The English statesman Henry John Temple, 3d Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865), was the chief architect of British foreign policy in the mid-19th century. His aggressive diplomatic methods symbolized Britain at the zenith of its power.
In the framework of Victorian politics, Lord Palmerston was a liberal because he worked for the independence of constitutional states on the Continent, but he was restrained in the support of liberal programs in England and opposed reform in Ireland.
Henry John Temple was born on Oct. 20, 1784, at Broadlands, Hampshire. His father was Henry Temple, 2d Viscount Palmerston, and his mother was Mary Dee. When he was 8, he went to the Continent with his parents for an extended stay; in the next 2 years he acquired a knowledge of French and Italian. His formal education was at Harrow, the University of Edinburgh, and St. John's College, Cambridge. He succeeded to an Irish viscountcy in 1802 on the death of his father.
Palmerston began his parliamentary career as a Tory representative for a pocket borough (Newport, Isle of Wight) in 1807. As an Irish peer, he was eligible to sit in the House of Commons, and he was to remain in Parliament for 58 years. He served as a junior lord of the Admiralty from 1807 to 1809 in Lord Portland's ministry. Under Spencer Perceval he became secretary of war and held that position for 19 years (1809-1828). He was much influenced by George Canning and thus became committed to a more liberal foreign policy. In 1829, 2 years after Canning's death, Palmerston left the Tory party and joined the Whigs. It was an opportune move, since the Whigs came to office in 1830 under Lord Grey. Palmerston became foreign secretary in the Grey Cabinet. He held this post until 1841 under Grey and then Lord Melbourne except for the 4 months of Sir Robert Peel's ministry of 1834/1835.
Palmerston's conduct of foreign policy was popular with the public but irritated the Queen. His bluntness was unheard of in diplomatic circles, and his candid statements that British interests were paramount were not calculated to win allies. Personally, Palmerston was a colorful figure, a bit of a rake who loved horses and fox hunting and who instinctively disliked France and Russia. His energy, wit, and self-confidence were legendary. In 1839 he married Emily Lamb, sister of Lord Melbourne, and Lord Cowper's widow.
The great diplomatic achievement of the 1830s was the establishment and guarantee of the independence of Belgium in the Treaty of London (1839). It was the masterpiece of Palmerston's long career. He also supported efforts to abolish the international slave trade. Not as praiseworthy was his intervention in China and the resultant Opium War (1840-1842), in which British gunboats forcibly opened five Chinese ports to British trade. Crises in the Near East in 1833 and 1839 brought Palmerston's Russophobia into play and Britain to a position of defending the Ottoman Empire. This policy angered France, which had supported Mohammed Ali and Egypt in 1839, but Palmerston was firm and France gave way.
Foreign policy passed into the hands of Lord Aberdeen (1841-1846) in Peel's second ministry, but Palmerston returned to the Foreign Office in 1846 for another 5 years. It was in these years that he was especially outspoken. "England, " he said, "is one of the greatest powers of the world and her right to have and to express opinions on matters … bearing on her interests is unquestionable." In a speech he said of Britain: "We have no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and those interests it is our duty to follow." When Don Pacifico, a Portuguese moneylender but a British subject, brought claims of property damage against the Greek government, Palmerston backed him up with the British fleet. He justified his actions in a lengthy speech in which he stated that a British subject, like a Roman citizen of classical times, could count on protection from his government anywhere in the world. This won him extraordinary popular acclaim, but it did not please the court or some of his colleagues. In 1851, when he congratulated the French ambassador on the coup d'etat of Louis Napoleon before consulting other members of the government, Palmerston was dismissed by the prime minister, Lord John Russell.
Despite this dismissal Palmerston was on the eve of his greatest triumph. He joined the Aberdeen coalition government as home secretary in 1853 but was catapulted into the prime minister's office in 1855, when the disasters of the Crimean War (1854-1856) demanded vigorous leadership. For the next decade, except for the Tory ministry of 1858-1859, Palmerston remained prime minister. The main actions of the Palmerston Cabinet were in foreign affairs; he was disinclined to further reform at home. The Crimean War was ended with the fall of Sevastopol in 1855 and the Treaty of Paris in 1856. Russia had been humiliated, to Palmerston's satisfaction. In 1858 Palmerston was forced to resign as a result of the Orsini attempt to assassinate Napoleon III. Orsini had organized the details of the plot in London. Palmerston's Conspiracy to Murder Bill—to make the plotting of assassinations by foreign refugees a felony—was defeated. A brief Derby government took office, but in June 1859 Palmerston returned as prime minister.
The Cavour-designed unification of Italy met with Palmerston's approval, although no official British intervention was sanctioned. But he became increasingly suspicious of the French role in Italy and went so far as to raise the specter of a new Napoleonic threat to Britain. The Parliament and the public accepted this view and voted new sums for national defense, but Palmerston's panic conclusion was unsound. His reaction to the American Civil War was similarly unwise. He sympathized with the Confederacy, and his old belligerence came to the surface over the Trent affair in 1861, in which a British ship had been stopped by an American warship and two Confederate envoys removed. Palmerston's rage was tempered by his colleagues and by Prince Albert, and British neutrality was preserved.
That Palmerston had lost his former dominance in European affairs was clearly evident in a final clash with Bismarck over Schleswig-Holstein. Palmerston failed to carry through a plan to intervene in behalf of Denmark, and Denmark was soundly beaten by Austria and Prussia in a war in 1864. The younger Bismarck had completely outmaneuvered the old master Palmerston. A year later, on October 18, Palmerston died at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire.
Palmerston was not a liberal in the Gladstonian sense of the word. He was too narrow in his outlook. He was a nationalist, a British patriot, and an aristocrat who did not favor the franchise for the working classes. He was the spokesman of the British middle classes, who considered themselves God's chosen people in the prosperous years of early Victorian Britain. Palmerston vigorously opposed what he viewed as the two major threats to the British system: absolutism and republicanism. The British via media, or middle way, he felt, would avoid both the danger of despotism and the rule of the mob. Consequently, Palmerston spoke against both absolute monarchs and socialist republicans. He favored those Continental liberal movements that sought to imitate Britain.
It was Palmerston's misfortune that, by the time he became prime minister in 1855, he was 70 years old and out of touch with his times. His physical energy remained, but his attitudes were a generation old. His accomplishments at the Foreign Office, working with a notoriously inadequate staff, over a quarter century were, nevertheless, great. He contributed to the preservation of the balance of power in the long period of relative peace from the Napoleonic Wars to the brief Bismarckian conflicts. It was, of course, a British peace, Pax Britannica, and a balance of power preserved by the reality of British naval supremacy.
In the final analysis, though, Palmerston's personality was probably more important than his policies. He overawed the Parliament, the nation, and at times all the courts of Europe with his social charm and daring style.
Further Reading on 3d Viscount Palmerston
Two excellent studies of Palmerston are Donald Southgate, "The Most English Minister … .": The Policies and Politics of Palmerston (1966), and Jasper Ridley, Lord Palmerston (1971). Older standard works include Henry Lytton Bulwer, The Life of Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston (3 vols., 1871-1874); Anthony Evelyn Ashley, The Life and Correspondence of Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston (2 vols., 1876); and Herbert C. F. Bell, Lord Palmerston (2 vols., 1936).
The most thorough discussion of Palmerston's foreign policy is Charles K. Webster, The Foreign Policy of Palmerston, 1830-1841 (2 vols., 1951). Kingsley Martin, The Triumph of Lord Palmerston (1924; rev. ed. 1963), sketches the immediate background of public opinion and the Crimean War. Recommended for general historical background are E.L. Woodward, The Age of Reform, 1815-1870 (1938; 2d ed. 1962); Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement, 1783-1867 (1959); and, for the European background to Palmerston's diplomatic activites, A. J. P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 (1954).
Additional Biography Sources
Bourne, Kenneth, Palmerston, the early years, 1784-1841, New York: Macmillan, 1982.
Chamberlain, Muriel Evelyn, Lord Palmerston, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1987.
Judd, Denis, Palmerston, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.
Trollope, Anthony, Lord Palmerston, New York: Arno Press, 1981.