18 June 2015
It was two hundred years ago today that Napoleon met his Waterloo, ten kilometres south of Brussels. By the end of that Sunday, confronted by the Duke of Wellington’s army and with his right flank out-maneuvered by Field Marshall Blucher’s Prussian army, the Armee du Nord crumbled. Wellington had “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”. More than 100,000 of the combatants lost their lives.
Napoleon’s generalship was undone – and following that undoing the reality of his statesmanship became more apparent. As Lord Acton subsequently observed, “despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality” – “that popular power may be tainted with the same poison as personal power”.
And the coincidence of history is that earlier this week was the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta – that powerful symbol of justice triumphing over tyranny. These events can conflate into the thesis in Lord Acton’s famous letter to Bishop Creighton (inter alia sometime Cambridge History Professor and Bishop of London) disagreeing with the argument the end justifies the means – that Pope and King should be judged unlike other men.
“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 of the certainty of corruption by authority.”