In 1887, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton — a.k.a. Lord Acton — wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
I cannot accept your canon 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 holder 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. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history. 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. Then history ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth, and religion itself, tend constantly to depress.
Power tends corrupt absolute power corrupts absolutely essay
In fact, this clichéd notion — that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is an iron law of history — implies almost exactly the opposite message to what Acton had in mind. He wanted historians — i.e., us, humanity, society, etc. — to distinguish between the moral choices of powerful men. He explicitly rejected the idea that all powerful men are good — or bad. Acton believed that some popes were good men, who wielded their power wisely, and that other popes were bad men deserving of the historian’s obloquy. He would have been horrified to learn that people think he meant we should simply dismiss the whole lot of popes as equally contemptible.