Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton was born in Jan. 1834 in Naples into
an English Roman Catholic émigré family. 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.
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.
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 families.
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 scholarship.
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
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 Review.
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.
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 than
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.
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.
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.
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 Cambridge.