Power tends to corrupt

July 21 2014

“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. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, April 5 1887, published in the Appendix to John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, editors, Historical Essays and Studies by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, Macmillan, 1907.

The letter was about Acton’s review in his recently-established The English Historical Review (which Creighton edited) of Vols III and IV of Creighton’s The History of the Papacy during the Period of the Reformation, Longman, Green and Co, 1882-94:

Vol I, The Great Schism – The Council of Constance, 1378-1418 

Vol II, The Council of Basel – The Papal Restoration, 1418-1464

Vol III, The Italian Princes, 1464-1518

Vol IV, The Italian Princes, 1464-1518

Vol V, The German Revolt, 1517-1527.

3 Responses to “Power tends to corrupt”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    EHR is the oldest academic historical journal in the English-speaking world, just as History Today is, perhaps, the oldest magazine.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    In his Foreword to Roland Hill’s biography of Acton, Owen Chadwick implies that the letter had been published earlier, in Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton by His Wife, 2 vols, Longman, Green and Co, 1904. I can’t find it there.


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