Sunday, January 27, 2019

Acton and Lee: A Conversation on Liberty

Via Cousin John


Editor’s Note: It is interesting to note that Lord Acton corresponded with General Robert E. Lee after the conclusion of the American Civil War. Sympathetic to the Confederate cause, Lord Acton considered America’s Constitution as imperfect and “saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will.” In his letter of November 4, 1866, Lord Acton told General Lee that “secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy,” and expressed his belief that General Lee had been “fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization.”

General Lee, who had taken a loyalty oath to the United States in October of 1865 (his pardon would not be granted for more than a century), and who had been an opponent of secession prior to the war, responded in a letter a few weeks later that he “considered the preservation of the constitutional power of the General Government to be the foundation of our peace and safety at home and abroad.” But General Lee added he believed “the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government.”

The two men—the English, Catholic historian and champion of political liberty, and the American, Episcopal warrior and opponent of the dangers of political “consolidation”—indeed shared much in common in terms of their views on liberty. Their full correspondence is reproduced below.

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