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Can the Pursuit of History Result in a Single Truth?

LORD ACTON By Roland Hill Foreword by Owen Chadwick; Yale University Press: 576 pp., $39.95

April 08, 2001|JOHN LUKACS | John Lukacs is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, "Five Days in London: May 1940," 'A Thread of Years" and "The Hitler of History."

Lord Acton, who died 99 years ago, may have been the greatest of English historians during the second half of the 19th century. He had dazzling connections and an impressive career. The Acton family was old English Catholic and cosmopolitan. They were intermarried with at least two of the most ancient noble families of the Holy Roman-German empire. Acton's grandfather, though English, was prime minister of the kingdom of Naples, for a while a close friend of Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson. Acton's father was a cosmopolitan aristocrat, a period figure whose life and character may have been even beyond his contemporary Balzac's powers to limn. He died relatively young, at 36, having caught pneumonia when he returned to his home in Paris after a night of gambling and drinking; his wife had him locked out. To his funeral came the ambassadors of all the great powers of Europe and a representative of the king of France. His widow married the future earl of Granville, eventually foreign secretary at the apogee of the Victorian Age. When his father died, John Acton (more precisely, Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 8th Baronet, 1st Baron) was 3 years old.

His education was English and German. He read, spoke and wrote perfectly at least five European languages, besides his sufficiency in Latin and Greek. His avocation was threefold: the causes of liberalism, Catholicism and historicism. He lived at a time when publications of the largely German-inspired professional study of history multiplied rapidly. Astonishingly, most such books were noticed, collected and read by a universal, multilingual historian such as Acton. He began writing studies and articles in his 20s. That was a time when journals and reviews were read by many influential people in England. He wooed and eventually married the young and beautiful Bavarian countess he loved. For a while he was a member of Parliament. Lord Tennyson and Cardinal Newman respected him; George Eliot admired him; the pope (Pius IX) feared him. He was one of-perhaps the-closest friend of Gladstone, one of whose daughters may have been a little in love with Acton. He had a private library of about 70,000 volumes. Andrew Carnegie helped him out by buying that library, which, after Acton's death, went to Cambridge; Queen Victoria also helped him by making him her lord-in-waiting. Then she and the prime minister, Lord Rosebery, made him Regius Professor in Cambridge. He was one of the founders of the English Historical Review, and the appointed creator and director of the Cambridge Modern History series. When he was measured for the robes and the cap at his installation, his head was the largest on record.

He lived for another seven years and then died, surrounded by his family in their villa on the beautiful Bavarian lake of Tegernsee, in the 69th year of his life, 1902. During the century that followed, dozens of serious studies and books were written about him. The present one is the largest and fullest one-volume biography, superbly researched and well-written by Roland Hill, whose interest in Acton and whose relations with some of his descendants had begun decades ago. It merits much praise because, in addition to the enormous amount of material relating to Acton's life and thought, that life and Acton's mind were not simple.

They were not simple for many reasons, the main one being Acton's struggle to reconcile his liberalism and his Catholicism. One of his obiter dicta became famous: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely." (The "tends to" is often omitted, wrongly.) Acton's contempt and fear of absolute power formed his liberalism. He believed in intellectual freedom and in the protection of minorities; he was unalterably opposed to absolute power given to a state, a king or a pope, including Pius IX's dogma of papal infallibility. He did not live to see the populist state dictatorships of the 20th century. But his often trenchant and noble propositions of liberty inspired his various admirers during the century after his death. Politically too he was a committed and old-fashioned Gladstonian liberal. Hill is correct when he writes that "Acton meant the history of liberty to be a philosophy of history." Yet unlike Tocqueville (there is curiously little evidence that Acton read or considered Tocqueville extensively), Acton gave not much benefit of doubt to democracy. Despite his abhorrence of slavery, he favored the South in the American Civil War. Toward the end of his life, he recognized the rising forces of nationalism and socialism. Unlike Gladstone, with whom he agreed on so many things (including Home Rule for Ireland), Acton did not believe in "national self-determination." He, rightly, regarded nationalism at least as dangerous and more ominous than socialism.

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