The greatest crime is Homicide. The accomplice is no better than the assassin; the theorist is worse. Lord Acton on Moral Judgements in History. 1907.

LordActonNo doubt the responsibility in such a case is shared by those who ask for a thing. But if the thing is criminal, if, for instance, it is a licence to commit adultery, the person who authorises the act shares the guilt of the person who commits it. Here again what I have said is not in any way mysterious or esoteric. It appeals to no hidden code. It aims at no secret moral. It supposes nothing, and implies nothing but what is universally current and familiar. It is the common, even the vulgar, code I appeal to. 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 the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science. Quite frankly, I think there is no greater error. The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of History. If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then History ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the Wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth and religion itself tend constantly to depress. It serves where it ought to reign; and it serves the worst cause better than the purest. . . . My dogma is not the special wickedness of my own spiritual superiors, but the general wickedness of men in authority—of Luther and Zwingli, and Calvin, and Cranmer, and Knox, of Mary Stuart and Henry VIII., of Philip II. and Elizabeth, of Cromwell and Louis XIV., James and Charles and William, Bossuet and Ken. The greatest crime is Homicide. The accomplice is no better than the assassin; the theorist is worse. Of killing from private motives or from public, from political or from religious, eadem est ratio; morally the worst is the last. The source of crime is pars melior nostri, what ought to save, destroys; the sinner is hardened and proof against Repentance. 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.

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