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Act on Acton
by Gary M. Galles 1/12/08

"Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  Many Americans can identify the author as Lord Acton.  But they know little else about John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton--First Baron Acton of Aldenham.  That is a great loss, because, according to Stephen Tonsor, Acton was "the most knowledgeable foreign observer of American affairs in the nineteenth century," and deeply concerned about "the threat to freedom from centralized governmental absolutism, the tyranny of the majority, bureaucratic administration, democracy and socialism," threats which are far from vanquished today.

As we mark Acton’s January 10, 1834, birth, his work as "one of the most articulate defenders of religious and political freedom" deserves broader reflection. 

Gary M. Galles

Mr. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. [go to Galles index]

“At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare...”

“In every age [liberty's] progress has been beset by its natural enemies: by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man's craving for power, and the poor man's craving for food.”

“Liberty is the prevention of control by others.  This requires self-control...”

“Liberty alone demands, for its realization, the limitation of the public authority, for liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition.”

“Liberty and good government do not exclude each other...Liberty is not a means to a higher political end.  It is itself the highest political end.”

“Liberty enables us to do our duty unhindered by the state, by society, by ignorance and error.  We are free in proportion as we are safe from these impediments...”

“[S]anctifying freedom...teaching men to treasure the liberties of others as their own, and to defend them...has been the soul of what is great and good in the progress of the last two hundred years.”

“[B]y birth all men are free.”

“With [liberty] no human authority can be permitted to interfere.  We are bound to extend to the utmost, and to guard from every encroachment, the sphere in which we can act in obedience to the sole voice of conscience, regardless of any other consideration.”

“]T]he interest of individuals is above the exclusive interest of the state. The power of the whole is not to be set in the balance for a moment with freedom...those who act on other principle are the worst of criminals.”

“It is easier to find people fit to govern themselves than people to govern others.  Every man is the best, the most responsible, judge of his own advantage.”

“The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern.  Every class is unfit to govern.”

“The will of the people cannot make just that which is unjust.”

“The public good is not to be considered, if it is purchased at the expense of an individual.”

“There are many things the government can't do, many good purposes it must renounce.  It must leave them to the enterprise of others.  It cannot feed the people.  It cannot enrich the people.  It cannot teach the people.”

“Among all the causes which degrade and demoralize men, power is the most constant and the most active.”

“[P]ower...corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding...”

“There are principles which override precedents...there is such a thing as a higher law.”

Because of his concern for freedom, Lord Acton was intensely concerned with America’s experiment in liberty.  And he recognized how important our founders were to liberty throughout the world, when he wrote:  “Their example... teaches that men ought to be in arms even against a remote and constructive danger to their freedom...On this principle of subversion they erected their commonwealth, and by its virtue...assigned a new course to history.”

Steven Tonsor said of Acton that "it is a pity that American historians so rarely read him."  His work offers us a great deal of wisdom, but wisdom that is forgotten cannot be used.  As heirs to history’s greatest experiment in liberty, Americans need to rediscover Acton, and reinvigorate our commitment to defending our liberty as “the highest political end.” CRO

copyright 2007 Gary M. Galles



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