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June 19 Acton - Power Corrupts, Absolute Power corrupts absolutely

Today in 1902 Lord Acton died. John Acton was the English Catholic historian, died in Bavaria, Germany. Now famous for his saying “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” One of the great personalities of the nineteenth century he has been described as “the magistrate of history,” He made the history of liberty his life's work; indeed, he considered political liberty the essential condition and guardian of religious liberty. His 60,000-volume library, formed for use and not for display and composed largely of books full of his own annotations, was bought prior to his death by Andrew Carnegie and left to the University of Cambridge.


Born in Naples, to an aristocratic English father, his mother, Countess Marie Louise de Dalberg, came from a family which was considered to be second in status only to the imperial family of Germany. Three years after his father died his mother remarried Lord Leveson who would become Earl Granville, William Gladstone's Foreign Secretary and moved the family to Britain. John Acton grew up speaking English, German, French, and Italian.

Barred from attending Cambridge University because of his Catholicism, Acton studied at the University of Munich under the famous church historian, Ignaz von Döllinger. Dollinger as a priest was a curious mix of reverence for tradition but criticism of the papacy, particularly the development of the dogma of papal infallibility. He is considered an important contributor to the doctrine, growth and development of the Old Catholic Church, though he himself never joined that denomination. This was a term that was used in the 1850s by catholic churches which had separated from the Roman Catholic Church over certain doctrines, primarily concerned with papal authority; and so are not in full communion with the Holy See. Member churches of the Union of Utrecht of the Old Catholic Churches (UU) however are in full communion with the Anglican Communion and hold membership in the World Council of Churches.

Acton’s time with Döllinger also broadened his appreciation and understanding of Catholic and Reformed theology. Through his studies and his own experience, Acton was made acutely aware of the danger posed to individual conscience by any kind of religious or political persecution. He acquired the Rambler after John Henry Newman's retirement from the editorship, making it a liberal Catholic journal dedicated to the discussion of social, political, and theological issues and ideas. He was involved in the first Vatican Council, and became known as one of the most articulate defenders of religious and political freedom. He argued that the church faithfully fulfils its mission by encouraging the pursuit of scientific, historical, and philosophical truth, and by promoting individual liberty in the political realm. He took a great interest in the United States, considering its federal structure the perfect guarantor of individual liberties.

He entered the House of Commons as an MP as a member for the Irish constituency of Carlow and after 10 years, Gladstone rewarded Acton for his efforts on behalf of Liberal political causes by offering him a peerage. The famous critic Matthew Arnold was fascinated by their friendship saying "Gladstone influences all round him but Acton; it is Acton who influences Gladstone." Acton continued to develop his thought on the relationship between history, religion, and liberty and began to construct outlines for a universal history designed to document the progress of the relationship between religious virtue and personal freedom. He described his own work as a “theodicy,” a defence of God's goodness and providential care of the world. He was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. From this position, he deepened his view that the historian's search for truth entailed the obligation to make moral judgments on history, even when those judgments challenge the historian's own deeply held opinions. Although he never finished his anticipated universal history, he planned the Cambridge Modern History syllabus and lectured on the French Revolution, and the history of freedom from antiquity through the 19th century.

Lord Acton left a wide ranging correspondence, but what is the clearest legacy is in a series of letters he writes to the Anglican Bishop Creighton concerning the moral problem of writing history about the Inquisition. Believing that the same moral standards should be applied to all, political and religious leaders included, especially since, in his famous phrase, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men..."


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