1st Earl Lord Russell

John Russell, afterwards styled Lord John Russell and subsequently first Earl Russell, was born in Hertford Street, Mayfair, London, on August 18, 1792. He was the third child of a Lord John Russell who was the second son of Francis, Marquess of Tavistock, and grandson of John, fourth Duke of Bedford. Lord Tavistock dying before his father, and his elder son, the fifth duke, leaving no issue, his second son, the aforesaid Lord John, became the sixth duke in 1802, and from that date young John Russell took the courtesy prefix. His mother was Georgiana Byng, daughter of George, fourth Viscount Torrington. She died when he was eight years old, and the next year his father removed to Woburn on succeeding to the dukedom. The Russells were a rich and ancient race settled in the two counties of Devon and Bedford since the days of the Tudors, and had long been distinguished for their patriotism and liberal politics. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they had been one of the principal families of the Revolution, and they disputed with the house of Cavendish the leadership of the Whig party. The sixth duke, a member of the Society of Friends of the People, had served as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland during the short ministry of Lord Grenville, but had held no other official posts, though his position and wealth gave him considerable influence.

His son, John Russell, was a weakly child, small and often ailing. He was sent first to Westminster and then to a private tutor's. Later on, after short visits to Ireland, Scotland and Portugal, he went to Edinburgh University, and afterwards set out on an extensive tour in Central and Southern Europe, continuing his classical studies in the meanwhile. By the time that he returned to England he had enjoyed almost unique opportunities of meeting and seeing the most important men and things in Europe. He had ridden with Wellington at Torres Vedras and talked to Napoleon at Elba. He had walked with Walter Scott on the Tweed and breakfasted with Charles Fox in London. He had travelled through Spain and Italy, France and Germany, and had acquired a lively interest in the politics of his own and the principal Continental countries.

Early in 1813, before he was yet of age, he was elected member for the pocket borough of Tavistock. His party were out of office and were to continue in opposition for seventeen years; they thus had urgent need of young, ambitious and able politicians. At first Russell's health checked his regular attendance in Parliament, and the position of the Whigs was sufficiently discouraging to afford him an excuse. But gradually he became more active. Public expenditure. Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform were his favourite subjects; and at the same time he did a large amount of writing — history, memoirs, essays, plays and translations all occupying his attention. Few of his literary productions got him much celebrity, but they enlarged his mind and developed his talents.

In 1819 he made his first important speech on parliamentary reform, which he then continued to press forward year after year with unabated energy. With hardly less patience and pertinacity he urged the claims of the Catholics for relief from civil disabilities. He had to wait a long time before he got any results, but in 1821 he managed to have the corrupt borough of Grampound disfranchised, and in 1828 he succeeded in making the Tory government repeal the Test and Corporation Acts. He had in the meanwhile gained a considerable name as a speaker, and when in 1830 the Whigs at last returned to power, as one of their most capable and active members, he was made Paymaster-General. He was thus thirty-eight years of age before he first received office.

But Russell's training in opposition had been of the highest value to him. As one of the most constant advocates of parliamentary reform. Grey selected him to be a member of the small committee which drew up the Reform Bill, and to him was confided the duty of piloting it through the House of Commons, On March 1, 1831, he introduced his propositions amidst breathless silence, which was at length broken by peals of contemptuous laughter from the Opposition as he read the list of the hundred and ten boroughs which were condemned to partial or entire disfranchisement. But he carried out his difficult task with such courage and ability that after the general election which ensued on the bill's first defeat in 1831, Grey asked him to join the Cabinet. Again he introduced the bill in the face of considerable hostility, and this time it was carried by a large majority. "Lord John," said the Duke of Wellington, "is a host in himself." When eventually, after the long fight with the House of Lords, the Reform Bill became law, Russell found himself one of the most popular men in England. He never afterwards attained so high a place in the estimation of the public. Even at this stage of his career he was difficult to deal with, and already in 1832 he thought of resigning on the question of Irish Church reform. Two years later he carried his opposition so far as to speak against the government on the same subject, and his action, which had much to do with Grey's retirement, led to Stanley's famous remark: "Johnny has upset the coach."

For a few months Melbourne now became Prime Minister, and on Althorp's removal to the House of Lords he recommended to the King that Russell should take over the lead in the House of Commons. To this suggestion William IV. was strongly opposed. "His Majesty," said Melbourne, "stated without reserve his opinion that he (Lord John) had not the abilities nor the influence which qualified him for the task, and observed that he would make a wretched figure when opposed by Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Stanley... His Majesty had further objections. He considered Lord John Russell to have pledged himself to certain encroachments upon the Church, which His Majesty had made up his mind and expressed his determination to resist."!

Shortly afterwards the Whig government was dismissed, and Peel became Prime Minister. Early in 1835, however, Melbourne returned to office, and Russell was then appointed Home Secretary and leader of the House of Commons. In the same year, when he was nearly forty-three, he married his first wife, Adelaide, daughter of Thomas Lister, of Armitage Park, in Staffordshire, widow of the second Lord Ribblesdale. She died three years later, leaving two daughters.

At first Russell had a good deal to contend with. He was not particularly popular in the House nor very easy with his colleagues. The King disliked him, and did not hesitate to show it, though he gradually came to recognize Russell's merits and sincerity. After a time matters went more smoothly. Russell was a thoroughly capable minister, keen and industrious, though handicapped by his health.

He interested himself especially in Ireland and was the means of passing several acts of benefit to that country, but his impatience became more pronounced and he was still a very uncertain quantity in the Cabinet. His carelessness about conciliating his Radical followers and his supercilious manners often gave ofience. Lord Lytton in the "New Timon" wrote of him:
"Next, cool and all unconscious of reproach,
Comes the calm 'Johnny, who upset the coach.'
How formed to lead, if not too proud to please —
His fame would fire you, but his manners freeze.
Like or dislike, he does not care a jot:
He wants your vote, but your afiections not;
Yet human hearts need sun, as well as oats,
So cold a climate plays the deuce with vote:
And, while his doctrines ripen day by day.
His frost-nipped party pines itself away."

In 1839 the government were compelled to resign, from not being supported in a division by the Radicals. Owing, however, to Sir Robert Peel being unable to satisfy the Queen on the Bedchamber question, Melbourne resumed the seals, though much weakened in power and prestige. Russell now took the Colonial Office. A year later he was again at variance with his chief, this time on account of Palmerston's foreign policy in the Near East. Again he threatened resignation, but by Melbourne's tact and the Queen's pressure he was induced to remain. Palmerston's independent methods of conducting the business of the Foreign Office much disturbed him, and he put his opinions on paper.
"November 19, 1840. "My dear Melbourne," In the days of Lord Grey, every important note was carefully revised by him, and generally submitted to the Cabinet. As Paymaster of the Forces, I then had more information and more power of advising than I have now. At present I receive the most important despatches in a printed form some days after they are sent..." Now it cannot, of course, be expected that I am to defend in the House of Commons acts which I have not advised, and of which the editors (of newspapers) are as cognisant as myself...
"To this day I am not aware what was written to Lord Granville in consequence of our two Cabinet meetings.
"All this is very unpleasant, but I think it best to tell you what I feel. I beg, however, that you will not send this letter to Palmerston. u yours truly, "J. Russell."

In 1841 Russell married as his second wife Lady Fanny Elliot, daughter of Gilbert, Earl of Minto. He then left the house in Wilton Crescent which he had hitherto occupied and moved to Chesham Place, to accommodate his family, which was outgrowing his means.

In the summer of 1841 the Whig government fell, and Sir Robert Peel took office. He at once began that course of liberal legislation about which it was said "that he had caught the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes." He initiated his comprehensive measures for the reorganization and repeal of the Corn Laws, measures in which many of Russell's followers were only too ready to concur. Russell himself was in sympathy with him, and when in December 1845 Peel resigned in consequence of differences with his colleagues as to the repeal of the Corn Laws, it was for Russell that the Queen sent. He writes to his wife on December 11 from Osborne: "Well, I am here, and have seen her Majesty. It is proposed to me to form a government; and nothing can be more gracious than the manner in which this has been done. Likewise, Sir Robert Peel has placed his views on paper, and they are such as very much to facilitate my task." J Russell found it impossible, however, to combine a ministry, and Peel eventually returned to office. But six months later Peel was definitely defeated, and on June 28, 1846, Russell became Prime Minister. At this time he was not particularly well off, and early in the next year the Queen offered him Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, a delightful house which he kept for the rest of his life.

His ministry was at first popular and successful, its only discordant note being the rather questionable manner in which Palmerston carried on the work of the Foreign Office without consulting the Queen or his colleagues in the Cabinet as much as he might have done. Russell usually agreed with Palmerston's policy, but the Queen and the Prince Consort often did not. Her Majesty took exception to the way in which despatches were sent off or altered without her approval, and on the point of form Russell held a similar view. Thus dissensions arose.

The various revolutions in Europe in 1848 emphasized the different attitudes of the Queen and her Foreign Secretary, and a correspondence began to pass between him, the court and the Prime Minister, which gradually became acrimonious. In this dispute, which eventually led to a break between Russell and Palmerston, public opinion was generally with the latter. The policy of the government was, in fact, becoming identified with him rather than with its leader, and when in December 1851 Palmerston was dismissed from office in consequence of his unauthorized though unofficial approval of the new French regime, Russell was severely shaken. Two months later, on an amendment of Palmerston's to a militia bill, the ministry was defeated and resigned. It had passed various liberal measuies, but its chief claim to fame in the eyes of the country had been its conduct of foreign affairs. Russell came in for a good deal of criticism. "Some men complained that he had parted from Lord Palmerston; others that he had endured him too long: some that he had introduced a Reform Bill; others that his measure had not been larger."

Punch, parodying the "Ancient Mariner," wrote at this time: "Grumbling, grumbling everywhere,
And all my friends did shrink —
Grumbling, grumbling everywhere,
A fact that none could blink.
Ah, well-a-day in what bad books
I was with old and young;
And by everyone Lord Palmerston
Into my teeth was flung."

Lord Derby now formed a government, which survived for ten months, when it was defeated on the budget. In the meantime negotiations had been going on between the Liberals and the Peelites, fend on Derby's resignation the Queen, as a compromise, sent for Lord Aberdeen. She wrote to Russell on December 19, 1852, as follows: "The Queen has to-day charged Lord Aberdeen with the duty of forming an administration, which he has accepted. The Queen thinks the moment to have arrived when a popular, efficient, and durable government could be formed by the sincere and united efforts of all parties professing Conservative and Liberal opinions. The Queen, knowing that this can only be effected by the patriotic sacrifice of personal interests and feelings to the public, trusts that Lord John Russell will, as far as he is able, give his valuable and powerful assistance to the realization of this object."!

#To this rather unpalatable proposal Russell was willing to agree. There was considerable difficulty in arranging the different posts in the Cabinet so as to suit all the interests concerned. At last it was settled that Russell, who had been a few weeks at the Foreign Office, should lead in the Commons, without holding any other place, while Palmerston took the Home Office, and Clarendon became Foreign Secretary. The ministry started well, but, like most coalitions, it had the elements of disruption in it. The Whigs and the Peelites were jealous, Palmerston still took an interest in foreign affairs and was by far the strongest man in the government, while Russell was inclined to resent his own diminished position. It was the eve of the Crimean War. Aberdeen would not take sufficiently active measures, though Palmerston and Russell continually urged him to do so. The counsels of the Cabinet swayed from side to side. Russell then had to drop his new Reform Bill, which mortified him very much, and in 1854 he threatened to withdraw from the office of Lord President which he had latterly held. Gradually he became more and more dissatisfied with the government's policy, and in January 1855 he definitely resigned. Immediately afterwards Aberdeen himself followed suit. Derby, Lansdowne and Russell were then each asked to form a government, but they all failed, and it was clear that Palmerston alone could lead with any prospect of success. Russell's uncertain conduct had lost him his popularity, and the country felt that a strong and decided man was needed to deal with the war. After a short delay Palmerston accordingly became Prime Minister. At first Russell would not accept office in his government, but he agreed to go and represent Great Britain at the Vienna Conference, and promised that afterwards he would take the Colonial Office. His mission at Vienna lasted until the summer, but it was not felicitous, for he took a different view from Lord Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary, as to the procedure to be pursued. In consequence there was a considerable outcry against him in England, partly no doubt uninformed and unfair, but sufficient to make his presence in the Cabinet embarrassing. A motion of want of confidence in his conduct was proposed, and in July 1855 he retired, though he continued to support the ministry.

For some years he now turned again to literature, and during this time he produced his best known work, the "Life of Charles James Fox." But he still made incursions into politics and was often a thorn in Palmerston's side. In the latter's defeat in 1858 Russell was not unconcerned. Two years later, however, he joined Palmerston 's second administration as Foreign Secretary. Shortly afterwards, in 1861, he was created a peer as Earl Russell, his age and health inducing him to seek some relaxation from the heavy work in the House of Commons.

Until Palmerston's death Russell was now entirely occupied with the business of his own department and with the lead in the House of Lords. His management of foreign affairs was not particularly successful, though Lord Derby's criticisms were perhaps too severe." The foreign policy of the noble earl," he said, "as far as the principle of non-intervention is concerned, may be summed up in two truly expressive words — meddle and muddle. During the whole course of his diplomatic correspondence, wherever he has interfered — and he has interfered everywhere — he has been lecturing, scolding, blustering, and — retreating."

In 1862 Lord Russell received the Garter, and in October 1865, on Lord Palmerston's death, he again became Prime Minister. But his capacity for leadership was gone and his powers were failing. Eight months later, on a hostile division, he resigned, leaving office finally in June, 1866, when almost seventy-four years of age. For some time he still interested himself in politics and literature, but he gradually became decrepit and was compelled to cease from active work. He passed his later years at Richmond, and died in May 1878. He left several children by both his marriages and has male descendants now living.

Lord Russell's personal appearance was against him. His face was pale and drawn. He had a massive head and broad shoulders, but his body was disproportionately short and small. All his life he suffered from a poor digestion, which explained many of his defects. "His outward form," says a contemporary, "was frail and weakly; his countenance sicklied over with the effects of ill-health and solitary self-communing; his figure shrunken below the dimensions of ordiuary manhood; his general air that of a meditative invalid. But within that feeble body was a spirit that knew not how to cower, a brave heart that could pulsate vehemently with large and heroical emotions, a soul that aspired to live nobly in a proud and right manly career. His voice was weak, his accent minciug with affectation, his elocution broken, stammering and uncertain, save when in a few lucky moments his tongue seemed unloosed and there came rushing from his lips a burst of epigrammatic sentences — logical, eloquent, and terse, and occasionally vivified by the fire of genius. "But though as a speaker Russell was rarely powerful, often halting and cold, in retort he was very ready. Sir Francis Burdett, who had turned from Radical to Tory, once took occasion after a speech of Russell's to sneer at his "cant of patriotism", "I quite agree" said Lord John, "with the honourable baronet that the cant of patriotism is a very offensive thing. But I can tell him a worse — the recant of patriotism."

His preoccupation was remarkable. Once at a Court Ball he was sitting next to the Duchess of Sutherland in front of the fire. He suddenly rose, left her without saying a word and went and sat down in another part of the room next to the Duchess of Inverness. This change of place was noticed by many of those present, and was thought to indicate some quarrel. A friend said to him that he hoped there was nothing in it. "Not at all," said Russell; "it was only that the fire was too hot." "I hope you told the Duchess of Sutherland the reason why you got up and left her," said the friend. "Oh no," said Lord John, "I didn't, but I told the Duchess of Inverness."

His liberalism, though sound, was not extreme. He followed the opinions of Fox — "that men are entitled to equal rights, but to equal rights to unequal things." Universal suffrage he opposed, and he never pursued peace with the intensity of Aberdeen, though for the old traditions of the Whigs he had a thorough veneration. But he was hampered by a curious inclination to criticize or even to controvert his best friends and allies. He was always resigning and always at the most awkward junctures. Sidney Herbert once said of him: "Lord John drops his resolutions as if they were his colleagues. "This habit, for it became very nearly a habit, undoubtedly laid him open to the imputation of playing for his own hand, and he suffered for it materially, for he had frequently to change his constituencies. In later life, after he had been Prime Minister, it was perhaps natural for him to hesitate about serving under Aberdeen or Palmerston, but his general attitude towards his party was never very genial. Constant indisposition and pressure of circumstances probably embittered a rather jealous temperament."

As an old man he took more generous views. Not long before his death he wrote of himself: "To speak of my own work, I can only rejoice that I have been allowed to have my share in the task accomplished in the half-century which has elapsed from 1819 to 1869. My capacity, I always felt, was very inferior to that of the men who have attained in past times the foremost place in our Parliament, and in the councils of our Sovereign. I have committed many errors, some of them very gross blunders. But the generous people of England are always forbearing and forgiving to those statesmen who have the good of their country at heart. Like my betters, I have been misrepresented and slandered by those who know nothing of me; but I have been more than compensated by the confidence and the friendship of the best men of my own political connection, and by the regard and favourable interpretation of my motives which I have heard expressed by my generous opponents from the days of Lord Castlereagh to those of Mr. Disraeli."

Russell had the difficult task of combining under one flag the old Whigs and the new Radicals. He lacked the debonair charm of Melbourne, the cheery pugnacity of Palmerston and the inspiring eloquence of Gladstone. He had no gifts of face or fortune to help him, and little of that spirit of compromise which in some hands can so often oil the wheels of politics. Yet with all these disadvantages and with singularly able competition on his own side and that of his opponents, he succeeded in performing remarkable services to his country. To a large extent he may be called the founder of modern Liberalism.

Such were the reformers, Tory and Whig. They had formidable foes to encounter, they made many mistakes, but they laid the axe to the roots of the tree of privilege, that steady growth of centuries, and within a few decades pocket boroughs and patent places, golden prebends and purchased colours, were to fall to the ground and to vanish in a holocaust of repeal.

Source: The Prime Ministers of Britain 1721-1921, by The Hon. Clive Bigham, 1923
Source: The Yoke of Empire: Sketches of the Queen's Prime Ministers, By Reginald B. Brett, 1896