The great English historian delivered this pronouncement in a letter to his friend Bishop Mandell Creighton. I'm not aware of any instance in which the words have suffered intellectual rebuff -- probably because they illuminate such occasions as the Supreme Court put on display this week.
A pity our distinguished historian wasn't there himself to put a few questions to the solicitor general, who was then urging the justices to uphold President Obama's plan for giving millions of undocumented aliens the right to work legally in the United States -- on grounds that the president thought doing it was a good idea!
To observers, half the justices at the hearing seemed unimpressed by the president's explanation -- that he acted as he did out of frustration with Congress' failure to act. In light of the failure of his persuasive abilities, the president resorted to executive order. This is how it's gonna be, he said in essence. In response, half the states in the country filed suit. A repudiation of the presidential order by a panel of the Fifth U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals brought the case to the high court.
The court's four liberals appeared, predictably, to regard the liberal president who had appointed two of them -- Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- as likely within his rights. Justice Anthony Kennedy, Reagan-appointee and sometime conservative, suggested the president had gotten the power equation backwards: He had acted; then invited Congress' concurrence.
The contest is larger, in fact, than the context -- immigration -- might make it seem. The founders, you could say, had foreseen what was coming. As had Lord Acton, born in 1834 and known on non-starchy occasions as John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton.
Lord Acton was a dedicated friend of human liberty. He saw liberty being menaced by, as one of his biographers has put it, "the personification of authority in one man or one institution."
Does anyone we know come to mind?
Before, nevertheless, we start endowing Barack H. Obama with an unprecedented self-admiration and recklessness, we might wish to recall why the founders set in place traps for the wild beasts who populate politics. A three-part governmental system -- executive, legislative, judicial -- is meant to improve balance among the wielders of power, and likewise for separate systems of local, state and national power. This is supposed to foster a certain useful jealousy among said power-wielders.
Acton never reprobated power itself. He reprobated its abuses. He desired -- as the founders had -- that power not be allowed to grow too large in any department of governance. This was so things might be kept more or less in balance. Because power did "tend to corrupt," it had to be watched vigilantly. Abuse, unrebuked, was sure to inspire additional abuses. A free society will watch, and try to check, Caesarian orders, ukases or decrees that proceed, as it were, from the throne rather than from debate and discussion.
There are right ways to govern; so are there wrong ways. The wrong ways have appeal: speed, decisiveness, re-election. But they undermine the whole notion that consent comes properly from the governed; they stir up discord and violence, turning citizens against one another.
The immigration case is important for reasons that eclipse the specific issues at stake -- the number of immigrants, states' legal standing to sue the president, work permits, etc. Obama confessed to acting on the grounds that Congress hadn't acted.
Give him some credit for honesty if none for constitutional propriety. Credit him likewise with reminding us unintentionally of the need for stiff and regular doses of Acton-ism, in all its horror at the capacity of the powerful to incapacitate freedom itself.
All together now, slowly, loudly: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely!