The English statesman William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848), served as prime minister in 1834 and from 1835 to 1841. He was the stern suppressor of early trade unionism and the political mentor of the young Queen Victoria.
Lord Melbourne was a member of the small aristocratic oligarchy which dominated English society and politics in the 18th and early 19th centuries. By taking a leading part in reforming the oligarchical system in 1832 and afterward, the great aristocrats preserved much of their power and influence for most of the century.
William Lamb was born on March 15, 1779, at Brocket Hall, the family's Hertfordshire seat. He was generally believed to be the son of the Earl of Egremont. The Lambs were relative newcomers to aristocratic society, but their great wealth and Lady Melbourne's beauty and charm gave them a place in the highest circles. William grew up among the flower of the Whig aristocracy. The Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Charles James Fox were some of his mother's close friends.
William was educated at Eton, Trinity College, Cambridge, and the University of Glasgow. Like most young men of the period, he profited little from his formal education; but he read widely in history and literature. An extraordinarily good-looking and brilliant young man, William was eagerly welcomed by society. Early on he displayed that good-natured cynicism which was to mark the rest of his career. He liked people, but he never expected much good to come from human endeavor. For a couple of years after completing his education in 1801, he did little but enjoy himself. However, as a younger son, William had to have a career. He finally settled on the law and in 1804 was admitted to the bar.
Lamb's legal career did not last long. His elder brother died in 1805, and Lamb became the future Lord Melbourne. As a prospective peer, he was expected to pursue a career in politics. He soon found himself a seat and entered Parliament in 1806. Just before this, in 1805, he had married Lady Caroline Ponsonby.
For the next 20 years Lamb was not to make a great success of his new career. He entered politics as Fox's devoted follower, but Fox died after a brief period in office, and the Whigs went out of power in 1807. Lamb soon found himself uncomfortable with Whiggery. He agreed with the Whigs on Catholic emancipation, but he found them too critical of the war against Napoleonic France. He also thought them soft toward parliamentary reform and popular radicalism. Lamb's closest sympathies were with a parliamentary group led by George Canning. But the Whigs were his friends, and he firmly rejected opportunities to advance his own career at their expense. This was not very satisfying, and in 1812 he retired from politics for a time.
Lamb's marriage was not a happy one. Lady Caroline was romantic to the point of mental imbalance, as she showed in her notorious affair with Lord Byron. The whole drama of the stormy romance was played in public from 1812 to 1816. Then, rejected by both Byron and society, she sank deeper into mental disorder until her death in 1828. Lamb remained loyal to his wife to the end.
Lamb returned to Parliament in 1816. But it was not until 1827 that his career began to prosper. Then Canning finally came to power, and some of the Whigs joined his government. Lamb became chief secretary for Ireland. Canning soon died, but Lamb remained with the Canningites in two successive governments until 1828.
In 1829 Lamb succeeded to the Melbourne peerage, and in the following year he joined Lord Grey's great reform ministry. Melbourne still did not really believe in parliamentary reform. But now the great popular agitation for change seemed to make the choice one between reform and national convulsion. With such a choice, Melbourne chose reform.
But Melbourne believed that riotousness must be suppressed and, as home secretary, he was responsible for maintaining order. It was generally assumed that any kind of working-class organization was aimed at political revolution. Melbourne revived some old legislation against trade unions and encouraged its strict enforcement. The most famous sufferers were the "Tolpuddle Martyrs," agricultural laborers in Dorset who seem to have been innocent of any object other than the improvement of their miserable working conditions.
Melbourne's reputation for firmness did him no harm among the upper classes. When Lord Grey resigned in 1834, Melbourne seemed the man most likely to be able to hold a Whig government together, and the King asked him to take Grey's place. Melbourne's reaction was typical. "I think it's a damned bore," he said. But he accepted.
With the exception of the brief Tory government of 1834-1835, Melbourne was to remain in office until 1841. He had a difficult task. His government, Parliament, and the country were deeply divided on the necessity for further reform and on its nature. Melbourne always greeted change without enthusiasm, but he was a realist and had a great talent for conciliation. Somehow he kept the government together and did what seemed necessary and practicable.
It was not until 1837, with the accession of Queen Victoria, that Melbourne began to enjoy office. Her innocent, straightforward character deeply appealed to him, and she responded with hero worship. It became the main object of Melbourne's life to educate the young queen for her role, and of hers to learn from "dear Lord M." On occasion, Melbourne's devotion may have got the better of his judgment, but his role as mentor was generally applauded. When he finally left office, he left a confident queen, with a competent new adviser in Prince Albert. For Melbourne his parting from the Queen was the beginning of the end. He died at Brocket Hall on Nov. 24, 1848.
A superb biography of Melbourne is the two volumes by Lord David Cecil: The Young Melbourne (1939) and Lord M. (1954). An interesting supplement to Cecil's books is Elizabeth Jenkins, Lady Caroline Lamb (1932), a biography of Melbourne's wife, who became known less for the novels she wrote than for her love affair with Lord Byron. Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement (1959; 2d rev. ed. 1960), is recommended for general historical background.
Cecil, David, Lord, Melbourne, New York: Harmony Books, 1979, 1954.
Marshall, Dorothy, Lord Melbourne, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975?.
Ziegler, Philip, Melbourne: a biography of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, New York: Knopf, 1976.