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John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton

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John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton

The Right Honourable
The Lord Acton
Member of Parliament
for Bridgnorth
In office
25 July 1865 – 1866
Serving with John Pritchard
Preceded by Henry Whitmore
Succeeded by Henry Whitmore
Member of Parliament
for Carlow Borough
In office
19 May 1859 – 25 July 1865
Preceded by John Alexander
Succeeded by Thomas Osborne Stock
Personal details
Born John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton
10 January 1834
Naples, Two Sicilies
Died 19 June 1902(1902-06-19) (aged 68)
Tegernsee, Bavaria
German Empire
Nationality British
Political party Liberal Party
Alma mater Oscott College
Occupation Historian, politician
Religion Roman Catholic

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, KCVO, DL (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902)—known as Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th Baronet from 1837 to 1869 and usually referred to simply as Lord Acton—was an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer. He was the only son of Sir Ferdinand Dalberg-Acton, 7th Baronet[1] and a grandson of the Neapolitan admiral Sir John Acton, 6th Baronet.[2][3] He is perhaps best known for the remark, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."[4] His key idea has been tested in laboratory settings under strongly incentivized conditions and with real manipulations of power and confirms what he has suggested: that power corrupts.[5]


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
    • Politics 2.1
    • Religion and writings 2.2
  • Personal life 3
  • Professor at Cambridge 4
  • Death and legacy 5
  • Ancestry 6
  • Notable quotations 7
  • Works 8
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13

Early life

Acton's grandfather, who in 1791 succeeded to the baronetcy and family estates in 2nd Earl Granville (1840).[1] Marie Louise Pelline de Dalberg was heiress of Herrnsheim in Germany. She became the mother of John Dalberg-Acton who was born in Naples.[2][3]

From an old Roman Catholic family, young Acton was educated at Oscott College under Dr (afterwards Cardinal) Wiseman until 1848 and then at Edinburgh where he studied privately. At Munich, Acton resided in the house of Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, theologian and forerunner of the Old Catholic Church, with whom he became lifelong friends. His attempt to be admitted to study at the University of Cambridge failed because he was a Catholic.[3] Nonetheless, Döllinger had inspired in him a deep love of historical research and a profound conception of its functions as a critical instrument, particularly in the history of liberty.[6] He was a master of the principal foreign languages and began at an early age to collect a magnificent historical library, with the object—which, however, he never realised—of writing a great "History of Liberty." In politics, he was always an ardent Liberal.[3]


Portrait of John Acton by Franz Seraph von Lenbach, circa 1879.

Through extensive travels, Acton spent much time in the chief intellectual centres reading the actual correspondence of historical personalities.[6] Among his friends were Montalembert, Tocqueville, Fustel de Coulanges, Bluntschli, von Sybel and Ranke. In 1855, he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Shropshire.[1] A year later, he was attached to Lord Granville's mission to Moscow as British representative at the coronation of Alexander II of Russia.[7]


In 1859, Acton settled in England, at his country house, Aldenham, in Shropshire. He returned to the House of Commons that same year as member for the Irish Borough of Carlow and became a devoted admirer and adherent of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. However, Acton was not an active MP, and his parliamentary career came to an end after the general election of 1865, when headed the Liberal ballot for Bridgnorth near his Shropshire home. Acton defeated Conservative leader Henry Whitmore, who successfully petitioned for a scrutiny of the ballots, and thus retained his own seat and Acton lost his new seat. After the Reform Act 1867, Acton again contested Bridgnorth, this time reduced to a single seat, in 1868 but to no avail.[7]

Acton took a great interest in the United States, considering its federal structure the perfect guarantor of individual liberties. During the American Civil War, his sympathies lay entirely with the Confederacy, for their defence of States' Rights against a centralised government that he believed would, by what he thought to be all historical precedent, inevitably turn tyrannical. His notes to Gladstone on the subject helped sway many in the British government to sympathise 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," adding that he "deemed that you were fighting battles for our liberty, our progress, and our civilization."[8]

In 1869 Queen Victoria raised Acton to the peerage, becoming the first Baron Acton. His elevation came primarily through the intercession of Gladstone.[9] The two were intimate friends and frequent correspondents. Matthew Arnold said that that "Gladstone influences all round him but Acton; it is Acton who influences Gladstone."[7]

Religion and writings

Lord Acton, with Döllinger and William Gladstone, 1879.

Meanwhile, Acton became the editor of the Roman Catholic monthly paper,

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
John Alexander
Member of Parliament for Carlow Borough
Succeeded by
Thomas Osborne Stock
Preceded by
Henry Whitmore
John Pritchard
Member of Parliament for Bridgnorth
With: John Pritchard
Succeeded by
Henry Whitmore
John Pritchard
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baron Acton
Succeeded by
Richard Lyon-Dalberg-Acton
Baronetage of England
Preceded by
Ferdinand Dalberg-Acton
(of Aldenham)
Succeeded by
Richard Lyon-Dalberg-Acton
  • Podcast on Power and corruption (see footnote in article for link to podcoast
  • Works by John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton at Project Gutenberg
  • %4C%6F%72%64+%41%63%74%6F%6E"+%4F%52+"%42%61%72%6F%6E+%41%63%74%6F%6E"+%4F%52+"%4A%6F%68%6E+%44%61%6C%62%65%72%67+%41%63%74%6F%6E"+%4F%52+"%41%63%74%6F%6E,+%4A%6F%68%6E+%45%6D%65%72%69%63%68+%45%64%77%61%72%64") Works by or about John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton at Internet Archive
  • Works by Lord Acton at Liberty Fund
  • Works by Lord Acton at Hathi Trust
  • Acton Institute: Research on Lord Acton sources from the Acton Institute
  • Archival material relating to John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton listed at the UK National Archives
  • Tocqueville-Acton Centre for Studies & Documentation (Italian and English)
  • Lord Acton, Nationality (1862)

External links

  • Acton, Harold (1961). "Lord Acton," Chicago Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 31–44.
  • Boyd, Kelly, ed. Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writers (Rutledge, 1999) 1:1-2
  • Brinton, Crane (1919). "Lord Acton's Philosophy of History," The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 84–112.
  • Chadwick, Owen (1976). Acton and Gladstone. London: Athlone Press.
  • Chadwick, Owen (1998). Acton and History. Cambridge University Press.
  • Deane, Seamus F. (1972). "Lord Acton and Edmund Burke," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 325–335.
  • Drew, Mary Gladstone (1924). "Acton and Gladstone." In: Acton, Gladstone, and Others. London, Nisbet & Co., ltd., pp. 1–31.
  • Engel-Janosi, Friedrich (1941). "Reflections of Lord Acton on Historical Principles," The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 166–185.
  • Fasnacht, George Eugene (1952). Acton's Political Philosophy: An Analysis. London: Hollis.
  • Gasquet, Abbot (1906). Lord Acton and His Circle. London: Burn & Oates.
  • Himmelfarb, Gertrude (1952). Lord Action: A Study in Conscience and Politics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hill, Roland (2000). Lord Acton. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.
  • Kirk, Russell (1994). Lord Acton on Revolution. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Acton Institute.
  • Lang, Timothy (2002). "Lord Acton and 'The Insanity of Nationality'," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 63, No. 1, pp. 129–149.
  • Laski, Harold J. (1918). "Lord Acton: Idealist," The Dial, Vol. LXV, pp. 59–61.
  • Lilly, W.S. (1911). "Lord Acton and the French Revolution," The Dublin Review, Vol. CXLVIII, pp. 213–229.
  • Mathew, David (1946). Acton: The Formative Years. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  • Mathew, David (1968). Lord Acton and His Times. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  • Massey, Hector J. (1969). "Lord Acton's Theory of Nationality," The Review of Politics, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 495–508.
  • Murphy, Terrence (1984). "Lord Acton and the Question of Moral Judgments in History: The Development of His Position," The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 70, No. 2, pp. 225–250.
  • Nurser, John (1987). The Reign of Conscience: Individual, Church, and State in Lord Acton's History of Liberty. London: Taylor & Francis.
  • Pezzimenti, Rocco (2001). The Political Thought of Lord Acton: The English Catholics in the Nineteenth Century. Leominster: Gracewing.
  • Poole, Reginald L. (1902). "John Emerich, Lord Acton," The English Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 68, pp. 692–699.
  • Schuettinger, Robert Lindsay (1976). Lord Acton: Historian of Liberty. Open Court Publishing Company.
  • Thurston, Herbert (1906). "The Late Lord Acton," The Catholic World, Vol. LXXXIV, pp. 357–372.
  • Tulloch, Hugh (1988). Acton. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Watt, E.D. (1966). "Rome and Lord Acton: A Reinterpretation," The Review of Politics, Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 493–507.
  • Weaver, Richard M. (1961). "Lord Acton: The Historian as Thinker," Modern Age, Vol. V, No. 1, pp. 13–22.

Further reading


  1. ^ a b c
  2. ^ a b Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-16010-8, p. 6
  3. ^ a b c d Chisholm, Hugh. "Acton (1st Baron)", Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911, v1, p. 159
  4. ^ a b Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887 published in Historical Essays and Studies, edited by J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907)
  5. ^ Bendahan, S., Zehnder, C., Pralong, F. P., & Antonakis, J. (2015). Leader corruption depends on power and testosterone. The Leadership Quarterly, 26, 101-122,
  6. ^ a b c
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Chisholm, Hugh. "Acton (1st Baron)", Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911, v 1, p. 160
  8. ^ 4 Nov 1866, letter to Robert E. Lee, The Acton-Lee Correspondence at, accessed 21 February 2011.
  9. ^
  10. ^ MacDougall, Hugh A. (1962). The Acton/Newman Relations: The Dilemma of Christian Liberalism. Fordham University Press.
  11. ^ , eds. J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907). Chapter: VIII: MR. GOLDWIN SMITH’S IRISH HISTORYThe History of Freedom and Other Essays
  12. ^ Tonsor, Stephen J. (1959). "Lord Acton on Dollinger's Historical Theology," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 329–352.
  13. ^  
  14. ^ John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton of Aldenham at
  15. ^
  16. ^ Lectures on Modern History (1895) Appendix I. at Project Gutenberg.
  17. ^ Lectures on Modern History (1895) Lecture XI, The Puritan Revolution. at Project Gutenberg.
  18. ^ (1910)Lectures on the French Revolution Macmillan, p. 92, at Project Gutenberg.
  19. ^ (1996)Forbidden Knowledgequoted in by Roger Shattuck, p. 236
  20. ^ , 1895A Lecture on the Study of History Macmillan (1911), p. 3, at Project Gutenberg.
  21. ^ John Acton Quotes from Accessed 21 February 2011.
  22. ^ vol.56, 1963The American Political Science Reviewas quoted in from The Rambler (1860) p. 146.
  23. ^


See also

  • The Civil War in America: Its Place in History (lecture; 1866).
  • The Rise and Fall of the Mexican Empire (lecture; 1868).
  • Letters from Rome on the Council (1870).
  • The War of 1870 (lecture; 1871).
  • The History of Freedom in Antiquity (address; 1877).
  • The History of Freedom in Christianity (address; 1877).
  • Introductory note to L.A. Burd's edition of Machiavelli's Il Principe (1891).
  • A Lecture on the Study of History (1895).
  • Introductory note to G.P. Gooch's Annals of Politics and Culture (1901).


  • Letters of Lord Acton to Mary, Daughter of the Right Hon. W.E. Gladstone (1904).
  • Lectures on Modern History (1906).
  • The History of Freedom and Other Essays (1907).
  • Historical Essays and Studies (1907).
  • Lectures on the French Revolution (1910).
  • Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton (1917).


  • "Mill on Liberty," Part II, The Rambler (1859–60).
  • "The Roman Question," The Rambler (1860).
  • "The State of the Church," The Rambler (1860).
  • "Hefele's 'Life of Ximenes'," The Rambler (1860).
  • "The Political System of the Popes," Part II, Part III, The Rambler (1860–61).
  • "Döllinger's 'History of Christianity'," The Rambler (1861).
  • "Notes on the Present State of Austria," The Rambler (1861).
  • "Political Causes of the American Revolution," The Rambler (1861).
  • "Cavour," The Rambler (1861).
  • "The Catholic Academy," The Rambler (1861).
  • "Döllinger on the Temporal Power," The Rambler (1861).
  • "Mr. Goldwin Smith's Irish History," The Rambler (1862).
  • "The Protestant Theory of Persecution," The Rambler (1862).
  • "Nationality," Home and Foreign Review (1862).
  • "Secret History of Charles II," Home and Foreign Review (1862).
  • "Confessions of Frederick the Great," Home and Foreign Review (1863).
  • "The Waldensian Forgeries," Home and Foreign Review (1863).
  • "Ultramontanism," Home and Foreign Review (1863).
  • "Mediæval Fables of the Popes," Home and Foreign Review (1863).
  • "The Munich Congress," Home and Foreign Review (1864).
  • "Conflicts with Rome," Home and Foreign Review (1864).
  • "Material Resources of the Papacy," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "Fra Paolo Sarpi," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "The Case of Monte Cassino," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "Döllinger on Universities," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "The Ministerial Changes in Italy," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "Secret History of the Italian Crisis," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "The Secret Bull," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "Reminiscences of Massimo d'Azeglio," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "The Next General Council," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "Ranke," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "M. Littré on the Middle Ages," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "Mr. Goldwin Smith on the Political History of England," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "Nicholas of Cusa," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "Maurice of Saxony," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "The Acta Sanctorum," The Chronicle (1867).
  • "The Queen's Journal," The Chronicle (1868).
  • "Ozanam on the Fifth Century," The Chronicle (1868).
  • "The Massacre of St. Bartholomew," The North British Review (1868).
  • "The Pope and the Council," The North British Review (1869).
  • "The Vatican Council," The North British Review (1870).
  • "The Borgias and their Latest Historian," The North British Review (1871).
  • "Wolsey and the Divorce of Henry VIII," Quarterly Review (1877).
  • "Sir Erskine May's 'Democracy in Europe'," Quarterly Review (1878).
  • "George Eliot's Life," The Nineteenth Century (1885).
  • "German Schools of History," English Historical Review (1886).
  • "Wilhelm von Giesebretch," English Historical Review (1890).
  • "Döllinger's Historical Work," English Historical Review (1890).


  • The wisdom of divine rule appears not in the perfection but in the improvement of the world... History is the true demonstration of Religion.[23]
  • Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.[22]
  • Save for the wild force of Nature, nothing moves in this world that is not Greek in its origin.[21]
  • The science of politics is the one science that is deposited by the streams of history, like the grains of gold in the sand of a river; and the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to making the future.[20]
  • The strong man with the dagger is followed by the weak man with the sponge.[18][19]
  • There is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success. [said of Oliver Cromwell][17]
  • Universal History is ... not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.[16]
  • History is the arbiter of controversy, the monarch of all she surveys.[15]

Notable quotations


Lord Acton has left too little completed original work to rank among the great historians; his very learning seems to have stood in his way; he knew too much and his literary conscience was too acute for him to write easily, and his copiousness of information overloads his literary style. But he was one of the most deeply learned men of his time, and he will certainly be remembered for his influence on others.[7]
: Encyclopaedia Britannica, editor of the 1911 Hugh ChisholmAccording to

Lord Acton became ill in 1901 and died on 19 June 1902 in Tegernsee. He was succeeded in the title by his son, Richard Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, 2nd Baron Acton. His 60,000-volume 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.[7]

Death and legacy

Acton's reputation for learning gradually spread abroad, largely through Gladstone's influence. Gladstone 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.[6] He delivered two 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 Cambridge Modern History, though he did not live to see it, was planned under his editorship.[7]

Professor at Cambridge

His nephew was Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley (1897–1945), a German count and political activist, and assassin of socialist Bavarian president Kurt Eisner († 1919).

  1. Hon. Mary Elizabeth Anne Dalberg-Acton (1866–1951), married Lt-Col. Edward Bleiddian Herbert and had issue.
  2. Hon. Annie Mary Catherine Dalberg-Acton (1868–1917)
  3. Richard Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, 2nd Baron Acton (1870–1924)
  4. Hon. John Dalberg Dalberg-Acton (1872–1873)
  5. Hon. Elizabeth Mary Dalberg-Acton (1874–1881)
  6. Hon. Jeanne Marie Dalberg-Acton (1876–1919)

In 1865 Acton married Countess Marie Anna Ludomilla Euphrosina von Arco auf Valley, daughter of the Bavarian Count Maximilian von Arco auf Valley, by whom he had six children:[14]

Personal life

In 1874, when Gladstone published his pamphlet on The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance, 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 ultimately disagreeing with 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".[7]

Thenceforth he steered clear of theological polemics. He devoted himself to reading, study and congenial society. With all his capacity for study, he was a man of the world and a man of affairs, not a bookworm.[7] His only notable publications were 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 the University of Munich; in 1888 Cambridge gave him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, and in 1889 Oxford the Doctor of Civil Law; and in 1890 he received the high academic accolade of being made a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.[7]

But if we might discuss this point until we found that we nearly agreed, and if we do agree thoroughly about the impropriety of Carlylese denunciations and Pharisaism in history, 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 the 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. You would hang a man of no position like Ravaillac; 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 greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those 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.[4]

In 1870, along with his mentor Döllinger, Acton opposed the moves to promulgate the doctrine of papal infallibility in the First Vatican Council, travelling to Rome to lobby against it, ultimately unsuccessfully.[12] Unlike Döllinger Acton did not become an Old Catholic, and continued attending Mass regularly; he received the last rites on his deathbed.[13] The Catholic Church did not try to force his hand. It was in this context that, in a letter he wrote to scholar and ecclesiastic Mandell Creighton, dated April 1887, Acton made his most famous pronouncement:

In the March 1862 Rambler, Acton wrote "The Celts are not among the progressive, initiative races, but among those which supply the materials rather than the impulse of history, and are either stationary or retrogressive. The Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Teutons are the only makers of history, the only authors of advancement. Other races possessing a highly developed language, a speculative religion, enjoying luxury and art, attain to a certain pitch of cultivation which they are unable to either communicate or to increase. They are a negative element in the world." And: "Subjection to a people of a higher capacity for government is of itself no misfortune; and it is to most countries the condition of their political advancement."[11]


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