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Lord Acton: Libertarian Hero

[Originally published April 4, 2006, at] “You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.”1 Thus ends a long passage of a letter from John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, First Lord Acton (1834–1902) in which appears his famous aphorism regarding power’s tendency to corrupt its possessor. In a few words to a fellow historian, who regarded his critic as the “most learned Englishman now alive,” his vast historical knowledge, passion for justice, and love for his Church are fused and brought to a fine point.2 What revolted Acton, what he devoted his life to exposing, was the rationalization of crime when the criminals are

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[Originally published April 4, 2006, at]

“You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.”1

Thus ends a long passage of a letter from John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, First Lord Acton (1834–1902) in which appears his famous aphorism regarding power’s tendency to corrupt its possessor. In a few words to a fellow historian, who regarded his critic as the “most learned Englishman now alive,” his vast historical knowledge, passion for justice, and love for his Church are fused and brought to a fine point.2

What revolted Acton, what he devoted his life to exposing, was the rationalization of crime when the criminals are authorities, whether civil or ecclesiastic. For Acton, the historian’s calling was that of a “hanging judge,” holding the strong and the weak to the same moral standard. As Acton’s counsel was to “suspect power more than vice” when studying history, his moralism may have been intense, but it was never that of the petty vice-cop.3

When some years ago I first read Murray Rothbard’s description of Lord Acton as “the great Catholic libertarian historian,” I suspected overstatement, in spite of the opinion’s source.4 The abuse of “liberal” by twentieth-century statists cannot justify an anachronism, and (so it once seemed to me) attaching libertarian to a Victorian aristocrat, who once urged Marx’s Capital on England’s Prime Minister, just might be anachronistic.5

The more I learned from and about Acton, however, the more Rothbard’s categorization rang true. I would go Rothbard one better and say that Acton was a libertarian hero. His championing of liberty against power was the central theme of his intellectual life. It was wide-ranging and without compromise, even when it cost him.

Acton described himself as “a man who started in life believing himself a sincere Catholic and a sincere Liberal; who therefore renounced everything in Catholicism which was not compatible with Liberty, and everything in Politics which was not compatible with Catholicity.”6 As Acton scholar J. Rufus Fears put it, in “liberty, Acton found more than the key to the unity of history. He found the key to the unity of his life as a Catholic, as a Liberal, and as a historian.”7

We murder to dissect, Wordsworth warned, so we cannot understand any one of those life-vectors apart from its relationship to the other two without risk of distortion. Within the severe limits of a short article we shall try to minimize that risk.

Between his birth in Naples a few years before Victoria’s accession to the British throne and his death in Bavaria a year after hers, John Acton led the fullest life possible to a Catholic intellectual of means in Protestant England. Related to many of Europe’s nobility (and even royalty) and fluent in its chief languages, he traveled widely as a young man not only throughout Europe, but also to America and Russia (on the occasion of Czar Alexander II’s coronation). He corresponded voluminously with many notables including his friend, the aforementioned Prime Minister Gladstone, and General Robert E. Lee.

Religiously disqualified from attending Cambridge University in 1850, Acton was apprenticed for seven years to Father Ignatz von Döllinger of Munich, Europe’s most learned theologian and historian. Under his tutelage Acton unearthed archives to examine the primary sources of history. The result was that he gained an education that made him the peer of those who enjoyed the academic pedigree denied him as a Catholic. In 1895, however, Cambridge honored him with an appointment to one of its most prestigious chairs, the Regius Professorship of Modern History, the first Catholic to be so honored in three centuries. From it he planned (but never produced) a history of liberty, living only long enough to organize The Cambridge Modern History.

If the “one supreme object of all my thoughts is the good of the Church,”8 then Lord Acton was a Catholic before (in his hierarchy of goods as well as chronologically) he was anything else. Both his intellectual activity and even his libertarianism were forged within the hull of Peter’s barque. He improved the reputation of English Catholic intellectuals with his editing of and impressive contributions to two scholarly journals, The Rambler and Home and Foreign Review, closing the latter in advance of almost certain papal censure. His determination, to the point of nervous collapse, was that of a man in love with the Church. “I would rather die than having [sic] to live without the sacraments and to leave the Church.”9

The reign of Pope Pius IX was the most unfortunate feature of Acton’s world, and not just because the specter of absolutism that increasingly haunted his Church diverted his energies from the writing of books. This pontiff had once been the hope of liberals, Catholic and non-Catholic, until Europe’s ascendant nationalist movements boxed the Vatican in, psychologically and, eventually, territorially, and an illiberal, bunker mentality set in. As the de facto leader of the Church’s ultimately victorious “ultramontanist” party, Pius not only dashed any hope that he would reconcile himself with liberalism, but also went so far as to identify his very person with Tradition.10

Two issues surfaced for reflective Catholics: freedom for the Church and freedom within the Church. For Acton they were not incompatible goals. He doubted, not that the Church has implacable enemies, but that authoritarian governance helps Her fight them. If anything, he feared, it throws dry wood on the flames of anti-Catholic prejudice. Liberal self-governance will fortify the Church, not weaken Her, as She conducts Her spiritual battles. For Her “own everlasting foundation,” he wrote, is

the words of Christ, not … the gifts of Constantine. More than once since then … she has been stripped of that terrestrial splendor which had proved such a fatal possession; but she has stood her ground in the wreck of those political institutions on which she no longer relied, and alone has saved society. The old position of things has been reversed; and it has been found that it is the State which stands in need of the Church, and that the strength of the Church is her independence.11

Acton made this fight his own, going so far as to wage journalistic guerrilla warfare in Rome against the foreordained course of the First Vatican Council. While the Council sat, he would meet with every delegate he could by day and write up his notes in his rented apartment on the Via Della Croce by night, the next day availing himself of a diplomatic pouch to dispatch his reports to Father Döllinger in Munich. From these reports Acton’s scholarly colleague would, under the pseudonym “Quirinus,” cobble together an article for the Allgemeine Zeitung. That paper’s Roman subscribers would eagerly consume it within days—to the sound of pounding fists from inside the papal apartments. For the Pope’s aim in convening the Council was to satisfy his burning desire to define papal infallibility as a dogma to be believed by all Christians on pain of damnation. But he didn’t need the definition to feel, and assert, infallibility.12

Unlike John Henry Cardinal Newman, the Catholic convert from the Church of England with whom Acton is sometimes too casually linked, Acton opposed this proposal, because he thought [not] doing so was not so much inexpedient as wrong. Infallibility meant that a solemn papal pronouncement on faith or morals was to be received by Catholics as true because it enjoyed (in the words of the Council) “the same infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer thought fit to endow his Church” and “not in consequence of the consent of the Church.”13

Acton’s conscience, extraordinarily well formed as it was historically and theologically, did not allow him to ratify that affirmation; and just because he was a Catholic, he could not ignore that conscience’s directives. His opposition was not a symptom of doubt regarding any doctrine that had “always been believed, everywhere, by everyone.” Rather, he feared that the ascription to a sinner of a divine attribute, however circumscribed, would tend to discredit the Faith and fortify harmful absolutist tendencies within the Church.

He also feared that were he to reveal his opposition to infallibility he would be excommunicated. With the zeal of a convert, Henry Edward Cardinal Manning had worked to contrive such a predicament. The prelate pressed his interrogation in a letter, asking the historian point blank whether he ought not to say that he submitted to the decrees of the Council.

In his reply of 18 November 1874—a model either of adroit evasion or of legal self-extrication worthy of a Saint Thomas More—Acton stated that a “misconception” was driving the Cardinal’s inquisition: “I can only say that I have no private gloss or favourite interpretation for the Vatican Decrees. The acts of the Council alone constitute the law which I recognize. I have not felt it my duty as a layman to pursue the comments of divines, still less to attempt to supersede them by private judgments of my own.”14

In another reply (16 December 1874), this time to his diocesan bishop, who had the authority to quiet the whole matter, Acton protested “that I have given you no foundation for your doubt…. I have yielded obedience to the Apostolic Commission which embodied those decrees, and I have not transgressed … obligations imposed under the supreme sanction of the Church.” That satisfied Acton’s ordinary, and that was that.

The self-imposed pressures of his journalistic, scholarly, and political activity, which often involved foreign travel, put some but not undue strain on his family life. All his considerable good fortune did not, however, spare him the sorrow of burying two of his children at very young ages. Given Cambridge’s previously mentioned denial to him of the opportunity to study there in 1850, it is a pleasant irony that his most professionally rewarding, even happiest, years of his life were the last seven, dating from his acceptance of the Regius Professorship. He was a popular lecturer who spoke to standing-room-only crowds, who were sometimes charged admission. He left behind a library of nearly seventy thousand volumes, many of them annotated in his hand. They are now preserved at Cambridge, having been saved from certain dispersal and disintegration by a check from Andrew Carnegie.

Acton’s understanding of the Church’s mission was organically related to his libertarian philosophy of history. The Gospel that transformed individuals could not help but go on to transform their societies:

The Church which our Lord came to establish had a two-fold mission to fulfill. Her system of doctrine, on the one hand, had to be defined and perpetually maintained. But it was also necessary that it should prove itself more than a mere matter of theory—that it should pass into practice, and command the will as well as the intellect of men. It was necessary not only to restore the image of God in man, but to establish the divine order in the world.15

In summarizing the contribution of the Stoics to the Christian, i.e., Acton’s, idea of liberty, he wrote:

They made it known that there is a will superior to the collective will of man, and a law that overrules those of Solon and Lycurgus…. That which we must obey, that to which we are bound to reduce all civil authorities, and to sacrifice every earthly interest, is that immutable law which is perfect and eternal as God Himself, which proceeds from His nature, and reigns over heaven and earth and over all the nations…. The liberties of the ancient nations were crushed beneath a hopeless and inevitable despotism, and their vitality was spent, when the new power came forth from Galilee, giving what was wanting to the efficacy of human knowledge, to redeem societies as well as men.16

What did Acton mean by “liberty”? In one place he said it was “the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty, against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.”17 In another he grounded his concept of liberty in Catholicism and contrasted it with modernity’s:

There is a wide divergence, an irreconcilable disagreement, between the political notions of the modern world and that which is essentially the system of the Catholic Church. It manifests itself particularly in their contradictory views of liberty, and of the functions of the civil power. The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights.18

For Acton, the principle of liberty always faces the counter-principle of power, and he linked this tension to the primary moral effort of the individual to suppress his own libido dominandi, which is secondarily expressed in institutions. That libido is the urge to “push people around” with impunity (as Rothbard would render the Latin). It is, as Acton put it, the insidious “enemy within.” The greater that urge’s potential range of expression, the greater the danger, be its subject mitered or crowned: “The passion for power over others can never cease to threaten mankind and is always sure of finding new and unforeseen allies in continuing its martyrology.”19

That passion varies in intensity from person to person, as does the desire to cool it. As there can be no permanent moral victories against it, we cannot reasonably hope to establish a utopia in which liberty is enjoyed as a permanent victory, a settled attitude, immune to back-sliding.20

Power tends not only to corrupt, but also to “expand indefinitely, and will transcend all barriers, abroad and at home, until met by superior forces.” This

law of the modern world … produces the rhythmic movement of History.

The threatened interests were compelled to unite for the self-government of nations, the toleration of religions, and the rights of man…. it is by the combined efforts of the weak, made under compulsion, to resist the reign of force and constant wrong, that, in the rapid change but slow progress of four hundred years, liberty has been preserved, and secured, and extended, and finally understood.21

Man is therefore not only a liberty-seeker, but also a power-grabber; his political maturity will arrive when he becomes a consistent power-checker. In describing church-state rivalry in pre-modern Europe, Acton reiterates the theme of countervailing power as the key to liberty’s progress, referring again to that critical period of four centuries:

The only influence capable of resisting the feudal hierarchy was the ecclesiastical hierarchy; and they came into collision, when the process of feudalism threatened the independence of the Church by subjecting the prelates severally to that form of personal dependence on kings which was peculiar to the Teutonic state. To that conflict of four hundred years we owe the rise of civil liberty. If the Church had continued to buttress the thrones of the king whom it anointed, or if the struggle had terminated speedily in an undivided victory, all Europe would have sunk down under a Byzantine or Muscovite despotism. For the aim of both contending parties was absolute authority. But although liberty was not the end for which they strove, it was the means by which the temporal and the spiritual power called the nations to their aid.22

As Leonard Liggio confirmed Acton’s point:

[R]eligious institutions were totally separate from, and often in conflict with, political institutions only in the Christian West. This created the space in which free institutions could emerge. The idea of independent religious institutions is absent even in Eastern Christianity; their religious institutions are part of the bureaucracy of the state. In Western Europe, though, the religious institutions were autonomous among themselves, and totally independent from and often in opposition to state power. The result was the creation of a polycentric system. And whenever this system was threatened by claims of total empire by the political rulers, Christian philosophy was utilized as part of its defense.23

Acton again:

Real liberty depends not on the separate but on the distinct and appropriate, but continuous, action and reaction of Church and State. The defined and regulated influence of the Church in the State protects a special sphere and germ of political freedom, and supplies a separate and powerful sanction for law. On the other hand, the restricted and defined action of the State in ecclesiastical affairs gives security to canon law, and prevents wanton innovation and the arbitrary confiscation of rights.24

Acton once wrote that property was the “basis of liberty,”25 but he was no Lockean theorist of self-ownership; that is, he did not—regrettably in my opinion—define liberty in terms of property rights. It is therefore not surprising that he deems the “state . . . competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its own immediate sphere. Beyond the limit of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life, by promoting the influences which avail against temptation,—Religion, Education, and the distribution of Wealth.”26 Acton limited, but did not eliminate, the State. But more on that problem presently.

The context of the famous “power dictum” is a letter, dated 5 April 1887, to Anglican Archbishop Mandell Creighton, whose five-volume history of the medieval papacy Acton had savaged (in a publication that Creighton edited!) for the double standard that he allegedly applied to crimes, depending on the social rank of their perpetrators. The recipient of the letter quoted at the beginning of this essay, Creighton was a Fellow of Merton College and Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge. He had sought out Acton as a reviewer because he “wanted to be told my shortcomings by the one Englishman whom I consider capable of doing so.” As he later hoped Acton would succeed him when he left Cambridge to take up his see at Peterborough, he was most enthusiastic in support of Acton’s appointment to that University’s Regius Chair.27 Yes, Creighton thought him incomparably learned, but “he never writes anything,” referring to his notorious underproduction of publications. As an historian Acton was, nevertheless, according to Gertrude Himmelfarb, “perhaps the most learned and intellectually ambitious of his generation.”28

The power under review was ecclesiastic. Let us view his epigram in its surroundings:

I really don’t know whether you [Creighton] exempt them [from criticism] because of their rank, or of their success and power, or of their date. It does not allow of our saying that such a man did not know right from wrong, unless we are able to say that he lived before Columbus, before Copernicus, and could not know right from wrong. It can scarcely apply to the centre of Christendom, 1500 [years] after the birth of our Lord. That would imply that Christianity is a mere system of metaphysics, which borrowed some ethics from elsewhere….

Acton continues to turn the polemical heat up …

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility.

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means.

… and then boils things down:

You would hang a man of no position, like [François] Ravaillac [assassin of Henry IV of France]; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with great crimes.29

Then follow the words with which this essay began.

Rothbard stressed the deeply anti-conservative nature of Acton’s thought. “While natural-law theory has often been used erroneously in defense of the political status quo, its radical and ‘revolutionary’ implications were brilliantly understood by” Acton:

Acton saw clearly that the deep flaw in the ancient Greek—and their later followers’—conception of natural law political philosophy was to identify politics and morals, and then to place the supreme social moral agent in the State. From Plato and Aristotle, the State’s proclaimed supremacy was founded in their view that [as Acton wrote] “morality was distinguished from religion and politics from morals; and in religion, morality, and politics there was only one legislator and one authority.”

Acton added that the Stoics developed the correct, non-State principles of natural law political philosophy, which were then revived in the modern period by [Hugo] Grotius and his followers. “From that time” [Acton wrote] “it became possible to make politics a matter of principle and of conscience.” The reaction of the State to this theoretical development was horror.30

Rothbard then quotes Acton:

When [theologian Richard] Cumberland and [jurist Samuel von] Pufendorf unfolded the true significance of [Grotius’s] doctrine, every settled authority, every triumphant interest recoiled aghast…. It was manifest that all persons who had learned that political science is an affair of conscience rather than of might and expediency, must regard their adversaries as men without principle.31

Here’s what Acton wrote just before those words:

In a passage almost literally taken from St. Thomas, he [the philosopher Pierre Charron] describes our subordination under the law of nature, to which all legislation must conform; and he ascertains it not by the light of revealed religion, but by the voice of universal reason, through which God enlightens the consciences of men. Upon this foundation Grotius drew the lines of real political science. In gathering the materials of international law, he had to go beyond national treaties and denominational interests, for a principle embracing all mankind. The principles of law must stand, he said, even if we suppose that there is no God. By these inaccurate terms he meant that they must be found independently of Revelation. From that time it became possible to make politics a matter of principle and of conscience, so that men and nations differing in all other things could live in peace together, under the sanctions of a common law.

If one reads Acton superficially, it seems as if the State is ever under suspicion, but never under indictment. That is, he does not seem to regard the State as such as the enemy of society. But we must take care not to equivocate. When 19th-century writers referred to “the State,” they did not necessarily mean what anarchocapitalists mean. They may have meant something more fundamental, such as the principles according to which people implicitly regulate their mutual affairs, which principles they more or less accurately express in a legal code.

Therefore, if it is true of any possible society that its members’ interactions are arranged intelligibly, that intelligible arrangement may be said to be its “state.” It refers to the whole of society, not just that portion of the population arrayed against the rest by its monopoly of police. It is in the interest of those monopolists to identify their particular interests (those of “the State” in the Rothbardian sense) with the general interest (that of “the state” of the whole society). They have largely been successful in getting their victims to accept that identification.

So when a writer like Acton refers to “the divine origin and nature of authority,” the last thing he means is that heaven smiles upon, or at least winks at, the anti-social gang that taxes, inflates, conscripts, rewards, punishes within its own turf and occasionally lays waste to the territories of rival gangs. Rather, Acton is referring to a dimension of human living that is no more dispensable than its biological dimension. For example, he once wrote that the State has

the same divine origin and the same ends as in the Church, which holds that it belongs as much to the primitive essence of a nation as its language, and that it unites men together by a moral, not, like family and society, by a natural and sensible, bond.32

A society could, therefore, no more be without a State in that sense than it could be without families. Given that stipulation, “libertarian state” would not be an oxymoron, but rather name a society whose members are fundamentally libertarian in their settled convictions. To avoid the sin of equivocation we need only announce in advance which sense of “State” we intend. For Acton “a State in which the law is powerless to punish a thief (“anarchy”), or in which a society is unable to restrict the action of the government (“despotism”)” are equally undesirable, no less so to the anarchocapitalist than to anyone else.33

For example, in the United States there is (as there wasn’t two centuries ago) a settled conviction toward chattel slavery as a morally impermissible relationship. That is, Americans implicitly regard the control by human being A of human being B’s body against B’s will as intrinsically criminal. They so regard it no matter what any positive statute somewhere may say to the contrary. They hold that to seek to exercise such control is ipso facto to be criminally minded. The American polity or State, in the sense I am trying to clarify, is anti-chattel slavery. The libertarian argues for logically extending the range of that settled conviction to embrace all of justly held property. In so arguing, he shows his discourse to be commensurate with that of most non-libertarians. That is, it recognizes a common objective, namely, how to pursue our innumerable and diverse projects peacefully, how to cooperate even in the conduct of our rivalry, and how to deal with violent non-cooperators “so that men and nations differing in all other things could live in peace together.”

I do not wish to overstate my case for Acton as a libertarian hero. While Acton doesn’t believe that the government is the preferred means of satisfying the “claim on the wealth of the rich” that the poor allegedly have, neither does he rule it out as a necessarily objectionable means. He does believe the poor have a moral claim in “so far as they may be relieved from immoral, demoralizing effects of poverty.” The claim is not that the poor man somehow owns part of another’s wealth, but rather that when he “becomes destitute,” presumably through no fault of his own, “it is a moral evil, teeming with consequences injurious to society and morality.”34 It is not so much the enforceable right of “the poor” as it is the moral duty of “the rich.”

If there was one weakness in Acton’s intellectual armory, it lay in his grasp of economics. To that ignorance I mainly attribute his conflating of the State in Rothbard’s sense with the State as society’s necessary political dimension.35

Yet this conflation, in which he was (and is) not alone, does not detract from the value of the radical libertarian potential latent in his thought. For no more than his Savior did Acton specify what, if anything, belongs to Caesar. Although Rothbard knew that Acton did not take the anarchist step, he

saw clearly that any set of objective moral principles rooted in the nature of man must inevitably come into conflict with custom and with positive law. To Acton, such an irrepressible conflict was an essential attribute of classical liberalism: “Liberalism wishes for what ought to be [Acton wrote], irrespective of what is.” … And so, for Acton, the individual, armed with natural law moral principles, is then in a firm position from which to criticize existing regimes and institutions, to hold them up to the strong and harsh light of reason.36

Not enough, perhaps, to dub Acton an anarchist, but enough to spawn the conjecture that anarchism is where his thought leads.

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The Mises Institute, founded in 1982, teaches the scholarship of Austrian economics, freedom, and peace. The liberal intellectual tradition of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995) guides us. Accordingly, we seek a profound and radical shift in the intellectual climate: away from statism and toward a private property order.

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