Famous Sayings: #50 — ‘Power Corrupts…’

February 24, 2017

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Spanish Inquisition, Lord Anton, Mandell Creighton, power corrupts, famous sayings
I think I was in the seventh grade when I first heard some version of this quote, but I never really asked who was responsible for it. But since I have been delving more into historical topics, it was fairly easy for me to recall this famous saying for analysis.

When I embarked on this assignment, I realized how coincidental that I chose it for this week. Based on current events and the conversations I have had lately, it is very germane.

Who First Said ‘Power Corrupts …’?

The quote, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” was adapted from a letter written by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton, who lived from 1834-1902.

From a simple Google search, I was able to find a trove of John Edward Dalberg-Acton quotes, the first being the “Power corrupts” quote. From the list I saw this line:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Next, I went over to The Phrase Finder to see what was written there.

Martin points out that similar thoughts have been expressed many years before Lord Acton’s 1887 letter. For example the man who served as British Prime Minister from 1766-1778 (who was known as William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham) said the following in a speech to the House of Lords in 1770:

Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.

But Martin believes that Acton took his que from the writings of Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine, a French republican poet and politician. From Lamartine’s essay France and England: a vision of the future, which was published in 1848, included this text (translated to English).

… For absolute power corrupts the best natures …

Thus Lamartine — or his English translator — should be given credit for the famous idea, according to Martin.

Expanding the Quotes

Martin left an abridged quote, but I wanted to include the whole paragraph for greater context. I have also included more of one paragraph for Acton’s quote.

Here is the translated text form Lamartine:

Those who in former times cried out against slavery passed for dreamers, and very dangerous dreamers too. In fact, they were attacking acquired rights, lawful property; they were infringing an established social order, the only one which then appeared possible. However, serfdom replaced slavery, and the labour of the free man that of the serf, without any state falling to dissolution. On the contrary, those people who have given the example of emancipation are more happy, more moral, more prosperous, than their neighbours. But it I not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free; it is not only the society which has transformed dangerous and turbulent enemies into devoted defenders of their independence; the master himself did not gain less in every point of view; his morality was developed, for absolute power corrupts the best natures. Beside the master no longer had to dread the revolts and vengeance of those who tortured in his name; he had no longer to occupy himself with their wants, with their chastisements, etc. In fine, he was better obeyed with less expense and trouble, for the labours and the services of a freeman are far superior to those of the slave, they are so even when we balance all much less onerous.

From Paragraph 22 of Acton’s letter:

… I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority … That is the point at which … the end learns to justify the means.

What Is the Context for Lord Acton’s Line?

I looked up the letter to Mandell Creighton from Lord Acton and found a list of excerpts from the letter on a page connected to Hanover College. In the summary, full context is given for the letter. I also went to the Online Library of Liberty to get a fuller context of the letters.

Letter I

The first letter is dated April 5, 1887 and it comes from Cannes. It was written by Lord Acton.

The man otherwise known as Lord Acton was a historian, and moralist, which was clearly illustrated in the letter with the famous, albeit abridged quote. In short, there is an intellectual disagreement between Acton and Creighton.

It turns out that Archbishop Mandell Creighton, a historian in his own right, was a moral relativist. In his writings about historical figures (including corrupt popes), he tended to address his subjects devoid of criticism. He felt that it was important to judge historical figures by the knowledge and accepted views of their respective time periods.

Lord Acton, also a Roman Catholic and a historian, disagreed. From his view, everyone, regardless of the period they lived in and their social status, should be judged based on universal moral standards.

The prime example given to illustrate where these two men differed from each other was the Spanish Inquisition, which lasted from 1478-1834.

In the 15th century, Jews in Spain became a target of the monarchy after centuries of growth in numbers and influence. Jews were persecuted and forced to convert to Christianity during the reign of Henry III, which lasted from 1390 to 1406. Those who refused to convert were killed.

By 1507, the Muslims in Spain had become targets.

The height of the Inquisition came when Pope Sixus IV was named a grand inquisitor. Before him, Dominican Tomas de Torquemada became the first grand inquisitor. During his tenure, there were a high number of burnings at the stake.

Letter II

The second letter is undated and no location is given. This looks like it was written by Acton. Basically, Letter II warns against writing about history. Lord Acton was warning people against recording it, especially where their faith and friends are concerned. History deserves an unbiased reporting, but it is extremely difficult to divorce one’s personal views, loyalties, and politics when recounting history.

Letter III

The third letter is dated April 9, 1887 and it comes from Worcester College. It was written by Creighton. He concedes many of the posts Acton made, especially concerning Creighton’s moral relativism.

From Paragraph 6:

You judge the whole question of persecution more rigorously than I do. Society is an organism and its laws are an expression of the conditions which it considers necessary for its own preservation … But the men who conscientiously thought heresy a crime may be accused of an intellectual mistake, not necessarily of a moral crime.

From Paragraphs 7-8:

… I find myself regarding them with pity—who am I that I should condemn them? Surely they knew not what they did.

This is no reason for not saying what they did; but what they did was not always what they tried to do or thought that they were doing …

How Do Acton’s Words Apply to Us Today?

If you ask many Americans, this phrase may perfectly apply to our political climate. I can see it. A number of executive orders have been made to silence the Environmental Protection Agency and other important agencies, to roll back consumer protections, and to deny asylum seekers and green-card-holding immigrants safe passage to our shores, among other things. On top of that, our new Attorney General — who has a poor civil rights record — is rolling back protections for LGBT individuals.

Also, many people who seem trustworthy change the moment they taste true power.

And from the letters, I see a similar intellectual argument that plays out today. Many argue amongst themselves along the lines moral relativism and moral absolutism. Lord Acton was a moral absolutist and he made his case well. To be honest, while I see Creighton’s point, I am more in agreement with Acton.

Works Cited

“Acton, letter on the history of integrity, 1887.” Hanover College. Web. Retrieved 24 Feb 2017. <https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/165acton.html>.

“Acton-Creighton Correspondence.” Online Library of Liberty. Web. Retrieved 24 Feb 2017. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/acton-acton-creighton-correspondence>.

Alphonse Marie L. de Prat de Lamartine. France and England: a vision of the future (Translated from the French). Print. 1848. Pages 24-25.

Figgis, John Neville (M.A.) and Laurence, Reginald Vere (M.A.). Lectures on Modern History by the Late Right Hon. John Emerich Edward First Baron Acton. Macmillan and Co., Limited. London; 1906. Print.

“John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton.” Online Library of Liberty. Web. Retrieved 24 Feb 2017. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/people/john-emerich-edward-dalberg-lord-acton>.

Martin, Gary. “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 24 Feb 2017. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely.html>.

Ryan, Edward A. “Spanish Inquisition.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 28 May 2015. Web. 24 Feb 2017. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Spanish-Inquisition>.


4 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #50 — ‘Power Corrupts…’

  1. This is an excellent post filled with powerful historical events that support the quote that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    I am not a historian, but rather a person more connected to literature, so your quote, and the events of today immediately conjure up, for me, the Shakespearean Play “Macbeth”. To me there is not a better example of how absolute power corrupts than the electrifying play written by the Bard and performed in the 1600’s.
    The character of Macbeth so vividly describes what power can do and how it can destroy rationality and take over complete reason. Macbeth descends into evil because of his lust for Power. And Lady Macbeth’s guilt at what power has forced her to do, is in my opinion, one of the most redeeming aspects of the play. I have often looked at the two protagonists and seen them metaphorically at opposite ends of a long staircase. Macbeth at the bottom and with each step towards the top, gaining more ambition and becoming more and more evil while losing his humanity, and Lady Macbeth at the top, who starts out consumed with a desire for power, and yet when she reaches the bottom, she has almost achieved redemption in her guilt ridden madness.

    That play brings to light the human condition and is one of the most jolting theatrical and political statements of all time, framing the true genius of the writer. It also epitomizes your quote.

    (Side bar here) In my youth I desperately wanted to play Lady Macbeth because I felt the part would truly show my ability as an actress. I was told, however, that I looked too youthful and the part required age to make her supreme corruptness believable. So alas, I was cast as Juliet in the next production. (I did get to use a lot of fun make-up and play one of the witches in Macbeth, who predicts his future and that was a fun exercise!!) By the time I was of an age and could have done justice to the part, I was submersed into motherhood and teaching and so I never did perform it on the stage. But, a few times I read parts aloud in class to my students and that was satisfying enough.

    Your references are excellent. I was particularly interested in the Spanish inquisition segments since my late husband’s father was of Portuguese descent. It was rumored that his ancestors during the time of inquisition were Jewish and forced to convert and exiled to the Azures. My youngest son who is a product of my second marriage just got back his DNA results which are 70% Jewish. Which most likely indicates that those stories on his father’s side were true. (I just sent in my DNA and am waiting for results now.) Obviously, 50 percent of his DNA one would think would have been European Jewish from my side (Russia and Polish) but his Father said, before he passed, that he was Portuguese and Irish. However, my son’s DNA concluded 1 percents Irish, 29 percent Great Britain and the rest Jewish. Pretty amazing. So the 15th century Jews who were “Conversos” made their way into his family tree.

    Anyhow, back to your topic. Anton’s words do indeed apply to us today in a big way. I fear without looking back at history, we are forced to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. And that is terrifying. Great job with this one!!! I very much enjoyed your research!!!!

    BTW, I know my take on things was a round about way of saying that, but to not bring Macbeth into this would have been a shame. Shakespeare was the ultimate person to bring political drama to the forefront of his generation and it is just as meaningful today as it was 400 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is perhaps my favorite quote to do so far since it is true on so many levels and it is timeless.

      It’s difficult for people to not be tainted when they get a taste of power. It takes a tremendous amount of integrity and perspective to be a great leader.

      My youngest son who is a product of my second marriage just got back his DNA results which are 70% Jewish. Which most likely indicates that those stories on his father’s side were true. (I just sent in my DNA and am waiting for results now.)

      You should write a post about the results. I’d love to read it. Your family has such an interesting history.

      BTW, I know my take on things was a round about way of saying that, but to not bring Macbeth into this would have been a shame. Shakespeare was the ultimate person to bring political drama to the forefront of his generation and it is just as meaningful today as it was 400 years ago.

      From the seventh grade to the twelfth, I was assigned a few Shakespearean plays. I read Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Henry V (which I loved, especially when viewing the corresponding film with Kenneth Branagh), and Hamlet. I was most familiar with Hamlet, especially after I had to write an essay comparing that work’s themes with those of Catch-22. I know little about MacBeth, but I think I read some of the text when I was the fifth grade.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can see why this is one your favorite quotes. And when I get back my own DNA results and compare them with my son’s, I will most certainly write a blog about that.

    I am glad you read so many of Shakespeare’s plays while in school. I have to admit, that I found his historical plays not as exciting as his comedies and tragedies. I loved Hamlet and Macbeth and actually and Anthony and Cleopatra is excellent. (A strong female lead). The one thing Shakespeare did was create very strong female characters most of the time. (I thought Ophelia was wimpy but ya can’t win them all. LOL) And his vision of women was quite progressive for the times. But of course they did have Queen Lizzy the first ruling at the time.

    If you ever get a chance get a children’s version of macbeth on line. I used to give the kids a version of the play for children with his real quotes not paraphrased (because there is nothing more gorgeous than the real lines.) I had cartoon versions, prose, many, many versions that were on an elem. and middle school level and once they understood the concept they grew to adore the language. Anyhow Macbeth is incredible! I had a student who got him in trouble for reading Stephen King ( I know, really?The kid a genius.) at lunch. Anyhow I gave him Macbeth, a beautifully illustrated comic book version and told him it would put Stephen King to shame. Wel that got him interested. He flipped out over it. He was a tough kid, angry, his mom had been arrested for prostitution etc. but he was brilliant. Anyhow, I turned him on to that play which has violence for sure, but enough redemption at the end that it has a message. It changed his life. I wouldn’t normally give a 5th grader Macbeth in its true form but he was different. He was headed for juvenile hall. Instead he became a Shakespeare nut and got a scholarship to college and became a literature teacher.
    BTW, When my oldest son was in high school (he is now 43,) Bill and Ted’s first adventure came out and my students were all into it. So two boys decided to rewrite Shakespeare’s Macbeth as Macbeth and Macduf’s most excellent adventure. They combined the two themes and totally created this “Most” awesome play. (Picture guitar playing right now.) I showed it to my son, who shared it with his 11th grade English teacher and she asked permission to use it with her high school students. She called me and I gave her my lesson plans. LOL That son never particularly was gaga over Shakespeare but he took me to see Mel Gibson’s Hamlet which was out at the time (Now I despise that guy) but I enjoyed it and a few years later, “Shakespeare in love”, which if you never saw you really should rent it. I am sure it is on Netflix or hulu or somewhere. Anyhow. Macbeth is amazing. If you get a change check it out. Very Game of Thrones style writing.
    Thank you for your Most excellent post. You made my Sunday!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found a website that has a collection of Shakespeare’s plays. I should take the time to read MacBeth.

      When I was in school, some of my teachers had us read Shakespeare’s plays aloud in class. A few students would be assigned a role before we read each act then the rest of us would follow along with our copies of the books. At some points, the teacher would explain what certain terms and sentences meant, so we could grasp what was being said. That really helped, especially at times when I went back and reread some passages.

      I have seen “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” so that must have been a fun presentation. I still love that movie.

      I saw Gibson’s version of Hamlet, and it butchered much of the play. There was one part when they had Hamlet acting eerily, per Ophelia’s story. That was never illustrated in the play and the audience is supposed to question the authenticity of Ophelia’s story. And Glenn Close played Hamlet’s mom. Please.

      Thank you for your Most excellent post. You made my Sunday!!!

      Thank you. It was my pleasure.

      Liked by 1 person

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