The Magazine

Napoleon’s Nemesis

The British statesman who galvanized Europe against France.

Sep 10, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 48 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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After 1803, as Castlereagh’s star rose and war engulfed Europe, he moved from Whig to Tory, from liberal to conservative. Bew makes a good case, however, that while Castlereagh detested the romantic attachments to the French Revolution that characterized so many of his countrymen, he was no Burkean counterrevolutionary. Instead, he was an embodiment of realpolitik, a clear enough realist and protector of British interests to later win the praise of Henry Kissinger. As such, he became a protégé of the “new Tory” William Pitt the Younger, without whom his rise successively from head of the Board of Trade to war secretary and then to foreign secretary would probably not have been possible. It was Castlereagh who, in his various posts, had jurisdiction over India, presided over the return of British troops to the Continent after 1803, and sponsored his friend and fellow Irishman Wellington’s command over British forces on the Iberian Peninsula and at Waterloo. 

By 1812, after a rare hiatus from the government starting in 1809, he was foreign secretary and was his party’s leader in the House of Commons—a formidably complex set of responsibilities. “His greatest skill after 1812,” remarks Bew, was the one he now deployed: “the ability to combine successful diplomacy with the operation of vigorous warfare.” Ever controversial, he nevertheless was the leading figure of the Liverpool government that dealt with the European powers of the alliance arrayed against Napoleon. Once again, we’re likely to recognize the names of Castlereagh’s equals on the Continent—Metternich and Talleyrand chief among them—without knowing that it was Castlereagh who, arguably, bore chief political responsibility, and thus credit, for the military victory over Bonaparte and the creation of the European Congress System after 1815.

A historian of the United States can plead a certain parochial interest in Castlereagh. It was he who was the British foreign secretary throughout the War of 1812—that misbegotten and often-forgotten conflict whose bicentennial we begin to mark this year, in which Britain and the United States found themselves during the closing years of the Napoleonic Wars. One gets a sense of the depth of interest in this war shown by British historians, and a Briton’s sense of the war’s significance in the large context of Castlereagh’s era, in Bew’s devotion of but a mere half-page to the war and its concluding treaty. Bew may be forgiven his inattention, though, since, given the challenges on the Continent, Castlereagh understandably left fighting the American war to others and, except for a possible nudge here and there at the end, left negotiations over its conclusion to diplomats in Ghent. 

Yet, while American histories of the War of 1812 appropriately focus on the British military and naval commanders who prosecuted the war in its theaters of battle, it was Castlereagh who, more than anyone else, hovered over British participation. It was he who oversaw efforts in 1812 to gain parliamentary repeal of the orders in council so offensive to the Madison administration—but not in time to head off the American declaration of war. And before he died by his own hand in 1822, there were signs that, ever the realist, Castlereagh was preparing to settle the issue of the impressment of American seamen with the United States. 

Bew’s assessment of Castlereagh and his exceptional career seems just: 

He was not the most brilliant man of his generation and his qualities did not lend themselves to the transcendent or transformative impact which characterized the careers of the “great” statesmen in British history. Yet it is indisputable that he was one of the most influential and successful politicians of the age and played a central role in the greatest struggle that Britain had ever faced.

The balance embodied in such an assessment is characteristic of Bew’s critical vindication of his subject. Toward the end of the book, borrowing the thought of another historian, Bew compares Castlereagh with his contemporary political opponent, George Canning, and then asks us to imagine our world if Lord Halifax or Neville Chamberlain had been prime minister after May 1940 instead of Winston Churchill. That counterfactual ought to cinch the case on Castlereagh’s behalf: Europe’s escape from Bonaparte’s threat would be inconceivable without Castlereagh’s contribution to it.

James M. Banner Jr. is the author, most recently, of Being a Historian: An Introduction to the World of History Today.