ir John Acton was unique among his Catholic contemporaries for the breadth and variety of his background and education. An Englishman by nationality, an aristocrat by inheritance, and a Catholic in religion, he had been made by circumstances of family and education into a thorough cosmopolitan, a competent scholar, and an accepted member of Protestant social and political circles.
The Actons were an old Shropshire family, with their seat at Aldenham, who had acquired a baronetcy in the seventeenth century and had been converted to Catholicism in the eighteenth. In 1791 the title and estate fell to John Acton an adventurer, who succeeded in winning the affections of the Queen of Naples, the rank of Admiral in the Neapolitan navy, and eventually the position of Prime Minister of Naples. Of his two sons, the younger, who died in 1847, became a cardinal; the elder, Sir Richard, a diplomat, was the father of John Edward Emerich Dalberg Acton, who was born in Naples in 1834, and succeeded to the baronetcy on his father's premature death in 1837.
Acton's mother, Marie de Dalberg, was the heiress of the Dalbergs of Herrnsheim, barons of the Holy Roman Empire. Her uncle had been the last archbishop-elector of Mainz. Her father had entered the diplomatic service of France under Napoleon, becoming a minister of State and duke and peer of France. In 1840 the widowed Lady Acton took as her second husband Lord Leveson, later the second Earl Granville. Granville was a member of the Whig aristocracy, a rising Politician, and a Protestant. In his stepfather's house in London, young Acton found himself in an environment with which few English Catholics were familiar: the Protestant and Whig aristocracy which had ruled England for a century[45/46] and a half. It was, however, his mother's devout Catholicism which determined the course of his education.
Acton was sent in 1842 to a school near Paris operated by Monsignor Dupanloup, later Bishop of Orléans. After a year, however, he was removed to Oscott College for a more conventional English Catholic education. Under Wiseman's presidency, Oscott was the centre of English Catholicism at the time; but it was nonetheless deficient -as an educational institution. Acton complained that he was restricted in his reading and was dissatisfied with the rigid seminarian discipline. Nonetheless he remained until 1848, completing the course. He next spent two years at Edinburgh studying privately under Dr. Logan, who had just been dismissed from the Vice-Presidency of Oscott after a quarrel with Bishop Ullathorne. Logan was a convert of a generation earlier than the Oxford Movement; this rather unsatisfactory episode represents almost the only convert influence on Acton's education.
Acton's family connections had given him a wider horizon than most of the old Catholics and a breadth of view akin to that of the converts. But he had not shared the experience of the Oxford Movement; he was born to his Catholicism. The Catholic faith was so natural to him, so muclf a part of the atmosphere that he breathed, that he felt no need to display it, and he seemed to be wanting in the enthusiasm which characterized the converts.
It had been intended that Acton should complete his studies at Cambridge; but the colleges to which he applied refused him admission on account of his Catholicism. He was therefore sent to Munich to study under the historian Döllinger. There is a trace of Wiseman's influence here. Wiseman, seeking to broaden the intellectual culture of the old Catholics by an infusion of German scholarship, had cultivated Döllinger's friendship in 1835 and had awakened in him an interest in English Catholicism. Thenceforth Döllinger was in the practice of keeping a number of young English students in his house. Acton was to become the most prominent of these pupils.
"The decisive fact of Acton's life was his apprenticeship under Döllinger" (Himmelfarb, p. 19). He formed Acton's religious, ethical, and political thought and developed in him a passion for the scientific study of history. It was also through Döllinger that Acton became connected with the Liberal Catholic movement which had become a significant factor in the Catholicism of the continent.
The Liberal Catholic Movement
The Liberal Catholic movement developed from the Catholic revival which began with the opening of the nineteenth century. Chateaubriand, the prophet of romanticism, was also the herald of the revival of Catholicism. It derived a political theory from De Maistre's doctrine of the absolute supremacy of the Pope, and a philosophical basis from, the traditionalism of Bonald. These tendencies were summed up and given a new turn in the life and work of Lamennais. Lamennais was fired by the idea that "the Church was to be the principle of construction for the civilization of the future" (Wilfrid Ward, p. 85). It was his doctrine that the individual reason was impotent, and that the test of truth was the universal consent of the general testimony, whose organ was the Church, speaking directly through the Pope. His Essai sur l'Indifférence (1817) brought him fame; he became the eloquent champion of the Church against infidelity and of Ultramontanism as opposed to Gallicanism. His extreme claims on behalf of the Pope brought Lamennais opposition from the French bishops, who retained something of the Gallicanism of past generations, and from the government of Charles X, which sought to use the Church as an instrument for its own purposes. Henceforth he rejected the monarchy as the enemy of the Church, and placed his trust in the people; in one bound he passed from legitimism to democracy.
Lamennais had come to think that the future belonged to the peoples, not the kings, and that "religion should not be involved in the fall of the old regime" (CUL Add. MS, 4905; this is one of Acton's notes for a projected biography of Döllinger, which would have included a study of the Liberal Catholic movement; see also Add. MSS. 4903-15, 4964, 4968-70, 5445). Rather, the Church [47/48] should "baptize the Revolution" by reconciling the people to religion through a common devotion to liberty. In this development, he had been anticipated by Chateaubriand and was paralleled by the Baron d'Eckstein, editor of Le Catholique; but he drew his main support from a group of able young men, of whom Montalembert and Lacordaire were the most notable. Their organ was the Avenir, founded in 1830. They drew inspiration from Ireland and America, where the Church was independent of both the support and the control of the State; they sensed that these countries, ruled by Protestants, provided examples for Catholicism in a future which was to be dominated by forces hitherto hostile to the Catholic Church: democracy, Protestantism, and nationalism. They welcomed the revolution of 1830 in France, and found in the Belgian revolution, in which Catholics worked side by side with Liberals, an expression of their principles. Their cry was "God and Liberty." For the Church, they demanded independence from the State; but they insisted that the Church could not demand liberty for herself without extending it to others. So they supported liberty of conscience, of thought and of the press, and the separation of Church and State.
The conductors of the Avenir sought liberty in politics precisely because they wished to establish the principle of authority in the Church, free from the domination of the States and the hostility of the peoples.Montalembert and Lacordaire were not in entire agreement with Lamennais's democratic vision; there were several different currents in the Avenir movement, which perhaps explain the different courses followed by its leaders after its collapse (see Stearns). When they met continued opposition from the French bishops, they appealed to Rome. Instead of the expected endorsement, they found their doctrines rejected in 1832 by the encyclical Mirari vos, in which Gregory XVI denounced the error of "indifferentism," which proceeded from the doctrine of liberty of conscience, thought, and the press. Lamennais and his friends promptly announced their submission. But Lamenais had suffered a shattering blow: his philosophic system had [48/49] depended on the authority of the Pope, which had now been turned against him; the very exaggeration of his doctrines proved fatal to his faith. Two years later he left the communion of the Church.
Lamenais carried no one with him in his fall, and his disciples became the ablest defenders of Catholicism in France. The submission of Montalembert and Lacordaire did not mean, however, that they had abandoned all their former opinions or given up the hopes of refashioning Catholic life in conformity with the dominant principles of the age. It was possible, they held, to advocate as a matter of practice that which had been condemned as a matter of theory: the doctrines of liberalism might be tenable by Catholics if advanced merely as a practical and transitory adjustment to the necessities of the actual situation; for a more thorough discussion of this distinction of "thesis" and "hypothesis," see Constantin. On this basis, the movement was reconstructed during the next decade.
Warned by the experience of 1832, the Liberal Catholics avoided philosophical speculation and confined themselves to activities less likely to arouse hostility. Lacordaire refounded the Dominican order in France and lectured at Notre Dame; Montalembert wrote on medieval history; and another leader, Ozanam, founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to engage in work among the poor. Then, in 1842, Montalembert organized a political party -- not a liberal party, but a "Catholic" party. The issue was freedom of instruction for religious bodies, which was guaranteed by the constitution of 1830 but denied in practice. Montalembert was thus able to unite Catholics behind a cry for liberty. It was not a philosophy but a policy, more moderate than that of the Avenir: Montalembert no longer sought separation of Church and State, and was not favourable to democracy. But by forming "un parti catholique sur le terrain liberal" (Constantin, 571), he had achieved the aim of the Avenir, of a Catholicism in harmony with modern ideals, seeking liberty for the nation [49/50] as well as for itself. The Revolution of 1848, and the conservative Republic which it brought forth, was a triumph for the Catholic party: bishops and priests were elected to the Chamber, and Lacordaire for a time even took his seat on the extreme Left. For a brief moment French Catholicism was in harmony with the spirit of the age, and it profited from this situation by the passage of the Falloux law, which granted the liberty of instruction.
1848 was the high-water mark of the Liberal Catholic movement; but for Liberal Catholicism, as for liberalism generally, it turned out to be the annus mirabills that failed. The highest hopes were aroused by the fact that there was now on the papal throne a reputed liberal, Pius IX. When he amnestied political prisoners and granted a constitution, the Italian Liberal Catholics hailed him as their leader. Liberal Catholicism in Italy, led by Gioberti and Rosmini, differed from the French movement by its greater emphasis on nationalism; it sought an Italian federation under the presidency of the Pope. But Pius had no intention of placing himself at the head of an Italian nation, or of giving up his sovereignty over the States of the Church. After his liberal minister Rossi was murdered, he feared for his life amid the rising tide of revolution in Rome and fled to Gaeta. His authority in Rome was restored by French bayonets in 1849, and Pius returned in 1850, a disillusioned man. Henceforth he became the confirmed opponent of liberalism and nationalism, the leader of reaction in Europe. The opportunity for a Liberal Church had been lost.
In France, too, the hopes of the Liberal Catholics had faded. The Falloux law of 1850, which represented the triumph of the Catholic party, led to its split. An intransigent faction, led by Louis Veuillot, editor of the Univers, thought that the law did not go far enough. The issue divided the party into two sections, Liberal and Ultramontane-the latter a term which had originally designated the entire movement, with its emphasis on papal authority. Now that Pius IX had committed himself to a policy of opposition to the ideals of the modernworld, the term "Ultramontane" came to designate that group which favoured his policy of [50/51] regarding the Church as being in a "state of siege," opposed to the ruling tendencies of the age, isolated, self-regarding, and militant, closely organized under the absolute authority of the Pope. Opposed to them was the "Liberal" school of Montalembert, which retained its hopes of a conciliation between Catholicism and the modern world; its organ was now the Correspondant. The cause of the Liberal Catholics was ruined by their political policy. Montalembert, after supporting Louis Napoleon, turned against him in 1852. The majority of the French Catholics, however, rallied to Napoleon as the saviour of society and protector of the Church; Veuillot became a violent imperialist and carried Catholic opinion with him. The party of Montalembert was increasingly isolated.
The leadership of the Liberal Catholic movement now passed to the Germans. The Catholic revival in Germany was contemporaneous with the Romantic movement; it was given an intellectual form through the works of Möhler and Görres. A dispute between the Church and the Prussian government in 1837 over the question of mixed marriages led to the formation of a Catholic political party, which was Ultramontane in the sense of being opposed to the domination of the State over the Church and devoted to the Holy See. But the central issues in German Catholicism were not political, as in France, or national, as in Italy, but intellectual.
"Germany was the only country in possession of theological schools which, through their connection with the Universities and their controversies with the different Church communities, remained in touch with the intellectual problems and currents of the day" (Blennerhasset, 501). Constant intercourse with their Protestant neighbours had forced them to become familiar with the arguments of the enemies of the Church, and to realize the insufficiency of the conventional Catholic apologetic. In this enforced competition of doctrines, only the most thorough and objective statement of the truth could be victorious. In order to meet the arguments of Protestants, [51/52] it was necessary for Catholics to match them in scientific impartiality; and so the German Liberal Catholics developed the doctrine that the Church must rely on the weapons of science, which would prove more efficacious than the obsolete arguments of scholasticism. Ultimately, the truths of religion and those of science must be compatible, and therefore it was in the interest of the Church to be disinterested, to pursue the truth for its own sake without regard for the consideration whether or not it would serve. the Catholic cause in controversy. Civil and intellectual freedom was a necessary condition of this harmony of truths; therefore the principle of freedom had to be asserted, not merely for Catholics, but for other communities. As Acton's "Ultramontantism" puts it: "They sought to obtain for the ecclesiastical authority no immunity but that which it would enjoy from the promotion of political rights; and in philosophy, they provided no protection for religious doctrines but in the advancement of scientific truth" (Essays, 70).
In the 1850s, there had developed a reaction against this scientific outlook, centred around the school of Mainz. The Mainz school was the representative in Germany of the new Ultramontanism, though it was more moderate than the party of Veuillot in France; it sought to bring the work of Catholic scholars under the control of the ecclesiastical authorities. There seemed to be a danger that the free inquiry of the Liberal Catholic scholars might lead them too far; two philosophers, Günther and Frolischarnmer, were condemned by the Index. Nonetheless, the liberal school, the school of Munich, continued on its course. After the deaths of Möhler and Görres, Döllinger was its most distinguished scholar.
Döllinger had taken orders in the days of Pius VII, the beginning of the Catholic revival, when the Church, having resisted the tyranny of Napoleon, seemed to have shaken off the defects of past centuries. This liberal vision of the Church coloured his early Ultramontanism. As Acton's essay on "Döllinger's Historical Work" explains,
By choice and by vocation a divine, having religion as the purpose of his life he "judged that the loftier function, the more spiritual [52/53] service, was historical teaching.... Church history had long been the weakest point and the cause of weakness among Catholics, and it was the rising strength of the German Protestants. Therefore it was the post of danger. [History of Freedom, 379.]The objectivity of his historical work thus concealed an apologetic purpose.10 Nonetheless, Döllinger became a convinced advocate of the scientific attitude towards history. His reputation was made by the four volumes of his Church History (1833-1838); and with the appearance of his work on the Reformation (1848), which challenged the authority of Ranke, he became for a time the accepted spokesman of the Catholic Church among historians.
Döllinger's historical studies formed his religious thought. He was less interested in pure theology than in the practical working of religion in the lives of men: he found the truths of history more convincing than the truths of metaphysics. He regarded Christianity as the product of history rather than of philosophy and was therefore opposed to the methods of the Scholastics. His inclination was to a theory of the development of doctrine similar to that of Newman, whom he admired. Newman reciprocated this admiration and arranged for the translation of one of Döllinger's books by Father Darnell of the Oratory. Newman visited Dbllinger at Munich in 1847, and Acton arranged for them to meet in England in 1851 and 1858.
Döllinger was unusual among Catholic historians in that he made Protestantism, as it had developed through the centuries, an object of constant attention. As a German, he took a particular interest in Lutheranism; but he followed events in the Church of England and was in communication with many leaders of the High Church party, notably Pusey and Gladstone. It was the hope of his life that a reunion between the Churches might be achieved and that history might serve in this work of conciliation by removing [53/54] unfounded prejudices. He sought understanding rather than proselytes; his work was confined to the sphere of the intellect, and to those of more ardent temperament he appeared "hard, cold, and unimaginative" (Newman to Alfred Plummer, 21 Oct. 1873, cited in Gross, p. 175). The young Herbert Vaughan, later Cardinal, visited him in 1855 and was "a little chilled" to find that Döllinger did not say Mass every day: see Snead-Cox, I, 64.
Döllinger had been in communication with the French Liberal Catholics since the days of the Avenir, but he pursued his course independently of them, finding them deficient in scientific spirit. He had had a brief period of relative political liberalism in 1848, when he was a delegate to the Frankfurt Parliament. He voted for the exclusion of the Jesuits and, preaching to the assembled German bishops at Wtirzburg, told them that freedom was necessary to the Church, and that Catholics must claim it for others as well as themselves. But at heart Döllinger was a conservative: even at Frankfurt he had taken his seat on the extreme Right. As provost of the royal chapel at Munich, he was a devoted servant of the Bavarian crown. His circle at Munich was legitimist, conservative and clericalist; but in the genial atmosphere of Bavaria these doctrines were not incompatible with constitutionalism and toleration. In Church politics, Döllinger was an Ultramontane of the old school, that is, one who distrusted the interference of the State in the Church. At the core of his politics was a hatred of absolute power in all its forms, whether in Church or State; if this was liberal in tendency, it was conservative in origin, and owed much to Burke.
Döllinger's position as historian and Catholic was somewhat altered by the events of the 1850s. The rise of the school of Mainz signified that his doctrine of the independence of history was not to pass unchallenged by the new Ultramontanism. At the same time, the science of history was itself undergoing a change. The critical school of history, in whose spirit Döllinger worked, had been largely dependent on old authorities newly interpreted. In 1854 Ranke came to Munich to teach a science of history based on the use of [54/55] unpublished manuscripts, and in the next few years masses of archival material were opened to scholars. Döllinger had to train himself in the new methods and to revise his historical outlook in the light of his new studies. The discoveries of these years led him unconsciously to take a more independent attitude to the authorities of his Church. Acton, who had come to Munich to be Döllinger's pupil, became instead his fellow-apprentice in the new history and in Liberal Catholicism.
Acton spent six years with Döllinger in Munich, as disciple rather than as pupil; Capes described the relationship between them as that of father and son (Capes to Newman, 29 Sept. 1858, Newman MSS.) On 28 Jan. 1859, Capes wrote: "He is just to him what I should wish my own son to be to me." Acton was ready and willing to be formed by his teacher; he later acknowledged to Döllinger that "I am nothing but what you have made of me" (Acton to Döllinger, 10 Aug. 1866, cited in Woodward, 249; my translation). Acton signed his letters to Döllinger "Ihr Treuer Schüler" and referred to Germany as "meine zweite Heimath": Acton to Dollinger, 12 May [prob. 1855] Woodruff MSS.) It was no longer possible for Acton, having succumbed to Döllinger's influence, to be content to return to the unintellectual life of the English Catholic aristocracy. He was irresistibly attracted to the life of scholarship and was converted to Döllinger's austere ideal of an independent, unbiased history. Acton was unusually well equipped for the work of the historian. By birth and education he was the child of all Europe, and he spoke several languages with equal fluency. He was an energetic reader of books, with great power of retention; and, although the productive power in him did not equal the receptive, this failing was not evident during his early years. The particular area of research to which he was attracted was the "wavy line" between politics and religion (Acton to Mary Gladstone, 3 June 1881, Letters, pp. 208-9).
Religion was for Acton, as for Döllinger, the motive of his life. Even more than Döllinger, he emphasized the ethical aspect of religion, the supremacy of the developed [55/56] conscience. In later years, his ethical rigorism was to become intense and to lead to his alienation from Döllinger. But it would be wrong to read back these later views into the attitude of the young Acton. Acton's views were always developing, and the young Acton differed in many respects from the Acton of later years. I have therefore sought to exclude from my consideration any opinion, position, or writing of the later Acton unless, after examination, I am convinced that it represents the sentiments which Acton held as a young man. This is done for purely methodological reason, and does not prejudge the question whether Acton's thought represents a grand unity or is divided sharply into earlier and later stages (compare Kochan, p. 45). This doctrine of conscience was the basis of his political thought: "A Christian must seek to extend as much as possible the field in which he is responsible only to his conscience" (CUL Add. MS. 5751). The Christian, he thought, was committed to the politics of liberty, "that condition in which men are not prevented by men from obeying their duty to God. . . . It is reason controlled by reason, instead of will controlled by will -- it is duty to God unhindered by man; it is the security of minorities; it is the reign of conscience" (CUL Add. MSS. 4969, 5644). Freedom was therefore a spiritual principle, and politics an expression of religion; but, once politics had been established on these principles, it could pursue its course as an independent science, and the Church was subject to the laws of political science as much as to those of physical science. The same moral code was valid in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. Catholics must judge governments, not by their subservience to the temporal interests of the Church, but by the test of whether they guarantee liberty and promote the authority of conscience.
The greatest enemy of the rule of conscience, and therefore of the Church, was absolutism-the State, whether autocratic or democratic, asserting itself as the object of all loyalty and obedience. No institution, Acton thought, has the right to claim the whole allegiance of man. A sound system of politics would seek to erect barriers against State absolutism: it would demand the security of minorities, the recognition of autonomous corporations within the society and the division of governmental powers. These were precisely the conditions necessary to the prosperity of the Catholic Church in Protestant countries such as Germany [56/57] and England. These Catholic principles of government were embodied only in the constitution of Protestant England. Thus Acton was a Whig of the school of Burke, whom he recommended as "the law and the prophets" (Acton to Simpson, 4 Feb. 1859; Gasquet, p. 60). He was antirevolutionary and fearful of democracy; he opposed the plebiscitary dictatorship of Napoleon III and the democracy of the Northern States of America, both of which represented to him aspects of the centralized, absolute State. His Whiggism was conservative rather than liberal. Liberty was to be secured by the limitation of government in a pluralistic society.
Many of these views were to be modified in succeeding years, but Acton never lost his hatred of absolutism, whether in State or Church. Nonetheless, it is an oversimplification of his character to think of him simply as the author of the saying, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," which has made him the hero of modern neoconservatism. Acton possessed the faculty of seeing issues from many sides, of balancing conflicting viewpoints; he "believed that some truths need supplementing by others" (Fasnacht, p. 228; for studies of the complexity and unity of Acton's character, see Noack, Kochan). His vision of truth was always double-edged. Between his Whiggism and his Catholicism there was a certain tension. Acton's views were constantly developing, and within the grand unity of his philosophy there was room for much modification in practice and application.
Acton's education was not confined to the academic world. He travelled much, and was accepted in the best social circles of Europe. Part of nearly every year was spent in France, where he became acquainted with Montalembert and his friends, "the men with whom I most agree," especially the more scholarly members of the movement, the Prince de Broglie and "my old friend" Eckstein," the closest of this group to Acton (Acton to Lady Granville (date uncertain), Selected Correspondence, p. 18). He [57/58] travelled to the United States in 1853 and to Russia in 1856, meeting the leaders of opinion in both countries. On his American journey Acton met Brownson, the ablest writer among American Catholics, and persuaded him to send his son to study under Döllinger; this episode "features Acton as a kind of primitive international clearing-house for Catholic intellectuals" (Himmelfarb, p. 32).
The most important of these journeys was a visit with Döllinger to Rome in 1857, in search of manuscripts. "Döllinger used to commemorate his visit to Rome in 1857 as an epoch of emancipation" (Acton, "Döllinger's Historical Work," p. 410). He "came away depressed and disheartened" at the ignorance of Roman theologians and the misgovernment of the Papal States, although he was "neither shocked nor indignant at what he had observed" (CUL Add. MS. 4905). Rather, having been somewhat taken aback by what he found, he pondered over it, and turned his studies to the modern history of the papacy. The discoveries he made during the next years, in which he learned that many of the claims of the papacy had been based on forgeries, were the beginning of the long process of reconsideration of his religious position which was to lead him away from Rome. But if Döllinger was disillusioned by his Roman experience, Acton was merely unillusioned. He had two interviews with the Pope, "and found him old and weak.... My impression is not of any ability and he seems less banally good-natured than his smiling pictures represent him to be" (CUL Add. MS. 5751. This is Acton's notebook of his Roman journey, portions of which have been reprinted in Butterfield). Acton thought that Pius was weak as a theologian and ill-informed in politics; and he found him, as he found all Italians, ignorant of the state of other countries. But his view of the machinery of the papacy was critical rather than hostile; if it could not command his enthusiasm,, it received his loyalty.
This loyalty was shown on his return to England in 1857. Granville, eager to launch his stepson in public life, offered [58/59] to find him a nomination for an Irish seat in Parliament. Acton, though not ambitious, was willing; but he felt bound to warn Granville that he would be rendering "an uncertain service" to the Whig party by supporting him:
I am of opinion that to a Catholic a certain sort of independence is indispensable. Reasons of religion must separate me occasionally from the Whigs. . . . I must therefore most positively declare that I cannot undertake always to vote with Lord Palmerston's Government or with any other. . . . The most serious matter that occurs to me on which I differ from the Government would be any interference in the affairs of the Pope. [Acton to Granville, 1857, Selected Correspondence, p. 28-29]
It is clear that at this stage of Acton's career "the Catholic motive in him was stronger than the Whig" (Butterfield, Lord Acton, p. 6.) The political situation of the English Catholics was a peculiar one. Protestant prejudice made it virtually impossible for them to find English seats, or to rise to the higher offices. They were drawn to the Whigs by gratitude for their support of Catholic emancipation and by opposition to the Irish and Church policies of the Tories; but Russell's denunciation of the restoration of the hierarchy, and Palmerston's. support of Italian nationalism, made them suspicious of Whig motives. Thus their political action was virtually confined to seeking redress of particular grievances, and they maintained "a certain sort of independence" of party affiliations. Nonetheless, Acton acknowledged that in general "there is no political party with which I could act so well" (Acton to Granville, 1857, Selected Correspondence, p. 28). as with the Whigs, whose principles were essentially his own. This satisfied Granville, who wrote: "I am glad to find that, though he is only a moderate Whig, he is also a very moderate Catholic" (Granville to Lord Canning, 10 March 1857, Fitzmaurice, I, 227). Acton agreed to accept the nomination for Clare, and procured a letter of recommendation to his Catholic constituents from Cardinal Wiseman. But the [59/60] project fell through, and Acton remained out of public life for two more years.
"Acton proceeded to win intellectual and moral eminence at the expense of immediate practical influence" (Figgis, p. 8). He settled in England filled with the sense of a mission to educate his fellow-Catholics, by raising the standard of their scholarship and their politics and providing them with intcllcctual leadership adequate to the needs of the age. Fully acquainted with the narrow, unintellectual spirit of the old Catholics, Acton sought to gather together the intellectual resources that existed in the small Catholic body, so as to give it a respectable position in English life and thought. For this purpose he thought it desirable to found an institution of Catholic higher education for laymen in England.
The Catholic University of Dublin (on whose books Acton's and Döllinger's names had been entered by Newman) had failed to meet the needs of the English Catholics, and Newman resigned his position as rector in 1857. Acton considered publishing an open letter to Newman, urging him to found a Catholic university in England; a sketch of this project is in CUL Add. MS. 5751, dated 24 June 1857. Instead of this, however, Acton gave his support to another plan, conceived by Newman and several converts, that of starting a Catholic public school under Newman's direction. Acton regarded this project as the first step to a university: the school, educating students up to the university level, would create a demand for a university to meet their further educational needs. "If this plan succeeds, the whole education of Catholics will have to be reformed" (Acton to Döllinger, 17 Feb. 1858, Woodruff MSS.). Acton was very active in furthering this plan, which was to lead to the founding of the Edgbaston School a few years later.
Acton's more immediate activity was in literature. He took up several projects of historical writing and began the, acquisition of his magnificent library. He first appeared in print in 1855 with some letters in the Weeky Register, [60/61] defending Döllinger's historical impartia ity against a zealous writer in the Dublin Review who had objected to excessive candour among Catholic historians (see Conzemius, p. 255, and Finlayson). Döllinger's advice in 1857 he prepared a review of a biography of Gustavus Adolphus and offered it to Cardinal Wiseman for the Dublin Review; it was prepared too late to be published, but another article, "Henri IV," was accepted at the end of the year (XLIV [March 1858], 1-31). 34 Wiseman was eager to publish the work of his former pupil, but Acton did not find the cautious, unscientific policy of the Dublin congenial. "Your Eminence is aware of the historical method of the school in which I have studied. As it differs from that which is often pursued in the Dublin Review I do not know whether that might not be enough to exclude my article" (Acton to Wiseman, 17 Feb. 1857, Westminster Archives). Henry Wilberforce's Weekly Register was closer to Acton's spirit, and he published his first articles in it.36 But a weekly was not a suitable medium for the scliclarly works which Acton proposed to write; and lecturing, which he attempted occasionally in 1858, was equally unsuitable. Acton lectured on Russia in January and on education in Birmingham in in June. (The latter speech was praised by Wiseman in a letter to Acton, 20 Julie 1858, Woodruff MSS). What Acton wanted was an "organ" -- a serious periodical, in whose management he would have a share, which would provide him with a dependable outlet for his writings as well as an incentive to write.
It will give me readiness and practise in writing and experience and familiarity in political questions which must under any circumstances be useful to me. The necessity of producing something regularly will keep me hard at work and in constant intellectual activity.... It will give me a position and an influence among Catholics which I hope to use well, and which must be of great advantage to me hereafter. I [61/62] reflected also that it was . . . a capital means of turning my German studies [to use in England]. [Acton to Döllinger, 17 Feb. 1858, Woodruff MSS. This portion of the letter was written in English. Acton made his decision to join the staff of the Rambler before consulting Döllinger]
The Rambler, which had in recent years developed a set of principles similar to those of Acton, seemed destined to fill this role for him. The suggestion that Acton purchase shares in the Rambler was made by Simpson: (Simpson to Acton, 9 March 1864, Woodruff MSS). Capes' retirement provided him, at the right moment, with the opportunity to become one of the proprietors and conductors of the organ of Liberal Catholicism in England.
Last modified 8 September 2001