxation required to support the army and navy more than counterbalanced these efforts, and caused acute distress and general discontent. The introduction of foreign officers into the services aroused also the resentment of the upper classes, which was further augmented when the fleet was placed under the orders of Nelson. After the success of the French arms in the north of Italy, Acton with the king and queen and the English ambassador escaped in December 1798 on board the English fleet, and went to Palermo, whereupon the citizens and nobles with the aid of the French established the Parthenopeian republic. When, five months afterwards, the king was restored with the help of a Calabrian army under Cardinal Ruffo, Acton established a reign of terror, and, at the instance of an irresponsible authority called the Junta of State, many prominent citizens were thrown into prison or sent to the block. In 1804 Acton, on the demand of France, was removed from power, but in accordance with his advice Ferdinand, while agreeing to an alliance with Napoleon, permitted Russian and English troops to land at Naples. Shortly afterwards the minister was recalled, but when the French entered Naples in 1806, he with the royal family took refuge in Sicily. He died at Palermo, 12 Aug. 1811. A Latin epitaph on his tomb commemorates his services.

In 1791 Acton succeeded to the family estates and title on the death of his cousin in the third degree, Sir Richard Acton of Aldenham Hall. In 1800 he married, by papal dispensation, Mary Anne Acton, his niece, daughter of his brother Joseph who was also engaged in the Neapolitan service, and is often confounded with him. Joseph was born in October 1737, the date frequently given for the birth of Sir John Acton, and died in 1808.

[Blakeway's Sheriffs of Shropshire (1831), pp. 175–6; Colletta's Storia del Reame di Napoli dal 1734 sino al 1825 (2 vols. 1834, several subsequent editions and English translation, 1858); Memoirs of General Pepe (1846); Freiherr von Helfert's Königin Karolina (1878); and the various Lives of Lord Nelson, especially his Despatches and Letters edited by Sir Harris Nicolas, 7 vols. (1844–46).]

T. F. H.