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The meaning and origin of the expression: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely'?

The proverbial saying 'power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely' conveys the opinion that, as a person's power increases, their moral sense diminishes.

Origin - the short version

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely" is the best known quotation of the 19th century British politician Lord Acton. He borrowed the idea from several other writers who had previously expressed the same thought in different words.

Origin - the full story

Absolute monarchies are those in which all power is given to or, as is more often the case, taken by, the monarch. Examples of monarchs who corrupted their power include Roman emperors, who declared themselves gods, and Napoleon Bonaparte, who declared himself an emperor.

The meaning and origin of the expression 'Absolute power corrupts absolutely'
Lord Acton - the origin of
'Absolute power corrupts absolutely'

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely" arose as part of a quotation by the expansively named and impressively hirsute John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902). The historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

The saying "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" was coined by the English historian Lord Acton in 1887.

The text is a favourite of collectors of quotations and is always included in anthologies. If you are looking for the exact "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" wording, then Acton is your man.

Although Acton coined the phrase, but he didn't invent the idea. Something similar had been said by another English politician with no shortage of names - William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham. Pitt said this in a speech in 1770:

"Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it"

Acton is likely to have taken his lead from the writings of the French republican poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine. An English translation of Lamartine's essay France and England: a Vision of the Future was published in London in 1848 and included this:

It is not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free. The master himself did not gain less in every point of view, for absolute power corrupts the best natures.

Whether it is Lamartine or his anonymous English translator who can claim to have coined 'absolute power corrupts' we can't be sure. What we can be sure about is that it came before Lord Acton's more famous version. Whether Acton was aware of Lamartine's essay we can't now tell.


"Absolute power corrupts absolutely" is one of the proverbial sayings that seems to be proved correct by experience of people's actual behaviour.

It was coined by the English nobleman Lord Acton in 1857, using similar ideas expressed by several of his contemporaries.

See also: the List of Proverbs.

See also: Quotations.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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