John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton
John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton (10 January 1834 - 19 June 1902) was an English historian, commonly known simply as Lord Acton.
- There are two things which cannot be attacked in front: ignorance and narrow-mindedness. They can only be shaken by the simple development of the contrary qualities. They will not bear discussion.
- Letter (23 January 1861), published in Lord Acton and his Circle (1906) by Abbot Francis Aidan Gasquet, Letter 24
- Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.
- Letter (23 January 1861), published in Lord Acton and his Circle (1906) by Abbot Gasquet, Letter 24
- Whenever a single definite object is made the supreme end of the State, be it the advantage of a class, the safety of the power of the country, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the support of any speculative idea, the State becomes for the time inevitably absolute. Liberty alone demands for its realisation the limitation of the public authority, for liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition.
- Without presuming to decide the purely legal question, on which it seems evident to me from Madison's and Hamilton's papers that the Fathers of the Constitution were not agreed, I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.
- The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. The law of liberty tends to abolish the reign of race over race, of faith over faith, of class over class.
- Letter to Mary Gladstone (24 April 1881); later published in Letters of Lord Acton to Mary Gladstone (1913) p. 73
- There is no error so monstrous that it fails to find defenders among the ablest men. Imagine a congress of eminent celebrities, such as More, Bacon, Grotius, Pascal, Cromwell, Bossuet, Montesquieu, Jefferson, Napoleon, Pitt, etc. The result would be an Encyclopedia of Error.
- Letter to Mary Gladstone (24 April 1881)
- I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did not 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. All 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.
- Letter to Mandell Creighton (April [3? or 5?], 1887) - some normally reliable sources indicate April 3, and others indicate April 5
- There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
- Letter to Mandell Creighton (April [3? or 5?], 1887) published in Essays on Freedom and Power (1972)
- Advice to Persons About to Write History — Don't.
- Postscript of letter to Mandell Creighton (April [3? or 5?], 1887)
- Liberty is the prevention of control by others. This requires self-control and, therefore, religious and spiritual influences; education, knowledge, well-being.
- As quoted in Faith in Freedom : Libertarian Principles and Psychiatric Practices (2004) by Thomas Stephen Szasz, p. 10
- The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks.
- As quoted in Maxed Out : Hard Times, Easy Credit, and the Era of Predatory Lenders (2007) by James D. Scurlock
The History of Freedom in Antiquity (1877)
- Liberty, next to religion has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime...
- Opening statement.
- At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success. No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of true liberty. If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas have wrought still more; and its advance is recorded in the increase of knowledge, as much as in the improvement of laws.
- By liberty I mean 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. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation, — religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.
- In ancient times the State absorbed authorities not its own, and intruded on the domain of personal freedom. In the Middle Ages it possessed too little authority, and suffered others to intrude. Modern States fall habitually into both excesses. The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.
- It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.
- Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life. Increase of freedom in the State may sometimes promote mediocrity, and give vitality to prejudice; it may even retard useful legislation, diminish the capacity for war, and restrict the boundaries of Empire.
- The Stoics could only advise the wise man to hold aloof from politics, keeping the unwritten law in his heart. But when Christ said: "Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, and unto God the things that are God's," those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom.
- It was from America that the plain ideas that men ought to mind their business, and that the nation is responsible to Heaven for the acts of the State — ideas long locked in the breast of solitary thinkers, and hidden among Latin folios—burst forth like a conqueror upon the world they were destined to transform, under the title of the Rights of Man...and the principle gained ground, that a nation can never abandon its fate to an authority it cannot control.
- The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.
- Truth is the only merit that gives dignity and worth to history.
- Writers the most learned, the most accurate in details, and the soundest in tendency, frequently fall into a habit which can neither be cured nor pardoned — the habit of making history into the proof of their histories.
The History of Freedom in Christianity (1877)
- Machiavelli's teaching would hardly have stood the test of parliamentary government, for public discussion demands at least the profession of good faith. But it gave an immense impulse to absolutism by silencing the consciences of very religious kings, and made the good and the bad very much alike.
The Study Of History (1895)
- Inaugural lecture on The Study Of History (11 June 1895), included in Lectures on Modern History (1906) - PDF file at Google
- I am not thinking of those shining precepts which are the registered property of every school; that is to say — learn as much by writing as by reading; be not content with the best book; seek sidelights from the others; have no favourites; keep men and things apart; guard against the prestige of great names; see that your judgments are your own; and do not shrink from disagreement; no trusting without testing; be more severe to ideas than to actions; do not overlook the strength of the bad cause of the weakness of the good; never be surprised by the crumbling of an idol or the disclosure of a skeleton; judge talent at its best and character at its worst; suspect power more than vice, and study problems in preference to periods.
- Many of these precepts which he quotes here have been quoted as originating with Lord Acton.
- Most of this, I suppose, is undisputed, and calls for no enlargement. But the weight of opinion is against me when I exhort you never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong. The plea in extenuation of guilt and mitigation of punishment is perpetual. At every step we are met by arguments which go to excuse, to palliate, to confound right and wrong, and reduce the just man to the level of the reprobate. The men who plot to baffle and resist us are, first of all, those who made history what it has become. They set up the principle that only a foolish Conservative judges the present time with the ideas of the past; that only a foolish Liberal judges the past with the ideas of the present.
- Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral laws are written on the tablets of eternity.
- James Anthony Froude, in the lecture "The Science of History" (5 February 1864); published in Representative Essays (1885) by George Haven Putnam, p. 274; Lord Acton quoted Froude in an address "The Study Of History" (11 June 1895), which led to this being widely attributed to him. The phrase has also sometimes been misquoted as: Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral laws are written on the table of eternity.
- The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty
- The Study Of History (11 June 1895)
- Lectures on Modern History (1906) - PDF file at Google
- The History of Freedom and Other Essays (1907) downloadable in HTML and PDF formats
- "The Acton - Lee Correspondence" (1866)
- The History of Freedom in Antiquity (26 February 1877)
- The History of Freedom in Christianity (8 May 1877)