Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, Baron Acton

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 1
John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, Baron Acton

by Herbert Thurston


Baron Acton, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, 1895-1902, born at Naples, 10 January, 1834, Where his father, Sir Richard Acton, held an important diplomatic appointment; died at Tegernsee, Bavaria, 19 June, 1902.

His mother was the heiress of a distinguished Bavarian family, the Dalbergs. The Actons, though of an old English Catholic stock, had long been naturalized in Naples, where Lord Acton's grandfather had been prime minister. The future historian was thus in an extraordinary degree cosmopolitan, and much of his exceptional mastery of historical literature may be ascribed to the fact that the principal languages of Europe were as familiar to him as his native tongue. In 1843 the boy was sent to Oscott College, Birmingham, were Doctor, afterwards Cardinal, Nicholas Wiseman was then president. After five years spent at Oscott, Acton complete his education at Munich, as the pupil of the celebrated historian Döllinger. With Döllinger he visited France, and both there and in Germany lived on terms of intimacy with the most eminent historical scholars of the day. Returning to England, however, in 1859, to settle upon the family estate of Aldenham in Shropshire, he entered parliament as member for an Irish constituency, and retained his seat for six years, voting with the Liberals, but taking little part in the debates. In the meantime he devoted himself to literary work, and upon Newman's retirement, in 1859, succeeded him in the editorship of a Catholic periodical called "The Rambler", which, after 1862, was transformed into a quarterly under the title of "The Home and Foreign Review". The ultra liberal tone of this journal gave offence to ecclesiastical authorities, and Acton eventually judged it necessary to discontinue its publication, in April, 1864, when he wrote, concerning certain tenets of his which had been disapproved of, that "the principles had not ceased to be true, nor the authority which censured them to be legitimate, because the two were in contradiction." The publication of the "Syllabus" by Pius IX in 1864 tended to alienate Acton still further from Ultramontane counsels. He had in the meantime become very intimate with Mr. Gladstone, by whom he was recommended for a peerage in 1869, and at the time of the Vatican Council Lord Acton went to Rome with the express object of organizing a party of resistance to the proposed definition of papal infallibility. The decree, when it came, seems to have had the effect of permanently embittering Acton's feelings towards Roman authority, but he did not, like his friend Döllinger, formally sever his connection with the Church. Indeed in his later years at Cambridge he regularly attended Mass, and he received the last sacraments, at Tegernsee, on his death-bed. The Cambridge Professorship of Modern History was offered to him by Lord Roseberry in 1895, and, besides the lectures which he delivered there, he conceived and partly organized the "Cambridge Modern History", the first volume of which was only to see the light after his death. Lord Acton never produced anything which deserves to be called a book, but he wrote a good many reviews and occasionally an article or a lecture. As an historian he was probably more remarkable for knowledge of detail than for judgment or intuition. The "Letters of Quirinus," published in the Allgemeine Zeitung", at the time of the Vatican Council, and attributed to Lord Acton, as well as other letters addressed to the "Times", in November, 1874, show a mind much warped against the Roman system. The "Letters to Mrs. Drew" (Mr. Gladstone's daughter), which we printed by Mr. Herbert Paul in 1903, are brilliant but often bitter. A pleasanter impression is given by another collection of Lord Acton's private letters (published 1906) under the editorship of Abbot Gasquet. Some of Acton's best work was contributed to the "English Historical Review". His article on "German Schools of History", in the first volume, and on "Döllinger's Historical Work", in the fifth, deserve particular mention.

HERBERT THURSTON