Posts tagged with: lord acton

himmel_actonBiographers suffer from a myriad of temptations. Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her bibliography to the newly republished Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, recalls how Acton’s first biographer, Ulrich Noack struggled mightily to reconcile contradictions and tensions in Acton’s thought and in doing so lost much of the man himself. Later, Monsignor David Mathew succumbed to the opposite temptation of frequently digressing into trivialities and going off on tangents and as a result losing Acton in the great sea of nineteenth century Catholicism. Himmelfarb’s Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics is one of those rare biographies which manage to thread the needle. It is an intellectual biography which limits itself to the main threads of Acton’s thought as a historian, a Catholic, and a Classical Liberal.

As a historian Acton is brilliant but his work is often inaccessible to the general public. It is buried in collections of lectures, obscure periodicals, personal correspondence, and unpublished notes. By the time he was 40 years old …

He had mastered a variety of disciplines related to the history of politics, culture, ideas and religion. His style combined the sharp, colourful writing, the sense of immediacy and timeliness, of the informal essay, with the precision (degenerating occasionally into pedantry) and the susceptibility for the ancient and the universal of academic history. In addition to some 400 reviews and short articles, he had already published or delivered in the form of lectures the equivalent of almost 1,000 pages of serious essays ranging in subject from the early Christian Church to the American Civil War and the Italian Revolution.


AOTActon offers a wide range of events and educational opportunities suited to a variety of different tastes and learning styles (and if you haven’t done so already, you should check out, which helps you navigate all the different ways Acton can help you learn). But one of the coolest events we put on has to be Acton On Tap, which is an informal (and FREE) gathering of friends and supporters of the Institute, plus anyone else who wants to drop by for a cold drink and some good conversation.

We kicked off our summer Acton On Tap series for 2015 back on June 2 with a presentation by our institute Librarian, Dan Hugger, on the life and overarching ideas of Acton’s namesake, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, First Baron Acton of Aldenham. Acton was a defender of liberty, of free inquiry, freedom of religion, and the broad liberal tradition, and in his address Hugger suggests that Acton, both in his life and writings, serves as a model for thoughtful and passionate engagement with the modern world.

We’re pleased to present the audio of Dan’s remarks below, and invite you to join us at our next Acton On Tap with Jared Meyer, who will be speaking on July 29th on his latest book, Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America’s Young. Information and registration for that event are available at this link. We hope to see you there!



Almost 20 years ago I was invited to speak at the celebratory banquet for the Atlas Economic Research Foundation (now Atlas Network) and the Institute for Humane Studies, then celebrating their 15th and 35th anniversaries respectively. I was an alumnus of both and six years into the launch of the Acton Institute (founded in 1990). Both organizations considered me “successful enough” to reflect at the banquet on how each had influenced my life.

It was an undeserved honor, of course, but such was my gratitude to these institutions, that I accepted. The room was full of luminaries of the free market movement, and I was very conscious that Acton’s work was launched from the shoulders of intellectual giants.

One such giant there in the room that night, was Leonard Liggio, who died this past Tuesday at the age of 81. In reflecting on my sadness at his passing this week, I thought I would share my public comments I made about Leonard that evening 19 years ago:

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that it was none other than the great connector himself, Leonard Liggio, who really brought me into the free market fold. He wasn’t the first to introduce me to classical liberalism—that was Robert Sirico, who at the time was not yet ordained and was only an expectant father. But it was Sirico who introduced me to Leonard and the rest is history. If I’m not mistaken, we first met the night of January 16, 1986. That date wasn’t coincidental, Leonard and I were introduced at a private showing of an uncut, unedited 3.5 hour Italian version of Ayn Rand’s We the Living which had just surfaced more than forty years after Mussolini had ordered it destroyed. (more…)

coolidgebAs we read about the increase of scandal, mismanagement, and corruption within our federal agencies, it is essential once again to revisit the words of Calvin Coolidge. Recent actions at the IRS, Veterans Administration, and the ATF gunwalking scandal all point to systemic problems that come from an entrenched bureaucracy. As more and more of the responsibilities of civil society is passed over to centralized powers in Washington, federal agencies have exploded with power and control, leading to greater opportunities for abuse. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, a favorite stump speech line of former presidential candidate George Wallace was, “When I get to Washington, I am going to throw the briefcases of the pointy headed intellectuals into the Potomac.” Wallace was of course speaking about the entrenched bureaucracy in the nation’s capital.

Bureaucracy of some form is necessary under government. But we live in an era where constitutional constraints are eschewed and the bureaucratic machine is becoming more politicized. “Bureaucracy is undoubtedly the weapon and sign of a despotic government, inasmuch as it gives whatever government it serves, despotic power,” declared Lord Acton. Bureaucracy, by its nature, is problematic to the notion of self-government.

Bureaucracy is a threat to liberty and it’s not accountable to the people, that is the main point Coolidge is reminding Americans in the excerpt from a speech he gave as president at the College of William & Mary in 1926:

No method of procedure has ever been devised by which liberty could be divorced from local self-government. No plan of centralization has ever been adopted which did not result in bureaucracy, tyranny, inflexibility, reaction, and decline. Of all forms of government, those administered by bureaus are about the least satisfactory to an enlightened and progressive people. Being irresponsible they become autocratic, and being autocratic they resist all development. Unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted it breaks down representative government and overwhelms democracy. It is the one element in our institutions that sets up the pretense of having authority over everybody and being responsible to nobody.

Edwin Edwards once declared that the only thing that could keep him from Louisiana’s governor’s mansion was getting caught in bed with a “dead girl or a live boy.” He’s been called “The Luca Brasi of the Bayou,” “The Silver Zipper,” and “The Pirate Kingfish.” When Edwards ran against and trounced former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in the 1988 governor’s race, he had bumper stickers printed up that read, “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.” He then declared that the only thing he had in common with Duke was “that we are both wizards under the sheets.”


Edwards, a convicted felon, who just three years ago was released from federal prison for conviction on seventeen charges that included extortion, racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering, wire fraud, and mail fraud. Edwards, who was notoriously corrupt, was under investigation for decades. After his conviction, Edwards quipped, “I will be a model prisoner as I was a model citizen.”

He’s tried without success to secure a pardon from President Barack Obama to run for governor of Louisiana, a position the 86 year old is not eligible to hold for 15 years because of his criminal record. However, he’s eligible to run for U.S. Congress, and declared his candidacy yesterday.

Edwards, a life long Democrat, has lived a fascinating if not surreal life in Louisiana politics. There may be no politician that is a better model for Lord Acton’s famous dictum, “power corrupts.” Edwards however, is still loved by large segments of Louisiana’s population. Agnes Brouilette, his mother, was pure Cajun French. As some have said of Edwards in Louisiana, “Un de nous autres.” He’s one of us. His charm and mastery of retail politics is renowned.

washingtonIf the American Founding got one thing right more than anything, it was its commitment to a broad and liberal religious liberty. In 1790, President George Washington told a Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy; a policy worthy of imitation.”

Currently, the country faces a number of threats to religious liberty and America seems to be squandering its profound moral authority it can offer to a world starving for its example. On the evening of February 4, I’ll address many of these challenges at Acton on Tap in Grand Rapids. The title for the event is “The Growing Threat to Religious Liberty.” If you are local to the area please join us and be prepared to share your own thoughts and insights.

The weakening of religion of course inevitably leads to more centralization and government. Thus, the American Framers clearly saw the need for a strong religious and moral fabric to guarantee liberty. “The people, who are the source of all lawful authority, are inherently independent of all but the moral law,” declared Thomas Jefferson. The framers were concerned that freedom would break down and become less about restraint and more about license.

It is undeniable that one of the gravest problems we face in this country is a misunderstood and disordered view of liberty that permeates society. Lord Acton put it well when he said liberty is “not the power of doing what we like but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

While America has dramatically changed over the centuries, I believe the founding period offers a lot of important lessons today. Religious persecution in America was an ongoing problem at that time, and would remain to degrees, but there was a deep desire to avoid the kind of devastation that fomented religious wars in Europe. I’ll address that more at Acton on Tap. One thing is certain, with all the challenges America now faces in regards to surviving as the home for a free people, it’s ludicrous to believe that is possible without a vibrant morality and a championing of religious liberty.

Painting of 'Render Unto Caesar' by Peter Paul Rubens.

Painting of ‘Render Unto Caesar’ by Peter Paul Rubens.

Richard Weaver, one of the great intellectuals of the 20th Century, and author of Ideas Have Consequences, published an essay in the early 1960s on Lord Acton (pdf only). Much of Weaver’s essay is worth highlighting, but one excerpt in particular reminds us of the central significance of Christianity in the battle for freedom. It reminds us too of the dangers of secularism and where our indifference to God is inevitably leading us.

It was inevitable that, lacking one vital element, the ancient governments should have collapsed into despotism. That vital element was introduced by Christianity. This was belief in the sacredness of the person and thus in a center of power distinct from the state. What the pagan philosophers in all their brilliance had not been able to do, that is, set effective barriers to the power of the state, was done in response to that injuction: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’ This instituted a basis of freedom upon which the world since that time has been able to build.

In Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time, published in 1964, Weaver noted the cure for the ailment of the decline of Western Culture,

But the road away from idolatry remains the same as before; it lies in respect for the struggling dignity of man for his orientation toward something higher than himself which he has not created.