Lord Acton on Revolution

by Russell Kirk

On the face of the matter, it may seem an insane conjunction to link with the name of John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton, the revolutions of the past three centuries. Acton was a man of archives and books, sometimes called the most erudite scholar of his century. Born to great estate, he was the near kinsman of cardinals, cabinet ministers, and dukes. By station and residence he was protected against the violent events of his time. At his great country house of Aldenham in Shropshire, at his Bavarian estate of Herrnsheim near Worms, at his father's Neapolitan palace, or at his Tegernsee retreat, he saw nothing of social disorder or the rough side of life; unlike many young Englishmen of his station, he had no acquaintance with military life.

Indeed, his only encounter with the nationalist and socialist violence of the nineteenth century occurred at Rome in 1870, when Italian troops occupied the city while Acton was a hostile observer there of the proceedings of the Vatican Council. Yet Acton repeatedly commends Revolution in his notes, literary fragments, and correspondence; five of his major essays and reviews are concerned directly with Revolution, as is one of his two completed volumes of lectures, Lectures on the French Revolution, published after his death. Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her biography of this great scholar, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, goes so far as to entitle one section of her eighth chapter "The Philosopher as Revolutionist." So it may be worthwhile to trace the reflections of this eminent Liberal, friend of Gladstone, on those upheavals we call revolutions.

Now sometimes, in employing the word "revolution," Acton merely means a revolution in the history of ideas, his chosen discipline; in the realm of thought, as in the political realm, he endeavored to recognize both the need for continuity and the necessity, at certain times, for an eruption of the new. But also he sanctioned certain violent political revolutions that had occurred in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries-the Puritan Revolution, the English Revolution (of 1688), two American Revolutions (did you not know that two such occurred?), and even the French Revolution to some degree.

This tolerating of Revolution occurred during the latter part of his life. The revolutions-or rather, the risings-of 1830 in the Continent had occurred four years before his birth at Naples; he had been a schoolboy at Oscott during the socialist and nationalist outbreaks of 1848; as he grew to manhood, made a journey to the United States in 1853, and presently studied with Dr. Döllinger, he became suspicious of democratic movements and hostile toward nationalism. He was greatly shocked by the atrocities of the Parisian Communards, who murdered the Archbishop of Paris on the barricades in 1871, Acton instructed his children to pray daily for the soul of the good Archbishop Darboy. Through studying with Döllinger, and through his own historical and political reading in so many books, he came to venerate Edmund Burke, who had set his face against the "antagonist world" of revolutionary destruction. One might make an interesting pamphlet of Acton's many praises of Burke, especially early in Acton's achievement: he called Burke "the teacher of mankind," and remarked that Burke's speeches from 1790 to 1795 was "the law and the prophets." He agreed with Burke that the French Revolution has been "the enemy of liberty."

How then did Acton come from time to time to commend Revolution? Because he thought of political revolutions as bringing about, usually, an increase of Freedom. Here we need to inquire what Acton meant by this Freedom or Liberty which was the great subject of his study, lecturing, and writing. He meant Ciceronian and Christian concepts of liberty-ordered freedom, governed by conscience. He understood, of course, Cicero's distinction between voluntas and libido: the first is willed freedom, the freedom of the high old Roman virtue; the second is lust, the freedom of unhallowed appetites. And Acton knew, of course, the Pauline truth that "the service of God is perfect freedom." Acton understood that power is the ability to do unto other people as one wishes, whether those others so wish or not; while freedom is the ability to withstand arbitrary power. Thus true freedom is the opportunity to make moral choices, and to do one's moral duty here below. Lord Acton-who never throughout his life suffered under any arbitrary power-detested the absolutist political regimes of earlier centuries and those that remained during his own age. Part of what he meant by freedom may be gathered from the following two brief fragments extracted from his unpublished manuscripts.

"Definition of Liberty: (1) Security for minorities; (2) Reason reigning over reason, not will over will; (3) Duty to God unhindered by man; (4) Reason before will; (5) Right above might."

"Liberty is the condition of duty, the guardian of conscience. It grows as conscience grows. The domains of both grow together. Liberty is safety from all hindrances, even sin. So that Liberty ends by being Free Will."

Liberty of conscience and religious toleration were Acton's highest concerns in the pursuit of personal and civil liberty; these preoccupations made of him a Liberal Catholic, opposed to the doctrine of papal infallibility and to much else that resulted from the Vatican Council.


But we are proceeding too rapidly in describing the development of Acton's views, perhaps. In his early writings, Acton denounced revolutions as "a malady, a frenzy, an interruption of the nation's growth, sometimes fatal to its existence, often to its independence." How his views gradually changed, we may ascertain by some examination of his successive essays on political revolutions.

The earliest of these, entitled "Political Causes of the American Revolution," was published in Acton's periodical The Rambler, May, 1861; it was not reprinted until included in Douglas Woodruff's edition of select Acton Essays on Church and State, in 1952. It begins with references to Athenian democracy, and continues, "The fate of every democracy, of every government based on the sovereignty of the people, depends on the choices it makes between these opposite principles, absolute power on the one hand, and on the other the restraints of legality and the authority of tradition." Acton then proceeds-saying nothing whatever about the violent events of the years 1775-1786 in American to examine the Constitution drawn up in 1787. "Far from being the product of a democratic revolution," he writes, "and of an opposition to English institutions, the constitution of the United States was the result of a powerful reaction against democracy, and in favor of the traditions of the mother country."

In this remarkably percepient essay, written when Sir John Acton was twenty-seven years old and a member of Parliament, he explained the success of America's federal system of government as a guarantor of liberty, restraining national democracy, averting the domination of a temporary numerical majority. He found that Thomas Jefferson with his contempt for social and political continuity, his doctrine that "the dead have no rights," his trust in the people in mass, "subverted the republicanism of America, and consequently the Republic itself."

In a dozen printed pages, Acton discussed the general conservatism of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, whose opinions he had studied closely. His views are very like those expressed in recent years by such American scholars as M. E. Bradford, Forrest McDonald, Daniel Boorstin, Clinton Rossiter, and your servant. Twenty-eight years later, in his lengthy review of Bryce's book The American Commonwealth, Acton would come to very different judgments.

All this about the Constitutional Convention of 1787? Well enough. But what about the American Revolution, an account of which is promised by the title of this major essay? Why, the Revolution that Sir John Acton wrote about in this essay did not commence in 1775? No, it commenced in 1861; and nowadays we call it the American Civil War, or the War between the States.

For the secession of the Southern states, Acton argued in the following portion of his essay, was a revolution justified by resistance to the looming oppression of South by North; by the attempt of the voracious Northern industrial interest, the fanatic Abolitionist, and the consolidators of national power, to subject the South to an unconstitutional domination of a central government, repudiating true constitutional federalism. The tyranny of a democratic majority over a sectional minority, or of one economic interest over other economic interests, could become intolerable, and the Southerners did well to rebel against democratic despotism (as Tocqueville had called such a condition).

"It is simply the spurious democracy of the French Revolution that has destroyed the Union," Acton wrote in 1861, "by disintegrating the remnants of English traditions and institutions. All the great controversies-on the embargo, restriction, internal improvements, the Bank-Charter Act, the formation of new States, the acquisition of new territory, abolition-are phases of this mighty change, steps in the passage from a constitution framed on an English model to a system imitating that of France. "The secession of the Southern states," Acton concluded, "...is chiefly important in a political light as a protest and reaction against revolutionary doctrines, and as a move in an opposite direction to that which prevails in Europe." The Confederate revolution, he judged, was a rising meant to secure liberty; the French Revolution has turned out, with its successor risings in Europe, to be the road to a hideous tyranny.

Sir John Acton, M.P., quoted with high respect and at great length John C. Calhoun on concurrent majorities; he concurred in such matters with Orestes Brownson, "the most influential journalist in America"; he cited Alexis de Tocqueville for authority. He exposed the injustice of protective tariffs levied by the Northern industrial interest; he assailed the Abolitionists for exhibiting "the same abstract, ideal absolutism, which is equally hostile with the Catholic and the English spirit." This essay of his presents the best case for the Confederate cause made by any observer abroad, a thoroughly conservative judgment in the line of Burke and Tocqueville.

But by 1889, a radical change had occurred in Acton's judgment about the convictions and the assumptions of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, as he had described those constitutional origins in his essay on "Political Causes of the American Revolution" in 1861. Then he had emphasized the freedom of the Framers from abstract doctrine and theoretic dogma; he had declared that the Framers were governed by respect for English institutions, custom, convention, and prescription. Yet in his criticisms of James Bryce's book The American Commonwealth, published in the English Historical Review, 1889, on finding that Bryce entertained the very judgments about the conservative attachment of the delegates of 1787 to custom, convention, and English institutions which Acton had published eighteen years early-why, Acton proceeded to contradict his eminent Liberal colleague Bryce, and to contradict himself.

For now he declared the American Revolution to have been "the supreme manifestation of the law of resistance, as the abstract revolution in its purest and most perfect shape." Ignoring the judgments of Burke, Gentz, and other analysts of the American War of Independence, Acton now insists that the Americans fought not for constitutional rights, what Burke had called "the chartered rights of Englishmen," but for abstract Liberty. Why should they have counted the cost, and why should we? For the American Revolution taught that "men ought to be in arms even against a remote and constructive danger to their freedom; that even if the cloud is no bigger than a man's hand, it is their right and duty to stake the national existence, to sacrifice lives and fortunes, to cover the country with a lake of blood, to shatter crowns and sceptres and fling parliaments into the sea. On this principle of subversion they erected their commonwealth, and by its virtue lifted the world out of its orbit and assigned a new course to history. Here or nowhere we have the broken chain, the rejected past, precedent and statute superseded by unwritten law, sons wiser than their fathers, ideas rooted in the future, reason cutting as clean as Atropos."

Fine rhetoric. But this exhortation to "sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife," and for other men to wade through lakes of blood in advancement of abstract principle, seems a trifle false, coming from the country house of a middle-aged nobleman who never struck a blow, dwelling in the security of Victorian England or Hohenzollern Germany. Acton had read Marx, and had urged his great friend Gladstone to do so. In this rhetoric about the American Revolution, do we hear an echo of Marx's doctrine of massive bloodletting to achieve the final Revolution?

Some of us are wiser in our youth than in our middle years; so it seems to have been with Acton. Perhaps there had been growing in Acton's imagination an infatuation with Revolution-and not merely with revolution in the realm of ideas. For it was his assumption, which seems naive to us nowadays, that all revolutions against established and complacent authority would lead, at least in the long run, toward greater genuine freedom for everyman.

That postulate runs through Acton's Lectures on Modern History, delivered at Cambridge at the turn of the century. He approved the bloodshed of the Puritan Revolution-that is, the English Civil Wars-because it brought down Stuart absolutism, even if it raised up Cromwell; he approved the English Revolution (of 1688), even though it dethroned a Catholic king and began struggles that lasted until 1745. For despite faults, the Act of Settlement, Acton said, "is the greatest thing done by the English nation," establishing Parliamentary Supremacy in administration as well as in legislation. Acton's lecture approving the American Revolution (this time, really about the fighting that began in 1775) is more temperate, consistent with Burke's speeches from 1765 to 1775. Acton points out, however, that the British in North America had suffered no oppression; "There was no tyranny to be resented. The colonists were in many ways more completely their own masters than Englishmen at home." But he seems to glory in Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill.


This acceptance or even enthusiastic approbation of revolutionary violence did not well consist with Acton's subscription to the principle that the means are not justified by the end, or with his condemnation of murder as the worst of sins. Ralph Waldo Emerson (despised by Acton) instructs us that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"; elsewhere I have commented that a fatuous optimism frequently is the damnation of expansive minds. Acton, over and over again, expressed his confidence that the universal growth of conscience would end in perfect, or nearly perfect, universal liberty. This is to ignore the Christian dogma of original sin. In the interest of making progress on the road to that Zion of conscience, Acton was prepared to excuse considerable slaughter.

Consider his uneasy judgment of the judicial murder of Charles I, Archbishop Laud, and Lord Strafford by Cromwell's regicide Parliament. "We cannot avoid the question," Acton wrote, "whether the three great victims...deserved their fate. It is certain that they were put to death illegally, and therefore unjustly...But we have no thread through the enormous intricacy and complexity of modern politics except the idea of progress towards more perfect and assured freedom, and the divine right of free men. Judged by that test, the three culprit must be condemned. That is a principle which cuts very deep, and reaches far, and we must be prepared to see how it applies in thousands of other instances, in other countries, and in other times, especially the times in which we live."

Do we not find in Acton's preceding sentence the implication that men and women so foolish as to stand in the way, wittingly or unwittingly, of some grand principle-of liberty, say-must be thrust aside, or "liquidated," as the ideologues of the twentieth century would put it? There comes to mind Madame Roland's lamentation, "O Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!" At the time of his lecture on the Puritan Revolution, Acton was deep in preparation for his succeeding lectures on the French Revolution. Were Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and thousands of others in other countries, among culprits providentially condemned? Aye, and even Madame Roland, too? King Charles, Strafford, and Laud had been no enthusiasts for a vague universal liberty, attained through perfection of conscience; therefore their heads had to be taken off, if illegally and unjustly-a noble paradox.

Near the end of his life, Lord Acton seemingly had come to relish abstract doctrine and theoretic dogma, which he abjured in his essay on the Political Causes of the American Revolution nearly two decades earlier. Had the slogan "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" waked something inconsistent and injudicious in him, abhorrent to him though the consequences-the immediate terrors-of the French Revolution were? In his lecture on the Puritan Revolution, is there some suggestion of Marx's inexorable divinized or personified History, along whose juggernaut path reactionaries must be crushed to earth? Acton thought that in history he discerned the march of Providence. Yet it may be perilous to confound Providence with History. And may not Providence be retributory, as well as beneficent?

In his Inaugural Lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge (1895), Acton contended that History reveals the March of Providence toward greater freedom. He hoped "that history will aid you to see that the action of Christ who is risen on mankind whom he redeemeth fails not, but increases; that the wisdom of divine rule appears not in the perfection but in the improvement of the world; and that achieved liberty is the one ethical result that rests on the converging and combined conditions of advancing civilization. Then you will understand what a famous philosopher said, that History is the true demonstration of Religion." (Here Acton refers to Liebnitz.)

But later in this same famous Inaugural Lecture, the Regius Professor experienced misgivings. Is it not violent revolution, rather than historical reflection and the increasing reign of conscience, that causes great changes for the better in mankind's liberty? Was not he contradicting himself?

"If the supreme conquests of society are won more often by violence than by lenient arts," Lord Acton told his auditors, "if the time and drift of things is toward convulsions and catastrophes, if the world owes religious liberty to the Dutch Revolution, constitutional government to the English, federal republicanism to the American, political equality to the French and its successors, what is to become of us, docile and attentive students of the absorbing Past? The triumph of the Revolutionist annuls the historian. By its authentic exponents, the Revolution of the last century repudiates history. Their followers renounced acquaintance with it, and were ready to destroy its records and to abolish its inoffensive professors."

Might Acton himself, after a fashion, be renouncing history in these late years of his? He had begun to distance himself from Burke. For Burke was the champion of custom, convention, prescription, precedent; and therefore dwelt in the dead past; while he, Acton, thrusting aside custom and convention, flinging off that dead hand of the past, was the champion of present and future, guiding himself not by past experience of mankind, but by truthful principle, which would work wonders. He had begun to sound like Thomas Jefferson, muttering "The dead have no rights."

Answering his own question concerning what might become of "docile and attentive students of the absorbing Past," Acton observed, somewhat lamely, that Revolutionary events, however violent, had worked some healthy reaction in the minds of the more intelligent, stimulating afresh their interest in history. Conservative and Liberal schools of historical interpretation had sprung up during the nineteenth century. Vastly important archives had been opened to the scholarly historian. As a result, it had become possible to make nearer approaches to historical truth. Conscience was at work-tutored conscience, not merely the confused conscience of private judgment. Be of good cheer as the nineteenth century draws to its close. Is not Liberalism in the ascendant?


At last we come to Lord Acton's Lectures on the French Revolution, delivered for the fourth time at Cambridge University three years before his death, and published in 1910. The book is lucid and accurate, reflecting Acton's thoroughness of method and immense reading and investigation of documents; it remains worthy to stand along side the volumes on the French Revolution by Tocqueville, Taine, and Carlyle; it may be supplemented by Schama's impressive Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989). Acton knew that some revolution in French affairs was needed; but the revolution which arrived was the pulverizing of freedom. It seemed in its violence to refute Acton's premise that successive revolutions would forever put an end to the arbitrary state.

"By a series of violent shocks, the nations in succession have struggled to shake off the Past, to reverse the action of Time and the verdict of success, and to rescue the world from the reign of the dead," Acton had said in his lecture on the beginning of the modern state, in his series on Modern History. Had indeed the French Revolution been a work of rescue? Somehow things had gone wrong from the first, in 1789, and Acton recognized that unpleasant truth. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was founded upon fallacies, Acton perceived. Amazingly, Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her biography of Acton, endeavors to persuade her readers that "Acton had nothing but praise" for that Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Are we to regard as praise the following passage from his Seventh Lecture on the Revolution?

"The Declaration passed by August 6, after a hurried debate, and with no further resistance. The Assembly, which had abolished the past at the beginning of the month, attempted, at its end, to institute and regulate the future. These are its abiding works, and the perpetual heritage of the Revolution. With them a new era dawned upon mankind. And yet this single page of print, which outweighs libraries, and is stronger than all the armies of Napoleon, is not the work of superior minds, and bears no mark of the lion's claw. The stamp of Cartesian clearness is upon it, but without the logic, the precision, the thoroughness of French thought. There is no indication in it that Liberty is the goal, and not the starting-point, that it is a faculty to be acquired, not a capital to invest, or that it depends on the union of innumerable conditions, which embrace the entire life of man. Therefore it is justly arraigned by those who say that it is defective, and that its defects have been a peril and a snare."

From this Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the road of the French led with swiftly increasing violence to catastrophe, the Revolution soon devouring its own children-a terrible story Acton relates unsparingly. The passion for Liberty trampled out Order and Justice; and tolerable societies require the reality of all three principles.

The Jacobin cry for Liberty devastated the European continent, and was prevented from working the ruin of civilization only by force and a master. "I have laid the fell spirit of Innovation that was striding over all the world," Napoleon Bonaparte boasted.

Of course this Jacobin notion of Liberty was not what Acton desired; nor did he applaud at all the notion of equality, and the only fraternity he acknowledged was Christian brotherhood. The Liberty of his imagination was very much a British liberty, developed over seven centuries by much continuity of belief and institution, with merely an occasional revolution-of limited scope-to accelerate progress somewhat. He and his friend Gladstone shared the Victorian expectation of universal progress; they might even be called meliorists, were it not for that doctrine of Revolution as a goad.

A dozen years after Lord Acton's death in 1902, the world entered upon what Arnold Toynbee called a time of troubles-a time which, if we may believe another distinguished historian, Fernand Braudel, may end with the arrival of the twenty-first century. The cry "Liberty!" has been heard in nearly every country since 1914; but what has been attained in most of the world is Tyranny. Revolution of the most violent character has reduced most of Africa and Asia to misery; eastern Europe only now begins to hope for some restoration of order. Latin America, or much of it, remains in convulsions. The expectation of Acton that Revolution would be an instrument of progress and emancipation has been exploded. On the contrary, in the twentieth century the word Revolution has come to signify, commonly, an occasion for the proletariat to loot the quarters of the prosperous-and perhaps to slit throats, too. As Burke declared, at the end of every Revolutionary vista stands the guillotine.

I commend to you an essay, entitled "This Terrible Century," by Gerhart Niemeyer, in the Fall 1993 number of The Intercollegiate Review. "To us who are enjoying a life in relative wealth, the educational and artistic offerings of a flourishing culture, and, yes, in peace, this century may appear to provide full reason for self-congratulation," Dr. Niemeyer writes. "To the future historian, however, it may rank as one of the worst centuries of human history. That is, it may so appear to an historian who can discern between good and evil spirits, who is sensitive to the needs of the soul, and skillful in reading between the line of official texts...He may wonder again at the phenomenon of totalitarianism...a novelty in history, and at government by ideology that produced general slavery, while formerly private slavery had occurred."

Lord Acton was eminent among those historians who distinguish between good and evil spirits, are sensitive to the needs of the soul, and are skillful in interpreting archives. With what horror Acton would look upon the closing decade of our twentieth century! The demand for greater liberty still is heard upon every hand: but the demand in this country is for "life-style liberty," the freedom of the libido, not the freedom of voluntas. The inhabitants of Bosnia are set free to slaughter one another. An alleged freedom is being conferred just now upon the Bantu in South Africa that may repeat the horror of the emancipated Congo three decades past. In what country do we encounter that happy increase of the influence of conscience which Acton preaches?

Freedom cannot endure except upon the footing of a healthy order-order in the soul, and order in the commonwealth. Revolution, after all, is the disruption of order, and therefore extreme medicine. For that reason, the serious student of history today will do well to rank such historians as Eric Voegelin and Christopher Dawson-historians of order-higher than Acton. Nevertheless, I take great pleasure in reading Acton's essays on liberty repeatedly, and do commend them to you. Lord Acton, now a member of the community of souls, you and all the dead do have rights, Jefferson notwithstanding; for, my lord, you are one of those souls now in eternity who give energy to us the living; and I pray that you may continue to be read in a revolutionary age oppressed by Giant Ideology.