John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton (1834-1902), was a major English scientific historian and Catholic philosopher. His work is distinguished by the application of rigorous standards of accuracy and ethical principles to history.
Acton's historical writings consist largely of lectures. However, his importance resulted less from his published works than from his personal influence, his insistence on scientific methods, and his prescient concern with political morality. His essay "Democracy in Europe" (1878) and two lectures delivered at Bridgnorth in 1877 (published in 1907)—"The History of Freedom in Antiquity" and "The History of Freedom in Christianity"—are the only completed portions of his projected History of Liberty. Influenced by Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, Acton saw liberty threatened by democracy and socialism as well as by the evils of highly concentrated state power. Conscience, the fount of freedom, had higher claims than those of the state. He was a critic of racism and nationalism, with his liberalism rooted in Christianity.
Acton was one of the founders of the English Historical Review and wrote an essay on modern German historians for the first volume (1885). He was appointed professor of modern history at Cambridge University in 1895. His inaugural lecture, "The Study of History, " and his courses, "Lectures on the French Revolution" and "Lectures on Modern History," made a great impression on scientific historiography at the time. Acton was to be the editor of the great multivolume Cambridge Modern History, but only the first volume appeared before his death in 1902.