Historian in the Seat of God

Paul Smith

  • Acton and History by Owen Chadwick
    Cambridge, 270 pp, £30.00, August 1998, ISBN 0 521 57074 3

To be the author of the best-known work of history never written is a guarantee of enduring celebrity, but also of lasting ridicule. On the marble bench in Venice where, by moonlight, in 1879, he expounded to an enthralled Herbert and Mary Gladstone the project of his great history of liberty, his ‘Madonna of the Future’, as he called it, Lord Acton was courting nemesis. For ‘moonlight’ his detractors have tended to read ‘moonshine’. His defenders have countered the impression that he wrote no history by representing that in fact he wrote a good deal; but they are heavily dependent on his early journalism and on the lectures published after his death by J.N. Figgis and R.V. Laurence. There is no great work to count in the research assessment exercise of the ages, only a vast assembly of materials, to some grand in the nobility of conception and thrilling in the promise of transcendental wisdom which they convey, to others a profoundly depressing monument to the union of pedantic burrowing with lack of will and courage for composition. Even Acton’s best friends sometimes despaired. Asked maliciously by Eddie Hamilton ‘whether there was to be any result from such wondrous accumulations of knowledge’, W.E. Gladstone thought that Acton would have difficulty in finding a publisher for a dozen volumes on liberty, ‘but being so well versed in history, especially that of last century, why should he not write a memoir of Madam Dubarry?’

Not only did Acton not produce his big book, but he laid down the law for history and historians in a manner which, even in the 1890s, when he came to his Cambridge chair at the close of his career, seemed naive and hubristic. Setting up what was to be the Cambridge Modern History (another work of which, bar the introduction, he never wrote a word, though Frederick Maitland suggested that ‘his omniscient lordship’ could do the whole of it and ‘come up smiling’), Acton looked forward to the arrival of ‘ultimate history’, now that ‘all information is within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution,’ and desired that in the great collective enterprise the unity of design should be uncompromised by the ‘disclosure of personal views’ – positions from which most of his profession have been in apologetic retreat ever since. At the same time, he summoned historians to pronounce the impersonal verdict of a timeless ethical code on the subjects of their enquiries – ‘to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no crime to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong’. The arrogation to historians of this grandiose role seems all the more presumptuous coming from one whose historical excursions were not always free from factual error, as Owen Chadwick reminds us in this volume – which brings together his writings of the last twenty-five years on Acton the historian (and Acton the would-be power in the Liberal Party, whose ambitions nearly gave his career a final touch of the ludicrous by landing him in the post of Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard).

If Acton failed to get into bed with his Madonna, and might have produced a fiasco had he done so, why should we pay attention to him, except as a warning and a convenient butt in the history of historiography? The answer is that even if he was not a good historian, he was a significant one. It is precisely the ingenuousness, the idealism, the vast pretensions for his subject, which expose him so easily to attack, that make him significant. They lay bare the hopes, the quasi-millenarian inspiration and the sense of vital civic function which fuel the energies and set the agenda of much historical writing, even if its practitioners go about with their coats modestly buttoned over these primitive instincts and embarrassing urges.

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