The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 66. Lord Acton

This rapid and unavoidably incomplete review of the progress of English historical literature in the nineteenth century could not be more fitly concluded than by a reference to the eminent teacher and scholar, the very type of modern historical learning in its maturest development, with whose literary ideas and designs the present work may claim a kind of collateral kinship. To speak of lord Acton as a teacher might seem to attach an undue significance to the exertions of six years out of a full life, great as those exertions were, and marked by a touching desire to be, within academic limits, “all things to all men.” But it is not to his professorial work that the tribute suggested should be limited. His inaugural lecture (though he had not devoted several years to the preparation of it, as Gray did to that of a discourse he never delivered), besides being, in elevation of tone, as noble an utterance as has, perhaps, ever been made on a similar occasion, indicates, partly with playful irony, partly with high moral dignity, the purposes and qualities needing to be combined in the study of history at the stage of progress now reached. Acton’s own historical learning has often been represented as barren; and it is true that, notwithstanding his extraordinary diligence in the daily increase of his store, its accumulation resulted in the production of no great historical work. The plan of a history of liberty which he had formed early in life was never carried out by him, and there remain only the hints given in two popular lectures delivered by him at Bridgnorth, so early as 1877, to show his conception of the theme.

  • By liberty he meant the assurance that every man should be protected in doing what he believed to be his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.
  • The problem of his personal life was how to reconcile this principle with submission to the authority of the church of which, throughout life, he was a devout member. The influence of Döllinger had long dominated his mind, and it reflects itself even in his literary manner. But, as a writer, he held the principle of liberty, as above defined, sacred in great things and in small, and in the affairs of both church and state. The edict of Nantes, he told his Cambridge class, “forms an epoch in the progress of toleration, that is, in the history of liberty, which is the marrow of all modern history.” The struggle against absolute monarchy in England “is the point where the history of nations turned into its modern bed. It is the point also where the Englishman became the leader of the world.”

    Undoubtedly, the task of Acton’s life, as he had set it to himself, fell short of accomplishment because of the actual endlessness of the method, which, for a long time only half consciously, he had pursued in making ready for it. “E—but to no mortal is it given to exhaust that sea, though his knowledge may cover, besides a wide range of theology, the whole field of history, and include an intimate acquaintance with the by-paths and hidden lanes that lead to it, and though he may possess, and turn over with daily and nightly hand, four libraries owned by him at the same time in four distinct counties or countries. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that Acton found difficulty in making good literary use of the knowledge he was thus incessantly acquiring, and that, while one of the fullest of historical writers and critics, he had not, at the same time, a ready pen, or one possessed of a humour which only a feeling of reverence prevented from running rapidly into sarcasm. Many a distinguished author has taught himself the calm dignity of manner which came naturally to Acton, both in writing and in personal intercourse; his foible was rather to let his text wear the aspect of notes (at times the more enjoyable the more carefully they are studied), or, at least, of apophthegms following one another so closely as to produce the effect of over-loading.

    Acton’s literary career began (a little before his parliamentary) in 1859, with his nominal editorship of The Rambler, in succession to Newman, the main editorial work being still carried on by Richard Simpson, the biographer of Edmund Campion. Acton’s contributions to this journal, which began with an article “Mill On Liberty,” were by no means confined to the discussion of topics connected with the growth of liberal catholicism; and the same was the case with his numerous articles and reviews (under the heading “contemporary literature”) in The Home and Foreign Review, which, in 1862, took the place of the departed Rambler. Three years later, The Chronicle made its appearance, for which Acton wrote many articles of political and historical interest, ending with a notable paper on the massacre of St. Bartholomew, besides carrying on a succession of notes on the political situation in the papal and other Italian states, and a continuous comment in the shape of reviews, on “contemporary literature.” When, to these, are added his contributions to The North British and The Quarterly Review, as well as to The English Historical Review, together with occasional lectures and addresses, it will be seen that Letters of Quirinus and the subsequent Open Letter to a German Bishop on the Vatican Council (1870), and his letters to The Times on the Vatican decrees—or, rather, on Gladstone’s celebrated letter about them—(1874), form only a part of a prolonged many-sided literary activity. After his removal to Cambridge, his lectures (of which two series have been published since his death) proved the firmness of his grasp not less than the well-known width of his learning, and reawakened the expectation of further historical work of an enduring character from his hands.

    It had been hoped, by Acton himself, and by many who would have taken pride in working under his leadership, that The Cambridge Modern History would, besides embodying some of his historical ideas, offer an opportunity to its projector of laying down in its opening chapter his conception of the legacy of the middle ages, and that his editorship and successive contributions would inspire the progress of the work as a whole. Neither hope was destined to be fulfilled. But his elucidation of its plan remains to demonstrate what, to a great scholar, whose opportunities had surpassed those of any previous or contemporary historian, seemed the range of the sphere in which modern history moved and had its being, and in what spirit the materials now open to historical criticism should, in his judgment, be transfused into historical narrative. Across the century, the spirit of the greatest of modern writers on ancient history—Niebuhr—seems in contact with the spirit of him who had most closely scanned the course of modern history; and, together, they seem to vindicate the right and duty of the advance made in historical studies and literature during the century’s course in England and elsewhere. “The historians of former ages,” lord Acton said, in the incomparable inaugural lecture already cited, “unapproachable for us in knowledge and in talent, cannot be our limit,” because “we have the power to be more rigidly impersonal, disinterested and just than they.”