Palmerston and Canning

Lord Palmerston /

Lord Palmerston /

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston was born in 1784. George Canning was born in 1770. Neither man saw much point in the other, and the difference of fourteen years in their age did not prevent them from internecine conflict.

Palmerston was an Irish peer who entered Parliament in London as a member of the Tory party. Having made himself noticed and noticeable quickly, he became Secretary for War in 1809 at thirty-nine. It is only in recent years that the term ‘for War’ has become unacceptable, perhaps smacking of a Minister who wants war, is a ‘war-monger’, and is ready to do anything to create war. These days the phrase has been euphemized to ‘Minister of Defence’.

Palmerston stayed at the War Ministry for nineteen years. He became Foreign Secretary (then the third most important post in a British government after the Prime Minister) in 1830. The government was ‘Whig’ which denoted a continuous opposition to the ‘Tories’. Oddly enough, the words ‘whig’ and tory’ owe their provenance to The Exclusion Crisis of the reign of Charles II. Those who demanded the recall of Parliament in 1679 were called ‘Whigs’ (actually Scottish Covenanting bandits) by their Tory opposers. In return the Tories were given their name by the Whigs (a ‘tory’ is an Irish Catholic bandit).

Lord Palmerston stayed at the Foreign Office as a fixture until 1841, and then again from 1846 – 1851. It was during this period that he helped Holland detach itself from The Netherlands. He also supported the constitutional monarchies of Spain and Portugal against any aggressive and/or absolutist pretenders, and opposed Russian plans for aggrandisement at the expense of the Ottoman Empire in the Near East. This was all very well, but Palmerston (nicknamed by the crowds, with whom he was popular, as ‘Pam’), was increasingly known for blustery and not always rational nationalism. He was not at all popular with Queen Victoria (qv.), who had ascended the throne in 1837.

It was ‘Pam’ who initiated the First Opium War against China in 1840, defending British commercial interests. It was ‘Pam’ who, on learning that Don Pacifico (born in Gibraltar and thus claiming British nationality) had had his house burnt by a mob in Greece, warned the Greek Government that unless compensation were paid to the Portuguese Don Pacifico, the British fleet would open fire on Athens! Palmerston backed up his threat by sending a fleet to do the job. This action almost started a war with France, always happy to bash Britain under any pretext. But Pacifico got his compensation, and Palmerston was declared persona non grata by the Queen; she was not amused.

Poor Queen Victoria had to change her mind when ‘Pam’ succeeded Aberdeen as Prime Minister in 1855. He was just in time to bring the Crimean War to a sensible conclusion, but the Queen did not like him any more. She did however bring herself to receive him again when he managed to keep Britain neutral during the American Civil War, though not even Palmerston was able to stop Germany from occupying Schelswig-Holstein (1864, qv.), naturally offending Denmark and causing a brief war.

Lord Palmerston’s arrogance and firm conviction that both he and Great Britain were right in all things caused much conflict among his colleagues, including George Canning, but he was the nineteenth century’s equivalent of a ‘star’ with the people, who revered him.

George Canning /

George Canning /

George Canning entered Parliament in 1794 at the age of twenty-four. He was already popular for his firm opposition to revolutionary France (qv.). In 1807 he became Foreign Secretary and must be considered responsible for the order that led to the destruction of the Danish fleet at the 2nd Battle of Copenhagen (1807). The fact that the order was made in order to prevent the Danish fleet from dropping into Bonaparte’s hands did not make George Canning as Foreign Secretary any more popular with the Danes.

Canning was also responsible for the momentous decision to wage war directly with French armies in the Peninsula War (qv.) in 1807. Then came a glitch; Canning had to fight a duel (!) with Lord Castlereagh, but he survived (so did Castlereagh) though he kept out of politics for several years through shame.

After the death of his duelling partner in 1822, Canning again became Foreign Secretary. He overtly supported the American Monroe Doctrine, by which American politicians decided not involve themselves or their country in anything, anywhere, but determinhed to set their nose to the grindstone in the building of The American Empire. Canning also recognised the independence, one by one, of Spain’s South American colonies.

It was Canning who orchestrated the Anglo-French-Russian agreement that brought about Greek independence from Turkey. He became Prime Minister in 1827 but died in August of that year. During this short period as PM he had to rely on the support of the Whigs, because his policies, especially his alignment with Catholic Emancipation, had infuriated his Tory colleagues. He never achieved the popularity of Palmerston, but was always (except perhaps for the duel, which could not be avoided) a firm, thorough and responsible statesman.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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