John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton was not one to hide his views. In his inaugural lecture on the study of modern history, delivered in 1895 at Cambridge, he wrote, “opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity.” That moral law demanded the recognition of liberty as the highest historical principle The moral law also required those who studied the past to condemn those who had traduced that principle.

Published a century ago, his Lectures on the French Revolution, originally given while Acton served as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, was the perfect subject for his conviction that both liberty and cruelty lay at the heart of historical development. In the France of the 1780s, all spoke of liberty, and many saw the reign of the Capetian kings as the epitome of feudal darkness. Yet, these very defenders of...


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