Lord Acton and conservative history

Posted by Helen Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Re-reading some of Lord Acton’s essays on history means reconsidering what one thinks one knows about him. Precisely why do we consider him to be the foremost conservative historian? The man was after all a Liberal MP, a friend of Gladstone’s who eventually made him a peer.

He was one of the foremost historians of liberty, even though the proposed tome never saw the light of day and all we are left with is some superbly written and argued essays. Whether that makes him a conservative historian or not, his natural suspicion of power and of its accumulation does in my opinion.

Conservatives do not believe in utopian schemes because they do not entirely trust people. It is what made the Founding Fathers of the United States conservative, for instance. They carefully delineated structures that would prevent people from acquiring too much power on the assumption that anyone might use his (or her, though that was not an issue with the Founding Fathers) position to do so, unless restrained by social and political structures.

This is what Hugh Trevor-Roper (later Lord Dacre) wrote in his introduction to Acton’s “Lectures on Modern History”:

“The nineteenth-century belief in endless progress, the unwarranted assumption that man only needs freedom from ancient restraints in order to realise his inherent perfection, repelled him [Acton]. His view of human nature was not cheerful but dark: like Gibbon he looked back on history and saw the register of human folly, crime and misfortune, and therefore he believed firmly in ancient restraints. But he was not a tory. The ancient restraints in which he believed were not royal or priestly authority. They were the restraints of custom and society, local and personal liberties, that complex, organic tissue of slender, elastic filaments which saves man from sudden surrender to abstract ideas or arbitrary power and allows the slow growth of rational thought and practised freedom.”
Acton had his own very personal problems with “priestly authority”, in particular that of the Catholic Church and the Vatican. Professor Trevor-Roper’s use of the word “tory”, however, might be considered to be somewhat outdated. There are not many thinkers or writers on that side of the political spectrum who unquestioningly accept “royal or priestly authority”.

To Trevor-Roper Lord Acton’s views and belief in the enumerated restraints that lead to the evolution of liberty indicated a whig and that is what he probably was in nineteenth century terms. In the twenty-first century, however, after the horrors of the twentieth, most of them created by ideologies that deliberately discarded ancient restraints, we can surely consider Acton to have been a true conservative.


  1. Sam B Says:
  2. It's interesting to see how corrupted the word "liberal" has become -- virtually every 19th Century Liberal would be considered a Conservative today.

    The shift, I presume, is due to Lloyd George's welfare plans and Roosevelt's New Deal, both of which married "liberals" to the concept of the welfare state. Would Acton have supported either of those extensions of state power? I doubt it.

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. Acton was a whig, which in those days placed him on the conservative wing of liberalism.

    Hard to say what he would have thought of the New Deal. The idea of pragmatic responses to keep public order in the face of catastrophe is not necessarily un-whiggish.

    Hayek said that the thinkers who most closely approximated his thinking were Burke, Tocqueville and Acton. This is because these men saw that freedom was rooted in things that were not the result of policy choices but of lengthy, organic development. However, each of these men believed in a dynamic conception of conservatism (Hayek denied he was a conservative) which was able to respond to the changing world without embarking on extreme and utopian binges. It is a difficult balance to strike.

  5. Helen Says:
  6. There is also the added complication that liberal has come to mean something very different in the United States. In Britain we are just about managing to hang on to the old usage of the word, though the existence of the LibDem party is no help, as they have long ago abandoned all liberal ideas. Such liberals as there are, are, indeed, now conservatives.

  7. Anonymous Says:
  8. As my historical knowledge tends to be too limited to add much to these discussions myself, I like to turn to google for some help. This time I found this - a chart which attempts to place the political viewpoint in a circle. I think it is interesting that, at least according to this person, the Classic Liberal and the Classic Conservative have the same ideas on the role of government. Do any more knowledgable readers have any views on the accuracy of this chart?


  9. Anonymous Says:
  10. You have to remember that Trevor Roper was working as a seventeenth century historian mainly when the word Tory meant an allegiance to the policies of Charles II and to the Anglican church- that allegiance to crown and church remained strong throughout the 19th Century- if you want to read a Tory 19th Century attitude then look at Barchester Towers the novel by Anthony Trollope, which has a character which rejects Catholic emancipation.

    In answer to your anonymous question- the difference between what would now be called a classical liberal and a conservative position within politics is not too different to the 19th Century difference between liberals and conservatives. Liberals in the 19th Century like Gladstone were optimistic about their power to change the world for the better, beleived that extending the franchise would make the world a better place, that humanity was advancing towards a better future conservatives were always more pessimistic about all of this. The archtypal conservative, Lord Salisbury- British PM 1886-92, 1895-1902- was a sceptic about the future of civilisation and beleived that his role was to hold back anarchy before it happened. Whereas Liberals viewed that man's needs could be satisfied within commercial society, Conservatives argued that they couldn't and that politics was a more Hobbesian and cynical art.

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