"No, make no mistake. It's not revenge he's after. It's a reckoning." -- Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, 1993.
Everyone has heard, often without attribution, of Lord Acton's dictum, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Who was Lord Acton? Wikipedia tells us:
John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, KCVO, DL (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902), known as Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th Bt from 1837 to 1869 and usually referred to simply as Lord Acton, was an English historian, the only son of Sir Ferdinand Dalberg-Acton, 7th Baronet and grandson of the Neapolitan admiral, Sir John Acton, 6th Baronet. He was born in Naples. . . From an ancient Roman Catholic family, young Acton was educated at Oscott College under Dr (afterwards Cardinal) Wiseman until 1848 and then at Edinburgh where he studied privately. At Munich, Acton resided in the house of Döllinger, the great scholar and subsequent leader of the Old Catholic party, with whom he became lifelong friends. He had endeavoured to procure admission to Cambridge, but for a Roman Catholic this was impossible at that time. Nonetheless, Döllinger had inspired in him a deep love of historical research and a profound conception of its functions as a critical instrument. He was a master of the principal foreign languages and began at an early age to collect a magnificent historical library, with the object—which, however, he never realized—of writing a great "History of Liberty." In politics, he was always an ardent Liberal.
(MBV Note: "Liberal" carried a far different meaning then than it does now. In the British context in 19th century the Liberal Party was broadly in favor of what would today be called classical liberalism: supporting laissez-faire economic policies such as free trade and minimal government interference in the economy and favored social reform, personal liberty, reducing the powers of the Crown and the Church of England and an extension of the right to vote)
Although not a notable traveller, Acton spent much time in the chief intellectual centres of Europe and in the United States and numbered among his friends such men as Montalembert, Tocqueville, Fustel de Coulanges, Bluntschli, von Sybel and Ranke. . . Acton took a great interest in America, considering its Federal structure the perfect guarantor of individual liberties. During the American Civil War, his sympathies lay entirely with the Confederacy, for their defense of States' Rights against a centralized government that, by all historical precedent, would inevitably turn tyrannical. His notes to Gladstone on the subject helped sway many in the British government to sympathize with the South. After the South's surrender, he wrote to Robert E. Lee that "I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo." . .
In 1870 came the great crisis in Roman Catholicism over Pope Pius IX's promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Lord Acton, who was in complete sympathy on this subject with Döllinger, went to Rome in order to throw all his influence against it, but the step he so much dreaded was not to be averted. The Old Catholic separation followed, but Acton did not personally join the seceders, and the authorities prudently refrained from forcing the hands of so competent and influential an English layman. It was in this context that, in a letter he wrote to scholar and ecclesiastic Mandell Creighton, dated April 1887, Acton made his most famous pronouncement:
"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 certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it."
How much historical wisdom is packed into that single paragraph!
Other famous sayings of Lord Acton include:
* “The strong man with the dagger is followed by the weak man with the sponge.”
* “There is not a soul who does not have to beg alms of another, either a smile, a handshake, or a fond eye.”
* “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.”
* “Be not content with the best book; seek sidelights from the others; have no favourites.”
* "The science of politics is the one science that is deposited by the streams of history, like the grains of gold in the sand of a river; and the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to making the future."
* “[History is] not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.”
* “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.”
* "The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks."
* "The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern: every class is unfit to govern."
* "Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right to do what we ought."
* "There is no error so monstrous that it fails to find defenders among the ablest men."
* "At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition."
* "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."
* "Character is tested by true sentiments more than by conduct. A man is seldom better than his word. History is better written from letters than from histories; let a man criminate himself. No public character has ever stood the revelation of private utterances and correspondence."
* "Socialism means slavery."
How many left-collectivists who are happy to quote Acton on the corruptibility of power when applied to their enemies would choke if they knew he also said that last bit of wisdom? All of them, I expect.
But there are some other observations of Acton's that I would like to highlight today which, like the famous paragraph above, comes from his correspondence with Bishop Creighton. He makes them in the process of expressing his moral philosophy that it is right and proper for an historian to carry over into his professional work the condemnation of murder, theft, and violence whether committed by an individual, the state, or the Church.
No doubt the responsibility in such a case is shared by those who ask for a thing. But if the thing is criminal . . . the person who authorises the act shares the guilt of the person who commits it. . . The greatest crime is Homicide. The accomplice is no better than the assassin; the theorist is worst. . . Crimes by constituted authorities worse than crimes by Madame Tussaud’s private malefactors. . . Murder may be done by legal means, by plausible and profitable war, by calumny, as well as by dose or dagger. . . The responsibility exists whether the thing permitted be good or bad. If the thing be criminal then the authority permitting it bears the guilt. . .
Julius Streicher in the dock at Nuremberg.
"The theorist is worst."
I most recently came across this observation of Acton's in Joseph E. Persico's classic history Nuremberg: Infamy on trial. There has been rattling around in the back of my head an uncompleted essay on what the moral and legal culpability will be for those in academia, the media and politics who lay the intellectual groundwork for tyranny and civil war. I pulled down Persico's book to go over once more the cases of Julius Streicher and Alfred Rosenberg.
Reichsleiter Alfred Rosenberg at the height of his glory.
Streicher was the founder and publisher of Der Stürmer newspaper, which became a central element of the Nazi propaganda machine. He also wrote three anti-Semitic books for children, including the 1938 Der Giftpilz ("The Toadstool" or "The Poison-Mushroom"), one of the most widespread pieces of Nazi propaganda, which purported to warn about insidious dangers Jews posed by using the metaphor of an attractive yet deadly mushroom.
Rosenberg, author of The Myth of the Twentieth Century, was an early and intellectually influential member of the Nazi Party and was one of the main authors of key Nazi ideological creeds, including its racial theories, persecution of the Jews, Lebensraum, abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles, opposition to "degenerate" modern art and the rejection of Christianity in favor of a "Positive Christianity," which he intended to be transitional to a new Nazi faith embracing the paganism of ancient tribal Germany.
Neither man had killed anyone during the Nazi regime. Many on the Nuremberg prosecution team struggled with the idea that the two should be put to death for simply laying the intellectual predicate for German military aggression and the Holocaust.
Persico describes U.S. Army psychiatrist Douglas Kelley's thoughts on Rosenberg during the trial:
As Brudno wrapped up his summation, Douglas Kelley's eyes remained on Rosenberg. A foolish man, a pompous man, and, in the philosophical rubbish that he had peddled, a muddled mind. But a capital case? Kelley wondered. Granted, the prosecution had proved that Rosenberg oversaw the wholesale theft of art and furnishings from Jewish homes in subjugated countries. But he had never killed anyone. In his role as minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, he had actually tried to prevent the wholesale butchery carried out in the Soviet Union. His authority, however, had quickly been undermined by more brutal SS figures. As Kelley studied the face in the dock, he asked himself who had helped indoctrinate these butchers to their murderous hatred. He thought of Lord Acton's words: "The greatest crime is homicide. The accomplice is no better than the assassin. The theorist is worst."
Both Streicher and Rosenberg were convicted of war crimes and hanged at Nuremberg.
Streicher and Rosenberg after their dates with U.S. Army hangman Master Sergeant John C. Woods.
This should be a cautionary tale for those who today lay the intellectual predicate for collectivist tyranny and civil war in this country.
For those who promote the right of the regime to do anything if it suits their purposes.
For those who aid and abet in the destruction of Founders' Republic and the rule of law.
For those who advocate the killing of innocents.
For those who excuse or aid in the cover up of deadly government misadventure.
For those who advocate citizen disarmament, property seizure and "reasonable regulation" as the immediate handmaidens of tyranny.
For they should know, being educated men and women, that Acton was right.
The theorist IS worst.
And there WILL be a reckoning.
Master Sergeant John C. Woods, U.S. Army hangman at Nuremberg. Woods later told the U.S. Army's Stars and Stripes newspaper that he enjoyed the task, saying that "hanging those Nazis was the best thing I ever did."
LATER: It strikes me that since I am preaching to the converted here, it wouldn't be "a badness thing" as John Ringo says if the converted were to help me get the word out to the heathen. If you agree with what I've written above and encounter tyranny-excusing theorists in your walk through life, please feel free to copy this essay and mail it to them, or email them the link. Let them contemplate the possibility of carefully crafted lengths of hemp as a reckoning.