My first conversation with Stephen Tonsor occurred on a mid-April morning in 1987. Already we were talking about a great nineteenth-century historian, the first principles of a European Liberal, and what it all meant to an American conservative…

hone grittyMy first conversation with Stephen Tonsor occurred on a mid-April morning in 1987. I was living in Fort Collins, Colorado, and had recently received the acceptance letter to study history at the University of Michigan. So I was eager to introduce myself to the man who was to be my graduate advisor for the next five years plus. With some nervousness I placed a long-distance call to his home from my crowded kitchen table: nervous not just because of the anxiety produced by a major life transition, but also because of what my colleague Gregory Wolfe said about the Michigan professor. “Tonsor,” he warned, “is old-school German. He can be a mite prickly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Remind me to tell you what he said at the Philadelphia Society last year.”

Although I had braced myself for possible unpleasantness during this initial phone call, the conversation with Tonsor went well. The handshaking over the phone soon done with, I told Tonsor that I had received a Weaver Fellowship and was honored to be in a position to study under his direction. I’d be moving to Ann Arbor in the late summer.

He had enthusiastic words for my future home.

“I occasionally spend a few weeks away from home, and I must say that rediscovering Ann Arbor after a short stay elsewhere is always a very pleasant experience for me. It really is a marvelous and unique community. It is so manageable. I am able to walk nearly everywhere I wish to go. It is vibrant and filled with elegant shops and restaurants. Even the bookstores continue to proliferate. I have the feeling sometimes that Ann Arbor is like Athens must have been in the years between Aristotle and the closing of the pagan schools by Justinian. Great university towns always have a very special character.”[1]

After this happy thought, I asked Tonsor who the most influential historian in his life was. His answer made me appreciate his way with words, his way of seeing things.


Stephen J. Tonsor

“To hone one mind against the gritty stone of another,” Tonsor observed, “is the surest path to intellectual excellence.[2] It’s against the gritty stone of Lord Acton, Tocqueville, Parkman, Burckhardt, and sometimes Dawson that I’ve learned the most.

“It was in graduate school, under the wise direction of my dissertation advisor, that I discovered Lord Acton.[3] It may sound funny to put it this way, but I had an experience similar to that of Marx, who locked himself in a dank room and refused to come out until he had read everything Hegel had written. After three weeks he emerged into the light, rubbed his eyes, and proclaimed, ‘I am a Hegelian.’[4] More than a century later, I retrieved material from the Anderson Room at Cambridge, read Lord Acton for days on end, and emerged an apprentice of Acton’s thought. I liked the cut of his jib compared to that of most historians who are over-educated stamp collectors.”

Tonsor gave a deep-throated chuckle – it was the first time I heard him laugh. “You probably do not know this,” he said, “but Lord Acton’s family on his mother’s side claimed they were related to Jesus. Apparently there was a Semitic ancestor of the Dalbergs who became a Roman soldier and was stationed on the Rhine.[5] If you are going to fabricate a lineage, you might as well start with the Father Almighty. But tell me, Mr. Whitney, what have you read of Acton?”

Trying to ingratiate myself in this first conversation, I replied that I’d found it difficult to lay hands on Acton’s books. (That’s because he didn’t write books, but I didn’t know it yet.) I noted, nevertheless, that I had looked up one of Tonsor’s articles about Acton in The Journal of the History of Ideas, and that it was at the top of my “to read” stack by my desk.

“That article is not very good,” Tonsor said. “But Acton, on the other hand, Acton I hope will soon be in your ‘re-read’ stack. Recur to his essays often and he will repay you generously. He is one of the most important Liberal historians and moralists you will encounter, indispensible today because he was the first great modern thinker to aim his firepower at statism. Acton’s resistance to Leviathan did not discriminate. He was opposed equally to authoritarian, socialist, and democratic regimes[6] – anywhere the state had become a ravenous, ungovernable beast. Nor was he a friend of nationalism which, in his day, was everywhere coopting the state and leading Europe down the road to ruin. The nation, said Acton, is responsible to Heaven itself for the evil acts of the state.”[7]

In these opening words on Acton, I was processing two things that didn’t square. First was Tonsor’s dismissal of his own early article. Was it false modesty or did he mean it? Second was a word that Tonsor used; it seemed incongruous for a conservative to lavish high praise on his “Liberal” idol. I asked for clarification.

“Acton,” said Tonsor, “was a Liberal in the most original and meaningful sense of the term: that of upholding the individual’s right to follow his conscience. A Liberal in Acton’s mold believes that the claims of conscience are superior to those of the state. This philosophical principle is derived from our Judeo-Christian heritage and it informs the Liberal’s politics. Political rights, he taught, proceed directly from religious duties, and these are the true basis of Liberalism.[8]

Lord Acton

“In addition to his intellectual significance, Acton was one of the most fascinating human beings of the last century. As one of his biographers, Gertrude Himmelfarb observed, he was an anomaly in many worlds – a Catholic in poor standing with the hierarchy, a politician without portfolio, an historian who didn’t write books, and for most of his adult life a scholar without academic rank.”[9] Hardly a liberal today professes it anymore, at least not in the U.S. where all the liberals have become statists, but in Victorian England it was a commonplace, a Whig’s article of faith.”

I took note that Tonsor used the old-fashioned “an historian.”

“Like every giant he aroused the envy of lesser men who were eager to pick the meat off his ribs. Nevertheless, he remains a colossus of intellectual history and cultural criticism. It’s been said of Acton that he knew everyone worth knowing and read everything worth reading.[10] Even those who suffered harsh treatment at his hands climbed atop his shoulders to declare his genius.”[11]

“Intellectual achievement and social skills,” I offered. “A rare combination in the academy.”

“Nothing illustrates your point better,” said Tonsor, “than his conversational style. At the dinner table Acton could speak with his children in English, with his wife in German, with his sister-in-law in French, and with his mother-in-law in Italian.[12] He was said to possess the most powerful memory of his generation. A friend reported that he could retain two octavos a day.”[13]

Two what? I asked myself. Since we weren’t speaking in person Tonsor couldn’t see me stretch the phone cord to the corner of the kitchen to grab my American Heritage dictionary and look up “octavo.” It means 16 pages. I had the feeling that urgent searches were going to be the new normal for the next few years at Michigan.

Eager to say something meaningful, I ventured that I wanted to find out what led up to Acton’s profound remark that “Power corrupts –”

Before I could finish Tonsor interrupted.

“Let’s get the quotation right, Mr. Whitney. What Acton said to Mandell Creighton was, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’[14] How right the pessimistic Acton was. Our weary old world has furnished innumerable examples of corruption, especially since Machiavelli released government from the restraint of law.”[15]

“Acton always looked for the cloven hoof. History, he said, is the disclosure of guilt and shame.[16] Because he had searched out the dark corners of man’s past, nothing surprised him. It was said that speaking with Acton was the nearest one could approach divine omniscience.”[17] Tonsor expressed mirth at this aperçu, and I heard him laugh in little gusts and voiceless puffs.

After a moment Tonsor interrupted the pause. “Small talk eludes me, Mr. Whitney. I loathe chitchat. What is more, too many academics drown their students in a deluge of verbiage and cant. But I hope you will come to visit regularly during office hours. As I said at the beginning of this phone call, conversation is one of the most important aspects of education. To hone one mind against the gritty stone of another is the surest path to intellectual excellence.[18]

Thus the phone call ended and the teaching began. I found this unusual first conversation with my “prickly” advisor gritty enough. Already we were talking about a great nineteenth-century historian, the first principles of a European Liberal, and what it all meant to an American conservative. Scarcely did I realize how this brief sketch of Lord Acton would parallel much of what I would learn about Tonsor himself – a difficult man who was a contradiction to his age.

This essay is also published on Dr. Whitney’s personal website and is part of a series of conversations with the late Stephen J. Tonsor, who was Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, June 16, 1980, pp. 2-3; letter in GW’s possession courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[2] Stephen J. Tonsor, Introduction, The Legacy of an Education, by James C. Holland (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Occasional Paper no. 11, 1997); Kindle edition, loc. 34.

[3] For the reference to Swain’s admiration for Acton, see Stephen J. Tonsor, “Joseph Ward Swain,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 313: “Swain was a devotee of Lord Acton.”

[4] The story is also told in Lloyd Kramer, lecture 13, “Hegelianism and the Young Marx,” in European Thought and Culture in the 19th Century (Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2001).

[5] Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty); Kindle edition, Ch. 1, loc. 170. Himmelfarb’s book was particularly helpful in reconstructing Tonsor’s and my first conversations on Lord Acton.

[6] A. Walter James, “John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed August 26, 2016.

[7] This paraphrase of Acton is a slight modification of the direct quotation in James, “Acton,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed August 26, 2016.

[8] This paraphrase of Acton is a slight modification of the direct quotation in James, “Acton,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed August 26, 2016.

[9] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 8, loc. 3922.

[10] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 104.

[11] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 8, loc. 3932.

[12] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 114.

[13] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 104.

[14] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 9, loc. 4880.

[15] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 8, loc. 4005.

[16] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 8, loc. 4138.

[17] Andrew Dickson White, Autobiography, vol. 2, p. 412; quoted by Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 8, loc. 3932.

[18] Tonsor, Introduction, Legacy, by James C. Holland, loc. 34.

The featured image is “A Country Lawyer,” By Edward Lamson Henry.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email