George Canning

The English orator and statesman George Canning (1770-1827) opposed intervention by Continental powers in constitutionalist movements of other states. He successfully supported the insurgent Spanish-American colonies and the establishment of Greek autonomy.

George Canning was born in London on April 11, 1770, the son of a barrister who had been disowned by his well-to-do Londonderry family. When his father died a year later, his mother took to the provincial stage to support herself and her son. Fortunately his father's family relented and sent Canning to Eton and Oxford, where he won a reputation for his classical scholarship as well as for his wit, oratory, and Jacobin leanings.

Early Career

The excesses of the French Revolution modified Canning's political views, and when he entered Parliament in 1796, he was a supporter of Prime Minister Pitt. He was undersecretary for foreign affairs from 1796 to 1799; after serving in other offices he resigned with Pitt on the Catholic issue in 1801. His marriage to Joan Scott in 1800 relieved him from financial dependence on his political supporters.

In March 1807 Canning became foreign secretary in the Portland administration. Here he was chiefly responsible for the decision to seize the Danish fleet in 1807 to prevent it from coming under the control of Napoleon. He justified this action on the basis of secret articles of the Tilsit treaties but did not reveal his sources. He actively supported the Peninsular campaign but came into jurisdictional conflict with Lord Castlereagh, the minister of war. He privately urged the Prime Minister to transfer Castlereagh to another office, and finally, on Sept. 9, 1809, Canning resigned. At that point Castlereagh heard of the matter in such terms as to indicate that Canning had engaged in dishonorable intrigue against him. He demanded satisfaction and slightly wounded Canning in a duel on September 19. The illness and subsequent death of the Prime Minister removed the one person who could clear Canning, and he never quite lived down the mistrust that the episode both revealed and increased.

Canning's acid wit—Sir Walter Scott wrote that it could "penetrate the hide of a rhinoceros"—often gave offense. His great oratorical abilities were useful to a cabinet, but he was not always accepted with cordial confidence by Tory colleagues. He was offered the Foreign Office again in 1812 in the Liverpool ministry, but he demanded, unacceptably, the leadership of the Commons as well and lost his chance to the more tactful and unassuming Castlereagh. From 1816 to 1820 Canning was in the Cabinet as president of the Board of Control for India and served there with distinction, but he resigned in 1820 to support Queen Caroline in the divorce case. In 1822 he was appointed governor general of India and was about to embark when the suicide of Castlereagh in August 1822 opened the Foreign Office to him once more. Again he insisted on the leadership of the Commons, and this time he got it. From then until his death in 1827 he was the most influential member of the government.


Diplomatic Achievements

The immediate problem in foreign affairs was the Congress of the Great Powers (Russia, Austria, Prussia, Britain, and France) called for September to deal with the revolutions in Greece, Spain, and the Spanish colonies. The four Continental powers, after easy Austrian success in suppressing the constitutionalists in Naples, were now in full cry against popular movements. Castlereagh had planned to attend and make a major effort to dissuade them from any further interventions and, if necessary, to break openly with the alliance. Canning was in accord with this line, but he recognized that the Duke of Wellington would carry more weight on this mission. Wellington, however, was unable to deter the allies, who pledged their support to French intervention in Spain. The French success there in 1823 at once raised talk of another congress for French action against the rebellious Spanish-American colonies. In the British view, this would further disturb the balance of power and threaten British security as well as commerce.

Canning met this problem by giving a timely warning to the French that British sea power would be used to prevent any non-Spanish expedition across the Atlantic. He used his oratory to rouse Britain and to convince Europeans of his purpose. If it came to war, he declared, it would be a "war of opinions," a "civil war," in which Britain would find "under her banners all the discontented and restless spirits of the age."

In 1825 Canning extended British recognition to three Spanish-American republics, thus consolidating their independence and making the British money market more accessible to them. This situation inspired his most famous statement: "I resolved that if France had Spain, it should not be Spain 'with the Indies.' I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old." Throughout, he avoided any special trade privileges from the new states, while his friend William Huskisson at the Board of Trade was doing much to liberalize British commercial policies.

Developments in the Greek revolt against Turkish rule soon led Canning to depart from the policy of nonintervention and to support the Greek national cause. The Turks had enlisted the army and navy of Mehemet Ali of Egypt and threatened to depopulate the Morea. This not only intensified British sympathy for the Greeks but also led to a threat of Russian intervention on their behalf, thus endangering the balance in the Near East. To meet this situation, in 1826 Canning enlisted Russian support for British mediation for Greek autonomy. Then, in July 1827, he formed an alliance with Russia and France to enforce Greek autonomy on the Turks. This new alignment, far too strong for Austria to resist, broke the fourpower front against national and constitutionalist movements and established Greek independence.

Canning himself did not live to guide this alliance to its fulfillment. After Lord Liverpool became paralyzed in February 1827, Canning succeeded him as prime minister but at the price of a serious split in the Tory party. Wellington, Peel, and others, mistrusting Canning in this office, refused to serve under him. Canning was able to recruit others, but the transition dragged out to 6 weeks of intense strain from which, bearing a heavy cold, he never recovered. His "hundred days" at the pinnacle ended in death on Aug. 8, 1827.


Further Reading on George Canning

The best biography of Canning is H. W. V. Temperley, Life of Canning (1905). Josceline Bagot, ed., George Canning and His Friends (2 vols., 1909), contains interesting material. On Canning's foreign policy, H. W. V. Temperley, The Foreign Policy of Canning, 1822-1827 (1925; 2d ed. 1966), is standard. Also well worth consulting is C. K. Webster, ed., Britain and the Independence of Latin America, 1812-1830: Select Documents from the Foreign Office Archives (2 vols., 1938).

Additional Biography Sources

Dixon, Peter, Canning, politician and statesman, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976; New York: Mason/Charter, 1976.

Hinde, Wendy, George Canning, New York, St. Martin's Press 1974, 1973.