Quotations by Acton, John Dalberg (Lord)


Whenever a single definite object is made the supreme end of the State, be it the advantage of a class, the safety of the power of the country, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the support of any speculative idea, the State becomes for the time inevitably absolute. Liberty alone demands for its realisation the limitation of the public authority, for liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“Nationality,” Home and Foreign Review (Jul 1862)
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The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“Review of Sir Erskine May’s Democracy in Europe,” The Quarterly Review (Jan 1878)
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The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Speech, Bridgenorth Institute (28 Feb 1877)
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Liberty, next to religion, has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Speech, Bridgenorth Institute (28 Feb 1877)
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It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Speech, Bridgenorth Institute (28 Feb 1877)
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More quotes by Acton, John Dalberg (Lord)

The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Speech, Bridgenorth Institute (28 Feb 1877)
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Such things will cease to be written when men perceive that truth is the only merit that gives dignity and worth to history.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“The Massacre of St Bartholomew,” North British Review (Oct 1869)

Referencing Catholic denial and revisionism over the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Usually elided to start with "Truth is ..."

Collected in The History of Freedom and Other Essays (1907)
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The Stoics could only advise the wise man to hold aloof from politics, keeping the unwritten law in his heart. But when Christ said: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” address to the Bridgenorth Institute (28 Feb 1877)
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Writers the most learned, the most accurate in details, and the soundest in tendency, frequently fall into a habit which can neither be cured nor pardoned — the habit of making history into the proof of their theories.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Speech, Bridgenorth Institute (28 Feb 1877)
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By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation, — religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Speech, Bridgenorth Institute (28 Feb 1877)
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There is not a soul who does not have to beg alms of another, either a smile, a handshake, or a fond eye.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
(Attributed)
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There are two things which cannot be attacked in front: ignorance and narrow-mindedness. They can only be shaken by the simple development of the contrary qualities. They will not bear discussion.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
Letter (23 Jan 1861)
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Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
Letter (23 Jan 1861)
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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. All 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.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
Letter to Bp. Mandell Creighton (3 Apr 1887)
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Often paraphrased, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

There is an alternate, probably spurious version of this quote, for which I have been unable to find an actual citation (except where it is mis-cited to this letter to Bp. Creighton): "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." As the word "gangster" has only been traced back to 1886, and that in the US, its use by Acton (esp. in a modern sense) seems unlikely.
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The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of History. If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then History ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the Wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth and religion itself tend constantly to depress. It serves where it ought to reign; and it serves the worst cause better than the purest.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
Letter to Bp. Mandell Creighton (3 Apr 1887)
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ADVICE TO PERSONS ABOUT TO WRITE HISTORY — DON’T.

In the Moral Sciences Prejudice is Dishonesty.

A Historian has to fight against temptations special to his mode of life, temptations from Country, Class, Church, College, Party, Authority of talents, solicitation of friends.

The most respectable of these influences are the most dangerous.

The historian who neglects to root them out is exactly like a juror who votes according to his personal likes or dislikes.

In judging men and things Ethics go before Dogma, Politics or Nationality.

The Ethics of History cannot be denominational.

Judge not according to the orthodox standard of a system religious, philosophical, political, but according as things promote, or fail to promote the delicacy, integrity, and authority of Conscience.

Put conscience above both system and success.

History provides neither compensation for suffering nor penalties for wrong.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
Letter to Bp. Mandell Creighton, Postscript (3 Apr 1887)
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There is no error so monstrous that it fails to find defenders among the ablest men. Imagine a congress of eminent celebrities, such as More, Bacon, Grotius, Pascal, Cromwell, Bossuet, Montesquieu, Jefferson, Napoleon, Pitt, etc. The result would be an Encyclopedia of Error.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
Letter to Mary Gladstone (24 Apr 1881)
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The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
Letter to Mary Gladstone (24 Mar 1881)
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Men cannot be made good by the state, but they can easily be made bad. Morality depends on liberty.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
Note #10, in George Watson, Lord Acton’s History of Liberty (1994)
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