Acton was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University in 1895, England’s most coveted academic post. He marked the event with a lecture on the unity of modern history: “ … I describe as modern history that which began four hundred years ago, which is marked oﬀ by an evident and intelligible line from the time immediately preceding, and displays in its course speciﬁc and distinctive characteristics of its own … it founded a new order of things, under a law of innovation, sapping the ancient reign of continuity” (27). For 30 years before the Cambridge honor, his career was a paradox-a Catholic out of favor with the hierarchy, an admired scholar without academic position until late in life, a historian with idiosyncratic views on how history should be done, a man renowned but unconnected to any school of historiography. Born in Naples, his German-English parentage and cosmopolitan
circle of relatives provided residences, travel, and connections in Italy, England, France, and Germany. His father was a Baronet with lands in Shropshire. When the title was passed on, Acton sat in the House of Lords as the Eighth Baronet. Denied entrance to English universities because of his religion, and dissatisﬁed with standards at his English school, higher education was pursued at the University of Munich under the guidance of Ignaz von Döllinger, an eminent Catholic priest, intellectual, historian, and political liberal, who attracted him to scholarship and history: “History compels us to fasten on abiding issues and rescues us from the temporary and transient” (26). He lived in a cultural atmosphere dominated by widespread
historical activity and perspectives that extended and deepened
knowledge of religion, ideas, institutions, politics, and diplomacy. Great historians of Germany (Ranke, Mommsen), England (Carlyle, Macaulay), and France (Michelet, Renan) cultivated new realms of human experience. Modern history as a theme for his lecture looked from present into the past and into the future: “ … it is a narrative told of ourselves, the record of a life which is our own, of eﬀorts not yet abandoned to repose, of problems that still entangle the feet and vex the hearts of men” (32). The problematic value of Acton’s 27-page Inaugural Lecture is a
broad hint of what history had accomplished and was expected to accomplish on the brink of a new century: “ … if we lower our standard in history, we cannot uphold it in Church or State” (52). The lecture was delivered near the close of a century marked by prodigious historical research and publication: “Every country opens its archives and invites us to penetrate the mysteries of State” (31). With no lack of material for exploring the past, “ … there is more fear of drowning than of drought” (39). The address is not history but rather an assessment of history. Acton may be taken as a touchstone for the place of history in
European civilization at the end of the nineteenth century. Hailed as the most learned man of his time, he was ﬂuent in English, French, German, and Italian. He knew Greek and Latin as well. A colleague believed he might have written all 12 volumes of the Cambridge Modern History by himself. As a youth he began accumulating what eventually became a vast, annotated library of some 60,000 volumes. But amidst the erudition he was also a deep thinker who believed the study of history “makes us wiser, without producing books, and gives us the gift of historical thinking, which is better than historical learning” (32). He intended to write a history of liberty, but wrote neither that
book nor any other. He excelled at lectures and essays, which have a place in historiography like those of Thomas Carlyle. Acton developed as an example of the burden historical learning can become for historical writing. He left behind a trove of notes but no plans. Research was constant but writing neglected because materials were too imperfect for him. A speculation is that failure to write was a consequence of knowing too much, although he published in the English Historical Review, which he founded. His Cambridge appointment included an invitation to plan and edit the Cambridge Modern History, to which he devoted the last ﬁve working years of his life, but never completed his own intended contributions. The ﬁrst of 12 volumes was not even out when he died.