Lord Acton is the prophet who foresaw our times. He anticipated the dangers of statism. But ironically he is now a setting star—passé and remote. This, it must be said, is a tragedy of his own making. It’s a mystery why he never wrote his planned magnum opus…

In late July, shortly before loading a twenty-foot U-Haul and moving to Ann Arbor, I phoned Stephen Tonsor again, seeking his advice about which professors to look up once I was at Michigan. Then I broached a topic from our first conversation that I hoped to resume: Lord Acton as a giant of modern intellectual history and cultural criticism.

“Professor Tonsor, our last conversation sparked me to read an essay in which Acton said that liberty is more about morals than about politics and—”

Tonsor jumped right in: “Acton said that liberty is so holy a thing that God Himself was forced to permit evil that liberty might exist.[1] Think of it this way, Mr. Whitney. Animals live in the realm of necessity. Human beings also live in the realm of necessity—we have to bend to gravity and answer the need for food and water—but we live in the realm of freedom, too. A person’s dignity, a person’s nobility, resides in his using freedom to act morally. A person can only act morally if he is taught the difference between right and wrong and is free to choose between good and evil.”

That précis, I thought, was brilliant. The man speaks in perfectly formed paragraphs. Tonsor paused. I could hear him breathing now. “It follows that a primary aim of education is to learn how to exercise liberty within the bounds of the moral life.[2] A primary aim of politics is to preserve liberty as the organizing principle around which the other values in society must be ordered.[3] And a primary aim of historical research is to chart man’s enduring efforts to decrease the realm of necessity and increase the realm of liberty. In Acton’s mind, it all coheres.”

“Acton thought the historian should be a hanging judge?” I ventured.

“The most severe hanging judge,” said Tonsor, punching the word severe. “He was fond of saying that a man’s life must be measured against its low-water mark, the one act of evil that outweighs all good.[4] Let a man criminate himself. History is better written from private letters than from public chronicles.[5]

“Acton’s reputation as a hanging judge was undoubtedly helped by the fact that he had a better nose for gossip than almost any other Victorian.[6] Gossip was the oxygen the Victorian Age inhaled. It should be said that historians in every age have inclined their ear to gossip. Take Suetonius, Procopius, or Boccaccio. People read such authors to be titillated by Eros and to satisfy their curiosity about the mechanics of sex.”

It was reassuring for me to hear references to authors with whom I was familiar (but it surprised me to hear him speak of the mechanics of sex). As an undergraduate back in Colorado, I had read Suetonius, the Roman author of Lives of the Caesars, a masterpiece of gossip parading as history, a smutty collection of the scandals surrounding the first eleven Roman emperors. Likewise, I was familiar with Procopius, the Byzantine historian who wrote not just official chronicles of the Emperor Justinian but also the sordid Secret History, which is full of invective against the members of the royal family. No one knows how true these accounts are, but they are good reads to slip into a stack of monographs—like the mayonnaise between slices of dry bread.

Tonsor continued: “The people who are drawn to the salacious details in Suetonius and Procopius are the same people who read TV Guide. You will not find them grappling with Acton. Yet he is the model of rectitude when it comes to historical research and writing.”

TV Guide? I smiled at Tonsor’s sarcasm—he brandished his weapon of choice skillfully.

“During Acton’s lifetime,” he continued, “the discipline of history was flowering because of the archives that were opening up all over Europe. Acton himself took part in this flourishing. He donated a thousand boxes of his own notes and research to the Cambridge library. I’ve gone through a good many of the documents to examine everything from his morals to his methods.[7] It’s staggering to trace all the directions his mind went. When it came to advising historians attempting to write history, Acton’s advice was, Don’t! Instead, visit Purgatory![8] It was his way of getting scholars to understand the arduous journey they were about to embark upon. I hope, Mr. Whitney, that you have also prepared for the journey.”

I had but did not feel like saying so since Tonsor had served on the committee that admitted me. Perhaps in the pause Tonsor sensed I was at a bit of a loss, so he continued to dilate on Acton’s advice: “History done well requires almost superhuman talent and effort. In the first place, Acton charged researchers to be open to evidence that does not fit the thesis; to turn over every last stone and get multiple perspectives if they want to know what really happened in the past. In so many words he cautioned against what the social scientists call ‘confirmation bias’; his notes recall a scene in Dante’s Paradise, in which St. Thomas Aquinas warns the Pilgrim that ‘opinion—hasty—often can incline to the wrong side, and then affection for one’s own opinion binds, confines the mind.'[9]

“In the second place,” Tonsor continued, keeping my mind on the stretch, “Acton charged historians to make out a better case for the other side than they are able to make out for themselves.[10] Cultivate the ability to drive the prosecutor’s case into a corner, and with equal skill to drive the defense’s case into a corner. Transpose the nominative and accusative and see how things look then![11]

“Acton did not suppose that the strenuous effort to understand both sides would lead to the exoneration of murder, injustice, and deceit. Not at all. Out of his elementary sense of decency and justice, he demanded that the historian administer a fair trial. But a trial there must be.”[12]

“So,” I asked, “how did Acton square the scientific view of history then emerging with his insistence on moral judgment in historical writing?” I was not idly asking the question to linger on the phone. As an apprentice historian, I really needed to understand.

“You mean the old fact-value debate,” said Tonsor firmly, “the modern divide between objective facts that can be universally verified and subjective values that vary from person to person and from culture to culture. For Acton, the distinction was not so cut and dried. When it came to historical narrative, it was not ‘either-or’ but ‘both-and.’ Both the facts uncovered in the archives, and the moral assessment of human behavior. They were both the stuff of history, properly understood. Acton approached history this way because, like most Victorians, he believed in a universal natural law that could be apprehended by reason and enforced by conscience. This belief enabled him to sidestep differences in doctrine presented by the Axial Age religions. The main thing was to understand the ethical commands common to them all. The prohibition against murdering the innocent, the obligation to follow one’s informed conscience, the Golden and Silver rules—these universal commands to man’s conscience formed the basis of his moral judgments. It is probably accurate to infer that Acton’s morals were more informed by Kant than by Jesus.”[13]

“So,” I pressed, “Acton would regard the universal commands of conscience sort of like ‘value facts’? In other words, because the Golden Rule is universal among the world’s major religions, it is tantamount to a fact? By extension, if I am pulling all of this together, it means that the most basic requirement of freedom is the right to obey the commands of conscience, to do what one ought. Or, as John Adams said, liberty is a power to do as we would be done by.”[14]

“Yes,” Tonsor said with emphasis. “To do as we would be done by.”

“Now,” Tonsor continued, “nobody ever accused Acton of being a saint in his personal life. Goodness is as far from sanctity as cleverness is from genius. Acton was personally cloaked and choked by the moral law as one might be squeezed into a suit of armor two sizes too small.”[15]

I did not know exactly how to understand the analogy, but I went on to ask whether Acton struggled with the Church.

“Indeed! And the Church with Acton! In Acton, the hierarchy confronted a petulant son, especially when it came to the doctrine of papal infallibility. Acton had a mischievous side—he enjoyed tweaking the lion in his den, so Pio Nono was no fan of his. Acton was especially disliked by Ultramontanist toadies who prostrated themselves before the pope and scurried at his every twitch. Acton was a devout Catholic, to be sure. But he was not passionately Catholic. I’ll take the thought a step farther. The absence of religious enthusiasm may have been what made Acton tolerable to be around. He was the one you wanted to sit next to at dinner parties.

“And yet, despite his cosmopolitan ease in conversation, despite his wit at soirees, Acton was probably a very lonely man. He didn’t suffer fools. And his absolute moral stances, his implacable judgments, invariably separated him from other men. A liberal Catholic, he was too liberal for the Catholics and too Catholic for the liberals. He criticized his mentors. He broke off friendships. He quarreled bitterly with the Church hierarchy. Technically and morally, he was probably right in most of his quarrels. But whatever satisfaction he derived from being right must have been offset by the isolation he inflicted on himself from being self-righteous.[16]

“Acton is the prophet who foresaw our times. He anticipated the dangers of statism. But ironically he is now a setting star—passé and remote. This, it must be said, is a tragedy of his own making. It’s a mystery why he never wrote his planned magnum opus, The History of Liberty—the book he was meant to write. Everyone around him waited years for the work to appear, but it never did and posterity is the worse for it. The History of Liberty has been called ‘the greatest book never written.’[17]

“The irony is that Acton had already written it in his head. He had penned thousands of pages of notes brimming with material for the book. I’ve seen the material myself.[18] But, reaching the end of his life, he realized he would not compose the work and donated all his research to Cambridge, all his notes that fill literally a thousand boxes. He had to settle on the hope that some enterprising scholar would eventually come along after his death and compose the history of liberty he failed to write. Those boxes are a feeble commemoration of a brilliant mind, a sad testimonial to the tragedy of wasted labor.[19] Socrates, Jesus, Mohammad, Charlemagne—they could pull off going unpublished; Acton could not.”

I listened in silence to this remarkable lesson on Lord Acton and tried to be comfortable with the pause that ensued. But my mind would not be still. What with his dizzying erudition, Tonsor had given me much to ponder. I had never heard a teacher speak in this manner before.

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, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), pp. 255-56; Acton’s view is line with that of Edmund Burke, who said as much when he wrote, in 1790, “It is better to cherish virtue and humanity, by leaving much to free will, even with some loss to the object, than to attempt to make men mere machines and instruments of a political benevolence. The world on the whole will gain by a liberty, without which virtue cannot exist.” Thanks to Professor Bradley Birzer for reminding me of Burke’s quotation.

[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. 11.

[3] Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, pp. 255-56.

[4] Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 2015), Kindle edition, Ch. 8, loc. 4138. Himmelfarb’s book was particularly helpful in reconstructing Tonsor’s and my first conversations on Lord Acton.

[5] Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, accessed August 26, 2016.

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

[7] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 125.

[8] Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg (Lord), “Advice to Persons about the Write History,” The Imaginative Conservative, accessed August 26, 2016.

[9] Paradiso, Canto 13: 118-20, trans. Allen Mandelbaum.

[10] Acton quoted by Stephen J. Tonsor, “Faculty Diversity and University Survival,” in Tradition and Reform in Education (La Salle: Open Court, 1974), p. 155.

[11] Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg (Lord), “Advice to Persons about the Write History”.

[12] Tonsor, “Faculty Diversity and University Survival,” in Tradition and Reform in Education, p. 155.

[13] Tonsor, Introduction, Legacy by Holland, loc. 23.

[14] John Adams, Works, vol. 10; quoted in Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway Edition, 1985), p. 100.

[15] Tonsor, Introduction, Legacy by Holland, loc. 23.

[16] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 125-148.

[17] L. M. Phillipps, Europe Unbound (London, 1916), p. 147n.; quoted by Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 114.

[18] Caroline Tonsor interview with GW, Chelsea, MI, March 15, 2017. Ms. Tonsor spoke of a different era when it came to research. She said that the “Xeroxed documents” from the Cambridge University library arrived in Ann Arbor on a continuous roll that she had to divide up with scissors. See the resulting monograph and detailed references in Stephen J. Tonsor, “Lord Acton on Döllinger’s Historical Theology,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 20, no. 3 (June-September 1959), pp. 329-52.

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

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