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Acton and Lyell on Red-State and Blue-State Values

Lord Acton visited the United States only once. He did so in 1853, at the age of 19.

Among his companions on the trip was the great British geologist, Charles Lyell. Acton was much impressed by Lyell, whose observations about America do indeed seem astute. In particular, Lyell understood the virtues of federalism – of keeping political power as decentralized as possible.

Here’s Acton’s report, in his diary, on part of his conversations with Lyell while in America:

He [Lyell] thinks it by no means clear that the strengthening of the central government on the plan of the Federalists is safest; for as the Western States grow larger they will go on sending representatives, and as they are all violently democratical, their influence will become very dangerous to the whole Union in Congress. If the independence of the States is preserved, the bad ones will have no influence over the good ones.

Although written in 1853, Acton’s and Lyell’s wisdom speaks to the early 21st-century conflict between so-called ‘red states’ and ‘blue states.’ If blue-staters truly are disturbed at the prospect of red-staters imposing despised red-state values nationwide, blue-staters should lead the charge to strip Washington DC of much of its political power and to return these powers to the states – or even better, to individuals.

[The Acton quotation is found on page 381 of Vol. 1 of Selected Writings of Lord Acton: Essays in the History of Liberty, J. Rufus Fears, ed. (Liberty Fund, 1985).]