The following essay is excerpted from Lord Acton: Historian and Moralist (Acton Institute 2017).
John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton placed liberty in the forefront of all goods, moral and political. Many people are aware that the great uncompleted project of his life was the writing of a history of freedom. He saw the evolution of liberty as the work of Providence, as the consequence, as he put it, of Christ’s being “risen on the world.” Achieved liberty is the fulfillment of the divine plan. It is for this reason above all others that Acton so valued the American experiment.
Acton repeatedly noted that the Protestant Reformation and the wars of religion led to the establishment of absolutism rather than toleration and freedom. Royal power and bureaucratic administration, whether Catholic or Protestant, was substituted for the imperatives of conscience. Established churches used the power of the state to coerce the consciences of the subject. The Puritan revolution in England appealed to the higher law of conscience but then sank back into intolerance and repression. It was the sectarians, at first in England and then in America, who justified religious nonconformity by an appeal to conscience.
In one manuscript, Acton wrote: “The theory of conscience was full grown. It had assumed in one of the sects, a very peculiar shape: the doctrine of inner light. The Quakers not originally liberals. But the inner light struggled vigorously for freedom. In the very days in which the theory of conscience reached its extreme terms, Penn proclaimed conscience as the teaching of his sect. And it became the basis of Pennsylvania—Voltaire’s best government.”
He added in another manuscript, “Conscience understood in this way supplied a new basis for freedom. It carried further the range of Whiggism. The deeper Quakers perceived the consequences, Penn drew the consequences in the Constitution of Pennsylvania. It was the standard of a new party and a new world.”
The appeal was to conscience, a conscience which defied the laws of man in order to obey the law of God. It was but a step from an appeal to liberty in religion to an appeal to liberty in politics. The appeal to the higher law made by the framers of the Declaration of Independence was only a more abstract and universal conception of liberty than the appeal to conscience made in the name of religion. Acton noted, “America started with the habit of abstract ideas. Rhode Island, Pennsylvania. It came to them from religion and the Puritan struggle. So they went beyond conservation of national rights. The rights of man grew out of English toleration. It was the link between tradition and abstraction.”
The appeal to the higher law made by the framers of the Declaration of Independence was only a more abstract and universal conception of liberty than the appeal to conscience made in the name of religion. In his Cambridge University lecture (1901) on the American Revolution, Acton put the revolutionary shift from rights based on the fact that the colonists were Englishmen to rights based on a universal appeal to a higher law in this way:
Then James Otis spoke, and lifted the question to a different level, in one of the memorable speeches in political history. Assuming, but not admitting, that the Boston custom-house officers were acting legally, and within the statute, then, he said, the statute was wrong. Their action might be authorised by parliament; but if so, parliament had exceeded its authority, like Charles with his shipmoney, and James with the dispensing power. There are principles which override precedents. The laws of England may be a very good thing, but there is such a thing as a higher law.
Acton argued with great force that England’s colonial rule in America had been one of the mildest and most beneficent colonial regimes in history. Americans were not rebelling against oppression. The American course was justified solely on the basis of our appeal to a higher law, justified solely by an appeal to the rights of political conscience. These were arguments Acton understood, approved, and applauded.
The foundation of the American republic was, Acton rightly understood, not completed with the successful termination of the American Revolution. The American Revolution created a political society in which the unchecked will of the people was paramount, state governments in which the tyranny of the majority would, sooner or later, lead to anarchy. The second great act of the founding, the making of the Constitution, was a conservative act which made the creation of a republic possible. The creation of the Constitution had two great objects in view, the prevention of the tyranny of the majority and the dispersion of centralized power. The framers of the Constitution achieved these objectives not through the enunciation of any new principles but by compromising contending tendencies and forces. The structure of the Constitution was like the structure of a medieval cathedral in which countervailing forces were employed in such a way as to hold the whole structure aloft. None of the great questions were resolved: states rights, federal power, the tariff, slavery. American federalism, which Acton reckoned one of the great inventions of the age, was based upon compromise rather than principle. From the beginning this structure of republican liberty threatened to collapse. In spite of their great achievement, Acton viewed the work of the founders as incomplete and the Constitution as an imperfect instrument.
It is my considered judgment that Acton was the most knowledgeable foreign observer of American affairs in the nineteenth century. As a very young man he had made a trip to the United States and had traveled widely, but the mature Acton’s knowledge of America was based upon books rather than direct personal experience. No American, with the exception of Henry Adams, who was nearly his exact contemporary, knew American history more thoroughly than Acton. It is a pity that American historians so rarely read him.
Stephen Tonsor is a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.