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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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.