Lord Acton

(John Emerich Edward Dalberg)

Letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton

(Apr. 5, 1887)

Excerpt of the full text at the Online Library of Liberty.

This letter is part of a larger conversation about how historians should judge the past. Mandell Creighton, an Archbishop of the Church of England, objected to what he saw as a modern tendency to be unnecessarily critical of authority figures.  When Creighton wrote about the past, he tended toward a moral relativism that was uncritical of past leaders (for example, glossing over past popes' corruption or abuse). 

Lord Acton disagreed.  Although he was Roman Catholic, he could not ignore popes' corruption or abuse.  He argued that all people -- past or present, leaders or not -- should be held to universal moral standards.

(NB. Paragraph numbers apply to this excerpt, not the original sources.)

Cannes, April 5, 1887

Dear Mr. Creighton,

{1}The point is not whether you like the Inquisition . . . but whether you can, without reproach to historical accuracy, speak of the later mediaeval papacy as having been tolerant and enlightened. What you say on that point struck me exactly as it would strike me to read that the French Terrorists were tolerant and enlightened, and avoided the guilt of blood. Bear with me whilst I try to make my meaning quite clear.

{2}We are not speaking of the Papacy towards the end of the fifteenth or early sixteenth century, when, for a couple of generations, and down to 1542, there was a decided lull in the persecuting spirit. Nor are we speaking of the Spanish Inquisition. . . . I mean the Popes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, from Innocent III down to the time of Hus. These men instituted a system of Persecution, with a special tribunal, special functionaries, special laws. They carefully elaborated, and developed, and applied it. They protected it with every sanction, spiritual and temporal. They inflicted, as far as they could, the penalties of death and damnation on everybody who resisted it. They constructed quite a new system of procedure, with unheard of cruelties, for its maintenance. They devoted to it a whole code of legislation, pursued for several generations. . . .

{3}It is perfectly familiar to every Roman Catholic student initiated in canon law and papal affairs. . . ; it has been constantly attacked, constantly defended, and never disputed or denied, by any Catholic authority. There are some dozens of books, some of them official, containing the particulars.

{4}Indeed it is the most conspicuous fact in the history of the mediaeval papacy. . . . A man is hanged not because he can or cannot prove his claim to virtues, but because it can be proved that he has committed a particular crime. That one action overshadows the rest of his career. It is useless to argue that he is a good husband or a good poet. The one crime swells out of proportion to the rest. . . .

{5}I see clearly how a mild and conciliatory view of Persecution will enable you to speak pleasantly and inoffensively. . . .  But what amazes and disables me is that you speak of the Papacy not as exercising a just severity, but as not exercising any severity. You do not say, these misbelievers deserved to fall into the hands of these torturers and Fire-the-faggots; but you ignore, you even deny, at least implicitly, the existence of the torture-chamber and the stake. . . .

{6}You say that people in authority are not [to] be snubbed or sneezed at from our pinnacle of conscious rectitude. I really don't know whether you exempt them because of their rank, or of their success and power, or of their date. The chronological plea [that they lived a long time ago] may have some little value in a limited sphere of instances. It does not allow of our saying that such a man did not know right from wrong, unless we are able to say that he lived before Columbus, before Copernicus, and could not know right from wrong. It can scarcely apply to the centre of Christendom, 1500 after the birth of our Lord. . . .

{7}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 [that is, the later judgment of historians] has to make up for the want of legal responsibility [that is, legal consequences during the rulers' lifetimes]. 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 end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, . . . 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. . . .

{8}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 [that is, set aside the integrity with which historians should judge the past] 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 . . . [high moral standards.  Then history] serves where it ought to reign; and it serves the worst better than the purest.

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