Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg
ACTON, Sir JOHN EMERICH EDWARD DALBERG, first Baron Acton of Aldenham and eighth baronet (1834–1902), historian and moralist, born at Naples on 10 Jan. 1834, was the only child of Sir Ferdinand Richard Edward Acton, seventh baronet (1801–1835), by a German wife, Marie Louise Pellini de Dalberg, only child of Emeric Joseph Duc de Dalberg. After his father's early death his mother married (2 July 1840) Granville George Leveson-Gower, second Earl Granville [q. v.], the liberal statesman; she died 14 March 1860. The Acton family had long been settled in Shropshire, and the first baronet owed his title (conferred in 1643) to his loyalty to Charles I. Acton was descended from a cadet branch of the family. His great-grandfather, Edward Acton, was the youngest son of a younger son of the second baronet, and settled at Besançon as a doctor. From his marriage with a daughter of a Burgundian gentleman there issued Sir John Francis Edward Acton [q. v.], the friend of Queen Caroline and premier of the Two Sicilies at the time of Nelson. His career was not unstained, and Acton, it is said, refused to touch monies coming to him from that source. Acton, who although a Roman Catholic by race and training was deeply hostile to the arbitrary power of the Pope, owed his existence to a papal dispensation. In 1799 Sir John Acton (who eight years earlier succeeded to the title owing to the lapse of the elder branch of the family) obtained a dispensation to marry his brother's daughter. From this marriage issued Acton's father.
Of mingled race and bred amid cosmopolitan surroundings, Acton was never more than half an Englishman. His education was as varied as his antecedents. After a brief time at a school in Paris, he was sent in 1843 to the Roman Catholic College at Oscott, then under Dr. Wiseman, for whom he always retained affection in spite of later divergence of opinion. Thence he went for a short time to Edinburgh as a private pupil under Dr. Logan. There he found neither the teaching nor the companionship congenial. In 1848 began that experience which was to mould his mind more than any other influence. He went to Munich to study under Professor von Döllinger, and as his private pupil to live under the same roof. There he remained for six years in all, and not only laid the foundations of his vast erudition but also acquired his notions of the methods of historical study and the duty of applying fearless criticism to the history of the church. From this time he never wavered in his unflinching and austere liberalism, and very little in his dislike of the papal curia. A passionate sense of the value of truth, of the rights of the individual conscience, and of the iniquity of persecution, and hatred of all forms of absolutism, civil or ecclesiastical, were henceforth his distinctive qualities, and coupled with these was that desire to bring his co-religionists into line with modern intellectual developments and more particularly the science of Germany.
In 1855 he accompanied Lord Ellesmere to the United States; presence at the important constitutional debates at Philadelphia stimulated his interest in the question of state rights. In 1856 he accompanied his step-father, Lord Granville, to the coronation of the Czar Alexander II, and made a great impression on statesmen and men of intellectual eminence by a display of knowledge surprising in a youth. In 1857 he journeyed to Italy with Döllinger, and became versed in Italian affairs. Minghetti, the successor of Cavour, was a family connection and a frequent correspondent. (For evidence of Acton's insight into Italian matters, see articles in the Chronicle, 1867-8, and hitherto unpublished correspondence with T. F. Wetherell.)
On his return from Italy, Acton settled at the family seat at Aldenham, Shropshire, beginning to collect there the great library which reached a total of some 59,000 volumes. In 1859 he was elected to the House of Commons as whig M.P. for Carlow, and he sat for that constituency till 1865. He was then elected for Bridgnorth, in his own county, by a majority of one, and was unseated on a scrutiny. His parliamentary career was not successful. He was no debater; he only made a single short speech and put two questions while a member of the house. What he said of himself, 'I never had any contemporaries,' rendered him unfit for the rough and tumble of political life. The House of Commons proved a thoroughly uncongenial atmosphere, but it brought him the acquaintance of Gladstone, who soon inspired Acton with devotional reverence.
Acton proceeded to win intellectual and moral eminence at the expense of immediate practical influence. Even before he entered parliament he had actively joined those who were seeking to widen the horizons of English Roman Catholics. In 1858 he acquired an interest in a liberal catholic monthly periodical, called the 'Rambler,' which, having been started ten years before by an Oxford convert, John Moore Capes, had won the support of Newman. Acton's fellow proprietors were Richard Simpson [q.v.] and Frederick Capes, and Simpson was serving as editor. In 1859 Newman, whose aid was reckoned of great moment, succeeded Simpson as editor (cf. Gasquet, Lord Acton and his Circle, xxi), but the authorities urged his retirement within four months. Thereupon Acton became editor in name, although Simpson did most of the work. The periodical in its old shape came to an end in 1862, being converted into a quarterly, with the title 'The Home and Foreign Review.' This review represents the high-water mark of the liberal catholic movement. Probably no review of the reign of Queen Victoria maintained so high a standard of general excellence. Some of the strongest articles were written by Acton himself, though his style had neither the point nor the difficulty of his later writings. Many of them have since been republished in the two volumes entitled 'The History of Freedom' and 'Lectures and Essays on Modern History.' The amazing variety of his knowledge is better shown in the numerous shorter notices of books, which betrayed an intimate and detailed knowledge of documents and authorities. The new quarterly had, however, to run from the first the gauntlet of ecclesiastical criticism. Cardinal Wiseman publicly rebuked the editors in 1862. Acton in reply claimed for catholics the right to take 'a place in every movement that promotes the study of God's works and the advancement of mankind.'
Acton attended in March 1864 the Congress of Munich, when Döllinger pleaded on liberal grounds for a reunion of Christendom. Acton reported the proceedings in the 'Review.' His report awakened orthodox hostility, and when a papal brief addressed to the archbishop of Munich asserted that all Roman Catholic opinions were under the control of the Roman congregations, Acton stopped the review instead of waiting for the threatened veto. In withdrawing from this unequal contest, Acton, in a valedictory article called 'Conflicts with Rome' (April), which he signed as proprietor, declared once more in stately and dignified language his loyalty at once to the church and to the principles of freedom and scientific inquiry. At the end of the year Pope Pius IX promulgated the encyclical 'Quanta Cura' with the appended 'Syllabus Errorum,' which deliberately condemned all such efforts as those of Acton to make terms between the church and modern civilisation. At the time Acton informed his constituents at Bridgnorth that he belonged rather to the soul than the body of the catholic church. This expressed very clearly the distinction dominant in his mind between membership of the church of Rome and trust in the court of Rome.
The 'Review' was replaced to some extent by a weekly literary and political journal called the 'Chronicle,' which was started by T. F. Wetherell in 1867 with some pecuniary aid from Sir Rowland Blennerhassett [q. v. Suppl. II]. It ran for the most part on secular lines merely coloured by a Roman Catholic liberalism. Acton wrote regularly through 1867 and 1868. In some of his articles, notably in that on Sarpi and others on the Roman question, he was seen at his best. None of these contributions have been reprinted. On the stoppage of the 'Chronicle' at the end of 1868 he again interested himself in a journalistic venture of an earlier stamp. He helped Wetherell to launch in a new form and in the liberal catholic interest an old-established Scottish quarterly, the 'North British Review.' Acton eagerly suggested writers and themes, and was himself a weighty contributor until the periodical ceased in 1872. For the first number he wrote a learned article on 'The Massacre of St. Bartholomew,' wherein he sought to establish the complicity if not of the papacy, at least of the Popes in this great auto da fé. Acton subsequently modified his conclusions. The article, which was afterwards enlarged and translated into Italian by Signor Tommaso Gar, was doubtless designed as a piece of polemics as well as an historical inquiry.
Meanwhile, two lectures which Acton delivered at the Bridgnorth Literary and Scientific Institution—on the American Civil War (18 Jan. 1866) and on Mexico (10 March 1868)—illustrated his masterly insight alike into past history and current politics. In Nov. 1868 he stood unsuccessfully for his old constituency of Bridgnorth. By that time Acton's intimacy with Gladstone, now the liberal prime minister, had ripened into very close friendship. They were in Rome together in Dec. 1866, and Acton had guided Gladstone through the great library of Monte Cassino. Acton was Gladstone's junior by twenty-five years, and to the last he addressed the statesman with all the distant marks of respect due to a senior. But Acton influenced Gladstone more deeply than did any other single man. Gladstone had implicit faith in his learning and sagacity, and in such vital matters as home rule and disestablishment Acton's private influence was great if not decisive. Gladstone submitted to his criticism nearly everything he wrote. Acton was no admirer of Gladstone's biblical criticism, and endeavoured, not always with success, to widen the scope of Gladstone's reading. But from 1866 the fellowship between the two men grew steadily closer, and the older sought the guidance and advice of his junior on all kinds of matters. On 11 Dec. 1869, while Acton was in Rome, he was on Gladstone's recommendation raised to the peerage. He took the title of Baron Acton of Aldenham.
At the time a new general council was sitting at Rome to complete the work begun at Trent and to formulate the dogma of papal infallibility. Acton was in Rome to aid the small minority of prelates who were resisting the promulgation of the dogma. He worked hard to save the church from a position which in his view was not so much false as wicked. He urged the British government, of which Gladstone was the head, to interfere; but Archbishop Manning, whose interest was on the opposite side, neutralised Acton's influence with the prime minister through his friendship with Lord Odo Russell, the unofficial British agent at Rome. Acton's work at Rome was not confined to heartening the opposition or to sending home his views to Gladstone. To Döllinger at Munich, the centre of the German opposition, he wrote long accounts (with the names in cypher) of the various movements and counter-movements. These were combined with letters from two other persons in the series published in the 'Allgemeine Zeitung' from December 1869 under the name 'Quirinus.' They were republished at Munich in 1870 (4 pts.) and were translated into English as 'Letters from Rome on the Council' (London, 3 ser., 1870). Acton is only partially responsible for 'Quirinus's' deliverances. In some places the sympathies of the writer are strongly Gallican—a point of view which appealed to Döllinger but never to his pupil. Acton's difficulties at Rome were great. Many of the prelates who were opposing the infallibility dogma regarded it as true, and objected only to its being defined at that time and in existing conditions. Acton was an open assailant of the doctrine itself. Conscious of inevitable defeat, the opposition eventually withdrew from Rome, and the dogma was adopted by the council with unanimity. On 11 July 1870 Acton had already arrived at his house at Tegernsee, and there in August he completed his 'Sendschreiben an einen deutschen Bischof des vaticanischen Concils' (Nordlingen, 1870), in which he quoted from numerous anti-infallibilists, living or dead, and asked whether their words still held good. But the catholic world, to which Acton appealed, accepted the new law without demur. Döllinger refused, and was consequently excommunicated (1 April 1871), while a small body of opponents formed themselves at Munich in Sept. 1871 into the 'Old Catholic' communion, which Döllinger did not join.
Acton for the time stood aside and was unmolested. But when in 1874 Gladstone issued his pamphlet on 'The Vatican Decrees,' the publication of which Acton had not approved, he denied in letters to 'The Times' any such danger to the state as Gladstone anticipated from possible Roman Catholic sedition owing to their allegiance to a foreign bishop. Yet Acton, while defending his co-religionists in England, dealt subtle thrusts at the papacy. He made it clear that what preserved his allegiance and minimised his hostility to the Vatican Decrees was a sense that the church was holier than its officials, and the bonds of the Christian community were deeper than any dependent on the hierarchy. Acton was therefore able to speak of communion in the Roman church as 'dearer than life itself.' His present attitude, however, was suspected by the authorities. Archbishop Manning more than once invited an explanation. Acton replied adroitly that he relied on God's providential government of His church, and was no more disloyal to the Vatican council than to any of its predecessors. After more correspondence Manning said he must leave the matter to the pope. Acton made up his mind that he would be excommunicated, and wrote to Gladstone that the only question was, when the blow would fall. But it did not fall. Perhaps as a layman, perhaps as a peer, less probably as a scholar, he was left alone, and died in full communion with the Holy See.
With the letters to 'The Times' of Nov. to December 1874 Acton's polemical career closed. He admitted in a letter to Lady Blennerhassett that the explanations given by Newman in the 'Letter to the Duke of Norfolk' on Gladstone's expostulations (1875) would enable him to accept the decrees. But if he thought his fears of the decrees had been in some respects exaggerated, his hatred of ultramontanism was never appeased.
Through middle life Acton divided his time between Aldenham, the Dalberg seat at Herrnsheim on the Rhine, and a house at Prince's Gate in London. In 1879 financial difficulties drove him to sell Herrnsheim and to let Aldenham. He thenceforth spent the winter at Cannes and the autumn at the Arco Villa at Tegernsee, Bavaria, which belonged to his wife's family, and only parts of the spring or summer in London. He read more and wrote less than previously, but his historical writing lost nothing in depth. In the spring of 1877 he gave two lectures at Bridgnorth on the 'History of Freedom in Antiquity and in Christianity.' Two articles in the 'Quarterly' on 'Wolsey and the Divorce of Henry VIII' (Jan. 1877) and on Sir Erskine May's 'Democracy in Europe' (Jan. 1878) and an article on Cross's 'Life of George Eliot' in the 'Nineteenth Century' (March 1885) are exhaustive treatises. In 1886 he helped to set on foot the 'English Historical Review' and contributed to the first number a heavy but pregnant article on 'German Schools of History' (German transl. 1887). In London he saw much of Gladstone and encouraged him in his home rule propaganda. A member of Grillion's and The Club, he was in intimate relations with the best English intellectual society. Honours began to flow in. In 1872 the University at Munich had given him an honorary doctorate, and in 1888 he was made hon. LL.D. of Cambridge, and in 1889 hon. D.C.L. of Oxford. In 1891, on a hint from Gladstone, he was elected an honorary fellow of All Souls. When Gladstone formed his fourth administration in 1892, Acton was appointed a lord-in-waiting. Queen Victoria appreciated his facility of speech in German and his German sympathies, but the position was irksome. In 1895 came the great chance of Acton's life in his capacity of scholar. On Lord Rosebery's recommendation he became regius professor of modern history at Cambridge in succession to Sir John Seeley.
Acton was at once elected an honorary fellow of Trinity College, and took up his residence in Neville's Court. He threw himself with avidity into professorial work. His inaugural lecture on the study of history (11 June 1895) was a striking success; it contained a stimulating account of the development of modern historical methods and closed with an expression of that belief in the supremacy of the moral law in politics which was the dominant strain in Acton. It was published with a bulky appendix of illustrative quotations, illustrating at once the erudition and the weakness of the author, and was translated into German (Berlin, 1897).
Settled at Cambridge, Acton began almost at once to lecture on the 'French Revolution' for the historical tripos. His lectures were largely attended, both by students and by the general public. They were read almost verbatim from manuscript with very rare asides. The dignity of his delivery, his profound sense of the greatness of his task and of the paramount import of moral issues gave them a very impressive quality. Probably his half a dozen years at Cambridge were the happiest time in Acton's life. He loved to think of himself as a Cambridge man at last, and was as proud as a freshman of his rooms in College. He had the pleasure of finding eager pupils among some of the junior students. In 1899 and 1900 much of his energy was absorbed by the project of the 'Cambridge Modern History.' He did not originate it, but he warmly forwarded it, and acted as its first editor, with disastrous results to his health. On the business side he was never strong; and the effort of securing contributors, of directing them and of co-ordinating the work was a greater strain than he could bear. He regarded his editorial position very seriously; and although nothing was published while he was still alive, yet nearly the whole of the first volume and more than half the second were in type some two years before his death. The plan of the whole twelve volumes and the authorship of many even of the later chapters were his decision. Unfortunately Acton contributed nothing himself. The notes prepared for what should have been the first chapter on 'The Legacy of the Middle Ages' were not sufficiently advanced for publication. For all that the history remains a monument to his memory. In 1901 his final illness overtook him; suffering from a paralytic stroke, he withdrew to Tegernsee, and after lingering some months he died there on 19 June 1902. He was buried at Tegernsee.
Acton married on 1 Aug. 1865 the Countess Marie, daughter of Maximilian, Count Arco-Valley of Munich, a member of a distinguished and very ancient Bavarian house. His widow survived him with a son, Richard Maximilian, who succeeded him as second Baron Acton, and three daughters.
Of two pencil drawings done in 1876 by Henry Tanworth Wells [q. v. Suppl. II] one is at Grillion's Club, Hotel Cecil, London, and the other at Aldenham. He had become F.S.A. in 1876, and was made K.C.V.O. in 1897. Acton's valuable historical library at Aldenham, containing over 59,000 volumes, was bought immediately after his death by Mr. Andrew Carnegie, and was presented by him to John (afterwards Viscount) Morley. Lord Morley gave it in 1903 to the University of Cambridge. The whole collection is divided into 54 classes under the main headings of (1) ecclesiastical history, (2) political history, and (3) subjects not falling under these two heads. The first heading illustrates with rare completeness the internal and external history of the papacy; under the second heading works on Germany, France, and Switzerland are represented with exceptional fulness (cf. Camb. Mod. Hist. vol. iv. pp. viii, 802). Acton's books bear many traces of his method of reading. He was in the habit of drawing a fine ink line in the margin against passages which interested him, and of transcribing such passages on squares of paper, which he sorted into boxes or Solander cases.
Apart from his periodical writings Acton only published during his lifetime some separate lectures and letters, most of which have been already mentioned. The two on 'Liberty' delivered at Bridgnorth in 1877 appeared also in French translations (Paris, 1878). He edited Harpsfield's 'Narrative of the Divorce' (book ii.) and 'Letters of James II to the Abbot of La Trappe' (1872-6) for the Philobiblon Society, and 'Les Matinées Royales,' a hitherto unpublished work of Frederick the Great (London and Edinburgh, 1863). Since his death there have been issued his 'Lectures on Modern History,' edited with introduction by J. N. Figgis and R. V. Lawrence (1906); 'The History of Freedom, and other Essays,' introduction by the editors (1907); 'Historical Essays and Studies' (1907); and 'Lectures on the French Revolution' (1910). These four volumes, like his inaugural lecture, are fair evidence of his powers. The vast erudition, the passion for becoming intimately acquainted with many different periods, were a bar to production on a large scale. This was also hindered by a certain lack of organising power and a deficient sense of proportion. He abandoned his project for writing a 'History of Liberty,' which indeed was never more than a chimera displaying his lack of architectonic faculty. Nor did the notion of a history of the 'Council of Trent' fare any better, and of the projected biography of Döllinger we have nothing but a single article on 'Döllinger's Historical Works' from the 'English Historical Review' (1890). His essays are really monographs, and in many cases either said the final word on a topic or advanced the knowledge of it very definitely. As an historian Acton held very strongly to the ideal of impartiality, yet his writings illustrate the impossibility of attaining it. The 'Lectures on Modern History' are actually the development of the modern world as conceived by a convinced whig—and except in the actual investigation of bare facts no historian is less impartial and more personal in his judgments than Acton appears in the volume on the 'French Revolution.' His writing again has a note as distinctive as though very different from that of Macaulay. His style is difficult; it is epigrammatic, packed with allusions, dignified, but never flowing. He has been termed a 'Meredith turned historian'; but the most notable qualities are the passion for political righteousness that breathes in all his utterances, the sense of the supreme worth of the individual conscience and the inalienable desire for liberty alike in church and state.
[Personal knowledge; The Times, 20 June 1902; unpublished correspondence with Döllinger, Newman, Gladstone, Lady Blennerhassett, and others; editorial introductions to Lectures on Modern History (1906) and the History of Freedom (1907); Letters of Lord Acton to Mary Gladstone (with memoir by Herbert Paul), 1904; Gasquet, Lord Acton and his Circle, 1906; Edinburgh Review, April 1903; Independent Review, art. by John Pollock, October 1904; Bryce's Studies in Contemporary Biography, 1903; Morley' s Life of Gladstone, 1904, ii. and iii.; Grant Duff's Notes from a Diary; Purcell's Life of Manning, 1896; Wilfrid Ward's Life of Cardinal Newman, 1912. A bibliography, edited by Dr. W. A. Shaw for the Royal Historical Society, 1903, gives most of Acton's writings whether in books or periodicals. Various sections of the catalogue of the Acton collection have been published in the Cambridge University Library Bulletin (extra series)].