Lord Acton and the Role of History

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One of the most famous quotes is “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This now-cliché axiom of political and historical lore was written by Lord Acton, the 19th Century English scholar and historian whose classical liberalism persuaded him to lean on the side of freedom over despotism. However, the quote above appears in a much longer letter to a Bishop Creighton and Acton’s words speak to a larger truth about the role of history. 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 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, like Ravaillac; 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.

In other words, no man (or woman, pardon Acton’s historical sexism) is sacred. Everything is up for scrutiny, especially if it harms the liberty and conscience of others. History’s goal is to extirpate the hero worship of leaders from its narrative and replace it with a balanced, if sometimes brutal, evaluation of the evidence.

The other revolutionary concept Acton argued for is the naturalistic judgment of supposed supernatural agents.  ‘Popes and Kings’ are men, with their own biases, appeals to emotionalism, and bouts of ignorance. These leaders, supposedly chosen by a divine authority, must use said authority within the natural rights of individuals or be subject to intellectual and moral scrutiny. Despotism only grows when these leaders are held unaccountable, either in the public square or by the verdict of history. While Acton was a Catholic, he believed that religious liberty and individual rights stood for far more than the hagiography of a temporary “agent” of divine purpose.

As an historian, I try my best to do the exact same thing that Acton did, which is put everyone on a level playing field. Human beings are imperfect and their mistakes must be discussed in the light of evidence and broad ethical standards. No leader, godly or otherwise, should be universally praised simply by virtue of their standing. This is what makes Acton a freethought hero, even though he was religious. He believed that the actions of those in power should stand on their own moral ground and not celebrated simply by invoking spiritual assistance.  It is said that light is the best disinfectant; so too is skepticism.

 

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