It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority
(The Athenians) venerated the Constitution which had given them prosperity, and equality, and freedom, and never questioned the fundamental laws which regulated the enormous power of the Assembly. They tolerated considerable variety of opinion and great licence of speech; and their humanity towards their slaves roused the indignation even of the most intelligent partisan of aristocracy. Thus they became the only people of antiquity that grew great by democratic institutions. But the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its demoralising influence on the illustrious democracy of Athens. It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason. The humblest and most numerous class of the Athenians united the legislative, the judicial, and, in part, the executive power. The philosophy that was then in the ascendant taught them that there is no law superior to that of the State – the lawgiver is above the law.
Balance of Power
Lord Acton, otherwise known as John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, was an Englishman who wrote about history, especially the history of freedom. Known for aphorisms like “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Acton was interested in how decentralized government could forestall despotism and protect individual rights. With great concern he closely watched America’s Federalist system careen into the Civil War, strongly sympathizing with the Confederacy, coming down on the side of state’s rights. What a time for a historian to be alive!
I find it ironic that Ashton was able to champion personal liberty while supporting the South. Perhaps he was thinking in terms of forms of government, and not of the personal liberty that was denied to slaves – not an uncommon blindness.
Some of us are still arguing about Lincoln’s choices.
The question of Lincoln’s responsibility for the Civil War turns on his policy toward the seceding states. According to historians such as Lord Acton, if Lincoln had really been the freedom-loving statesman he claimed to be, he would have recognized the right of the secessionist populations to choose their own destinies. More recently, bloggers have taken up Acton’s argument and in breezy and inaccurate blog posts distorted what Lincoln did and the sequence in which he did it. The record needs to be set straight.by Michael Knox Beran
from Lincoln and the Moral Imagination
Our 16th president, neither a Bismarck nor a Darwin
11 February 2009
And some of us are still arguing the same points about states’ rights versus big government versus the basic human rights of our most vulnerable citizens. Acton, like so many others before and since, wrote as if he had the answers to a workable version of “liberty and justice for all.” We’re not there yet, but at least we’re still talking.