Tyranny of Lord Acton: His Love For Slavery Will Forever Put Him On The Wrong Side of History

Delving into the complexities of historical figures like Lord Acton (1834 – 1902), this blog post scrutinizes his controversial views on slavery and questions their place in the annals of history.

Lord Acton sometimes is cited for writing about Liberal Catholicism, which is held up as evidence he stood in stark contrast to prevailing beliefs of his day. He claimed to ardently support liberal ideologies, for example, to emphasize individual freedom and the state as solely a protector of people’s rights. Acton further is known to claim that he saw a centralized, powerful government as the ultimate threat, the epitome of tyranny.

However, there’s a huge problem with this narrative. Nothing can frame Lord Acton’s views like his awful screeds about the American Civil War. He considered it lost, rather than won, if you see the problem already.

The Civil War notably began when Kansas entered the Union and opted to ban slavery. In reaction to this anti-slavery stance, several pro-slavery states in the South joined forces to form a strong Confederate faction with the explicit aim of spreading slavery further westward and eventually northward.

To understand the contradictions and hypocrisy of Acton, we first should acknowledge a Confederacy of power essentially started a Civil War to prevent independent and new states from having any rights to abolish slavery.

Now think about why Lord Acton did not oppose known wrong and harmful yet widespread beliefs of his time. Why did he refuse to acknowledge that secession was first and foremost intended to preserve slavery? He supported a centralized and strong government aimed at extending and maintaining slavery, promoting power concentrated in the hands of a select few white men to deny the rights of individuals.

In fairness, Acton did express a theoretical condemnation of slavery in general terms. Such a disconnect reminds me of George Washington’s infamously contradictory stance on liberty, since he led a so-called revolution against tyranny (King of England) on the basis of him personally profiting from tyranny (perpetuation and expansion of American slavery). Washington purported concern for freedom while he actively fought against any such realization for Black Americans; as an obvious racist he never rose to the level of American heroes like Robert Carter who demonstrated enlightened perspective of their time.

The idea of slavery became so unjustifiable in Acton’s English society before he was even born that by “1824 there were more than 200 branches of the Anti-Slavery Society in Britain“. No surprise then the agrarian state of New York abolished slavery 1827, England emancipated slaves in 1833, English Colonies banned slavery in 1838….

Yet Acton’s later fervent argumentation posited that the loss of slaves by the white man as tragedy surpassing any moral reprehensibility of slavery itself. His alignment to centralized power of a Confederate tyranny, inherently grounded in the dehumanization of individuals as property, reveals his paradoxical affinity for a system fundamentally antithetical to individual liberty.

Despite abolition of slavery in England preceding Acton’s birth, his life-long struggle to acknowledge humanity of Black individuals underscores entrenched biases and ideological complexities within his worldview.

Acton’s perspective seems incredulous today given an inherent injustice of slavery, a very obvious failure in his morality. It’s even more starkly put in contrast when you consider the man claimed he was someone who could rise up and oppose prevailing beliefs of his day.

While claiming to deplore slavery, as everyone should have after the early 1800s, Acton instead promoted an extremely toxic idea that individual freedoms were dangerous and could not be allowed where the centralized authority of a slave-holding tyrant might face ruin and destitution. And he held on to such willfully wrong concepts well into the late 1800s long after Civil War had ended.

This is how Acton was exactly backwards on the actual facts of the Civil War. Once he had dismissed Kansas exercising its rights as a state, he bemoaned the effects individual freedoms had on rights of centralized tyrants (e.g. the very concept of plantations, unjust mass incarceration, which the British had tried to ban in the colony of Georgia). Acton in fact argued on behalf of those who Confederated to preserve slavery, which manifested as a military campaign by slaveholders to deny any future states from choosing abolition (prevent another Kansas).

Acton claimed the abolitionists were deeply unsettling because he saw a drastic departure from existing systems of racial oppression that kept power in the hands of a elites, specifically white men. He viewed those advocating for the rights of Black Americans, nearly a century after the global abolitionist movement had gained momentum, as some kind of radical and dangerous version of individual rights.

Acton even went so far as to argue the Union’s efforts to defend itself against attack by slaveholders eroded control over the concept of self-governance… because Blacks being set free from tyranny meant white men would “lose” their cause of “property” accumulation (power and wealth).

Yes, Acton very seriously believed that “self-governance” was consistent with the idea that a few white men could operate a tyranny where self-governance was only allowed for a tiny select few (e.g. how Mussolini later described his plan for fascism). He complained about abolitionism as though it could only be a pretext for subjugating the noble white slaveholder. Acton did not agree with a “radical” end to human trafficking. It was through this corrupt and polluted lens that Acton thought he could characterize the emancipation of people living within the Union as a movement against the Union itself.

…in the United States no such design seems to have presided over the work of emancipation. It has been an act of war, not of statesmanship or humanity. They have treated the slave-owner as an enemy, and have used the slave as an instrument for his destruction.

“They have treated the slave-owner as an enemy…”.

To provide context to this phrase, there was widespread explosive terrorism being carried out by slave-owners against innocent Americans. Constant lynchings and other forms of public/political intimidation made it undeniable how extremely violent militias wanted to be seen as the avowed enemy of anyone who dared to advocate for individual freedom.

Almost every documented lynching between the 1830s and 1960s. Source: Smithsonian. Monroe Work Today/Auut Studio

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln depicted the pervasive dread and horror from widespread terrorism perpetrated by slaveholders to prevent abolition.

Thus went on this process of hanging, from gamblers to negroes, from negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers; till, dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.

A quick recap of some of the expansive pro-slavery campaigns that Lincoln was talking about:

  • 1829 David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World is circulated by sailors and U.S. mail “as one of the most important social and political documents of the 19th century”
  • 1831 Nat Turner’s uprising results in white supremacist militias unleashing a ruthless “reign of terror” murdering innocent and free Black Americans
  • 1833 England abolishes slavery and the following year John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton is born
  • 1835 President Jackson orders Postmaster General Amos Kendall to intercept US Mail to impound any publication or speech about abolition. Americans found with a copy of David Walker’s Appeal immediately are jailed, tortured and subjected to surveillance.
  • 1835 the Seminoles, Black Seminoles, and rebel slaves initiate the most coordinated Indigenous and Black people defense against tyranny in the history of the United States (lasting until 1838)
  • 1836 Gag rule created to deny Americans the right to even speak about abolition.
  • 1837 Journalist Elijah Lovejoy tragically murdered by violent pro-slavery militias in what Abraham Lincoln called “the most important single event that ever happened in the new world”

It’s within this history we must consider Acton’s remarks regarding an “enemy” and how the term would land then and now. John Brown, for one simple example, very obviously transitioned in a few short years from being viewed as a traitor to being seen as the epitome of the nation’s conscience. While the concept of freedom became rightly associated with the long-awaited movement of American abolitionism, Acton persisted sticking himself on the wrong side of history.

John Brown grew tired of torture and murder of abolitionists and called for armed defense against expansion of slavery. Curry’s “Tragic Prelude” impressive mural can be seen in the Kansas State Capitol celebrating his moral conviction to defend Americans against Acton’s brand of tyranny.

In this context, the emancipation of Black Americans, achieved through winning the Civil War initiated by slave-owners, seemed to enrage Acton in a perplexing twist of logic. He viewed anyone advocating for the rights of non-white Americans as hostile, lacking in statesmanship or compassion. Furthermore, Acton saw the Southern stance of declaring war (in the name of preserving and expanding slavery) as noble, while condemning the North for leveraging democratic principles of individual liberty that undermined the tyranny of slaveholders.

So, Acton ultimately believed that the Confederate cause was more just. He saw pro-slavery forces as defending white males against radical ideas of individual freedom. To him, the Union represented a threat to the fundamental principles of the United States, particularly a threat to the notion of humans being treated as property. The defeat at Richmond symbolized, for Acton, the loss of control over government by a small elite of white men who were supposed to dictate all laws and consent—a system he ironically likened to Britain’s colonial empire, which was preserved at Waterloo.

Acton’s views resonated widely among the British elites of his time, reflecting a sentiment of disdain toward the progressive Union and a romanticized view of the centralized Confederacy’s struggle to preserve and expand an immoral tyranny over non-white populations.

Perhaps most interestingly, however, is where and how Acton’s views lately have resurfaced.

Today they are resonating with a South African elitist, known for promoting racism, who owns and operates the “largest hate rally in history”.

Acton was wrong. Very wrong. The American politician Robert G. Ingersoll, giving 1890s speeches in direct contradiction of Lord Acton’s views, once said:

Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power. This is the supreme test. It is the glory of Lincoln that, having almost absolute power, he never abused it, except on the side of mercy.

To put it in other words “for some people, power seems to bring out their best… power doesn’t corrupt; it heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies”.

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