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Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston


"Excellent speech of Palmerston's! What a knack he has of falling on his feet! I never will believe after this that there is any scrape out of which his cleverness and good fortune will not extricate him. And I rejoice in his luck most sincerely; for though he now and then trips, he is an excellent minister, and I cannot bear the thought of his being a sacrifice to the spite of other powers." This note, written about 1849, appears in the Journal of Lord Macaulay, who may be said to have possessed a genius for commonplace, and whose views about men and things represented the average of English opinion to a degree unachieved by any contemporary writer.

Lord Macaulay saw with the eyes of the majority of his countrymen, only rather more intently and clearly; and this passage contains the secret of Palmerston's hold upon them. First and foremost he was lucky, and there is, in the view of the average Briton, Cato notwithstanding, no more glorious attribute. Secondly, he was known to be an "excellent minister," free from subtleties, and endowed with a plain understanding, after the manner of a well-to-do citizen. Finally, he was believed to be viewed with jealousy and dislike by all foreigners and in constant danger from their intrigues, sufficient in itself to insure him the highest place in the regard of men who still, like their hero Nelson, had been taught in childhood to "hate a Frenchman as they did the devil."

He was, one of his lifelong opponents said of him after his death, English to the backbone; and he contrived to make Englishmen immeasurably of more account in their own eyes, and to some extent in those of other nations. Palmerston to his contemporaries appeared physically a man of commanding height.

Lord Lome — his biographer — quotes a description of him, he evidently believing it to be true, in which he is represented as tall and slim. In point of fact he was rather below than above the average height; but a fact of this kind appeared incredible of the Minister who had succeeded in adding a cubit not only to his own moral stature, but to that of the most insignificant of his countrymen. When, after at least ten years of smouldering, the irritation of conscientious colleagues, political foes, and baffled doctrinaires culminated in an attack upon Palmerston in the House of Commons in reference to the treatment of an obscure Greek, the Minister held the House spell-bound from the dusk of one day to the dawn of the next, and, in a speech of extraordinary force from a man who never aspired to rhetoric or even eloquence, reached the zenith of his power and fame. He had confounded his enemies. "It has made us all proud of him," said Sir Robert Peel, addressing the House of Commons for the last time, and the eulogy found a ready echo in the hearts of Englishmen scattered all over the world. If he wished to create,as he declared, a belief that a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident in the broad fact of his nationality, that Civis Romanus sum was to be the guarantee of every Briton against injustice and wrong, he succeeded beyond his hopes; and so lofty was the spirit he roused, that when for a moment the people believed their favourite Minister to have been false to his own tradition, and to have yielded to the threats of French militarism, they tore his Conspiracy Bill to shreds, and hurled him unceremoniously from power. In spite, however, of this little accident, Lord Palmerston remained for a quarter of a century the most popular of Englishmen in his own country and the most feared abroad. To foreigners generally, and the French in particular, he was — as De Jarnac called him — the incarnation of La ferfide Albion. Yet the keystone of his foreign policy was a good understanding with France, and it is to the credit of his skill as a Foreign Minister that he was able to maintain the French alliance without for a moment forfeiting the dignity or independence of England as a portion of the price he paid for it. This counted for something among the causes of his popularity. His sympathy, openly expressed, for popular liberties, his dislike and contempt for petty tyranny or oppression, counted for more; while most of all, his cheerful courage in the midst of the difficulties of the Indian Mutiny, and the disasters of the Crimean winter, his never-failing belief that all would be well, and his clear-headed appreciation of what was required, inspired the nation with a confidence that, so long as Palmerston was there, clouds, however black they might appear, would presently disperse.

A final cause, which contributed not a little to the Minister's success, lay in the exaggerations and mouthing of the "Manchester School" of politicians, who, having scored heavily in the fight for Free Trade, had got to believe themselves infallible, and their doctrines only a degree, if at all, less worthy of absolute credence than the Gospels. It had become the fashion with politicians of that school to belittle England, and to obtrude upon the world a cheap cosmopolitanism with an air of superior virtue, extremely galling to men who, either in their own person or by the energy and often by the blood of their sons or brothers, had helped to expand the Empire.

It was only natural that these men — and they formed the large majority — should rally round the Minister who appreciated their sacrifices and took pride in their successes. In politics the law of reaction is well-nigh inexorable, and just as the necessary militarism of the first fifteen years of the century produced the "Manchester School," so that worthy body of doctrinaires was responsible for the ultroneous rule of Palmerston.

A Minister who kept racehorses and had at his command a good store of very blunt vernacular, who could not be got to admit that he understood an abstract thought, who always knew what he wanted and was determined to carry it out regardless of the opinions of others, who conceived his own ideas to be superior to those of other people, who never looked farther than tomorrow, and much preferred not to think beyond this evening, but who at the same time was determined to establish the privilege of an Englishman to the side-walk all over the world, while men of other nations might step into the gutter — this Minister represented aspirations which had long ago sickened under rounded periods intended to convince humanity that bread and calico summed up their total requirements, and were more than sufficient for rational happiness. This was the popular conception of Palmerston when in 1855 he became First Minister of the Crown.

To the Queen he had, for many years, appeared in a somewhat different and less ideal light. There were points in his character which she could not fail to respect and admire, but there was much in his methods as well as in his views which was galling at the time both to her proper pride as Sovereign, and to her dignity as a member of the royal fraternity of Europe. Palmerston had shared the universal admiration excited by the young Queen on her accession. He has left on record his agreeable impressions of her first Council. He was also warmly in favour of her marriage with Prince Albert, and volunteered to Stockmar his opinion that of all possible alliances he chiefly approved the marriage with the Prince. These sentiments were, however, in Palmerston mere platonics, and restrained him not at all from thwarting or from disregarding altogether the ideas of both the Queen and the Prince if they happened to run counter to his own.

To the Prince the character of Palmerston was unsympathetic, and to his speculative mind the positivist Minister was highly uncongenial. Some men, it has been said, think by definition, others by "type." Palmerston never thought otherwise than by "type," and to the Prince he seemed a statesman of a commonplace order, possessing undoubtedly the powers of a first-rate man, but holding the creed of a second-rate man. His frivolity appeared unpardonable in the Germanic eyes of the Prince, and his policy as frivolous and hand-to-mouth as his morals. "When I was a young man," Palmerston used to say, "the Duke of Wellington made an appointment with me at half-past seven in the morning; and I was asked, "Why, Palmerston, how will you contrive to keep that engagement?" Oh, I said, "of course, the easiest thing in the world: I shall keep it the last thing before I go to bed!" These were not the habits, and badinage was not the tone, of the young Court; so that no grain of prejudice hampered the relations between the ebullient Foreign Secretary and his royal mistress. For fifteen years after her marriage, until as her First Minister Palmerston kissed hands in 1855, the friction was constant, and at times paralysing to good government. Opposition only confirmed him in his determination to persevere with a policy, or indulge a freak of temper. In this again he was, as Lord Malmesbury observed, English to the backbone, and in nothing was this characteristic more marked than in his resolve to withstand the influence of the Crown.

If the quarrel - for no other word adequately describes it — between the Queen and Lord Palmerston originated in the conflicting disposition of her Foreign and her permanent Minister, it shaped itself upon the policy to be pursued in regard to France, and the personal relations existing at the time between the royal families of France and England. With nothing of the doctrinaire about him, Palmerston avoided alliances, and formed his judgment upon questions of foreign policy as they arose. Vaguely he may be said to have desired to keep well with France, but he had given way, as Lord Stratford de Redcliffe remarked, to a strong feeling of resentment against Louis Philippe, and he mistrusted and ultimately detested the whole house of Bourbon. The Prince, on the other hand, full of the great idea of German unity, looked upon France as an enemy to European progress, but was, with the Queen, on terms of intimacy with the King of the French. In 1840, when, by supporting the revolt of Mehemet Ali, France tried to obtain a quasi control of Egypt, Palmerston declared "the Mistress of India could not permit France to be mistress directly or indirectly of the road to her Indian dominions." This declaration, since exalted from a platitude into a shibboleth covering the whole "Eastern question," might have obtained the assent of the Queen; but when it was followed by a negotiation with France and Spain relative to the marriages of the Spanish house, culminating in an apparent act of duplicity on the part of Louis Philippe, goaded by an ill-considered despatch of the Foreign Secretary, a state of irritation was engendered between the royal families very painful to the Queen, and laid by her at the door of Lord Palmerston. In her capacity as Sovereign she was stung by the remark that she looked at things par la lunette of Palmerston, and although she courageously and loyally supported her Minister's "unfortunate despatch" in her correspondence with the Queen of the French, she did not forgive her Minister for having, as she believed, placed her in a painful predicament.

Between Lord Palmerston and Mr. Gladstone there are not many characteristics in common, but they were alike in the youthful enthusiasm which in old age both statesmen retained. Mr. Motley, describing a party given by Lady Palmerston, uses terms which could now be applied with curious verisimilitude to Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone. In 1848 Lord Palmerston was sixty-four years old, but his enthusiasm for constitutional freedom, not in his own country, where that blessing had long obtained, but in foreign states, was such that in the view of the Queen it induced him to forget that, as England was not prepared to employ force of arms for its achievement, "despatches full of unpleasant truths unpleasantly put could only occasion sore and angry feelings towards this country, without advancing in any degree the cause they were intended to serve."

His creed was the creed of Canning, but his methods were often those of Mrs. Grundy. Occasions were not wanting at that time for the display of his boyish desire to "improve the occasion," and his lectures to foreign rulers gave umbrage in many quarters, and still further widened the breach between the Minister and his Sovereign.

Undoubtedly the tone adopted by Lord Palmerston was often carelessly offensive. "I do not object," said Sir Robert Peel, "to his lordship's giving advice to the Spanish Government, but to his mode of giving it." It was impossible that enthusiasm so exuberant should not occasionally meet with rebuff. On one occasion Spain successfully retorted upon what Peel called the "assumption of superiority" in the style of the Foreign Secretary; while later on, Russia replied in language described by Lord Stanley as "bitter, imperious, and offensive, but not more bitter, more imperious, more offensive, than the provocation." To the Queen these checks to her Minister appeared humiliations, and they were deeply felt and strongly resented. Among her Ministers, as well as among their opponents, she had many sympathisers, and a moment came when Lord John Russell, unable to submit any longer to the haughty deportment of the Foreign Secretary, resolved to retire from the Government. "I feel Strongly," he wrpte, "that the Queen ought not to be exposed to the enmity of Austria, France, and Russia on account of her Minister." Lord John, however, was mistaken in this assumption, for it was not to the enmity of those nations, but of their rulers, that the Queen was exposed on account of her Foreign Secretary; and in Lord John Russell's confusion lies the justification of Palmerston. The Queen could not be expected to appreciate at the time, for it was far from clear even to Palmerston himself, the service he rendered to the Monarchy in that year of convulsion, when thrones all over Europe were tottering. In 1848 the middle class on the Continent were in open revolt against their rulers. Amid the storms of that year, when no monarch felt secure, Palmerston's "airs of superiority" and his "constitutional lectures" galled intensely, and at no period in history can England have been more cordially detested by neighbouring powers.

To the English middle classes, however, with their ludicrous vanity and Pharisaical faith in their own institutions, the attitude of their representative in the Councils of Europe was a keen source of delight. Palmerston's lectures were read and approved with avidity, and while he ministered to the weakness of his countrymen, he fostered in them a wish to maintain their existing constitution intact as an example to other nations of a perfect form of government. If the Queen had occasion to wince at his methods, she owes largely to Palmerston the ease with which the English monarchy weathered a storm that proved so fatal to other royal houses. His methods were, without question, doubly painful to her; for not only was the language he employed calculated to embroil her with foreign potentates, with whom she was on terms of friendship, but it frequently happened that over the form of the Palmerstonian philippics she was not permitted to exercise her privilege of imposing a restraining hand. The ostensible cause — if it was not altogether the real one — of the friction which existed for fifteen years between the Sovereign and her Minister was the careless or studied neglect of the latter to submit his despatches for correction and remark before they were sent to the embassies abroad. As early as 1840 Lord John Russell had complained to Lord Melbourne that he only received "despatches in a printed form some days after they are sent off," and reminded the Prime Minister that in the "days of Lord Grey every important note was carefully revised by and generally submitted to the Cabinet." Other colleagues of the Foreign Secretary were no less hurt at his high-handed indifference to their opinion. Lord Howick, the late Lord Grey, partly on this ground refused to serve with him, and thus prevented the formation of a Liberal Administration five years later. And eleven years afterwards, in 1851, on this very ground. Lord John Russell when Prime Minister was driven to remove his insubordinate colleague from office altogether. The principle followed by Lord Grey in 1848, when the tension between Palmerston and the Queen became very great, was at the instance of Lord Lansdowne admitted by Palmerston. For although Lord John Russell was Prime Minister, he found it necessary to appeal to Lord Lansdowne to remonstrate with his unruly Foreign Secretary. "The Queen's disapprobation of everything Lord Palmerston does increases," wrote Lady John Russell in her diary at this time; and although Palmerston pretended to believe that the "Queen gave ear too readily to persons hostile to her Government," it is plain that the Prime Minister and the Sovereign were in perfect accord.

In the summer of 1849 a very able State paper was drawn up by the Prince in the name of the Queen, expounding the constitutional rule that the control of foreign policy rests with the Prime Minister, and directing that all despatches submitted for her approval should pass through the hands of Lord John Russell. Whether this was or was not a constitutional rule, Palmerston, although he declared it would "reduce his flint gun to a matchlock," found himself forced to yield, and agreed to alter the existing arrangements in accordance with the Queen's wishes. When the final crisis came, and when after his dismissal from office he had to defend his conduct in Parliament, the Queen's memorandum and his acquiescence in the terms of it were used with damaging effect by Lord John Russell against him. Before, however, the fall of Palmerston, an event had occurred which raised him to the first place in the eyes of his countrymen. This was the attack on his policy in the House of Commons, and his great speech in his own defence. After the Don Pacifico debate, Palmerston became the first of living statesmen in the eyes of the people, a position he never lost till the day of his death fifteen years afterwards. From that time, too, he became more attentive to the wishes of the Queen, although a few months later the old Adam reasserted itself, when over the reception of Kossuth and over the presidential difficulties in France his attitude caused the long - smouldering flame to burst forth. His fall then became inevitable. The Coup d'Etat in France, at once approved by him without consultation with his colleagues, or the knowledge of the Queen, was his coup de grace. "Palmerston is out," wrote Charles Greville, "actually, really, and irretrievably out."

Although the cause was but half guessed at the time, it was known in full to this acute observer and critic. He had watched for some years the widening breach between the Sovereign and her Minister. "As to Palmerston being corrected or reformed, I don't believe a word of it," he had written a year before the crash came, and his prognostication was singularly accurate. He was keenly alive to the dislike of the Court: "The Queen's favourite aversions are: first and foremost Palmerston, and Disraeli next," although the commentator may truly lay stress on the "candid and dispassionate spirit" with which in later years these statesmen were received by their Sovereign. When, however, the tension was greatest, the Queen, acting on the advice of Stockmar, took no active steps to overturn the Foreign Secretary, but allowed the initiative to be taken by Lord John Russell; so that, although for one moment Lord Palmerston may have spoken of a "cabal" against him, his good sense speedily convinced him that he was mistaken, and within a few days of his fall he could speak of the Court without bitterness, and in strong terms could praise the "sagacity of the Queen."

Palmerston's "tit for tat," as he termed it, followed very quickly upon his ejection from office, and when the Government fell he could afford to smile. His triumph over Lord John Russell was complete. Never again was he the subordinate of that statesman in office. The blunders of the Aberdeen Government, of which he was the only popular member, left Lord Palmerston the one indispensable Englishman, and the upshot of his quarrel with the Court and with the leader of the Whigs was to make him the Queen's Prime Minister. Although he was never Foreign Secretary after 1851, his interest in foreign affairs remained undiminished. The Queen has related how when he was Home Secretary in 1853, she, interested in and alarmed about the strikes in the North, put a question to him: "Pray, Lord Palmerston, have you any news?" He replied, "No, madam, I have heard nothing; but it seems certain the Turks have crossed the Danube." Strikes, responsible as he was for order, were as nothing to him compared with the intricacies of the Eastern Question, about which it was not necessary for him specially to concern himself. In 1855, although a futile attempt was made to form an Administration under Lord Granville, in which both Palmerston and Russell were to serve, the universal desire of the nation, supplemented by Lord John's want of tact, placed Lord Palmerston at the head of the Government; and except for a short interval three years later, when his supposed subservience to Napoleon the Third cost him his office. Prime Minister he remained until his death ten years afterwards.

From the moment he became her First Minister his position relative to the Queen underwent a marked change. Lord Aberdeen, who was on friendly terms with the Prince, said to Bishop Wilberforce, a few months after Palmerston's accession to office, that "the Queen has not altered at all in her real feelings to him. She behaves perfectly well and truly to him. It has always been her great virtue, but she does not like him a bit better than she did, nor the Prince either." If this was the case, there is no corroboration of it, and indeed all the evidence points to the gradual arriving at a perfectly good understanding with both the Queen and the Prince. The causes of difference had indeed passed away. No doubt the Prince still found much which was unsympathetic to him in Palmerston's character. Although he could admire, as every one did, the great physical vigour of a Prime Minister who, when seventy years old, could row on the Thames before breakfast, or swim in the river like an Eton boy, or who, when nearly eighty, was able to ride from London to Harrow and back in one day, yet he shrank from what Lord Houghton called "Palmerston's ha-ha and laissez-faire." The Prime Minister's ethical views amused the maids-of-honour, and made them laugh, but they seemed drearily inadequate to the grave-minded Prince. When, however, the fatal December of 1861 crushed the Queen's life, Lord Palmerston was the first to realise the irreparable loss which, as wife and Sovereign, she had sustained, and to appreciate her meaning when she spoke of having to "begin a new reign."

For many years before the Prince's death, he and Palmerston had worked well together. Their struggle had ended in 1855, when Palmerston became Prime Minister. While the Prince had contended for a constitutional punctilio, Palmerston had fought for his own hand. It was not on principle that he objected to the control by the Prime Minister and the Crown over the Foreign Secretary; his objections were founded on the circumstance that he himself was the Foreign Secretary it was proposed to control Of late years, owing to the accident of Lord Salisbury combining the office of Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, the desirability of having two heads instead of one to manage the foreign relations of the country has been erected into a principle. The afterthought sprang in the usual way from the spirit of opposition, and not from any rational or careful consideration of the question based on experience. Those, however, who denounced Lord Salisbury must recognise the force of the Queen's contention in her struggle with Palmerston, and her celebrated memorandum must to them appear the charter of Foreign Office subservience. In reality the temper of the Foreign Secretary is the key of the situation. Given a man full of restless activity and hasty enthusiasms, then the mere time involved in sending despatches in red boxes to the Queen is so much gained for reflection. Given a minister of a calmer type, control or supervision is only a work of supererogation, and frequently a fatal loss of the psychological moment. When the Queen was engaged in endeavouring to check the youthful ardour of Lord Palmerston, she was little more than a girl in years, while he was well beyond the farthest limit of middle age. Yet in many ways he was incomparably the younger of the two. To the Queen supreme responsibility came early in life, and, as usual, it aged her; while to Palmerston supreme responsibility came late, and found him still a boy in mind. He was fifty years in the House of Commons before he led that assembly; and during that half-century, although constantly in office, he had not been a regular speaker or even a regular attendant in the House. "I can't get that three-decker Palmerston to bear down," Mr. Canning used to say; and Palmerston always hesitated to formulate views upon any subject which was not his special care at the moment. He refused to set his mind to work up hypotheses. In fact, he was a typical man of the world, and, as it has been often said, a man of the world is not an imaginative animal. When Lord Houghton found himself next to Mr. Gladstone at dinner half-a-century ago, he found him "excited about China and the cattle-plague, and half-a-dozen other things"; when he found himself next to Lord Palmerston he could get no farther than the inevitable ha-ha and laissez-faire. What was admirable, however, in Lord Palmerston, was his ever-present sense of the dignity of England. "Tell M. Guizot from me," said Metternich, "that one does not with impunity play little tricks with great countries." Lord Palmerston never stooped to little tricks himself, and would not tolerate them in others. This attitude, together with his firmness about the military forces of the Crown and his cheerful confidence in the fortune and stamina of his countrymen in 1853 and 1857, was thoroughly appreciated by the Queen; so that when the end came she could look back and mourn honestly at the breaking of "another link of the past," and feel sincerely and "deeply in her desolate and isolated condition how one by one those tried servants and advisers are taken from her." As befitted him, Lord Palmerston died in harness. Realistic and Hellenic in spirit as he was, like his prototype of old who kept a bow which he strung daily to test his failing strength, the Prime Minister within a few weeks of his death was seen to come out of the house at Brocket, look lest he was observed, and then slowly and deliberately climb an iron railing as a test of his bodily vigour. He was over fourscore, and death took him quickly and kindly while still in full possession of his faculties and still in the plenitude of power. Four years before he died, the Queen must have felt that her life had ended. Yet it is now a generation since Lord Palmerston's death, and the Queen, to whose sagacity he bore witness so long ago, still sagaciously rules the nation that he helped to make great. As the first portion of her reign may be said to have synchronised with the fall of Peel, so the second portion ended with the death of Palmerston. Henceforth she was destined to be thrown with a new generation of public servants, men well known to her by name and fame, some of whom had already served her in positions of responsibility, but none of whom had passed in close relation with her through the excitements of her queenship, and the joys and sorrows of her married life. In spite of differences and quarrels, the Queen had always extended to Lord Palmerston that straightforward support of the lack of which none of her Ministers have ever complained, and when he died she could not help feeling that her youth had passed away with him, and that she was left a lonely woman face to face with the awful responsibilities of her great office, without one human being in the world whom she could call an old friend.

Source: The Yoke of Empire: Sketches of the Queen's Prime Ministers, By Reginald B. Brett, 1896
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