14th Earl of Derby

Lord Stanley

The Hon. Edward Geoffrey Stanley, later styled Lord Stanley and subsequently fourteenth Earl of Derby, was born at Knowsley on the 29th of March, 1799, the eldest son of Edward, thirteenth earl, and of his cousin Charlotte Margaret, a daughter of the Reverend Geoffrey Hornby, rector of Winwick. The Stanleys, one of the oldest, richest and most distinguished families in England, had been settled in Lancashire since the fourteenth century. They had been strong Whigs, but their consideration was so great that even the Tory George III. respected them and wrote to Lord North: "The head of the Derby family is the proper person to fill the office of Lord-Lieutenant of the county of Lancaster," did not succeed his father until late in life. He was an ardent zoologist and ornithologist, and possessed the largest menagerie and aviary ever formed by a private collector. These and his enormous expenditure were his principal claims to fame.

His son, Edward Stanley, was educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he gained the Chancellor's Latin Verse prize. Although he did not take honours, he showed remarkable classical talents and a facile elegance in English composition. Even at the University he was a brilliant speaker, and, it is said, used to benefit by the teaching of his grandfather's second wife, who had been Miss Farren, the celebrated actress.

In 1820, the year that George IV. came to the throne, Stanley was elected member of Parliament for the close borough of Stockbridge a few weeks before his twenty-first birthday, but for some years he took no part in politics. In 1824 he travelled extensively in Canada and America, and on his return to England he married Emma Caroline, daughter of Mr. Edward Wilbraham, afterwards Lord Skelmersdale. As a Whig he was in favour of parliamentary reform, and in 1826 he changed his nomination seat for that of Preston, where there was a popular franchise. Soon afterwards with some other Whigs he accepted office in Canning's government and became Under-Secretary for the Colonies. He kept this position under Lord Goderich, but refused to serve under the Duke of Wellington. For two years he then voted with the Opposition, and when in 1830 Lord Grey formed his Whig ministry, the first there had been for twenty-three years, Stanley was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland and sworn a privy councillor. At his bye-election he was defeated, but he soon found another seat at Windsor. His Irish administration was drastic but not unsuccessful, for he knew his own mind and stuck to his policy. O'Connell, then the most powerful man in Ireland, quarrelled with him almost at once, but Stanley never hesitated to fight his opponents and to carry through measures with which he was well acquainted. The Irish Board of Works, the Irish Education Act, the Tithe Act, and the Church Temporalities Act, were all due to his initiative. On the Reform Bill his attitude was at first less definite. He was quite ready to promote an agreement on its details, and nearly obtained some concessions from the Tories. In debate, however, he was an active and slashing advocate of the bill, and was largely responsible for its passage through the House of Commons. It is doubtful, however, whether he really much cared for it or understood the full meaning of the change. But his abilities and his name ensured reward, and in 1833 he was advanced to the Colonial Secretaryship in the place of Goderich, who was moved out of the way with some difficulty. Here he introduced a moderate measure for the gradual abolition of the slave trade, handling it with much sagacity.

In May 1834 Lord John Russell, in a speech on Irish tithes, declared in favour of some State appropriation of Church property. The question was one on which the Cabinet was divided, Stanley himself being against sequestration, and it was on this occasion that he made his remark about "Johnny and the coach." The Cabinet determined to come to a compromise on the subject, and Stanley accordingly left them and severed his connection with the Whigs. He was a serious loss, for he was their ablest debater and one of their best men of business. Russell afterwards called this the most memorable period of Stanley's career, and said that his skill, readiness and ability would probably soon have qualified him for the lead in the House of Commons.

In this year, by the death of his grandfather, he succeeded to the courtesy title of Lord Stanley. On leaving the government he had a small following, but though at first he gave some support to his late colleagues, he frequently spoke bitterly against them. In December 1834 when Peel formed his short ministry, Stanley thought it best to decline office, but in July 1835 he formally joined the Conservatives, and during Melbourne's second administration he was a vigorous and active opponent of the Whig government. His debating powers were now at their highest level. "Clever, keen, neat, clear," Macaulay said of him later on".

On Peel's coming in, in 1841, Stanley again became Colonial Secretary. He was in theory something of a Free Trader, but he would not go to the lengths that Peel intended, and gradually differences arose between them. To obviate this awkward position in the House of Commons Stanley was called up to the House of Lords in one of his father's baronies. But the dissensions grew, and on Peel's declaration for a total repeal of the Corn Laws in the autumn of 1845, Stanley gave up his place. Peel himself then resigned, and after Russell had failed to form a ministry the task was offered to Stanley. He declined, however, to attempt it, for he said that if he were to take office he would have no colleagues. To Protection as an economic system he was by no means indissolubly wedded, but "Protection was, in his opinion, necessary for the maintenance of the landed interest and the colonial system, the two pillars on which he conceived the British Empire to rest." This he declared in the House of Lords in May 1846, in a speech which is perhaps the best he ever made. With Bentinck and Disraeli he now formed the Protectionist party, though it is doubtful whether he was really in full sympathy with them.

In the summer of 1846 Peel was defeated and Russell succeeded him. During the next five years Stanley spoke and acted with constant eloquence and effect against the government, and on its temporary resignation in February 1851 he was twice sent for by Queen Victoria but was imable or unwilling to form a ministry. In his own view this was mainly due to the want of courage shown by his supporters. In the following June his father died and he succeeded to the earldom, and in the same year he was elected Chancellor of Oxford University in place of the late Duke of Wellington.

Early in 1852 Lord John Russell was defeated on a snap division. The Queen again sent for Lord Derby, and on this occasion he was successful in making up a government; but it was untried, unknown, and had a majority against it in the House of Commons. Accordingly, on his advice, Parliament was dissolved in July, and after a general election the Conservatives found themselves in a small minority, the Peelites holding the balance. Derby vainly endeavoured to induce Palmerston to join him. Shortly afterwards he was defeated on his budget and in December he resigned, and was replaced by Lord Aberdeen.

The Protectionist policy, of which Derby himself was only a lukewarm supporter, had not helped the Conservatives and they were now for some time seriously divided. The Crimean War Derby strongly opposed, but once the country was definitely embarked on it he promised the ministry his general support, though much of its work compelled his criticism. On Aberdeen's resigning in 1855, Derby, as leader of the Opposition, was asked to succeed him, but he was again unable to enlist the help of either the Peelites or Palmerston, and would not take office alone. Palmerston accordingly became Prime Minister. This gran rifiuto undoubtedly damaged Derby's reputation for pohtical courage, and though his decision was probably right from the point of view of the country, neither his name, his eloquence nor his character ever quite redeemed him in public opinion.
"Cum semel occideris et de te splendida Minos
Fecerit arbitria,
Non, Torquate, genus, non te facundia, non te
Restituet pietas."

For the next few years he followed the ordinary tactics of opposition, impugning the government's principal measures and occasionally dividing against them. But his health was not good, his party was insubordinate and he was glad of the excuse of his literary, racing and other occupations to keep as much away from Parliament as he decently could. In the House of Commons Disraeli did all the heavy work.

In February 1858 Palmerston resigned on the minor question of the Conspiracy Bill, and Derby then formed a purely Conservative administration. He saw that there was little chance of its enduring, but he thought it worth while to give his supporters the experience of office and to accustom the public to them. In foreign policy he was fairly successful, but on a franchise bill which he had felt obliged to introduce in 1859 he was defeated, and accordingly he again advised a dissolution of Parliament. The elections went badly, and in June a want of confidence motion was carried against him. He then resigned and was again replaced by Palmerston. On leaving office on this occasion he was created a Knight of the Garter.

Derby's position was now difficult. He had not a large enough party to conduct the government, and he could not induce the Peelites to join him. Yet he was anxious that a more or less stable ministry should carry on the business of the country. Accordingly he came to a sort of understanding with Palmerston to legislate on moderate lines, while in exchange, as he said, his own party "kept the cripples on their legs." For some years, therefore, Derby left the government more or less alone, the principal work of the Opposition being done by his lieutenant, Disraeli; but occasionally, as for instance when there was a desire to intervene in the German-Danish War in 1864, he exercised his powerful influence for peace.

It was during this period of comparative inactivity in politics that he first attained celebrity as a writer. In 1862 he had privately printed some translations of poems from Greek, Latin, French, German and Italian. They were received with considerable approval, and this encouraged him to proceed with his rendering of the Iliad into blank verse. This work, of unquestioned merit, was published in 1864 and rapidly went through six editions; it is still regarded as one of the best English versions of Homer, During the Lancashire cotton famine of 1862, Lord Derby acted as chairman of the Relief committee and to his energy, generosity and business knowledge was due much of its success.

In October 1865 Lord Palmerston died, and on Russell's resignation eight months later Derby became Prime Minister for the third time. But he was old, he was sufiering from gout, and Disraeli was the real moving spirit of the party. Derby, however, paid great attention to the preparation of the Household Suffrage Reform Bill in 1867. He called it "a leap in the dark," though it "dished the Whigs." In January 1868 he became seriously ill, and next month he resigned and was succeeded by Disraeli. In the autumn of 1869 he died at Knowsley aged seventy.

He left three children, and both his sons, as well as his grandson, the present earl, became Cabinet ministers. It is understood that he had been offered a dukedom, which he declined, and that his eldest son could have had the crown of Greece had he wished for it. He preferred to remain an English peer.

Lord Derby was a handsome man, with aquiline features and a vivacious and agreeable expression. His manners were pleasant and even familiar, though in reality he held aloof from all but his intimates. When young his temper was frank and cheerful, but in later life it was much less genial. Melbourne in 1839 called him a man of great abilities, but of much indiscretion and extremely unpopular. More than twenty years later Disraeli, writing to Lady Londonderry, says: "As to our chief, we never see him. His house is closed, he subscribes to nothing, though his fortune is very large, and expects, nevertheless, everything to be done."! But there was never much sympathy between the two colleagues. Derby regarded Disraeli as an adventurer and disliked his visits to Knowsley, "as it bored him to give up translating Homer in order to talk politics."

As a speaker Derby had remarkable qualities — a fine tenor voice, an animated delivery and a luminous and impressive style. Before speaking he was nervous, but once he had begun he was absolutely composed and cool. Macaulay said that his knowledge of the science of parliamentary defence resembled an instinct. His dashing and rapid attack in invective and argument are celebrated in Lytton's "New Timon":
"The brilliant chief, irregularly great,
Frank, haughty, rash, the Eupert of debate.
Nor gout, nor toil his freshness can destroy,
And time still leaves all Eton in the boy.
First in the class and keenest in the ring,
He saps like Gladstone and he fights like Spring."

He was a religious man and a keen and accomplislied scholar. His latinity was easy and his English prose and poetry admirable, "the pure Saxon of that silver style." He had also a good knowledge of the French and German languages and took a real interest in education and literature. He was equally devoted to country sports and to the turf, and, though he never succeeded in winning any of the principal classic races, he had a famous stable and made nearly £100,000 in stakes alone during the twenty-two years that he kept it up.

As a business man and a large landowner in Lancashire, he was full of common sense, and his work for his own county and for the nation during the Cotton Famine was never forgotten.

Lord Derby was thus a man of many interests, of which politics was only one. His ideas of statesmanship were neither profound nor particularly constant, and he had few broad constructive views. This absence of any fixed political beliefs explains the many political changes which he made during his life, for he was in turn a Whig, a Canningite, a follower of Grey and of Peel, a Protectionist and a moderate Conservative. These tergiversations undoubtedly weakened his influence in the country and modified his own character, so that he was the less inclined to assume office. Yet he was three times Prime Minister, more than anyone had ever then been, though it is true that his tenure of the office only amounted to some four years in all. In his earlier days he was a man of great vitality and combativeness, though not of deep thought or inspiration, taking the business of State rather as he took his other occupations, and usually ready to go into the front of the battle. To him the manner of getting a thing often meant more than the thing itself, and the fight more than the victory. In old age he was content to fill a passive role if reasonable peace and progress were ensured.

As the hereditary chief of the house of Stanley, Derby commanded a high place in the State. His attainments and his eloquence confirmed and enhanced his position.

His ancestors had been credited with a special flair for forecasting public opinion and for finding themselves on the winning side. These gifts he can hardly have inherited, for he seldom profited by his altered views: his ministries were more often defeated than victorious and politics were rather a burden to him than a blessing. A later counterpart of the eighteenth-century dukes, he regarded the claims of public duty as pre-eminent, though distasteful, and he shone more as a partisan and a subordinate than as a tactician or a chief. He left a name, brilliant indeed and distinguished, but more memorable for integrity and patriotism than for sagacity or success.

With the disappearance of Aberdeen and Derby from the political stage, the day of third parties seemed for the moment to be done. Patriots and King's friends, seceders and Canningites, Peelites and Protectionists, had all successively played their parts and made their exit, and it looked as if only the historic characters were in future to fill the scene. But the pause was short. Within a few years new protagonists were to arise, first the Irish and later on the champions of Labour, representatives, perhaps, of race and class, but none the less destined materially to modify the long enduring battle of principle between the Tory and the Whig.

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