Lord Acton


Acton.gif (15782 bytes)"Liberty is the prevention of control by others. This requires self-control and, therefore, religious and spiritual influences; education, knowledge, well-being." -- Lord Acton

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton -- First Baron Acton of Aldenham -- was born in Naples, Italy on January 10, 1834. His father, Sir Richard Acton, was descended from an established English line, and his mother, Countess Marie Louise de Dalberg, came from a Rhenish family which was considered to be second in status only to the imperial family of Germany. Three years after his father died in 1837, his mother re-married to Lord George Leveson (later known as Earl Granville, William Gladstone's Foreign Secretary), and moved the family to Britain. With his cosmopolitan background and upbringing, Acton was equally at home in England or on the Continent, and grew up speaking English, German, French, and Italian.

Barred from attending Cambridge University because of his Catholicism, John Acton studied at the University of Munich under the famous church historian, Ignaz von Döllinger. Through Döllinger's teaching, Acton learned to consider himself first and foremost a historian. Early in life, he nurtured a great fondness for Whig politicians such as Edmund Burke, but Acton soon became a Liberal. His time with Döllinger also broadened his appreciation and understanding of Catholic and Reformed theology. Through his studies and his own experience, Acton was made acutely aware of the danger posed to individual conscience by any kind of religious or political persecution.

Through the influence of his stepfather, Acton pursued electoral politics and entered the House of Commons in 1859 as a member for the Irish constituency of Carlow. In 1869, Gladstone rewarded Acton for his efforts on behalf of Liberal political causes by offering him a peerage.

Earlier, Lord Acton also acquired the Rambler, making it a liberal Catholic journal dedicated to the discussion of social, political, and theological issues and ideas. Through this activity and through his involvement in the first Vatican Council, Lord Acton became known as one of the most articulate defenders of religious and political freedom. He argued that the church faithfully fulfills its mission by encouraging the pursuit of scientific, historical, and philosophical truth, and by promoting individual liberty in the political realm.

The 1870s and 1880s saw the continued development of Lord Acton's thought on the relationship between history, religion, and liberty. In that period he began to construct outlines for a universal history designed to document the progress of the relationship between religious virtue and personal freedom. Acton spoke of his work as a "theodicy", a defense of God's goodness and providential care of the world.

In 1895, Lord Acton was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. From this position, he deepened his view that the historian's search for truth entails the obligation to make moral judgments on history, even when those judgments challenge the historian's own deeply-held opinions. Although he never finished his anticipated universal history, Lord Acton planned the Cambridge Modern History and lectured on the French Revolution, Western history since the Renaissance, and the history of freedom from antiquity through the 19th century.

When he died in 1902, Lord Acton was considered one of the most learned people of his age, unmatched for the breadth, depth, and humanity of his knowledge. He has become famous to succeeding generations for his observation -- learned through many years of study and first-hand experience -- that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".

Lord Acton’s Famous Letter to

Mandell Creighton, Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop Mandell Creighton’s sermons were regularly published in The Times of London. In one particular sermon, he complained of what he saw as an irresponsible trend toward public criticism of powerful men. Lord Acton, a Catholic, wrote a stinging public response:

…If a thing is criminal… if, for instance, it is a license to commit adultery, the person who authorises the act shares the guilt of the person who commits it. Now the Liberals think persecution a crime of a worse order than adultery, and the acts done by Ximenes considerably worse than the entertainment of Roman courtesans by Alexander VI. The responsibility exists whether the thing permitted be good or bad.

If the thing be criminal, then the authority permitting it bears the guilt. Whether Sixtus is infamous or not depends on our view of persecution and absolutism. Whether he is responsible or not depends simply on the ordinary evidence of history…

You say that people in authority are not to be snubbed or sneezed at from our pinnacle of conscious rectitude. I really don’t know whether you exempt them because of their rank, or of their success and power, or of their date. The chronological plea may have some little value in a limited sphere of instances. It does not allow of your saying that such a man did not know right from wrong, unless we are able to say that he lived before Columbus, before Copernicus, and could not know right from wrong…

Progress in ethics means a constant turning of white into black and burning what one has adored… 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 the 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. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position… but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.

Quotations from Lord Acton


1.There is no worse heresy then that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

2.The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.

3.It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason.

4.Everything secret degenerates; nothing is safe that does not bear discussion and publicity.

5.Fanaticism in religion is the alliance of the passions she condemns with the dogmas she professes.

6.Learn as much by writing as by reading.

7.Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.


Additional Quotations Concerning POWER

•A friend in power is a friend lost. --Henry Adams

•Knowledge and human power are synonymous.

--Francis Bacon

•All I want is a warm bed, a kind word and unlimited power. -- Ashleigh Brilliant

•The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse. -- Edmund Burke

•No man is wise enough, nor good enough to be trusted with unlimited power. -- Charles Caleb Colton

•Power is something of which I am convinced there is no innocence this side of the womb. -- Nadine Gordimer

•Power corrupts. Absolute power is kind of neat. -- John Lehman

•Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power. -- Abraham Lincoln

•If I were running the world I would have it rain only between 2 and 5 a.m. Anyone who was out then ought to get wet. -- William Phelps

•Power does not corrupt men. Fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power. -- George Bernard Shaw

•Power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whatever it touches. -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

•Power is what men seek, and any group that gets it will abuse it. It is the same story. -- Lincoln Steffens

•In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. -- H.G. Wells

•The wrong sort of people are always in power because they would not be in power if they were not the wrong sort of people. -- Jon Wynne-Tyson