Another One Who Didn’t Get the Memo

January 10, 1834, John Dalberg-Acton, later 1st Baron Acton, is born.  He seems to have been widely acknowledged as one of the most learned men of his day, although now he’s known (at least in the English-speaking world outside England) for a fairly simple observation embedded in a letter.  Read in its context you can’t help but wonder what he’d have made of TurboTax Tim Geithner, or Eric “Gun Walker” Holder, or . . . well, about any number of people prominent in all levels of government:

“But if we might discuss this point until we found that we nearly agreed, and if we do agree thoroughly about the impropriety of Carlylese denunciations and Pharisaism in history, 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. 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 greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those 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.”

 Poor boy.  He just didn’t live long enough to achieve enlightenment.  He probably thought that some musty ol’ written constitution, cobbled together by a passel of Dead White Males, actually meant what it said and said what it meant.  He had no idea of emanations and penumbrae.

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