Lord Acton argues that civil liberty arose out of the conflict between the power of the Church and the Monarchy (1877)

John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton

The English Catholic historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) believed that liberty emerged almost as an unintended by-product of the conflict between the Church and the monarchies of Europe for absolute authority over the course of nearly 400 years:

The only influence capable of resisting the feudal hierarchy was the ecclesiastical hierarchy; and they came into collision, when the process of feudalism threatened the independence of the Church by subjecting the prelates severally to that form of personal dependence on the kings which was peculiar to the Teutonic state.

To that conflict of four hundred years we owe the rise of civil liberty. If the Church had continued to buttress the thrones of the king whom it anointed, or if the struggle had terminated speedily in an undivided victory, all Europe would have sunk down under a Byzantine or Muscovite despotism. For the aim of both contending parties was absolute authority. But although liberty was not the end for which they strove, it was the means by which the temporal and the spiritual power called the nations to their aid.

Acton thought that civil liberty in Europe emerged because neither of the two major institutions of power and authority over the lives of others, the Church and the State, was powerful enough to predominate. The Church argued against the powerful Monarchs that there were universal principles about life and liberty which the kings had to recognize or face being overthrown. The Monarchs on the other hand rejected the Church’s claim to universal authority by arguing that there had to be intermediate organizations, such as national governments, Estates, or Parliaments, which acted as checks and balances against any claim to universal authority. Each organization in Acton’s view sought “absolute authority” but were frustrated by the other in achieving this goal. To win support for their side they sought to make deals with third parties such as independent cities or national churches. The final result, a form of civil liberty, was not something either party had wanted or intended. As Acton concludes “although liberty was not the end for which they strove, it was the means by which the temporal and the spiritual power called the nations to their aid.” Perhaps this is just another example of Adam Ferguson’s famous saying that institutions of all kinds were “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (1782).