Mention the names of Wellington, Nelson, and Pitt to any informed person and you’re likely to get a nod of recognition. But Castlereagh? A blank stare. Yet the case can be made, and John Bew makes it convincingly, that Viscount Castlereagh was the equal of those three men and many other contemporaries, surpassed only by Palmerston among 19th-century British foreign secretaries.
So why is he not better known and given his due?
The principal reason seems to be, as Bew demonstrates, that in his own time, Castlereagh was deeply controversial, the object of as much invective as honor, and that we’ve not successfully broken free of those ancient divisions of view. If Castlereagh was despised by the Romantic likes of Byron and Shelley but praised by conservative realists of his time, how is a biographer to make his way through this Sargasso of opinion? Bew has chosen to do so by taking into account the entire body of opinion, pro and con, that’s piled up since Cas-tle-reagh’s day—by examining and crediting, refining, or dispatching, as the case may be, the claims and charges that others have laid down since then.
Given the mass and diversity of these views, the result is at times overwhelming—a book clotted by arguments that might have been made elsewhere. Yet this exhaustive biography, covering every event and circumstance of Castlereagh’s life and career, will leave readers in no doubt that he was a formidable figure whom we overlook to the distortion of historical understanding. Even if not definitive, the book will long remain one that everyone interested in late-18th-century British history and the Napoleonic era will have to confront.
Robert Stewart (called Castlereagh, in the British manner, after the title of his ennoblement) rose to the pinnacles of responsibility in successive British governments as a son of Ireland. Nurtured by the “radical Presbyterian politics of Ulster,” this member of the County Down gentry was forever marked by his Irish origins. In fact, Castlereagh’s life was an Irish life carried into Britain. Thus, however much his fidelity to the land of his birth may have been discounted and ridiculed in his day, that life cannot be understood save as the biography of an Irish patriot. In fact, Bew’s book is in many ways an Irish history, a chapter in the long history of the tortured relations between Britain and Ireland, whose realities have enriched, troubled, and sometimes perverted the history of the United Kingdom into our own time. Those influences, it should be kept in mind, have not been without effect (beyond the fact of Irish immigration) on American history.
“The crucible,” in Bew’s words, of Castlereagh’s political thought, Ireland was also the seed ground of his lifelong political career. He cut his political teeth in the Irish Parliament between 1790 and 1801 while becoming the “architect of its abolition.” He achieved this feat as a leader of the successful campaign to gain representation for Ireland in the British Parliament though the Act of Union of 1800. The act was an epochal change that ended the life of the independent Irish government while either (depending upon which antipodal opinion you held) forever staining Castlereagh’s reputation, or elevating it to honor.
But this was not the only problem that Castlereagh created for himself, or that Ireland created for him. As a Protestant, he was a lifetime champion of the rights of his Roman Catholic countrymen, especially for their right to be represented—the right known as “Catholic emancipation.” Castlereagh was in his grave before the goal was finally achieved in 1829, but not before, once again, he was buffeted by storms of controversy both in Ireland and Britain for maintaining what, for him, was a deeply held conviction.
It is evidence of the difficulty that this Irish native would henceforth face for having moved to create a single legislature from two and liberate Irish Catholics to participate fully in the union that some praised Castlereagh for being “so unlike an Irishman,” while others excoriated him for having betrayed the land of his birth. Such were the complexities that Castlereagh had to navigate as he made his way out of Ireland into the highest ranks of British officialdom after 1801. He might achieve standing, however controversial, in the larger world of British politics, but, as Bew writes, “Ireland was never to leave him.”
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.