1834–1902, English historian, b. Naples; grandson of Sir John Francis Edward Acton and of Emmerich Joseph, duc de Dalberg. Denied entrance into Cambridge because of his Roman Catholicism, he traveled to Munich, where he studied with Fr. Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger. Acton became (1859) a Liberal member of Parliament and editor of the Rambler, a Roman Catholic monthly. William E. Gladstone, his close friend, nominated him to the peerage (1869), and in 1892, Acton was made lord-in-waiting. Acton's genuine and ardent liberalism gave frequent offense to Roman Catholic authorities. His hatred of arbitrary power and all forms of absolutism led him to oppose the syllabus of errors issued by Pius IX and the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility, but he accepted them after their pronouncement rather than risk excommunication.
In 1895 Acton was appointed professor of modern history at Cambridge and in the following years planned the Cambridge Modern History, of which only the first volume appeared before his death. Acton never completed a book. Rather, his influence was felt through his lectures, his writings for periodicals, and his personal contacts with the leading historians of his time. Many articles, essays, and lectures were brought together after his death in Lectures on Modern History (1906), History of Freedom (1907), and Historical Essays and Studies (1907). Some of these were reprinted in Essays on Freedom and Power (1948) and Essays on Church and State (1952). His impressive personal library, consisting of more than 59,000 volumes, was bought by Andrew Carnegie after his death and donated to Cambridge.
- See his correspondence with Richard Simpson, ed. by J. L. Altholz (2 vol., 1970–73).
- biographies by H. Tulloch (1989) and R. Hill (2000).
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