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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg (1834-1902)
"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."

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

-- Lord Acton


John 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.

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 families.

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 scholarship.

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 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.

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 than life."

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 Cambridge.

 
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