It was Palmerston’s birthday the other day, but I was too busy to do a post in tribute.
They say that Eton has the most Prime Ministers, but Harrow has the best (Churchill, Palmerston). I’d go along with that, especially of late! Ever since I read how he fictitiously called Flashman in to see him about a secret mission (Flashman and the Great Game), I have maintained a passing interest in Palmerston, wrongly in my view overshadowed historically by Gladstone and Disraeli.
Perhaps the seeds of this were sown in his own time when he was seen as being frivolous due to his light-hearted and jokey personality, although he was well-able to deliver a five hour speech in the House when the occasion demanded.
Florence Nightingale observed that:
“Tho’ he made a joke when asked to do the right thing, he always did it…He was so much more in earnest than he appeared, he did not do himself justice.”
Henry John Temple was born into the Irish peerage in 1784 and succeeded to the title 3rd Viscount Palmerston before his 18th birthday. But his birthplace was Westminster, appropriately, and hence he is a “Londoner of Note”.
“Pam” served as Prime Minister almost continuously for ten years from 1855 to 1865, dying in office a few days short of his 81st birthday. Prior to that he had been a Cabinet Minister as Secretary for War and Home Secretary since 1830. He was an MP for 58 years as both Tory and Whig, as well as playing midwife to the newly-formed Liberal Party.
Palmerston is best remembered for his fierce patriotism: he disdained anyone who (rightly or wrongly) stood up for the other side. In foreign affairs he was always on top of his brief, having a deep – almost intuitive – understanding of its complexities, and certainly there was plenty of those mid-century. He has been characterised as being an agressor which many confuse with being war-mongering, which is not always the same thing. Some historians assert that had his colleagues supported his recommended course of muscular gunboat diplomacy against Russia, the Crimean War quite probably would not have happened. Yet once the die was cast, Palmerston backed and prosecuted the war in full and was the most vigorous in setting the hardest possible terms on Russia post bellum.
He was fiercely anti-slavery, yet was in favour of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, for different reasons. He distrusted the Union states in North America, feeling that a strong United States would be bad for Britain in the long term. He was right. He resented the support for the Fenian cause from across the Atlantic. And a full century and more later, they were still at it, with devastating consequences. Palmerston foresaw all of this.
But it would be wrong to think of Palmerston as a foreign affairs one-trick pony: he kept his hand in other matters of state too. Constitutionally he was against extending the franchise, a matter over which he attempted to resign. In 1857, as Prime Minister, he pushed through the bill which established civil divorce in the teeth of opposition from Gladstone and others.Was this stand influenced by his own reputation as a bed-hopper? After all, The Times nick-named him Cupid. One is inclined to think not, rather it’s another example of his pragmatism.
Palmerston was certainly not one of Queen Victoria’s favourites to begin with, but once Prime Minister, the pair got on famously. After Newton, Nelson and Wellington, Palmerston became only the fourth non-Royal to be awarded a state funeral.
Extraordinary to relate, one of Pam’s early biographers was Karl Marx. I am going to quote at length here, because I couldn’t put it better than this, written in 1853:
Although a septuagenarian, and since 1807 occupying the public stage almost without interruption, he contrives to remain a novelty, and to evoke all the hopes that used to centre on an untried and promising youth. With one foot in the grave, he is supposed not yet to have begun his true career. If he were to die to-morrow, all England would be surprised to learn that he had been a Secretary of State half this century.
If not a good statesman of all work, he is at least a good actor of all work. He succeeds in the comic as in the heroic—in pathos as in familiarity—in tragedy as in farce; although the latter may be more congenial to his feelings. He is not a first-class orator, but an accomplished debater. Possessed of a wonderful memory, of great experience, of consummate tact, of never-failing presence of mind, of gentlemanlike versatility, of the most minute knowledge of Parliamentary tricks, intrigues, parties, and men, he handles difficult cases in an admirable manner and with a pleasant volatility, sticking to the prejudices and susceptibilities of his public, secured from any surprise by his cynical impudence, from any self-confession by his selfish dexterity, from running into a passion by his profound frivolity, his perfect indifference, and his aristocratic contempt. Being an exceedingly happy joker, he ingratiates himself with everybody. Never losing his temper, he imposes on an impassioned antagonist. When unable to master a subject, he knows how to play with it. If wanting in general views, he is always ready to weave a web of elegant generalities.
Endowed with a restless and indefatigable spirit, he abhors inactivity and pines for agitation, if not for action. A country like England allows him, of course, to busy himself in every corner of the earth. What he aims at is not the substance, but the mere appearance of success. If he can do nothing, he will devise anything. Where he dares not interfere, he intermeddles. When unable to vie with a strong enemy, he improvises a weak one. Being no man of deep designs, pondering on no combinations of long standing, pursuing no great object, he embarks on difficulties with a view to disentangle himself from them in a showy manner. He wants complications to feed his activity, and when he finds them not ready, he will create them. He exults in show conflicts, show battles, show enemies, diplomatical notes to be exchanged, ships to be ordered to sail, the whole ending in violent Parliamentary debates, which are sure to prepare him an ephemeral success, the constant and the only object of all his exertions. He manages international conflicts like an artist, driving matters to a certain point, retreating when they threaten to become serious, but having got, at all events, the dramatic excitement he wants. In his eyes, the movement of history itself is nothing but a pastime, expressly invented for the private satisfaction of the noble Viscount Palmerston of Palmerston.
Marx’s biography of Palmerston is on the Internet in full, here.