John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, KCVO (January 10, 1834 – June 19, 1902), was an English historian, the only son of Sir Ferdinand Dalberg-Acton, 7th Baronet and grandson of the Neapolitan admiral, Sir John Acton, 6th Baronet. He was born at Naples.
His grandfather, who in 1791 succeeded to the baronetcy and family estates in Shropshire, previously held by the English branch of the Acton family, represented a younger branch which had transferred itself first to France and then to Italy. However, by the extinction of the elder branch. the admiral became head of the family. His eldest son, Richard, married Marie Louise Pelline, the daughter and heiress of Emeric Josef Wolfgang Heribert, 1st Duc de Dalberg, a naturalised French noble of ancient German lineage who had entered the French service under Napoleon and represented Louis XVIII at the Congress of Vienna in 1814. After Sir Richard Acton's death in 1837, she became the wife of the 2nd Earl Granville (1840) .
From an ancient Roman Catholic family, young Acton was educated at Oscott under Dr (afterwards Cardinal) Wiseman until 1848 and then at Edinburgh where he studied privately. At Munich, Acton resided in the house of Döllinger, the great scholar and subsequent leader of the Old Catholic party, whom he became lifelong friends with. He had endeavoured to procure admission to Cambridge, but for a Roman Catholic this was then impossible. Nonetheless, Döllinger had inspired in him a deep love of historical research and a profound conception of its functions as a critical instrument. He was a master of the principal foreign languages and began at an early age to collect a magnificent historical library, with the object (never realized, however,), of writing a great "History of Liberty". In politics, he was always an ardent Liberal.
Although not a notable traveller, Acton spent much time in the chief intellectual centres of Europe and in the United States and numbered among his friends such men as Montalembert, De Tocqueville, Fustel de Coulanges, Bluntschli von Sybel and Ranke. He was attached to Lord Granville's mission to Moscow as British representative at the coronation of Alexander II of Russia in 1856.
In 1859, Sir John Acton settled in England, at his country house, Aldenham, in Shropshire. He returned to the House of Commons that same year as a parliamentary member of the Irish borough of Carlow and became a devoted admirer and adherent of Gladstone. However, he was not an active member, and his parliamentary career came to an end after the general election of 1865, when having headed the poll for Bridgnorth, he was unseated after a scrutiny of the ballot. He contested Bridgnorth again in 1868 but to no avail.
Meanwhile, Acton became the editor of the Roman Catholic monthly paper, The Rambler, in 1859, on John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman's retirement from the editorship. In 1862, he merged this periodical into the Home and Foreign Review. His contributions at once gave evidence of his remarkable wealth of historical knowledge. But though a sincere Roman Catholic, his whole spirit as a historian was hostile to ultramontane pretensions, and his independence of thought and liberalism of view speedily brought him into conflict with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. As early as August 1862, Cardinal Wiseman publicly censured the Review; and when in 1864, after Döllinger's appeal at the Munich Congress for a less hostile attitude towards historical criticism, the pope issued a declaration that the opinions of Catholic writers were subject to the authority of the Roman congregations, Acton felt that there was only one way of reconciling his literary conscience with his ecclesiastical loyalty, and he stopped the publication of his monthly periodical. He continued, however, to contribute articles to the North British Review, which, previously a Scottish Free Church organ, had been acquired by friends in sympathy with him, and which for some years (until 1872, when it ceased to appear) actively promoted the interests of a high-class Liberalism in both temporal and ecclesiastical matters; he also did a good deal of lecturing on historical subjects.
Acton took a great interest in America, considering its Federal structure the perfect guarantor of individual liberties. During the American Civil War, his sympathies lay entirely with the Confederacy, for their defense of States' Rights against a centralized government that, by all historical precedent, would inevitably turn tyrannical. His notes to Gladstone on the subject helped sway many in the British government to sympathy with the South. After the South's surrender, he wrote to Robert E. Lee that "I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo."
In 1865 Acton married the Countess Marie, daughter of the Bavarian Count Arco-Valley, by whom he had one son and three daughters. In 1869 he was raised to the peerage by Gladstone as Baron Acton; he was an intimate friend and constant correspondent of the Liberal leader, and the two men had the very highest regard for one another. Matthew Arnold used to say that "Gladstone influences all round him but Acton; it is Acton who influences Gladstone".
In 1870 came the great crisis in the Roman Catholic world over the promulgation by Pope Pius IX of the dogma of papal infallibility. Lord Acton, who was in complete sympathy on this subject with Döllinger, went to Rome in order to throw all his influence against it, but the step he so much dreaded was not to be averted. The Old Catholic separation followed, but Acton did not personally join the seceders, and the authorities prudently refrained from forcing the hands of so competent and influential an English layman. It was in this context that in a letter dated April, 1877, Acton made his most famous pronouncement: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." This is commonly referred to as Lord Acton's dictum.
In 1874, when Gladstone published his pamphlet on The Vatican Decrees, Lord Acton wrote during November and December a series of remarkable letters to The Times, illustrating Gladstone's main theme by numerous historical examples of papal inconsistency, in a way which must have been bitter enough to the ultramontane party, but demurring nevertheless to Gladstone's conclusion and insisting that the Church itself was better than its premises implied. Acton's letters led to another storm in the English Roman Catholic world, but once more it was considered prudent by the Holy See to leave him alone. In spite of his reservations, he regarded "communion with Rome as dearer than life".
Thenceforth he steered clear of theological polemics. He devoted himself to persistent reading and study, combined with congenial society. With all his capacity for study he was a man of the world, and a man of affairs, not a bookworm. Little indeed came from his pen, his only notable publications being a masterly essay in the Quarterly Review of January 1878 on "Democracy in Europe"; two lectures delivered at Bridgnorth in 1877 on "The History of Freedom in Antiquity" and "The History of Freedom in Christianity" — these last the only tangible portions put together by him of his long-projected "History of Liberty"; and an essay on modern German historians in the first number of the English Historical Review, which he helped to found (1886). After 1879 he divided his time between London, Cannes and Tegernsee in Bavaria, enjoying and reciprocating the society of his friends. In 1872 he had been given the honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Munich University; in 1888 Cambridge gave him the honorary degree of LL.D, and in 1889 Oxford the DCL; and in 1890 he was made a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.
His reputation for learning gradually spread abroad, largely through Gladstone's influence. The latter found him a valuable political adviser, and in 1892, when the Liberal government came in, Lord Acton was made a lord-in-waiting. Finally, in 1895, on the death of Sir John Seeley, Lord Rosebery appointed him to the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Cambridge. The choice was an excellent one. His inaugural lecture on The Study of History, afterwards published with notes displaying a vast erudition, made a great impression in the university, and the new professor's influence on historical study was felt in many important directions. He delivered two valuable courses of lectures on the French Revolution and on Modern History, but it was in private that the effects of his teaching were felt most. The great Cambridge Modern History, though he did not live to see it, was planned under his editorship, and all who came in contact with him testified to his stimulating powers and his extraordinary range of knowledge.
Lord Acton took ill in 1901 and died on 19 June 1902. He was succeeded in the title by his son, Richard Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, 2nd Baron Acton. His extensive library, formed for use and not for display and composed largely of books full of his own annotations, was bought immediately after his death by Andrew Carnegie and presented to John Morley, who forthwith gave it to the University of Cambridge. One of his distant descendants, Alex Callinicos, a Marxist academic, is currently Professor of European Studies at King's College, London.