In Praise of Lord Acton
By David Henderson
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.