James Bryce Bryce.

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If he so thought, he did his work far less than
justice. It had told powerfully upon the United
States, and that in more than one way. Though
the circulation of the Nation was never large, it
was read by the two classes which in America have
most to do with forming political and economic
opinion I mean editors and University teachers.
(The Universities and Colleges, be it remembered,
are far more numerous, relatively to the popula-
tion, in America than in England, and a more
important factor in the thought of the country.)
From the editors and the professors Mr. Godkin's
views filtered down into the educated class gener-
ally, and affected its opinion. He instructed and
stimulated the men who instructed and stimu-
lated the rest of the people. To those young men
in particular who thought about public affairs and
were preparing themselves to serve their country,
his articles were an inspiration. The great hope
for American democracy to-day lies in the growing

E. L. Godkin 379

zeal and the ripened intelligence with which the
generation now come to manhood has begun to
throw itself into public work. Many influences
have contributed to this result, and Mr. Godkin's
has been among the most potent.

Nor was his example less beneficial to the
profession of journalism. There has always
been a profusion of talent in the American press,
talent more alert and versatile than is to be found
in the press of any European country. But in
1865 there were three things which the United
States lacked. Literary criticism did not maintain
a high standard, nor duly distinguish thorough from
flashy or superficial performances. Part)' spirit was
so strong and so pervasive that journalists were
content to denounce or to extol, and seldom sub-
jected the character of men or measures to a
searching and impartial examination. There was
too much sentimentalism in politics, with too little
reference of current questions to underlying prin-
ciples, too little effort to get down to what Ameri-
cans call the "hard pan" of facts. In all these
respects the last forty years have witnessed pro-
digious advances ; and, so far as the press is
concerned for much has been due to the Uni-
versities and to the growth of a literary class
Mr. Godkin's writings largely contributed to the
progress made. His finished criticism, his exact
method, his incisive handling of economic prob-
lems, his complete detachment from [)arty. helped

380 Biographical Studies

to form a new school of journalists, as the example
he set of a serious and lofty conception of an editor's
duties helped to add dignity to the position. He
had not that disposition to enthrone the press
which made a great English newspaper once claim
for itself that it discharged in the modern world the
functions of the mediseval Church. But he brought
to his work as an anonymous writer a sense of re-
sponsibility and a zeal for the welfare of his country
which no minister of State could have surpassed.

His friends may sometimes have wished that
he had more fully recognised the worth of senti-
ment as a motive power in politics, that he had
more frequently tried to persuade as well as to con-
vince, that he had given more credit for partial
instalments of honest service and for a virtue less
than perfect, that he had dealt more leniently
with the faults of the good and the follies of the
wise. Defects in these respects were the almost
inevitable defects of his admirable qualities, of
his passion for truth, his hatred of wrong and
injustice, his clear vision, his indomitable spirit.

The lesson of his editorial career is a lesson
not for America only. Among the dangers that
beset democratic communities, none are greater
than the efforts of wealth to control, not only
electors and legislators, but also the organs of
public opinion, and the disposition of statesmen
and journalists to defer to and flatter the majority,
adopting the sentiment dominant at the moment,

E. L. Godkin 381

and telling the people that its voice is the voice
of God. Mr. Godkin was not only inaccessible
to the lures of wealth the same may hap{)ily be
still said of many of his craft-brethren he was
just as little accessible to the fear of popular
displeasure. Nothing more incensed him than
to see a statesman or an editor with his "ear to
the ground " (to use an American phrase), seeking
to catch the sound of the coming crowd. To
him, the less popular a view was, so much the
more did it need to be well weighed and, if
approved, to be strenuously and incessantly
preached. Democracies will always have dema-
gogues ready to feed their vanity and stir their
passions and exaggerate the feeling of the
moment. What they need is men who will swim
against the stream, will tell them their faults, will
urge an argument all the more forcibly because it
is unwelcome. Such an one was Edwin Godkin.
Since the death of Abraham Lincoln, America
has been generally more influenced by her writers.
preachers, and thinkers than by her statesmen.
In the list of those who have during the last forty
years influenced her for good and hel[ied l)y their
pens to make her history, a list illustrated by such
names as those of R. W . Emerson and Phillips
Brooks and James Russell Lowell, his name
will find its place and receive its well-earned
meed of honour.


When Lord Acton died on 19th June 1902, at
Tegern See in Bavaria, England lost the most truly-
cosmopolitan of her children, and Europe lost one
who was, by universal consent, in the foremost rank
of her men of learning. He belonged to an old
Roman Catholic family of Shropshire, a branch
of which had gone to Southern Italy, where his
grandfather. General Acton, had been chief
minister of the King of Naples in the great
war, at the time when the Bourbon dynasty
maintained itself in Sicily by the help of
the British fleet, while all Italy lay under the
heel of Napoleon. His father. Sir Ferdinand
Acton, married a German lady^ heiress of the
ancient and famous house of Dalberg, one of the
great families of the middle Rhineland ; so John
Edward Emerich Dalberg-Acton was born half a
German, and connected by blood with the highest
aristocracy of Germany. He was educated at
Oscott, one of the two chief Roman Catholic
colleges of England, under Dr. Wiseman, after-
wards Archbishop of Westminster and Cardinal ;

but the most powerful influence on the develop-


Lord Acton 383

merit of his mind and principles came from
tiiat orlorv of Catholic learninp-, a beautiful
soul as well as a capacious intellect, Dr. von
Dollinger, with whom Acton studied durin^^ some
years at Munich. He sat for a short time in
the House of Commons as member for Carlow
(1859); and was afterwards elected for Bridg-
north (1865), but lost his seat (which he had
gained by one vote only) on a scrutiny. In
those days it was not easy for a Roman Catholic
to find an English constituency, so in 1S69 Mr.
Gladstone procured his elevation to the peer-
age. He made a successful speech in the House
of Lords in 1893, but took no prominent part in
parliamentary life in either House, feeling himself
too much of a student, and looking at current
questions from a point of view unlike that of
English politicians. Neither as a philosopher,
nor as a historian, nor as a product of German
training, could he find eitlier Lords or Commons
a congenial audience. When he was asked soon
after he entered Parliament why he did not speak,
he answered that heagreed with nobody and nobody
agreed with him. But since he regarded politics as
history in the course of making under his eyes, he
continued to be all his life keenly interested in
public affairs, watching and judging every move
in the frame. Mr. Gladstone, whose trusted
friend he had been for many years, was b(?lieved
to have on one occasion wished to place him in an

384 Biographical Studies

important office ; but political exigencies made
this impossible, and the only public post he ever
held was that of Lord-in-Waiting in the Ministry
of 1892. In this capacity he was brought into
frequent contact with Queen Victoria, who felt
the warmest respect and admiration for him. He
was one of the very few persons surrounding her
who was familiar with most of the courts of Con-
tinental Europe, and could discuss with her from
direct knowledge the men who figured in those
courts. At Windsor he spent in the library of
the Castle all the time during which he was not
required to be in actual attendance on the Queen,
a singular phenomenon among Lords-in-Waiting.
Unlike most English Roman Catholics, he was
a strong Liberal, a Liberal of that orthodox type,
individualist, free-trade, and peace-loving, which
prevailed from 1846 till 1885. He was also a
convinced Home Ruler, and had, indeed, adopted
the principle of Home Rule for Ireland long
before Mr. Gladstone himself was converted to it.
His faith in that principle rested on the value he
attached to self-government as a means of train-
ing and developing the political aptitudes of a
people, and to the recognition of national senti-
ment, which he held to be, like other natural forces,
useful when guided but formidable when repressed.
So too his Liberalism was based on the love of
freedom for its own sake, joined to the convic-
tion that freedom is the best foundation for the

Lord Acton 385

stability of a constitution and the happiness of
a people. Rehance on the power of freedom
was, he used to say, one of the broadest of all the
lessons he had learned from history. He applied
it in ecclesiastical as well as in political affairs.
At the time of the Vatican Council of 1870 he
was, though a layman, prominent among those
who constituted the opposition maintained by the
Liberal section of the Roman Catholic Churcli
to the affirmation of the dogma of papal in-
fallibility. His full and accurate knowledge of
ecclesiastical history was placed at the disposal of
the prelates, such as Bishop Dupanloup, Bishop
Strossmayer, and xA-rchbishop Conolly (of Halifax,
Nova Scotia), who combated the Ultramontane
party in the animated and protracted debates
which illumined that G^^cumenical Council. One,
at least, of the treatises, and many of the letters
in the press which the Council called forth were
WTitten either by him or from niaterials which he
supplied, and he was recognised by the; lUtra-
montanes, and in particular l)y Archbishop Man-
ning, as being, along with Dollinger, the nn)sL
formidable of their opponents behind the scenes.
As every one knows, the Infallibilists trium[)hed,
and the schism which led to the formation ot the
Old Catholic Church in Germany and Switzer-
land was the result. Dollinger was e.xcommuni-
cated ; but against Lord Acton no action was

taken, and he remained all his life a taithful

2 c

386 Biographical Studies

member of the Roman communion, while adher-
ing to the views he had advocated in 1870.

With this close hold upon practical life and
this constant interest in the politics of the world,
especially of England and the United States, no
one could be less like that cloistered student who
is commonly taken as the typical man of learning.
But Lord Acton was a miracle of learning. Of
the sciences of nature and their practical applica-
tions in the arts he had indeed no more know-
ledge than any cultivated man of the world is
expected to possess. But of all the so-called
"human subjects" his mastery was unequalled.
Learning was the business of his life. He was
gifted with a singularly tenacious memory. His
industry was untiring. Wherever he was in
London, at Cannes in winter, at Tegern See in
summer, at Windsor or Osborne with the Queen,
latterly (till his health failed) at Cambridge dur-
ing the University terms he never worked less
than eight hours a day. Yet, even after making
every allowance for his memory and his industry,
his friends stood amazed at the range and exact-
ness of his knowledge. It was as various as it was
profound, and much of it bore on recondite matters
which few men study to-day. Though less minute
where it touched the ancient and the early medi-
aeval world than as respected more recent times,
it might be said to cover the whole field of history,
both civil and ecclesiastical, and became wonderfully

Lord Acton 387

full and exact when it reached the Renaissance and
Reformation periods. It included not only the
older theology, but modern Biblical criticism. It
included metaphysics ; and not only meta{)hysics in
the more special sense, but the abstract side of
economics and that philosophy of law on which
the Germans set so much store. Most of the
prominent figures who have during the last
half-century led the march of inquiry in these
subjects, men like Ranke and Fustel de
Coulanges in history, Wilhelm Roscher in
economic science, Adolf Harnack in theology,
were his personal friends, and he could meet
them as an equal on their own ground. On
one occasion I had invited to meet him at dinner
the late Dr. (afterwards Bishop) Creighton. who
was then writing his History of the Popes, and the
late Professor Robertson Smith, the most eminent
Hebrew and Arabic scholar in liritain. The con-
versation turned tirst u[)()n tht; timt's of Pope Peo
the Tenth, and then upon recent controversies
reoardino- the dates ot the books of the Old
Testament, and it soon appearetl that Pord
Acton knew as much about \k\v. former as I )r.
Creighton, and as nuich about \.\\c. latter as
Robertson Smith. The constitutional histor\- of
the United States is a topic tar remoxcd Irom
those philosophical and ecclesiastical or theologi-
cal lines of inquiry to which most ol his time: had
been given ; yet he knew it more tht)roughly than

388 Biographical Studies

any other living European, at least in England
and France, for of the Germans I will not venture
to speak, and he continued to read most of the
books of importance dealing with it which from
time to time were published. So, indeed, he
kept abreast of nearly all the literature of possible
utility bearing on history (especially ecclesiastical
history) and political theory that appeared in
Europe or America, reading much which his less
diligent or less eager friends thought scarcely
worthy of his perusal. And it need hardly be
said that his friends found him an invaluable guide
to the literature of any subject. In the sphere
of history more especially, one might safely
assume that a book which he did not know was
not worth knowing, while he was often able to
indicate, as being the right book to consult, some
work of which the person who consulted him,
albeit not unversed in the subject, had never
heard. He had at one time four libraries, the
largest at his family seat, Aldenham in Shrop-
shire, others at Tegern See, at Cannes, and in
London ; and he could usually tell in which of
these the particular book he named was to be
found. Unlike most men who value their
libraries, he was fond of lending books, and
would sometimes put a friend to shame by asking
some weeks afterwards what the latter thought
of the volumes he had almost forced on the
borrower, and which the borrower had not found

Lord Acton 389

time to read. After sayini^ this, I need scarcely
add that he was not a book collector in the usual
sense of the word. He did not care for rare
editions, and still less did he care about bindings.

His Aldenham library was itself a nionument
of learning and industry.^ In forming it he sought
to bring together the books needed for tracing
and elucidating the growth of formative ideas
and of institutions in the sphere of ecclesiastical
and civil polity, and to attain this he made it
include not only all the best treatises handling
these large and complex subjects, but a mass of
original records bearing as well on the local
histories of the cities and provinces of such
countries as Italy and France as on the general
history of the great European States and of the
Church. This magnificent design he accomplished
by his own efforts before he was forty. What was
still more surprising, he had found time to use the
books. Nearly all of them show by notes pencilled
or marks placed in them that he had read some
part of them, and knew (so far as was needed for
his purpose) their contents.

Vast as his stores of knowledge were, they
were opened only to his few intimate friends.
It was not merely that he, as Tennyson said of
Edmund Lushinofton, "bore all that weii^ht of
learning lightly, like a llower." No one could

' This library, hovighi !iy Mr. Amiiuw l/arnc-ie, was i>rcscii;cii hy luiii
to Mr. T"hn Morley, and by tlie laUi.'r to the Univ'.-r^ity iT (.'.imVridL'c.

390 Biographical Studies

have known in general society that he had any
weight of learning to bear. He seemed to be
merely a cultivated and agreeable man of the
world, interested in letters and politics, but dis-
posed rather to listen than to talk. He was
sometimes enigmatic and " not incapable of cast-
ing a pearl of irony in the way of those who would
mistake it for pebbly fact."^ A great capacity
for cynicism remained a capacity only, because
joined to a greater reverence for virtue. In a
large company he seldom put forth the ful-
ness of his powers ; it was in familiar converse
with persons whose tastes resembled his own
that the extraordinary finesse and polish of his
mind revealed themselves. His critical taste was
not only delicate, but exacting ; his judgments
leaned to the side of severity. No one applied
a more stringent moral standard to the conduct
of men in public affairs, whether to-day or in
past ages. He insisted upon this, in his inaugural
lecture at Cambridge, as the historian's first duty.
" It is," said he, " the office of historical science to
maintain morality as the sole impartial criterion
of men and things." When he came to estimate
the value of literary work he seemed no less
hard to satisfy. His ideal, both as respected
thoroughness in substance and finish in form,
was impossibly high, and he noted every failure
to reach it. No one appreciated merit more

^ The phrase is Professor Maitland's.

Lord Acton 391

cordially. No one spoke with warmer admiration
of such distinguished historians and theologians
as the men whom I have just named. But the
precision of his thinking and the fistidiousness
of his taste gave more than a tinge of austerity
to his judgment. His opinions were peculiarly
instructive and illuminative to Englishmen, be-
cause he was only half an Englishman in blood,
less than half an Englishman in his training and
mental habits. He was as much at home in Paris
or Berlin or Rome as he was in London, speak-
ing the four great languages with almost equal
facility, and knowing the men who in each of these
capitals were best worth knowing. He viewed
our insular literature and politics with the de-
tachment not only of a Roman Catholic among
Protestants, of a pupil of DtJllinger and Roscher
amoncf Oxford and Cambridofc men, but also of
a citizen of the world, whose mastery of history
and philosophy had given him an unusually wide
outlook over mankind at large.

His interest in the great things, so far from
turning him away from the small things, seemed
to quicken his sense of their significance. It was
a noteworthy feature of his view of history that
he should have held that the explanation of most
of what has passed in the light is to be found in
what has passed in the dark. He was always
hunting for the key to secret chambers, preferring
to believe that the grand staircase is only for show,

392 Biographical Studies

and meant to impose upon the multitude, while the
real action goes on in hidden passages behind. No
one knew so much of the gossip of the past ; no
one was more intensely curious about the gossip
of the present, though in his hands it ceased
to be gossip and became unwritten history. One
was sometimes disposed to wonder whether he did
not think too much about the backstairs. But he
had seen a great deal of history in the making.

The passion for acquiring knowledge which
his German education had fostered ended by
becoming a snare to him, because it checked his
productive powers. Not that learning burdened
him, or clogged the soaring pinions of his mind.
He was master of all he knew. But acquisition
absorbed so much of his time that little was left
for literary composition. (Dollinger saw the
danger, for he observed that if Acton did not
write a great book before he reached the age
of forty, he would never do so.) It made him
think that he could not write on a subject till
he had read everything, or nearly everything,
that others had written about it. It developed
the habit of making extracts from the books he
read, a habit which took the form of accumu-
lating small slips of paper on which these
extracts were written in his exquisitely neat and
regular hand, the slips being arranged in card-
board boxes according to their subjects. He
had hundreds of these boxes ; and though much

Lord Acton 393

of their contents must no doubt be valuable, the
time spent in distilling and bottling the essence
of the books whence they came, might have been
better spent in giving to the world the ideas
which they had helped to evoke in his own mind.
If one may take the quotations appended to
his inaugural lecture as a sample of those he
had collected, many of them were not excej)-
tionally valuable, and did little more than show
how the same idea, perhaps no recondite one.
might be expressed in different words by different
persons. When one read some article he had
written, garnished and even overloaded with
citations, one often felt that his own part was
better, both in substance and in form, than the
passages which he had culled from his prede-
cessors. It becomes daily more than ever true
that the secret of historical composition is to
know what to neglect, since in our time it has
become impossible to exhaust the literature of
most subjects, and, as respects the last two
centuries, to exhaust even the oricjinal authorities.
Yet how shall one know what to neglect without
at least a glance of inspection ? Acton was im-
willing to neglect anything; and his ardour lor com-
pleteness drew him into a policy lit only ior one
who could expect to live three lives of mortal nu-n.
The love of knowledge grew upon him till
it became a passion of the intellect, a thirst like
the thirst for water in a parching desert. What

394 Biographical Studies

he sought to know was not facts only, but facts
in their relations to principles, facts so disposed
and fitly joined together as to become the cause-
way over which the road to truth shall pass.
For this purpose events were in his view not
more important than the thoughts of men, because
discursive and creative thought was to him the
ruling factor in history. Hence books must be
known books of philosophic creation, books of
philosophic reflection, no less than those which
record what has happened. The danger of this
conception is that everything men have said or
written, as well as everything they have done,
becomes a possibly significant fact ; and thus the
search for truth becomes endless because the
materials are inexhaustible.

He expressed in striking words, prefixed to
a list of books suggested for a young man's
perusal, his view of the aim of a course of
historical reading. It is "to give force and
fulness and clearness and sincerity and independ-
ence and elevation and generosity and serenity
to his mind, that he may know the method and
law of the process by which error is conquered
and truth is won, discerning knowledge from
probability and prejudice from belief, that he
may learn to master what he rejects as fully as
what he adopts, that he may understand the
origin as well as the strength and vitality of
systems and the better motive of men who are

Lord Acton 395

wrong . . . and to steel him against the charm
of Hterary beauty and talent."^

Neither his passion for facts nor his apprecia-
tion of style and form made him decline to the
right hand or to the left from the true position
of a historian. He set little store upon what is
called literary excellence, and would often reply,
when questioned as to the merits of some book
bearing an eminent name, " You need not read
it : it adds nothing to what we knew." He valued
facts only so far as they went to establish a principle
or explained the course of events. It was really
not so much in the range of his knowledge as in
the profundity and precision of his thought that
his greatness lay.

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 23 of 29)