In which I consider Lord Acton’s Axiom.

One of the advantages of doing a written Q & A instead of a live interview is that you have time to check things out instead of just burbling on. My most recent blog post, in which I answered questions from long-time History in the Margins reader, Bart Ingraldi, is a wonderful example of this. In it I quoted George Santayana’s famous statement that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In doing so, I may have probably left you with the impression that I had the details about Santayana and the quotation right on the tip of my mind. That was not entirely accurate.

I certainly knew the quotation, but I wasn’t sure who had said it. I suspected it might have been Winston Churchill.* Or perhaps nineteenth century historian Lord Acton. A quick search of the internet gave me the proper attribution.**

Lord ActonIt also caused me to look more closely at Lord Acton’s own famous aphorism: “all power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. I had never never looked at Acton’s pithy line in context. Having done so, I find myself uncertain, uncomfortable, and eager to share.

As best I can tell, Acton used the line twice, with a slightly different twist each time.

In 1881, he wrote to Mary Gladstone, daughter and secretary to then Prime Minister William Gladstone:

And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that all power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely….The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern.

That’s a version of the aphorism I can live with.

It’s the later version that makes me bite my lip, squirm in my chair and go “but, but but…”. Writing to the Anglican Bishop of London, Mandell Creighton in 1887, Acton moves from  discussing the corruption of a class to discussing the corruption of an individual:

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 the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. [emphasis mine]

Great men are almost always bad men???!!!! Really??

I’d love to here what you smart people out in the Margins think about this. I want rants and pontification. Examples and counter-examples. Let the discussion begin.


*Churchill is sometimes given credit for a pithier version of Santanya’s line: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But the folks at the National Churchill Museum say it’s not so.

**And an answer to the question “George who?” Mid-20th century philosophers are not one of my strongest subjects.


  1. Lorraine on April 13, 2016 at 12:14 am

    Of course this all hinges on the definitions of “great” and “bad”, and from whose perspective are we speaking. One person’s savior is another’s tyrant. Passage of time also layers on its influences.

    Without examples to the contrary off the cuff, I’d have to agree with the statement. Those who are remembered throughout history aren’t exactly who I’d like to be leading or speaking for me. They got where they are by trampling over others.

    I see it more a factor of the times than anything else. And lizard brain. Fear talks. We’re close to being ready for a great man – or woman – to be one who is good – collaborative, inclusive, kind, etc. But it won’t come without a good fight to keep what-has-always-been in tact.

  2. Jane on April 14, 2016 at 7:55 pm

    I agree with the statement, too. Power corrupts because people are corruptible. There is something in the human nature that wants to be in charge, to command others, to be looked up to, feared, adored. In short, it wants to be God. A school child, mother, teacher, husband, boss, government official—no one is immune from the possibility of misusing whatever power he possesses because of this inward tendency.

  3. Robert Disimone on June 27, 2016 at 4:35 am

    It is simple human nature. Most, if not all, political systems filter out all but the most narcissistic and egomaniacal people. Who else would run the gauntlet of running for office? This type of personality thinks they are great and deserving to begin with. We, therefore, should feel fortunate to have them take care of us. This belief that they are doing great things justifies in their minds any lying, cheating or stealing. If you think they don’t hold themselves in such absurdly high esteem, why do they name so many things after themselves? “Bad” is relative. I am sure none of them think of themselves that way.

  4. Phil Champ on July 27, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    Your quote dated 1881 is inaccurate. The part before the ellipsis mentioning “gangsters” is non-existent in the original:

    As a result, there is no “earlier” use of Lord Acton’s dictum about power corrupting. His use in his 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton is the only occasion:

  5. Romeg on October 31, 2022 at 2:26 pm

    The KEY to Lord Acton’s more strident comment “Great Men are ALMOST ALWAYS Bad Men” (emphasis mine). Almost Always. NOT Always. Almost always. I think that is a fair and accurate statement, especially, in the 19th century when it was far easier for one to hide one’s nefarious past deeds that it is in the Information Age where everyone is armed with a high-definition camera and the internet is as much of one’s daily life as breathing.

    There are, obviously, examples of Great Men who were NOT Bad Men. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln come instantly to mind.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.