The Historian as Moralist

"Just what was it that drew this young, Jewish woman born and bred in Brooklyn in the 1920s and 30s to the world of the Victorian intellectuals? Her interest in them never waned, and the reasons for it (beyond the inexplicable curiosity that is always part of what motivates any great scholar) are plain in her writings on Acton.

She found the Victorians particularly instructive regarding two sets of questions she thought were essential to her own time and place. The first was what she would later (in a biography of John Stuart Mill) call “the paradox of liberalism” — namely that in prioritizing individual liberty above all other political goods, modern liberalism threatened to undermine the moral foundations of individual liberty, and therefore of its own strength. The second involved the significance of intellectuals in the public lives of free societies. Himmelfarb was fascinated by the role that writers, scholars, journalists, critics, and academics played in politics and culture, and nearly all of her work takes up that subject in one way or another.

Acton offered her much fodder on both fronts. He was a keen student of the paradox of liberalism, and he understood it to be rooted in an ideal of the individual that had its merits but was frequently taken too far."