Power corrupts (19TH CENTURY)

Theory, or at least aphorism, of the English historian Lord Acton (1834-1902).

‘All power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

The sentence expresses a fundamental suspicion of the ability of any person to be trusted with unaccountable discretion, however noble their expressed motives.


power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely

  1. The corrupting influence of power is total when one’s power is total.
    1. Lord Acton see: Wikiquote

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, 13th Marquess of GroppoliKCVO, DL (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902), better known as Lord Acton, was an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer. He was the only son of Sir Ferdinand Dalberg-Acton, 7th Baronet,[1] and a grandson of the Neapolitan admiral and prime minister Sir John Acton, 6th Baronet.[2][3] Between 1837 and 1869 he was known as Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th Baronet.

He is perhaps best known for the remark, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”, which he made in a letter to an Anglican bishop.[4]

Early life

John Acton’s grandfather succeeded to the baronetcy and family estates in Shropshire in 1791. The estates had previously been held by another English branch of the Acton family. John Acton’s grandfather was a member of a younger line of the family which had transferred itself to France and, subsequently, to Italy, but, subsequent to the extinction of the elder branch, he became the patriarch of the family.[3][2]

His grandfather’s eldest son, Richard, who was his father, married Marie Louise Pelline, the only daughter and heiress of Emmerich Joseph, 1st Duc de Dalberg, who was a naturalised French noble of ancient German lineage who had entered the French service under Napoleon and represented Louis XVIII at the Congress of Vienna in 1814. Subsequent to Sir Richard Acton’s death in 1837, she became the wife of the 2nd Earl Granville (1840).[3][1] Marie Louise Pelline de Dalberg was heiress of Herrnsheim in Germany. She became the mother of John Dalberg-Acton who was born in Naples.[2][3]

He was raised as a Roman Catholic, and was educated at Oscott College, under the future-Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, until 1848. He then studied privately at Edinburgh. He was denied entry to the University of Cambridge because he was a Catholic,[3] and subsequently went to Munich where he studied at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and resided in the house of Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, the theologian and forerunner of the Old Catholic Church, with whom he became lifelong friends.[5] Döllinger inspired in him a deep love of historical research and a profound conception of its functions as a critical instrument in the study of sociopolitical liberty.[5]

He was a master of the principal foreign languages, and began at an early age to collect a magnificent historical library, which he intended to use to compose a “History of Liberty”. In politics, he was always an ardent Liberal

One thought on “Power corrupts (19TH CENTURY)

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