John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton was born in Jan. 1834 in
Naples into an English Roman Catholic émigré
His paternal grandfather, Sir John Francis Edward, had held
several high offices in the Kingdom of Naples, including
Commander in Chief of the Navy and Prime Minister.
Sir John Francis Edward Acton had in fact inherited his title
as a baronet in 1791 upon the death of a distant cousin. This Sir
John Acton's elder son, Richard, inherited the baronetcy in 1811.
Sir Richard Acton entered into a marriage with a young lady of
the House of Dalberg, the only daughter of a Duke Dalberg. The
Dalberg's, as a family, were considered by some to be second only
to the Habsburgs in eminence in the affairs of Austrian Europe.
Duke Dalberg had himself been active in European diplomacy as
part of the French representation to the Congress of Vienna. Upon
Duke Dalberg's death in 1833 Sir Richard Acton and his wife
assumed the name Dalberg-Acton.
Sir Richard died in Paris in 1837 and his twenty-three year
old widow, and their child (now himself a baronet), relocated to
the family's estates in Shropshire, England. In 1840 the young
widow married Lord Leveson, heir to the Earl of Granville. This
marrige brought young baronet Acton into a close association with
the Leveson-Gowers and Cavendishes, both noted English political
Acton was educated in England, Scotland and Germany. In his
later studies, at Munich, Acton was introduced to German
historical methods by the celebrated liberal Roman Catholic
scholar Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger with whom he was
afterwards to maintain a life-long friendship. Acton decided, as
one of his life ambitions to attempt to write a great " History
of Liberty " and began to assemble what eventually became a noted
library of historical works in support of future
Acton, who was himself of a liberal political outlook,
maintained contacts with intellectual circles widely in Europe
and north America. In 1859 he was returned as a Member of
Parliament for Carlow, Shropshire, and subsequently adhered to
the Liberal leader William Gladstone. Acton was not an active
Member of the House and lost his seat in 1865. He had meanwhile
(1859) succeeded John Henry Newman as editor of the English Roman
Catholic periodical The Rambler. In 1862 Acton merger the Rambler
with the Home and Foreign Review.
Acton was at one and the same time a sincere Roman Catholic
and a holder of "liberal" views. The Home and Foreign Review was
criticised by Cardinal Wiseman in 1862. In 1864 Döllinger
appealed to a Munich Congress for a less hostile attitude to be
taken by the Roman Catholic church to historical criticism - the
then pope issued a declaration that the opinions of Catholic
writers were subject to the authority of the Roman congregations.
Acton subsequently resigned his editorship of Home and Foreign
In 1865 Acton married a Bavarian Countess with whom, in time,
he was to have a family of three daughters and a son. Some years
later the prominent Liberal politician Gladstone, recently (1868)
become Prime Minister, decided to recommend that his friend and
advisor, Sir John Dalberg-Acton, be raised to the English peerage
- the former baronet now became a baron with the title of Lord
Acton in 1869.
Lord Acton found difficulty in agreeing with the doctrine of
papal infallibility as defined at the time of the First Vatican
Council in 1870 and came into conflict with church policy whilst
continuing to regard his personal communion with Rome as "dearer
From these times Lord Acton produced a number of particularly
well regarded articles and essays and also helped to found the
English Historical Review (1886) but, whilst these efforts may be
seen as often being in line with Acton's interest in issues of
liberty, his long intended masterwork - History of Liberty - does
not seem to have neared completion.
Lord Acton continued as a valued political adviser to
Gladstone and, in 1895, was appointed as Regius Professor of
Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Following this
appointment Lord Acton delivered an inaugural lecture on "The
Study of History" which made a tremendous impression in the
University due to the wealth of learning and erudition of which
it gave evidence.
As Regius Professor of Modern History Lord Acton was central
to the planning of what was intended to be an extensive and
definitive multi-volume - Cambridge Modern History - to which,
although this ambitious project remained uncompleted for a number
of years, he made important editorial contributions.
Lord Acton died in June 1902, several of his courses of
lectures were collected and published after his death.
Lord Acton's magnificent historical library was purchased by
the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and presented to the Liberal
Statesman, and biographer of Gladstone, Viscount Morley who
promptly transferred this gift to the University of
Popular European History pages
The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy
of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is
illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by
nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest,
the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every
faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in
appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact;
all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law
in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of
nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole
encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in
one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie
folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp,
kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application
of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
- 1 The European Revolution of 1848 begins
- A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.
- 2 The French Revolution of 1848
- A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".
- 3 The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
- "Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted
to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.
- 4 The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
- A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.
- 5 The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
- Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support
the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power
in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European
structure of states and their sovereignty.