John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, the only child of Sir Ferdinand Richard Edward Acton (1801–1837) and and Marie Louise Pelline de Dalberg (1812–1860), was born at Naples on 10th January 1834. After his father's early death in France, his mother took him to England where she married Granville George Leveson-Gower.
In 1842 he was sent to a school in Paris under Félix Dupanloup. The following year he entered St Mary's College in Oscott. The headmaster at the time was Nicholas Wiseman, who was attempting to make the school a centre of the Roman Catholic revival in England. According to his biographer, Josef L. Altholz: "In 1848 he went to Edinburgh for two rather unsatisfactory years under the tutelage of Dr Henry Logan. Then, in 1850, he found the master who formed his mind: he went to Munich for six years of private study under Professor Ignaz von Döllinger, living in his house. Döllinger was the foremost Roman Catholic church historian in Germany, a major figure in the scientific school of historians of whom Ranke was the leader. Under Döllinger's training Acton became a scientific and critical historian, particularly critical in dealing with the history of his church. Döllinger also initiated him in Burkean liberalism, cultivating a hatred of all forms of absolutism whether in church or state. The ethical effect of Döllinger's teaching was a deep commitment to the value of truth, especially in historiography, and to the sovereignty and freedom of conscience."
Dalberg-Acton became the editor of the Roman Catholic monthly paper, The Rambler , in 1859. He was also a supporter of the Liberal Party and was elected to represent Carlow Borough. However, he spoke only three times in the House of Commons before losing his seat seven years later. He remained a close political advisor to William Ewart Gladstone. He also developed a close relationship with his daughter, Mary Gladstone. However, he married his cousin, Countess Maria Anna Ludomilla Euphrosina (1841–1923) on 1st August 1865.
Dalberg-Acton was a great supporter of parliamentary reform. On 24th April, 1881, he argued in a letter to Mary Gladstone: " The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. The law of liberty tends to abolish the reign of race over race, of faith over faith, of class over class."
After leaving politics Dalberg-Acton concentrated on the study of history. He wrote a large number of articles but published no books. In 1886 he was one of the founders of the English Historical Review and contributing a large number of articles over the next ten years. As Josef L. Altholz has pointed out: "Acton was a natural essayist, of the monographic sort, with a somewhat difficult and allusive style and a flair for aphorisms."
Michael Biddiss has argued: "At the heart of Acton's life and work was commitment to defence of individual conscience. This permeated his attitude not only towards the past but also towards unduly authoritarian behaviour from secular or ecclesiastical bodies in his own age. In pursuing his convictions he exploited the advantages of inherited wealth and influential cosmopolitan connections so that he might take the risks which others often shunned. This was evident, above all, in stormy dealings with his own Catholic Church."
Dalberg-Acton questioned the power structure of the Roman Catholic Church. He told Bishop Mandell Creighton in a letter on 5th April, 1887: "I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did not wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you super add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it."
In 1895 Lord Rosebery nominated Dalberg-Acton to become regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge. His biographer, Josef L. Altholz, has pointed out: "On 11 June 1895 he delivered an impressive inaugural lecture on the study of history, urging his favourite themes, the unity of modern history as the progress of liberty, the importance of the critical scientific method of research, and the duty of the historian to uphold the moral standard in history.... Acton entered fully into Cambridge life and professorial work, and his Cambridge years were the happiest of his life. His pleasure in his college rooms, bachelor digs, may have been connected to his marital problems. He gave a course of lectures on the French Revolution, followed a few years later by a course on modern history, both published after his death. The lectures were well attended by dons, students, and the public. Their impressiveness was enhanced by Acton's striking dignity, his flowing beard, and the deep voice in which he read from his text."
Lord Acton once said that his life was "the story of a man who started in life believing himself a sincere Catholic and a sincere Liberal; who therefore renounced everything in Catholicism which was not compatible with Liberty and everything in Politics not compatible with Catholicism".
John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton suffered a paralytic stroke in 1901 and was treated at his home in Tegernsee, where he died, on 19th June 1902. He was succeeded in the title by his son, Richard Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, 2nd Baron Acton.
Liberty, next to religion has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime... At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success. No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of true liberty. If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas have wrought still more; and its advance is recorded in the increase of knowledge, as much as in the improvement of laws...
It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.
Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life. Increase of freedom in the State may sometimes promote mediocrity, and give vitality to prejudice; it may even retard useful legislation, diminish the capacity for war, and restrict the boundaries of Empire.
The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. The law of liberty tends to abolish the reign of race over race, of faith over faith, of class over class.
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did not wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you super add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it....
Judge not according to the orthodox standard of a system religious, philosophical, political, but according as things promote, or fail to promote the delicacy, integrity, and authority of Conscience.
Put conscience above both system and success. History provides neither compensation for suffering nor penalties for wrong.
I am not thinking of those shining precepts which are the registered property of every school; that is to say - learn as much by writing as by reading; be not content with the best book; seek sidelights from the others; have no favourites; keep men and things apart; guard against the prestige of great names; see that your judgments are your own; and do not shrink from disagreement; no trusting without testing; be more severe to ideas than to actions; do not overlook the strength of the bad cause of the weakness of the good; never be surprised by the crumbling of an idol or the disclosure of a skeleton; judge talent at its best and character at its worst; suspect power more than vice, and study problems in preference to periods...
Most of this, I suppose, is undisputed, and calls for no enlargement. But the weight of opinion is against me when I exhort you never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong. The plea in extenuation of guilt and mitigation of punishment is perpetual. At every step we are met by arguments which go to excuse, to palliate, to confound right and wrong, and reduce the just man to the level of the reprobate. The men who plot to baffle and resist us are, first of all, those who made history what it has become. They set up the principle that only a foolish Conservative judges the present time with the ideas of the past; that only a foolish Liberal judges the past with the ideas of the present.