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Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979)

The Whig Interpretation of History

Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)
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Html edition for ©Eliohs by Guido Abbattista - February 2002

Index | Preface | 1. Introduction | 2. The Underlying Assumption | 3. The Historical Process
4. History and Judgements of Value | 5. The Art of the Historian | 6. Moral Judgements in History


It is the natural result of the whig historian’s habits of mind and his attitude to history – though it is not a necessary consequence of his actual method – that he should be interested in the promulgation of moral judgements and should count this as an important part of his office. His preoccupation is not difficult to understand when it is remembered that he regards himself as something more than the inquirer. By the very finality and absoluteness with which he has endowed the present he has heightened his own position. For him the voice of posterity is the voice of God and the historian is the voice of posterity. And it is typical of him that he tends to regard himself as the judge when by his methods and his equipment he is fitted only to be the detective. His concern with the sphere of morality forms in fact the extreme point in his desire to make judgements of value, and to count them as the verdict of history. By a curious example of the transference of ideas he, like many other people, has come to confuse the importance which courts of legal justice must hold, and the finality they must have for practical reasons in society, with the most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflection – the dispensing of moral judgements upon people or upon actions in retrospect.

 And it is interesting to see that the same mind and temper which induced the first act of self-aggrandizement tend quickly to lead to another one, which is unobtrusive, indefinite, unavowed. The assertiveness which in the first place claimed the prerogatives of eternal justice now proceeds by a similar logic to a more subtle form of encroachment; for the whig historians have shown a propensity to heighten the colouring of their historical narrations by laying hold on some difference of opinion or some conflict of policies and claiming this as a moral issue. And indeed it is a propensity which requires great self-discipline in any of us to resist. It must be remembered that there are some things in the past which the whig is very anxious to condemn, and some of his views have a way of turning themselves into something like a moral code. There is at least a change that the real burden of his indignation may fall on things which are anathema only to the whigs. It is not an accident that he has shown a disinclination to see moral judgements removed from history.

It might be true to say that in Lord Acton[1], the whig historian reached his highest consciousness; and it is true, and at the same time it is not a mere coincidence, that in his writings moral judgements appeared in their most trenchant and uncompromising form, while in his whole estimate of the subject the moral function of history was most greatly magnified. One may gather from his statements in this connection that he regarded this side of his thought as the consequence of his Catholicism; but one may question his self-analysis at this point, for it is difficult to see that either the actual content of his moral code (as it can be inferred from what might be called his judicial decision), or the particular way in which he applied his principles to any case that was under consideration, could be regarded as representing a system that was specifically Catholic or Christian. It is not malicious to suggest that should be put down rather to his bias as a whig historian. When, in defence of his position, he made the remark that "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely", he may have been stating the wisest of truths, but we can suspect that it was a truth more dear to the heart of the liberal that there was in him than to the mind of the Roman Catholic; and though the thesis is one which might serve to excuse and explain as much as to condemn a historical personage, it is put forward with a hostile innuendo, it is given as the reason why no allowance is to be made for men in high places. Acton refers with implied approval to a view of history which his theories really elaborate, and he describes this view as follows: "It deems the canonization of the historic past more perilous than ignorance or denial, because it would perpetuate the reign of sin and acknowledge the sovereignty of wrong." It is curious, though it is not incomprehensible, that a professor should find it necessary to warn young historians against an excess of sympathy or appreciation for the historic past; but what is more interesting is the thorough whig bias that is obvious though latent in the remark. Most illuminating of all would be to pursue if it were possible the connotations in the mind of the whig historian of the words, "the reign of sin [...] the sovereignty of wrong", particularly as they are flavoured by their reference to "the canonization of the past. Finally, in this, as in many more of Acton’s theses, we find some sign of what is a common feature of whig historians there is the hint that for all this desire to pass moral judgements on various things in the past, it is really something in the present that the historian is most anxious about. Another statement of Acton’s is interesting and is perhaps very acute; it is to the effect that much more evil is due to conscious sin and much less to unconscious error than most of us are usually aware; though whatever its value may be it can scarcely be regarded as a lesson of history, for it is an extreme example of the kind of truth that can only be reached by self-analysis. Coupled with another statement it becomes extremely dangerous; for Acton in his Inaugural Lecture gives reasons why it is better that the sin should be presumed than that we should search too far for other explanations. "There is a popular saying of Madame de Staël", he writes, "that we forgive whatever we really understand. The paradox has been judiciously pruned by her descendant, the Duc de Broglie, in the words: "Beware of too much explaining, lest we end by too much excusing". Once again a whig theory of history has the practical effect of curtailing the effort of historical understanding. An undefined region is left to the subjective decision of the historian, in which he shall choose not to explain, but shall merely declare that there is sin. One can only feel that if a historian holds such a combination of theories, there must have been something in the past or the present which he very badly wanted to condemn. In fact, there is too much zest in the remark: "Suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong." The whig historian, like Aquinas – if indeed it was Aquinas – may find perhaps too great comfort in the contemplation of some form of torment for the damned.

But it would be unjust to Lord Acton to overlook the fact that behind his views on moral judgements there lies a more fundamental thesis. Acton held a very attractive theory concerning the moral function of history. It is perhaps the highest possible form of the whig tendency to exalt historical study. To Bishop Creighton Acton wrote that when the historian makes a compromise on the question of moral principles, history ceases to be an "arbiter of controversy, the upholder of that moral standard which the power of earth and religion itself tend constantly to depress". When history tampers with the moral code, "it serves where it ought to reign". It is an attractive exaltation of history, which gives it the power to bind and loosen, to be the arbiter of controversy, to reign and not to serve; but one may believe that it is a theory which takes too short a cut to the absolute. It is history encroaching like the Hegelian state, till it becomes all-comprehensive, and stands as the finality in a moral world; taking custody of that moral standard which "religion itself tends constantly to depress". It is history raised into something like the mind of God, making ultimate judgements upon the things which are happening in time. Here is the true Pope, that will not be servus servorum Dei; here is the only absolutism that the whig is disposed to defend; here is divine right and non-resistance, for (if a word can be allowed in malice) is not history on the side of the whigs? It is not easy to resist the temptation to personify and idealize history, and there is no doubt that this species of romancing has its effect upon the posture of the historian. In its practical consequences it means the exaltation of the opinions of the historian. It reaches its highest point in the conception of history as the arbiter, history as the seat of judgement, particularly on moral issue. Lord Acton carried it to the extremity of its logical conclusion. "It is the office of historical science to maintain morality as the sole impartial criterion of men and things". "To develop and perfect and arm conscience is the great achievement of history."

Acton, however, did not exactly set out to defend the moral function of the historian against the unbeliever. He was concerned rather with the manner in which this function should be construed and the seriousness with which this duty should be carried out. He was attacking the historian who, while taking for granted that moral judgements were part of his province, used his prerogatives to make easy exonerations and dealt loosely with the moral code. Much of his doctrine is a valid protest against the slipshod nature of the excuses that can be adduced by the historian, particularly when these excuses are mechanically applied to any given case. And he raises the serious question how far a historian’s explanations – such as the reference to a man’s upbringing or to "the spirit of the age" – can really exonerate an offender, for example, a Pope in the fifteenth century of the Christian era. When all historical explanations of character and conduct have been exhausted, it must be remembered that the real moral question is still waiting to be solved; and what can the historian do about the secret recesses of the personality where a man’s final moral responsibility resides? Acton sees the problem, but he merely says that in cases of doubt we should incline to severity. This is the meaning of his statement that more evil is due to conscious sin and less is due to unconscious error than many people are aware. And this is why he can say "Beware of too much explaining lest we end by too much excusing." Granted that the historian has raised the moral question at all, and has accepted the assumptions which the very raising of the question must imply, he must not then slide down from this lofty moral sphere and fall back into the terms of his own historical world, thereby easing off into a different set of assumptions altogether. And in particular when he has given what is really only the historical explanation of character or conduct, he must not imagine that by this he has done anything to explain moral responsibility away. Acton puts his finger on the very centre of the problem of moral judgements in history; he is unsatisfactory because he cannot answer it; at the crucial point he can merely tell us to incline to severity. His attitude on this special question, therefore, really involves as a fundamental thesis: "Better be unjust to dead men than give currency to loose ideas on questions of morals." It is in fact the reductio ad absurdum of moral judgements in history. Acton, by focusing attention upon the real problem of these moral judgements, came very near to providing us with the argument against having them at all. Our only refuge against the impossible dilemma and the impossible idea which his theories present to us lies in the frank recognition of the fact that there are limits to what history and the historian can do. For the very thing with which they are concerned is the historical explanation of character and conduct, and if we distrust or discourage this kind of explanation, as even Acton seemed inclined to do, we are running perilously near to the thesis: "Better be unhistorical than do anything that may lower the moral dignity of history." The truth is that this historical explaining does not condemn; neither does it excuse; it does not even touch the realm in which words like these have meaning or relevance; it is compounded of observations made upon the events of the concrete world; it is neither more nor less than the process of seeing things in their context. True, it is not for the historian to exonerate; but neither is it for him to condemn. It greatly clears his mind if he can forgive all sins without denying that there are sins to forgive; but remembering the problem of their sinfulness is not really a historical problem at all. And though it is certainly not in his competence to declare that moral responsibility does not exist, we may say that this responsibility lies altogether outside the particular world where the historian does historical thinking. He faced with insuperable difficulties if he tries to stand with one foot in a world that is not his own.

Granting – what is less easy than might appear – an agreement on points of morality, it is a subtle matter to find the incidence of these upon any particular case. And it must be remembered that moral judgements are by their very nature absolute; in the sense that it is pointless to make them unless one can claim definitely to be right. It may be easy for the moralist of the twentieth century to discuss the ethics of persecution, to say perhaps that religious persecution would be wrong today, perhaps that it was wrong in all the ages. It may be easy to judge the thing, to condemn the act, but how shall the historian pass to the condemnation of people, and apply his standards to the judgement of a special incident at any particular moment? Shall he say that in the sixteenth century all men are absolved, because the age took persecution for granted and counted it a duty; or shall he condemn men for not being sufficiently original in their thoughts to rise above the rules and standards of their own day? Shall he condemn Mary Tudor as a persecutor and praise Catherine de’ Medici for seeking toleration, or is it more true to say that Mary was fervent and consistent in her Catholicism, while Catherine was more worldly and indifferent? The historian’s function is in the first place to describe the persecutions for which the English queen was responsible, and to narrate the attempts of the French queen to secure toleration; but because he has the art of sifting source and weighing evidence, this does not mean that he has the subtlety to decide the incidence of moral blame or praise. He is the less a historian certainly if by any moral judgement he puts a stop to his imaginative endeavour, and if through moral indignation he cuts short the effort of historical understanding. Faced with the poisonings of which Alexander VI is accused, it is for the historian to be merely interested, merely curious to know why Mary persecuted and why Catherine did not wish to, until it seems natural to us that the one should have done the one thing while the other acted differently. Perhaps in proportion as he sets out to show why a certain event took place and how a certain deed came to be done, he actually disarms our moral judgement, and makes an end of the very impulse to moral indignation. By setting himself the task of explaining how Mary Tudor came to be what she was, he make moral judgements for the time being utterly irrelevant. The truth is that the historian, whose art is a descriptive one, does not move in this world of moral ideas. His materials and his processes, and all his apparatus exist to enable him to show how a given event came to take place. Who is he to jump out of his true office and merely announce to us that it ought never to have happened at all?

The complications to which the exercise of moral judgement may lead us are illustrated in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon claimed that by his genius and by his destiny he was cut off from the moral world. He considered himself an exception to the usual rules concerning right and wrong, and seems to have been conscious that he was a strange creature fallen among the habitations of men, a completely amoral person working with the indifference of a blind force in nature – something like an avalanche that had crashed upon the world. It is true that he was not indifferent to morality in other people. It was almost his vocation to restore a moral order that had collapsed in the Revolution, to discipline society again, and to bring back the decencies of life. But this was consistent with his claim to be outside the moral order, because he considered that he himself was so to speak the moral end, as the Hegelian state claims to be. He believed that it was in serving him that other men attained their own good. All that he did in his own interests he could count as done for the glory of France. All that endangered his position was a menace to the state. His situation and his power combined with his instinct to make him avowedly the amoral man.

When a person as so completely stated his own outlawry from the moral order, it is tautology for a historian to do anything but describe his own view of himself. It is either redundant or it is extremely subtle to discuss the morality of a man who does not admit the moral order, or regards himself as an exception to its laws. And when a man has so completely stated his whole position, it is not very useful to go on to discuss whether any particular deed of his must be considered immoral. If he claims to be outside morality, it is much more relevant to study his errors; for when a man says that he himself is the state it is essential that he should not make mistakes. If the execution of the Duc d’Enghien was necessary for the maintenance of Napoleon’s government, one might argue that it was necessary for the stability and peace of France; and in this case it raises the tangled question of what one may do to ensure the safety of the state. But, if Napoleon were mistaken, and if the execution was not necessary for that purpose, then the error itself was immorality, and it s not mere callous indifference to say that the mistake was worse than a crime.

But moral judgements are useless they can be taken to imply a comparison of one man with another. Otherwise, the historian would have to fall flat with the commonplace that all men are sinners sometimes. At the same time it is impossible to make comparisons of this kind unless we compare also the situation in which men find themselves – the urgency of their position, the purpose for which they were working, the demands which they were willing to make upon themselves at the time when they made their claims on others. It is difficult again to judge a man like Napoleon, who stood so to speak in the free air and had the power to do what he liked. No government controlled his actions; no law or police kept him within the rails; no institutions set the limiting conditions for his moral behaviour; no fear of social disapproval held him back. All the forces which curb the selfishness of all of us, and the circumstances which even limit our desires, were so to speak beneath his hand, and left him free and unconditioned. It is impossible for us even to imagine a man whose situation and power leave him free to choose his conduct and let loose desire – free to do with other men as he pleases. We do not know that the Prussian king would have been more moderate in his ambitions it he had had the power to carry them out and the chance ever to make free play with his mind. And we do not know that we, who because of our circumstances have small desires and a thousand automatic repressions of desire, would have been more respectable than he in our lives, if we had been in a position to range over the whole universe of desire. We know, indeed, that this man, whose mind was in some ways so unbridled, did not live without performing upon himself what were marvels of self-discipline. This is not a defence of Napoleon, who knew that his career was a scourge to the whole continent. And these things do not eliminate the moral responsibility upon which Lord Acton set such store. But they do show that Napoleon is not to the historian the object of a simple and absolute moral judgement. They make it necessary for us to translate the whole question into terms with which the historian is competent to deal. We are in the world that is the historian’s own if we say that the character of Napoleon is to him the subject of a piece of description.

It is not his function to tease himself with questions concerning the place where moral responsibility resides; concerning the extent to which ends justify means and good causes cover wicked actions; or concerning the degree to which man may go in Machiavellianism to save perhaps the very existence of a state. But he can give evidence that Napoleon lied, that Alexander VI poisoned people and that Mary Tudor persecuted; and to say that one man was a coward, or another man a fanatic, or a certain person was an habitual drunkard may be as valid as any other historical generalization. The description of a man’s characteristics, the analysis of a mind and a personality are, subject to obvious limits, part of the whole realm of historical interpretation; for it is the assumption of historical study that by sympathy and insight and imagination we can go at least some way towards the understanding of people other than ourselves and times other than our own. Further, the historian may concern himself with the problem which seems to have troubled Lord Acton: the effect which the promulgation of slipshod ideas on moral questions may have had at any time upon human conduct. The historian is on his own ground again when he inquires into the consequences at certain periods in the past of various forms of the doctrine that the end justifies the means, or when he shows the historical importance of various ethical theories that concern the state. When Acton asserts that there has been little "progress in ethics [...] between St John and the Victorian era", he may be right or wrong, but he is making what we might call a historical statement. Ethical questions concern the historian in so far as they are part of the world which he has to describe; ethical principles and ideals concern him only in the effect they have had on human beings; in other words, he deals with morality in so far as it is part of history. If morality is the product of history, the historian may be called upon to describe its development. If it is an absolute system, equally binding on all places at all times, then it does not concern him, for his apparatus only allows him to examine the changes of things which change. But even in this case, it is only the form of the question which is required to be restated; he will be driven now to watch the story of men’s growing consciousness of the moral order, or their gradual discovery of it. Morality, even though it be absolute, is not absolute to him.

Taking the broad history of centuries, it is possible to watch the evolution of constitutional government and religious liberty, and one may see this evolution as the cooperative achievement of all humanity, whig and tory assisting in spite of themselves, Protestant and Catholic both necessary to the process, the principles of order and liberty making perpetual interaction, and, on both sides of the great controversies, men fighting one another who were considered good in their day, and who, to the historian, are at any rate "irreproachable in their private lives". But if the historian is prepared to discriminate between the purpose for which well-meaning men fought one another, and if he is prepared to see the issue as a moral issue and make it a matter for an absolute judgement, if he insist that it is his business to treat his subject in a realm of moral ideas, he will certainly find a shorter cut whatever purpose he is working for, and his history will be written in stronger lines, for it will be a form of the whig over-dramatization. He may then hold liberty and constitutional government as issue in the perennial clash of the principles of good and evil. He may make ancient quarrels his own and set humanity for ever asunder, and, judging the past by the present, keep all generations for ever apart. And it has happened that he has been able to admit that there were good men on both sides of the great conflict, but to do it without making the least sacrifice of what must be regarded as the luxury and pleasing sensuousness of moral indignation. Behind everything, and notwithstanding something like a cosmic scheme of good and evil in conflict, the whig historian has found it possible to reserve for himself one last curious piece of subtlety. He can choose even to forgive the private life of Fox and save his moral condemnation for "the repressive policy of Pitt". For of Lord Acton himself we are informed that "he had little desire to pry into the private morality of kings and politicians"; and it was Acton who told historians that they must "suspect power more than vice". The whig seems to prefer to take his moral stand upon what he calls the larger questions of public policy. So upon the whig interpretation of history we have imposed the peculiar historian’s ethics, by which we can overlook the fact that a king is a spendthrift and a rake, but cannot contain our moral passions if a king has too exalted a view of his own office. Burke’s dictum, which Acton endorses, that "the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged", may contain a world of truth, but it can be dangerous in the hands of the historian. And not the least of its dangers lies in the fact that it can be so easily inverted.

The historian presents us with the picture of the world as it is in history. He describes to us the whole process that underlies the changes of things which change. He offers this as his explanation, his peculiar contribution to our knowledge of ourselves and of human affairs. It represents his special mode of thought, which has laws of its own and is limited by his apparatus. If he postures good against evil, if he talks of "the reign of sin, the sovereignty of wrong", he sets all the angles of his picture differently, for he sets them by measurements which really come from another sphere. If he deals in moral judgements at all he is trying to take upon himself a new dimension, and he is leaving that realm of historical explanation, which is the only one he can call his own. So we must say of him that it is his duty to show how men came to differ, rather than to tell a story which is meant to reveal who is in the right. It must be remembered that, by merely inquiring and explaining, he is increasing human understanding, extending it to all the ages, and binding the world into one. And in this, rather than in the work of "perfecting and arming conscience", we must seek the achievement and the function and the defence of history.

Finally, against Acton’s view that history is the arbiter of controversy, the monarch of all she surveys, it may be suggested that she is the very servant of the servants of God, the drudge of all the drudges. The historian ministers to the economist, the politician, the diplomat, the musician; he is equally at the service of the strategist and the ecclesiastic and the administrator. He must learn a great deal from all of these before he can begin even his own work of historical explanation; and he never has the right to dictate to any one of them. He is neither judge nor jury; he is in the position of a man called upon to give evidence; and even so he may abuse his office and he requires the closest cross-examination, for he is one of these "expert witnesses" who persist in offering opinions concealed within their evidence. Perhaps all history-books hold a danger for those who do not know a great deal of history already. In any case, it is never safe to forget the truth which really underlies historical research: the truth that all history perpetually requires to be corrected by more history. When everything has been said, if we have not understanding, the history of all the ages may bring us no benefit; for it may only give us a larger canvas for our smudging, a wider world for our wilfulness. History is all things to all men. She is at the service of good causes and bad. In other words she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most. Therefore, we must beware even of saying, "History says [...]" or "History proves [...]", as though she herself were the oracle; as though indeed history, once she spoken, had put the matter beyond the range of mere human inquiry. Rather we must say to ourselves: "She will lie to us till the very end of the last cross-examination." This is the goddess the whig worships when he claims to make her the arbiter of controversy. She cheats us with optical illusion, sleight-of-hand, equivocal phraseology. If we must confuse counsel by personifying history at all, it is best to treat her as an old reprobate, whose tricks and juggleries are things to be guarded against. In other words the truth of history is no simple matter, all packed and parcelled ready for handling in the market-place. And the understanding of the past is not so easy as it is sometimes made to appear.


[1] Lord John Acton, the historian (1834-1902): «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.]. 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 1887 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.] 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.

 Sources: 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).  J. N. F. [John Neville Figgis]», Dictionary of National Biography [article published in 1912]

Index | Preface | 1. Introduction | 2. The Underlying Assumption | 3. The Historical Process
4. History and Judgements of Value | 5. The Art of the Historian | 6. Moral Judgements in History