David R. Henderson  

In Praise of Lord Acton

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In preparing for a conference I'm attending in Indianapolis, I read two chapters from Lord Acton's book of essays titled Essays in the History of Liberty. What a treat!

Like most people who have heard of Lord Acton, I knew of the famous 19th-century British liberal mainly because of one quote: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." A few years ago, I learned the striking line that immediately follows: "Great men are almost always bad men."

That's all good, but there's a lot of other good content in his two essays we're discussing at the conference: "The History of Freedom in Antiquity" and "The History of Freedom in Christianity."

Here's a quote from "The History of Freedom in Antiquity" that Friedrich Hayek used at the start of "Why I Am Not a Conservative," his famous postscript to The Constitution of Liberty:

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.

In the second essay, "The History of Freedom in Christianity," Acton backs his claim with this vinegar-spitting passage:
The greatest writers of the Whig party, Burke and Macaulay, constantly represented the statesmen of the Revolution as the legitimate ancestors of modern liberty. It is humiliating to trace a political lineage to Algernon Sidney, who was the paid agent of the French king; to Lord Russell, who opposed religious toleration at least as much as absolute monarchy; to Shaftesbury, who dipped his hands in the innocent blood shed by the perjury of Titus Oates; to Halifax, who insisted that the plot must be supported even if untrue; to Marlborough, who sent his comrades to perish on an expedition which he had betrayed to the French; to Locke, whose notion of liberty involves nothing more spiritual than the security of property, and is consistent with slavery and persecution; or even to Addison, who conceived that the right of voting taxes belonged to no country but his own.

I'm not, by the way, defending everything in this quote and I'm especially not defending the putdown of Locke: Locke did care about spiritual liberty and certainly I'm not going to criticize Locke for defending property rights. My point, rather, is that this guy Acton can write and has a lot to say.

More to follow on Acton's humor.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)

Acton is worth admiring, but not for the latter quote which is fairly dishonest.

All of these accusations of foul deeds are true (except for the questionable Locke part). How did I know about them? From reading Macaulay who describes them all at length with brutal honesty and contempt!

So to suggest that Macaulay either saw things through rose-colored glasses or that he was a hagiographer of his political heroes (which would not include these) is just a slur on the part of Acton.

To add one tidbit: The reason that Churchill hated Macaulay was that Macaulay had spilled so much ink on the misdeeds and dishonesty of Marlborough whom he called a prime example of a "great bad man" Marlborough's before he was elevated to the peerage? John Churchill.

Ak Mike writes:

On the other hand, Acton was a supporter of the Confederacy whose correspondence with Gen. Lee after the war establishes that he was deeply grieved that the South lost.

Rick Hull writes:

Speaking of lordish humor, don't forget to check out Lord Byron, dig?

Rick Hull writes:

Oh no! I meant Lord Buckley.

Roger McKinney writes:

The absolute best history of freedom in the West is Larry Seidentop's "Inventing the Individual." Seidentop is from Cambridge. He shows how the Western concept of liberty took 1500 years to develop as the church slowly worked out, understood, then forced rulers to accept the political implications of Christian individualism.

The book is especially important in light of the work of sociologists such as Geert Hofstede on the correlation between individualism in culture and economic growth in the world today. The greater respect cultures have for individuals, the faster their economic growth and liberty.

Shayne Cook writes:

David R. Henderson:

Off topic, David, (my apologies) but I would be very interested in your thoughts on today's announcement by Obama that his State Department has rejected the Keystone pipeline.

Thanks in advance.

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