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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lord Acton's Folly

I could have simply appended this to my previous post, as item number five on the list of shortcomings of the Austrian School. I’ve had occasion before (“Are Private Vices Really Public Benefits?” Thursday, November 19, 2009) to chastise Friedrich Hayek for his poor judgment of intellectual character. His veneration of Bernard Mandeville was incongruous, to say the least. However, his judgment plumbs new depths in holding up for our admiration the character and writings of Lord Acton (1834-1902).

Acton was a Whig historian, sometime Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and often cited by those on the right as a prophet of liberty. There is much to admire in Acton’s work: clearness of expression, richness of literary style, and warmth of tone. Having granted this much, there is, unfortunately, a topic upon which he wrote extensively, but about which his opinions were no less ignorant than they were culpably disingenuous. I refer to his views concerning the US Civil War.

Acton, though an Englishman, was an unabashed partisan of the Southern cause. Being himself an aristocrat, his sympathies were perhaps predictably genteel. To his mind, the Southerners were beleaguered ladies and gentlemen of culture and breeding, protecting their noble and refined way of life against the dark forces of Northern tyranny, soulless bureaucracy, and dehumanizing industry.

In my opinion, this characterization is misleading at best. For every wealthy antebellum Southerner of taste and breeding, there were probably a hundred hillbillies and rednecks with whom Acton would have felt little class sympathy.

Be that as it may, my main objection to Acton revolves around his views on race and slavery. Consider the following passage:

If my present theme were the institution of slavery in general, I should endeavour to show that it has been a mighty instrument not for evil only, but for good in the providential order of the world. Almighty God, in His mysterious ways, has poured down blessings even through servitude itself, by awakening the spirit of sacrifice on the one hand, and the spirit of charity on the other. (p. 273)

How uplifting! Slavery gives the opportunity, to slave and slaveholder alike, to exercise their nobler faculties. Both parties are the better for their relationship. I'm convinced. Let's re-institute slavery now! Oh... but wait. Who will be slave and who will be master? I imagine there wouldn't be very many volunteers lining up to assume the former role. As for myself, I'd rather exercise the spirit of charity (as master) than the spirit of sacrifice (as slave).

How does this square with Acton’s advocacy of the cause of liberty, as emphasized elsewhere in his writings? Well, first, we must rid ourselves of our modern notion that democracy is something desirable. For Acton (as for many earlier writers), the word “democracy” is pregnant with negative connotations. The same goes for the word “equality”, which is why he can hold an opinion like the following without being in the least affected by the bite of conscience: “Slavery is opposed to Democracy; first, because it establishes inequality among men, and secondly, because it accustoms men to rule other men who cannot govern themselves” (p. 304).

Slaves are such by their very natures. And in any case, democracy would only allow the better sort to pick up the worst qualities of their inferiors. Mixing of races degrades the naturally superior. The only way to protect against this is either to have a republic that is racially and culturally homogenous, or else to institute slavery:

Democracy inevitably takes the tone of the lower portions of society, and, if there are great diversities, degrades the higher. Slavery is the only protection that has ever been known against this tendency, and it is so far true that slavery is essential to democracy…. This is a good argument too, in the interest of all parties, against the emancipation of the blacks. (p. 260)

I don’t know how to begin to refute such rubbish, or whether it’s even worth the trouble. This is the man Hayek would want me to take for a defender of freedom? I’ll pass, thanks.

Besides his defense of the institution of slavery, Acton also backed the Southern claim that their secession had a firm moral and political basis in the doctrine of States’ rights, which says that the federal government had no business interfering in the affairs of the separate states, except in those areas specified in the Constitution. Since the Constitution enshrined the right of Southerners to own slaves, to abridge this right was an act of tyranny on the part of the federal government.

Interestingly, hardly a word is mentioned of such legislation as the Fugitive Slave Act. Before this, abolitionism in the North was a fringe movement. But when Southern agitators enlisted the services of the federal government in catching slaves and enforcing slaveholders’ property rights within the borders of the Northern states, many were driven into the arms of the abolitionists. To my mind, this was an even more egregious violation of States’ rights and provided the North with an even firmer and more just basis for secession. But Acton doesn’t concern himself with such details, as they don't tally with his ignorant preconceptions.


ACTON, Lord. Essays in the History of Liberty (Selected Writings, Vol. I). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985.

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