Lord Acton’s Dictum

English Parliamentarian, Catholic thinker, and historian, Lord Acton, died on this day (June 19) in 1902 (b. 10 January 1834). Possibly the most quoted statement from Lord Acton, whether it is taken to originate with him or not, was made in a letter to Mandell Creighton, dated from April, 1877. Reflecting on his failure in Rome to combat the promulgation by Pope Pius IX of the doctrine of papal infallibility, Acton wrote,

“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 certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”