The Magazine

Eminent Victorian

It’s not easy reducing the phenomenon of Viscount Palmerston to words.

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By BARTON SWAIM
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"David Brown’s multi-faceted Palmerston,” says a blurb on the back of this volume, “in its archival mastery, scope and insight, outdistances any other.” I thought I detected a note of ambiguity in that verb “outdistances,” and I was right. Brown knows everything it’s humanly possible to know about his subject, and he has documented that knowledge in well over 2,000 endnotes. But he has no gift for narrative, and the life of this extraordinary statesman often gets lost amid long explanations of complex historical matters—the creation of Belgium, the reasons for the Quadruple Alliance, and many other things of limited relevance to the subject.

Palmerston: A Biography

W. & D. Downey Picture History / Newscom

In Brown’s defense, it should be said that Palmerston’s must be a terrifically difficult life to write. When he died in 1865, two days shy of his 81st birthday, he had been in Parliament almost his entire adult life, much of it as either foreign secretary, home secretary, or prime minister. He was involved in virtually every major foreign question faced by Great Britain from the Napoleonic Wars to the (American) Civil War. He had a piercing intellect and wrote huge numbers of letters and diaries and policy memos; he was exceedingly charming and yet hated by subordinates; and both his energy and sexual drive were boundless. Putting the life of such a man between hard covers would tax the talents of even the most efficient biographer.

Henry Temple, later 3rd Viscount Palmerston, born in 1784, attended Harrow and caught the attention of the school’s headmaster, so advanced was the boy’s mind. Brown quotes from a letter written by a nine-year-old Henry to his father, asking for shooting lessons: He would be “most terribly laughed at,” he says, “as it is reckoned almost a disgrace not to shoot, and indeed there is hardly another boy of my age here, that does not.” He went on to Edinburgh University at the very pinnacle of that institution’s prestige and influence; he studied under, and lodged with, Professor Dugald Stewart, the teacher of Walter Scott, Sydney Smith, James Mill, and many others.

Fresh from his studies, family connections guaranteed the young man a ministerial post in government; only he had to find a seat, and several attempts to get himself elected failed. At last he bought a pocket borough in the Isle of Wight for £4,000. The borough’s owner agreed to the transaction on the strict condition that Palmerston “never set foot in the place.” Spencer Perceval made him war minister, and he worked himself (and his staff) mercilessly and acquired a reputation for diligence and resourcefulness. His working habits were legendary: In 1818 a deranged ex-soldier shot him at point blank range, though his aim was faulty and Palmerston was only bloodied. When the doctor arrived, Palmerston made him wait while he finished a brief.

Notoriously, though, his life wasn’t all work. He had many affairs, his diaries referring to encounters with the locution “A fine day” or “Another fine day.” Contemporaries called him “Lord Cupid.” His longest affair was with Emily Cowper, wife of Lord Cowper, whose death allowed the two to marry in 1839. Before the marriage, Lord Melbourne, Emily’s brother and then prime minister, advised her that “you mustn’t deceive yourself about it—if you do you must take the consequences.” Yet Lord and Lady Palmerston made a durable and, for the most part, happy pair: Emily charmed her husband’s allies and pacified his enemies. They never had any legitimate offspring, although three of Emily’s children—William Cowper, later Lord Mount Temple; Emily, later the wife of the great philanthropist and Christian Zionist Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury; and Frances, later wife of Viscount Jocelyn—were almost certainly Palmerston’s.

He was among the most successful foreign ministers of the century. It is true, as Jasper Ridley says in a more readable Life than this one, that “in foreign policy, Palmerston acted on a very simple principle: to advance the interests of England. All other things had to be sacrificed to this end.” For Palmerston, however, advancing England’s interests meant, above all, fostering the birth and growth of limited constitutional government.

On the one hand, Palmerston’s approach was utterly without illusion; he was the most “realistic” of diplomats. He had no faith in the power of gestures when interests were at stake; the growing hostility between Britain’s allies and the Iberian states, he said in the 1830s, “is not one of words, but of things; not the effect of caprice or will, but produced by the force of occurrences.”

On the other hand, he had the prescience to see that constitutionalism was Europe’s best hope for peace. Britain, he wrote in a letter to Lord Melbourne, must “pursue a policy of our own, aim at objects of our own .  .  . act upon principles of our own, [and] use other govts as we can.” Yet in the same letter he wrote,

The system of England ought to be .  .  . to throw her moral weight into the scale of any people who are spontaneously striving for freedom, by which I mean rational government; and to extend, as far and as fast as possible, civilization all over the world.

Critics accused him of betraying that aim. He was dismissed as foreign secretary by Lord John Russell for backing the 1848 coup in France, an event that led directly to Napoleon III assuming dictatorial power, and during the American Civil War he remained neutral and allowed British shipyards to supply the Confederacy. Yet in France there was no attractive alternative, and in America both sides were constitutional governments, even if the South’s economy depended on slavery, which in any case Palmerston had always worked to suppress.

When things went wrong, he was attacked as a starry-eyed idealist. In 1837, after Palmerston had put British military prestige at risk in an ineffective attempt to bring about a constitutional government, one Tory opponent (James Harris, later foreign secretary) alleged him to be a “zealot” who, though “conscientious” in his aim to secure “the blessings of liberty,” had forgotten that “pure liberty has never yet sprung from such a fratricidal field.” The country in question was Spain.

Brown is at his best in delineating the ways in which Palmerston’s thought and policies were the fruits of the training he’d received at Edinburgh. Many of his memos read almost as if they were taken directly from the pages of Adam Smith or the lectures of Dugald Stewart. “Protecting duties,” Palmerston wrote, “are taxes laid upon the bulk of the community & expended in paying a few individuals for the loss they sustain in carrying on an unprofitable trade.” He was among the first great politicians to embrace the press as a force for liberty—although, true enough, his practice didn’t always match his ideals: As foreign secretary he set aside a fund for the sole purpose of bribing journalists. 

Nor was he without contradiction on the greatest domestic question of the century, electoral reform. He cultivated and enjoyed popularity with the masses; indeed, as Brown puts it, “Palmerston was the ‘People’s Minister,’ long before anyone thought to call Gladstone the ‘People’s William.’ ” Yet he consistently opposed expanding the franchise except as a necessary evil. In notes on the subject written in 1864, a year before his death, he criticized Gladstone’s position—Gladstone had said that “every sane man” deserved the franchise—by asking, “If every sane man has that right why does it not also belong to every sane woman?”

The truth is that a vote is not a right but a trust. All the nation cannot by any possibility be brought together to vote, and therefore a selected few are appointed by law to perform this function for the rest.

This latest biography will exhaust its readers just as Palmerston exhausted his friends and opponents. In his seventies we find him still working tirelessly on Italian unification and hunting foxes in the rain. His final days were spent in a state of lethargy, the result of a bladder infection. His last words are a source of speculation. One version, probably apocryphal, has him saying, “Die, my dear Doctor? That’s the last thing I shall do!” Jasper Ridley’s version is more in keeping with his character: “In his last delirium, his thoughts were on diplomatic treaties. His last words were, ‘That’s article 98; now go on to the next.’ ”

Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.