Lord Acton, the forgotten liberal

Few Brazilian liberals, perhaps even the most militant and fierce, know, in addition to the name John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (

-1902), Lord Acton. An iconic parliamentarian, an excellent teacher and an outspoken Catholic defender of individual freedoms – especially those of belief and faith – Acton seems to have been forgotten by many in the 21st century. It is true that the thinker had controversial political positions, as well as, at times, he seemed to have an excess of prudence when opposing typically anti-liberal ideas, such as slavery and the broad formal inclusion of women in civil society. He was the son of his time, and his time was not easy in the political field, see what would come as soon as the century turned. In the face of growing state demands and under the stench of an increasingly real war conflict, Acton had the virtue of maintaining the pride of his own opinion and the political independence that was so difficult in that polarized England, even in the face of a militant Whig Party, an association he composed with refined intellectual brilliance.

Son of Ferdinand Richard Edward Acton (1815 -1837), English aristocrat, and Marie Louise Pelline von Dalberg (1807-1860), from a noble and strongly Catholic family in Bavaria, Acton inherited his father’s insight and intelligence, as well as his mother’s critical and progressive faith. Despite being born in Naples (Italy), in 1815, Lord Acton had his British citizenship affirmed due to to his paternal ancestry, but it was in the land of Edmund Burke (1729-1729), Ireland, which became notable in political criticism and unconventional social positions among his Catholic peers.

In 1834, his mother had married for the second time, now to Lord Granville (1813-1891), then Foreign Minister in the British Government; it was from his stepfather’s circles of friendship that Acton had his first contact with the ideas and luminaries of the Whig Party, as well as with the general principles of liberal thought still under construction in those days. It would have been like this, at the family dinner table, that, as a child, Edmund Burke’s ideas were vaporized in his ears. He would later admire and criticize (at the same time) the Irishman, commonly considered the father of modern political conservatism. For Acton, Burke would have been paradoxical in many of the ideas he defended, and, despite being a genius in political rhetoric, by condemning the revolutionary impulses of the French while, increasingly, supporting the American revolutionaries, he became criticizable and confused according to the historian. . However, despite public criticism of Burke, when he learned that the Irishman had not finished his work on the history of England, because David Hume (19-1819 ) had written a book on the same subject, would have said that he deeply regretted that English history had been written by Hume and not by Burke, thus revealing, once again, a tacit admiration for the father of conservatism.

As a child, Acton was brought up under a strict, if liberal, Catholic faith, studying at Oscott College, which followed the pedagogical lineage of the memorable Cardinal Nicholas Patrick Stephen Wiseman (1799-1865) – the first Roman Catholic cardinal to reside in England after the Anglican Protestant Reformation. As an adult, the young Acton was prevented from studying at Cambridge University, as he was publicly a Roman Catholic, thus having to move to Germany to study at Ludwig Maximilian University. There he lived with his dearest intellectual influence, the German Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1870), Catholic philosopher, theologian, and ecclesiastical historian. Later, Lord Acton would say that it was Döllinger who instilled in him a love for critical studies of modern history, as well as an appreciation for political criticism in favor of individual freedom – very common in Austria and Germany of those days. It was precisely at this time that he began to obtain as many books as possible, in order to compose a personal library; his mission was, he told his close friends, to write a book on the “History of Liberty” – as we shall see later, a perspective he actually fulfilled.

After his years of study , Acton traveled the world, passing through the United States – a country that, later, did not seem to have as much appreciation there as Edmund Burke, for example, had before – and other European countries, such as France and his native Italy. In 1856, he had his first and effective participation in the service of the English government. Under the tutelage of his stepfather, he participated in the entourage that went to Moscow with diplomatic missions to deal with Alexander II himself (1845-1894). After returning to England in 1859, he settled in quiet Aldenham; that same year, for the Whig Party, he was elected to the House of Commons by the Carlow constituency. At the same time that he assumed his public functions, he received the extremely honorable task of replacing Cardinal John Henry Newman (1799-1890) in the editorship of the Catholic magazine The Rambler , at the time, one of the most prestigious in the Catholic world. The cardinal’s ideas drove deep stakes into Acton’s thinking. When analyzing the French Revolution, for example, he often referred to the religious’s ideas on the subject. His set of lectures on the French Revolution, given in Cambridge from 1898 to 1899, has just been launched in Brazil by LVM Editora, at Clube do Livro Ludovico, under the title French Revolution in 1840 lessons.

Such a social position of editor-in-chief of one of the most respected Catholic publications in the world gave the historian enormous prestige, as the Catholic Cardinal himself, Newman, enjoyed enormous popularity in England given his meteoric conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, as well as his combative and polemical apologetics of Catholic beliefs. Acton, in this way, came to be seen as a combative and convinced man of his Catholic faith, acting – directly and indirectly – within the English government. He was everything the liberals of the time wanted: a scholar, respected, liberal and Catholic to serve as a shield and sword against the Tory.

Em 1864, however, had to abandon the post of editor-in-chief of the magazine. Acton was a profound critic of the dogma of papal infallibility, and of other centralist doctrines of the Catholic Church. According to his biographers, the magazine’s criticisms were accentuated in the face of the most controversial doctrines of the Church, generating in the English ecclesiastical bosom a bitterness and a fear of reprisals from the Vatican. Thus, at the end of 1864, he leaves the position, but maintains his positions and still accentuates his criticism, especially in publications North British Review and

The Chronicle. Despite his constantly sour stance towards many Catholic doctrines, he constantly told his close friends that he would rather die than lose communion with Rome. Many, even today, consider this posture a kind of electoral charm of the historian, who had in his Catholicism one of his liberal weapons in England; others, in turn, consider Acton’s feeling to be sincere, a feeling that was mainly planted by the family tradition under which he was raised.

Going to other public fights of the biographer, one of the main ones, and still little explored, contentions assumed by Acton was his explicit support for the South in the American Civil War. Despite supporting the decentralized federative model, which was often said to be the only one that can truly ensure individual freedom, American Southerners were naturally painted in England as slavish and inflexible conservatives. In many letters exchanged with Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), he says explicitly that he regrets the fall of the South to Abraham Lincoln’s troops (1809-1865). His position in this struggle, in fact, was taboo among Britain’s Tory Protestants, as the pro-South position in the American Civil War was, on a large scale, publicly endorsed by Catholics – many clergy, even, did so publicly. .

In 1865, he married his cousin, Countess Marie Anna Ludomilla Euphrosyne Arco- Valley, with whom he had seven children. And, in 1864, at the hands of Queen Victoria (1870 -1901), received a royal distinction for his achievements, becoming Baron Acton; and, through the influence of his friend, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809 -1898), received the right to use the title of “Lord”. His most commendable public life, however, took place in academia, especially in Cambridge, but he is also constantly remembered for his six-year stint in politics from 1859 The 1865. His worldwide fame spread sponsored by Gladstone, who considered him a political adviser of the first order.

The historian lived, basically, on the income from the lands inherited from his father, but he had salary addenda. due to his editorial and academic work. And, in addition to being a historian and editor, Acton was directly responsible for the textual preparation of the famous edition Cambridge Modern History, which earned him more posthumous prestige than in life. In addition, the historian became famous for composing the magnificent volumes of the history of freedom: The History of Freedom in Antiquity (

) and The History of Freedom in Christianity (1895 ), which were previously lectures and essays published sparsely in journals. Despite his grandiose intellect, it is a well-known fact that he did not go out writing books as his intellectual peers used to do, what he left in droves were essays and lectures, these, sometimes, annotated by his students and rarely written in full somewhere by the author himself, causing Cambridge editors to find these lectures often only notes and outlines. Despite the few works completed, those who attended his classes and lived with him, whether in personal life, like Gladstone, or in the academy, identified in Acton one of the most brilliant intellects of his time. He was often presented as one of the most celebrated English thinkers of the late 19th century; His fame made his rare writings and phrases become staple handbooks in the Whig Party and memorable epigraphs for defenders of individual liberty in the following decades around the world. What real liberal has never read or heard the maxim “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely”?

Since 1899, Lord Acton’s health deteriorated a lot, as a result of a stroke suffered in the first half of that year, however he only died in 19 of June 1902, due to the sequelae of the aforementioned vascular accident. His body is buried near Lake Tegernsee, in the Bavarian Alps, southern Germany.

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