John Russell

The English statesman John Russell, 1st Earl Russell of Kingston Russell (1792-1878), was the author of the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and one of the founders of the British Liberal party.

John Russell was born on Aug. 18, 1792, in London. He was the third son of the 6th Duke of Bedford. Russell was educated primarily by private tutors and at Edinburgh University.

Russell's parliamentary career began in 1813, when he was elected Whig member of Parliament for Tavistock. In poor health during his early parliamentary career, Russell rarely spoke in the Commons. His vanity was great, and he was easily disturbed by criticism. But he was a man of courage and conviction. In the 1820s he emerged as a champion of parliamentary reform and religious toleration. He worked for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and supported Catholic emancipation in 1829.

Russell was largely responsible for preparing the first Reform Bill and introduced it in the Commons in March 1831; the bill passed the Lords in June 1832. Russell was a member of the Whig Cabinets of Lords Grey and Melbourne in the 1830s, first as home secretary and then as secretary for war and the colonies (1839-1841). The Municipal Corporation Act of 1835, which expanded the electorate for town councils, was one of his contributions.

After the fall of Sir Robert Peel's second ministry in 1846 Russell became prime minister. He held this office for the next 6 years (1846-1852). During this period he faced the Great Famine in Ireland, but his relief measures were too cautious to succeed. The Ten Hours Act of 1847 was a turning point in the history of labor legislation. Russell sympathized with the popular outcry against the papal bull that restored a Roman Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850, and he sponsored the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill (1851), which forbade the assumption by Roman Catholic clergy of titles within the United Kingdom. A more liberal attitude characterized his actions in imperial affairs. The Australian Colonies Act of 1850 extended self-government to New South Wales.

Lord Palmerston was the most controversial figure in the Russell Cabinet, and relations between the two were frequently strained. Palmerston was dismissed by Russell in December 1851 for having conveyed to the French ambassador Russell's approval of Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat. Two months later, however, Palmerston had his revenge when he successfully led the opposition in defeating the government's Militia Bill, and Russell resigned in 1852.

Russell served as foreign secretary for a few months in 1852-1853 in Lord Aberdeen's coalition and as colonial secretary for 5 months in Palmerston's Cabinet in 1855. He returned to the Foreign Office 4 years later in the second Palmerston ministry (1859-1865) and did much to preserve British neutrality during the American Civil War. Russell became prime minister for a second time in 1865, but he resigned the following year in a dispute over the specifics of a second Reform Bill. He then retired to a private life of writing, and he died on May 28, 1878.

Russell was known as "Finality Jack" to the British working classes, as one who opposed all further reform after 1832. This, however, was not true. He was active in the reform movement to the end of his life, and he helped to move the Whigs toward the new Liberal party under his immediate successor as party leader, William Gladstone.


Further Reading on John Russell

The standard biography of Russell is Spencer Walpole, Life of xLord John Russell (2 vols., 1889; repr. 1968). A more recent, concise study is A. Wyatt Tilby, Lord John Russell: A Study in Civil and Religious Liberty (1930). Norman Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel (1953), is a penetrating study of the machinery of politics during the period of Russell's activities.