Power Tends to Corrupt, Acton Said. But Why?

Lord Acton

By David Mills Published on October 11, 2017

His name’s way cooler than yours. John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, more famous simply as Lord Acton. More to the point, he said something way more influential than anything you or I are likely to say.

It’s the one thing most people know. Usually misquoted, but still. He said: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Why did he say that and to whom? The answer may surprise you.

To the Lord Bishop of London

The phrase comes from his first letter to the Anglican bishop of London, Mandell Creighton. He wrote it in 1887. Acton was a Catholic, who had his fights with the Church but held “communion with Rome as dearer than life.”

He had suffered for his religion. He could not study in an English university because they required students to sign the Anglican statement of faith. This did help him, though. He went to Germany instead, at a time when very few Englishmen studied abroad. There he mastered all the major languages and learned the disciplined German way of reading texts and studying history. He later became a close advisor to the Liberal Prime Minister — and very serious Protestant Christian — William Gladstone.

Creighton had written a history of the medieval papacy that Acton the Catholic criticized. This is the answer that may surprise you: He thought Creighton not nearly critical enough of the popes.

The bishop of London was the third ranking man in the Church of England. He was apparently a good man, but also a good Englishman who would rarely, to borrow a modern phrase, speak truth to power. He was a man of the establishment. To be fair, he extended to the popes his deference to the powerful, which wasn’t really an English thing to do. A good man, as I said.

Acton Has His Limits

The two were friends as well as fellow historians. The exchange — there are two more letters after this one — they conduct in good humor and with obvious good will. But Acton still has his limits.

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.

The letter starts with a good bit of historical argument that for most readers goes way into the weeds. We can skip it for our purposes. Let’s begin with Acton’s declaration: “I cannot accept your canon [or rule] that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable 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.”

Then comes the famous line and the not as famous but also important follow-up line: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

No Worse Heresy

Acton says next: “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” That seems to be what the establishmentarian bishop believes, but it’s also to make the end justify the means. That’s something a Christian shouldn’t do.

In the second letter, in which Acton offers rules for writing history, he says, “In judging men and things, Ethics go before Dogma, Politics or Nationality.” In other words, if you do bad, you don’t get a pass because you’re pope or king or English.

He tells Creighton that he (Creighton) would hang a nobody for a crime but would spare Queen Elizabeth I and King William III for even greater crimes they in fact committed. “I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice.”

He bores in on the poor bishop. “Quite frankly, I think there is no greater error. ” He upholds “the inflexible integrity of the moral code” that he thinks Creighton had treated as very flexible indeed. “If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace.”

To put it in our language: Acton tells Creighton, “The way you think, you’d give a pass to almost anyone for almost any reason and that, my friend, IS JUST WRONG.”

Acton’s Dogma

Then after going into the weeds again (from our point of view), he says at the very end of the letter:

[M]y dogma is not the special wickedness of my own spiritual superiors, but the general wickedness of men in authority — of Luther and Zwingli and Calvin and Cranmer and Knox, of Mary Stuart and Henry VIII, of Philip II and Elizabeth, of Cromwell and Louis XIV, James and Charles and William, Bossuet and Ken.

That’s pretty much all the stars of the Reformation period and the period just after. It’s a dark view. In his second letter, he makes it even darker: “No public character has ever stood the revelation of private utterance and correspondence.”

You might not have so dark of the “great men” as Lord Acton. Or you may. The Psalmist does warn us not to put our trust in princes, because princes are what Acton called “great men.” But at least you now know why he said what he said and the surprising person he said it to.

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  • Craig Roberts

    Speaking of ‘great men’, is it true that (one of every Catholics unassailable heroes) St. Thomas More was a torturer?

    • Ken Abbott

      From what I’ve been able to glean, there is little evidence that he actively engaged in torture, although at least six persons were executed–some by burning–when he was chancellor. My early view of him was formed mostly by the hagiographic “A Man for All Seasons” but the bloom has come decidedly off More’s rose as I have read further in 16th century English history. More was a harsh and unbending foe of the early Protestant Reformers, especially William Tyndale. Reading their correspondence even today can turn the air blue.

      • Craig Roberts

        Thanks. That’s interesting. Sometimes it’s hard to sort out the Catholic encomium and the Protestant propaganda to get to the real history.
        Do you know if there is any truth to the rumor that Mother Teresa was a drug addict? …JK
        Do you know if there is any truth to the rumor that Mother Teresa was a drug addict? …JK

      • Chris C.

        No need for the “bloom to come off the rose”. St. Thomas More by all accounts carried out the duties of his office faithfully until he was compelled to renounce Christ our Lord by renouncing His teaching on marriage. Heresy was a grievous offense against not only Church but Christian nations and rulers as well, somewhat akin to treason today. It poisoned the soul of any nation in which is spread. That we don’t appreciate such truth today is more a reflection on us, than great saints like ST. Thomas More.

        • Ken Abbott

          Sorry, Chris. More was blind to the errors of the Roman church and opposed the biblical gospel. Tyndale was a great hero of the Christian faith. That More was so egregious in his criticism and condemnation of Tyndale reflects badly on his character. More died well, I grant you, and stood on conviction and principle.

          • Joseph J. Pippet

            JMJ Mr. Abbott. Tyndale (as Martin Luther) was another rebel to God’s authority through the Catholic church here on earth, his book falsely called a bible had over 2,000 Errors in it by Many rebels (protestants) themselves including the Catholic church who are the Rightful owners of the bible. Respectfully with Love Joseph J.Pippet , North Cape May New Jersey

          • Ken Abbott

            With respect, Mr. Pippet, your remarks are contrary both to sound theology and history. The Roman Catholic Church, being an institution of man, has no authority over or ownership of the Scriptures, which are the gift and trust of God to his people. Indeed, Rome kept the Scriptures from the people for centuries, enveloping them in darkness.

          • Joseph J. Pippet

            JMJ The Catholic church is not an institution of man it is the creation/Church of God through his son (who was Incarnate in the Chaste womb of the Virgin Mary) Jesus! My statement is not contrary to the Truth, Truth cannot be Contrary to Truth, Jesus is Truth! Pilate didn’t recognize Truth standing in front of him, He had to ask Jesus What is Truth. You Mr. Abbott, How blind you are! A protestant/rebel wrote a great book Where did the Bible come from or Where did we get the bible from, not sure of the title. There are over 40,00 religions/churches in the world which one do you belong to? Only One church was Instituted by Jesus(at the Last supper), the Catholic church, is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. No other church/religion dare make that claim in their confession of belief.

          • Ken Abbott

            Much like the old joke about the Holy Roman Empire ( that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire), the claims of the Roman church to be one (it is not; there is a thin facade of organizational unity that tries to hide deep rifts of division), holy (the rampant immorality of the Pornocracy of the 10th century, the grossness of the Renaissance papacy, the casuistry of the Jesuits, and the sexual scandals of recent years belie any claim to holiness), catholic (it is not universal, for by its own admission at Vatican II there are many Christians who reject papal authority), and apostolic (the Roman claims to unique authority cannot be legitimately traced prior to the era of Gregory I, and its refusal to submit to the apostolic gospel–which it anathematized at the Council of Trent–render such claims invalid) are ludicrous. If we’re trading reading recommendations, I suggest “Holy Scripture” by King and Webster or “Disputations on Holy Scripture” by Whitaker.

    • Chris C.

      The term “torturer” would aptly describe King Henry VIII who had his victims drawn and quartered and disemboweled. St. Thomas More carried out his duties from all accounts, justly and in accordance with the law. Heresy was considered a crime against the state. Heretics were internal enemies of not only the Church, but of Christian nations. They are still enemies, but we no longer much care as much about the evils that they spread. St. Thomas More fought heresy primarily by his writings and ultimately by his example of fortitude unto death for the sake of Christ our Lord. He is scorned by historical revisionists who wish the justify the harsh rule that followed in the wake of the English Reformation.

  • Kathy

    As a former Lutheran who attended the RC church with my husband for 30 years, I felt prompted to research what I perceived to be many false teachings in that church…doctrine that was added and many times contrary to God’s Word. To stay with the point of this article, no mere man should be placed on a pedestal, namely popes, bishops and priests. Their positions should strictly uphold the teachings of the Bible, that is the extent of it. These men should be teachers of the Word and nothing more…they are no more virtuous than the saints (lower case “s”) who are all true followers of Christ, according to Scripture.. I have witnessed many Catholics revering the Pope as if he were Christ Himself. If he and others were not given that kind of power, there would be minimal concern about it’s corruptible influences in the church.

  • mj

    The 7th paragraph seems to contain a contradiction.

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