February 24, 2017
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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>.