Lord Acton said that great men are almost always bad men. Their greatness, he thought, contributed to their wickedness: power corrupts, and more power is all the more corrupting. This is taken for a truism in the Western world today, and many of our institutions are built on the understanding that as long as power is limited corruption will be kept in check. 

The full truth is rather different, however. Power can corrupt, but more often it provides the opportunity for corruption that was already present in the human heart to enjoy a wider expression. In this light, the task of the wise and good is to confront corruption before it rises to power—otherwise institutional or constitutional limits, however well-designed, will prove to be feeble restraints. 

Conservatives are fond of quoting John Adams’s remark that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” but they often recognize only half the force of his words. He was not only calling for the upholding of morality and religion but also drawing attention to the Constitution’s weakness. In the same letter of October 11, 1798, he writes, “We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net.”

Elsewhere Adams criticized the Constitution for failing to establish a truly mixed regime: it contained no provision for the institutional representation, and at the same time restraint, of the elite. There was no place created by the Constitution where men who were rich and well-connected from birth could be watched by the public. Instead, the power of the great would be wielded behind the scenes, influencing all the popular channels of government. Adams was not opposed to such influence in itself, but he was alive to the danger that popular government and informal elite power would be mutually corrupting. All that could stand against this possibility was whatever strength remained in religion and moral habit.