Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Libertarian Hero


Lord Acton was born John Dalberg-Acton, in Naples, Italy on January 10, 1834. His family moved to Britain in 1840. With his cosmopolitan background and upbringing, Acton was equally at home in England or on the Continent, and grew up speaking English, German, French, and Italian.

Barred from attending Cambridge University because of his Catholicism, Acton studied at the University of Munich under the famous church historian, Ignaz von Döllinger. Acton learned to consider himself first and foremost a historian. Early in life, he nurtured a great fondness for Whig politicians such as Edmund Burke, but Acton soon became a Liberal. Through his studies and his own experience, Acton was made acutely aware of the danger posed to individual conscience by any kind of religious or political persecution.

Acton pursued electoral politics and entered the House of Commons in 1859 as a member for the Irish constituency of Carlow. In 1869, Gladstone rewarded Acton for his efforts on behalf of Liberal political causes by offering him a peerage.

In 1895, Lord Acton was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. From this position, he deepened his view that the historian's search for truth entails the obligation to make moral judgments on history, even when those judgments challenge the historian's own deeply held opinions.

When he died in 1902, Lord Acton was considered one of the most learned people of his age. He has become famous to succeeding generations for his observation -- learned through many years of study and first-hand experience - that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Fanaticism in religion is the alliance of the passions she condemns with the dogmas she professes. Lord Acton

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.

Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity. Lord Acton

There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. Lord Acton

To be able to look back upon one's past life with satisfaction is to live twice. Lord Acton

A wise person does at once what a fool does at last. Both do the same thing; only at different times. Lord Acton

Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral laws are written on the table of eternity. Lord Acton

The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. Lord Acton

Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end...liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition...Lord Acton

Acton took a great interest in America, considering its Federal structure the perfect guarantor of individual liberties. During the Northern War of Aggression, 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 sympathize 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."

The Acton-Lee Correspondence

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