Power Tends to Corrupt
Lord Acton's Study of Liberty
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: Northern Illinois University Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
Anyone beginning a large research project can understand my feelings of confusion and even hopelessness when I attempted to write the first page of this book. After a few years of research that were less rather than more intensive (a full-time teaching position and various administrative duties allowed me to proceed at only a moderate pace), ...
Lord Acton is often called a historian, or even the historian, of liberty. Indeed, among his many interests and pursuits, liberty was a lifelong passion and the central theme of his writing. True, his long-term project, “The History of Liberty,” was never realized and turned into “the greatest book that never was written,” as one observer termed it.2 ...
1—Acton’s Life and Mission
For an ordinary reader unacquainted with Lord Acton, he may appear to be the epitome of an English and Victorian aristocrat: aloof and condescending, untroubled by the problems of ordinary men and women, shielded from poverty or prejudice, privileged in every way, and disposed to take advantage of every opportunity open to his class. ...
Part I—The Foundation of Liberty
2—Liberty’s Ancient Roots: From Ancient Israel to the Fall of the Roman Empire
Even if mature forms of liberty emerged in Western civilization around the eighteenth century as a result of the growth of English constitutionalism and together with the American Revolution, freedom did not come out of nowhere, in a complete and advanced shape. On the contrary, its origins can be traced back to antiquity and then observed throughout Western history, ...
3—A Bumpy Road to Success: Liberty in the Middle Ages
The late Roman Empire proved to be immune to any influences that might have allowed for the evolution of its institutions and laws toward greater freedom. The despotic tradition in Rome was too old, too rigid, and too strong to yield. As far as liberty was concerned, the empire turned out to be impervious. ...
4—The Great Reversal: Modern Infatuation with Power
Early modern Europe was, in Acton’s words, the result of “a series of violent shocks” that cast off the medieval past and opened a new beginning. Its close was even more dramatic: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, which turned the continent upside down. In the history of liberty, the period roughly between 1492 and 1789 played an important role, but what was that role? ...
Part II—Anglo-American Liberty
5—English Liberty: The Birth of Mature Liberty
Early modern Europe threw Western civilization a thousand years back, to the late Roman Empire as far as liberty is concerned. In terms of relations between the rulers and the ruled, authority and the people, central government and regional self-government, and church versus state,the absolutism of modern monarchs was a thorough reversal ...
6—The High Point of Liberty: Colonial America and the Foundation of the Republic
The weaknesses of the political order that developed in England as the result of the Glorious Revolution eventually led to such corruption of English politics, especially under George II and George III (1727–1810), that by 1770 the situation in Great Britain seemed almost as bad as in 1688. ...
7—The American Experience: Between the Union’s Founding and the Civil War
The American Civil War (1861–1865) was the last phase of American history that Acton considered important for the history of liberty. In this context, he pronounced some of his most remarkable (and controversial) thoughts on the nature of democracy, the perils of unrestricted rule by the majority, and the cost of disregarding minority rights and interests. ...
Part III—The Liberty of Revolutionary Dreams
8—The French Revolution: A Triumph of Revolutionary Tyranny
From what has been said in the preceding chapters, it should be obvious that Acton is not particularly fond of France, its people, or its culture. The first epigraph above confirms this and even bespeaks a strong bias against France. But Acton is not merely a Francophobe. His family had a French branch, he spoke French, ...
Part IV—Civic versus Civil Liberty
9—Acton’s Ideal Polity and Its Alternatives
Acton never wrote a separate essay on his ideal polity, the best practical regime that would meet most, if not all, of his requirements. However, he left many scattered remarks on the merits and defects of past and present political communities. In searching for his ideal, we can draw on the vast materials already cited in this book, ...
Conclusions—Acton’s Legacy and Lessons
Although Acton never produced a book on liberty and consequently did not have an opportunity to articulate his definitive view on the subject, this does not mean that he bore no coherent theory of political liberty in his mind, nor that we cannot retrieve this theory from his writing. ...
Page Count: 340
Publication Year: 2012
OCLC Number: 868220317
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