Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, KG, GCB, PC (20 October 1784 – 18 October 1865) was a British statesman who served twice as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century. He was in government office almost continuously from 1807 until his death in 1865, beginning his parliamentary career as a Tory and concluding it as a Liberal.
He is best remembered for his direction of British foreign policy through a period when the United Kingdom was at the height of its power, serving terms as both Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. Some of his aggressive actions, now sometimes termed liberal interventionist, were greatly controversial at the time, and remain so today.
Educated at Harrow School, Edinburgh University, and St John's College, Cambridge, he succeeded his father to the title of Viscount Palmerston on 17 April 1802, before he had turned 18. Over the next 6 years he was defeated in two elections for the University of Cambridge constituency, but entered parliament as Tory MP for the pocket borough of Newport on the Isle of Wight in June 1807. Thanks to the patronage of Lord Chichester and Lord Malmesbury, he was given the post of Junior Lord of the Admiralty in the ministry of the Duke of Portland. A few months later, he delivered his first speech in the House of Commons in defence of the expedition to Copenhagen, which he justified by reference to the ambitions of Napoleon to take control of the Danish court.
In the later years of Lord Liverpool's Tory administration, after the suicide of Lord Londonderry in 1822, the cabinet began to split along political lines. The more liberal wing of the Tory government made some ground, with George Canning becoming Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons, William Huskisson advocating and applying the doctrines of free trade, and Catholic emancipation emerging as an open question. Although Lord Palmerston was not in the cabinet, he cordially supported the measures of Canning and his friends.
Upon the death of Lord Liverpool, Canning was called to be Prime Minister. The Tories, including Peel, withdrew their support, and an alliance was formed between the liberal members of the late ministry and the Whigs. The post of Chancellor of the Exchequer was offered to Lord Palmerston, who accepted it, but this appointment was frustrated by some intrigue between the King and John Charles Herries. Lord Palmerston remained Secretary at War, though he gained a seat in the cabinet for the first time. The Canning administration ended after only four months on the death of the Prime Minister, and was followed by the ministry of Lord Goderich, which barely survived the year.
The Canningites remained influential, and the Duke of Wellington hastened to include Lord Palmerston, Huskisson, Charles Grant, William Lamb, and The Earl of Dudley in the government he subsequently formed. However, a dispute between Wellington and Huskisson over the issue of parliamentary representation for Manchester and Birmingham led to the resignation of Huskisson and his allies, including Lord Palmerston. In the spring of 1828, after more than twenty years continuously in office, Lord Palmerston found himself in opposition.
Following his move to opposition, Lord Palmerston appears to have focused closely on foreign policy. He had already urged Wellington into active interference in the affairs of Greece, and he had made several visits to Paris, where he foresaw with great accuracy the impending overthrow of the Bourbons. On 1 June 1829 he made his first great speech on foreign affairs.
Palmerston was a great orator. His language was relatively unstudied and his delivery somewhat embarrassed, but he generally found words to say the right thing at the right time and to address the House of Commons in the language best adapted to the capacity and the temper of his audience. An attempt was made by the Duke of Wellington in September 1830 to induce Lord Palmerston to re-enter the cabinet, but he refused to do so without Lord Lansdowne and Lord Grey, two notable Whigs. This can be said to be the point at which his party allegiance changed.
When Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey Lord Grey came to power a few months later in 1830, he not surprisingly placed foreign affairs in Lord Palmerston's hands. He entered the office with great energy and continued to exert his influence there for twenty years, which he held it from 1830-1834, 1835-1841, and 1846-1851. His abrasive style earned him the nickname "Lord Pumice Stone", and his manner of dealing with foreign governments who crossed him was the original "gunboat diplomacy."
William I of the Netherlands appealed to the great powers that had placed him on the throne after the Napoleonic Wars to maintain his rights; a conference assembled accordingly in London. The British solution involved the independence of Belgium, which Lord Palmerston believed would greatly contribute to the security of Britain, but any solution was not straightforward. On the one hand, the northern powers were anxious to defend William I; on the other, many Belgian revolutionaries, like Charles de Brouckère and Charles Rogier, supported the reunion of the Belgian provinces to France. The policy of the British government was a close alliance with France, but one subject to the balance of power on the Continent, and in particular the preservation of Belgium. If the northern powers supported William I by force, they would encounter the resistance of France and Britain united in arms. If France sought to annex Belgium, she would forfeit the alliance of England, and find herself opposed by the whole of Europe. In the end the British policy prevailed. Although the continent had been close to war, peace was maintained on British terms and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, the widower of a British princess, was placed upon the throne of Belgium.
France had been a reluctant party to the treaty, and never executed her role in it with much zeal. Louis Philippe was accused of secretly favouring the Carlists - the supporters of Don Carlo - and he rejected direct interference in Spain. It is probable that the hesitation of the French court on this question was one of the causes of the enduring personal hostility Lord Palmerston showed towards the French King thereafter, though that sentiment may well have arisen earlier. Although Lord Palmerston wrote in June 1834 that Paris was "the pivot of my foreign policy", the differences between the two countries grew into a constant but sterile rivalry that brought no benefit to either.
Lord Palmerston had long maintained a suspicious and hostile attitude towards Russia, whose autocratic government offended his liberal principles and whose ever-growing size challenged the strength of the British Empire. He was angered by the 1833 Treaty of Hünkâr İskelesi, a mutual assistance pact between Russia and the Ottomans, and he was a party to the mission of the Vixen to run the Russian blockade of Circassia in the late 1830s.
In 1833 and 1835 his proposals to afford material aid to the Turks against Muhammad Ali, the pasha of Egypt, was overruled by the cabinet. However, when the power of Ali appeared to threaten the existence of the Ottoman dynasty, particularly given the death of the Sultan on 1 July 1839, he succeeded in bringing the great powers together to sign a collective note on the 27 July pledging them to maintain the independence and integrity of the Turkish Empire in order to preserve the security and peace of Europe. However, by 1840 Ali had occupied Syria and won the Battle of Nezib against the Turkish forces. Lord Ponsonby, the British ambassador at Constantinople, vehemently urged the British government to intervene. Having close ties to the pasha than most, France refused to be a party to coercive measures against Ali despite having signed the note in the previous year.
Lord Palmerston, irritated at France's Egyptian policy, signed the London Convention of 15 July 1840 in London with Austria, Russia and Prussia - without the knowledge of the French government. This measure was not taken without great hesitation, and strong opposition on the part of several members of the British cabinet. Lord Palmerston forced the measure through in part by declaring in a letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, that he would quit the ministry if his policy were not adopted.
The London Convention granted Muhammad Ali hereditary rule in Egypt in return for withdrawal from Syria and Lebanon, but was rejected by the pasha. The European powers intervened with force, and the bombardment of Beirut, the fall of Acre, and the total collapse of the power of Ali followed in rapid succession. Lord Palmerston's policy was triumphant, and the author of it had won a reputation as one of the most powerful statesmen of the age.
At the same time as she was acting with Russia in the Levant, the British government engaged in the affairs of Afghanistan in order to stem her advance into Central Asia, and fought the First Opium War with China which ended in the conquest of Chusan, later to be exchanged for the island of Hong Kong.
In all these actions Lord Palmerston brought to bear a great deal of patriotic vigour and energy. This made him very popular among the ordinary people of Britain, but his passion, propensity to act through personal animosity, and imperious language made him seem dangerous and destabilising in the eyes of the Queen and his more conservative colleagues in government.
Lord Palmerston's reputation as an interventionist and his unpopularity with the Queen and other Whig grandees was such that when Lord John Russell attempted in December 1845 to form a ministry, the combination failed because Lord Grey refused to join a government in which Lord Palmerston should resume the direction of foreign affairs. A few months later, however, this difficulty was surmounted; the Whigs returned to power, and Lord Palmerston to the foreign office (July 1846) with a strong assurance that Russell should exercise a strict control over his proceedings. A few days sufficed to show how vain were this expectation.
When Disraeli and others took several nights in the House of Commons to impeach Lord Palmerston's foreign policy, the foreign minister responded to a five-hour speech by Anstey with a five-hour speech of his own, the first of two great speeches in which he laid out a comprehensive defence of his foreign policy and of liberal interventionism more generally. Reviewing his whole parliamentary career - reminding him, he joked, of a drowning man's visions of his past life - he said:
"I hold that the real policy of England... is to be the champion of justice and right, pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving the weight of her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and whenever she thinks that wrong has been done."
It is generally supposed that Russell and the Queen both hoped that the other would take the initiative and dismiss Lord Palmerston; the Queen was dissuaded by Prince Albert, who took the limits of constitutional power very seriously, and Russell by Lord Palmerston's prestige with the people and his competence in an otherwise remarkably inept Cabinet.
After a memorable debate (17 June), Lord Palmerston's policy was condemned by a vote of the House of Lords. The House of Commons was moved by Roebuck to reverse the sentence, which it did 29 June by a majority of 46, after having heard from Lord Palmerston. This was the most eloquent and powerful speech he ever delivered, wherein he sought to vindicate not only his claims on the Greek government for Don Pacifico, but his entire administration of foreign affairs.
It was in this speech, which lasted five hours, Lord Palmerston made the well known declaration that a British subject ought everywhere to be protected by the strong arm of the British government against injustice and wrong; comparing the reach of the British Empire to that of the Roman Empire, in which a Roman citizen could walk the earth unmolested by any foreign power. This was the famous Civis Romanus sum speech.
Yet, notwithstanding this parliamentary triumph, there were not a few of his own colleagues and supporters who condemned the spirit in which the foreign relations of the Crown were carried on. In that same year, the Queen addressed a minute to the Prime Minister in which she recorded her dissatisfaction at the manner in which Lord Palmerston evaded the obligation to submit his measures for the royal sanction as failing in sincerity to the Crown. This minute was communicated to Lord Palmerston, who did not resign upon it; a crucial precedent, this was taken to be an indication that he viewed the source of his power as no longer being royal approval, but constitutional power.
These various circumstances, and many more, had given rise to distrust and uneasiness in the cabinet, and these feelings reached their climax when Lord Palmerston on the occurrence of the coup d'état by which Louis Napoleon, President since 1848, made himself master of France, expressed to the French ambassador in London, without the concurrence of his colleagues, his personal approval of that act. Upon this Lord John Russell advised his dismissal from office (Dec. 1851). Lord Palmerston got his revenge a few weeks later, when he brought down the Russell government in an amendment to the Militia Bill - his "tit for tat with Johnny Russell" as he put it.
In May 1853 the Russians threatened to invade the principalities Wallachia and Moldavia unless the Ottoman Sultan surrendered to their demands. Lord Palmerston argued for immediate decisive action; the Royal Navy should be sent to the Dardanelles to assist the Turkish navy and that Britain should inform Russia of her intention to go to war with her if she invaded the principalities. However, Lord Aberdeen objected to all of Lord Palmerston's proposals. After prolonged arguments, Lord Aberdeen agreed to send a fleet to the Dardanelles but objected to his other proposals. The Russian Tsar was annoyed by Britain's actions but it was not enough to deter him. When the British fleet arrived at the Dardanelles the weather was rough so the fleet took refuge in the outer waters of the straits. The Russians argued that this was a violation of the Straits Convention of 1841 and therefore invaded the two principalities. Lord Palmerston thought that this was the result of British weakness and thought that if Russia had been told that if they invaded the principalities the British and French fleets would enter the Bosphorus or the Black Sea, she would have been deterred. In Cabinet, Lord Palmerston argued for a vigorous prosecution of the war against Russia by Britain but Lord Aberdeen objected, as he wanted peace. Public opinion was on the side of the Turks and with Aberdeen becoming steadily unpopular, Lord Dudley Stuart in February 1854 noted, "Wherever I go, I have heard but one opinion on the subject, and that one opinion has been pronounced in a single word, or in a single name - Palmerston.
As Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston strongly opposed Lord John Russell's plans for giving the vote to sections of the urban working-classes. When the Cabinet agreed in December 1853 to introduce a bill during the next session of Parliament in the form which Russell wanted, Lord Palmerston resigned. However, Aberdeen told him that no definite decision on reform had been taken and persuaded Lord Palmerston to return to the Cabinet.
On 28 March 1854 Aberdeen, along with France, declared war on Russia for refusing to withdraw from the principalities. In the winter of 1854-5, the British troops at Sevastopol suffered from the harsh conditions and military setbacks such as the Charge of the Light Brigade. An angry mood swept the country and in January 1855 Aberdeen's government was forced to set up a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into the conduct of the war after losing a Commons vote on the matter. After the vote, the government resigned. Queen Victoria did not want to ask Lord Palmerston to form a government and so asked Lord Derby to accept the premiership. Derby offered Lord Palmerston the office of Secretary of State for War which he accepted under the condition that Clarendon remained as Foreign Secretary. Clarendon refused and so Lord Palmerston refused Derby's offer and Derby subsequently gave up trying to form a government. The Queen sent for Lansdowne but he was too old to accept so she asked Russell but none of his former colleagues except Lord Palmerston wanted to serve under him. Having exhausted the possible alternatives, the Queen invited Lord Palmerston to Buckingham Palace on 4 February 1855 to form a government.
When news of this reached the British Cabinet, many Ministers thought that Parkes' action had been both legally and morally wrong, and the Attorney-General had no doubt that Parkes had acted in breach of international law. Lord Palmerston, however, backed Parkes. The government's policy was subsequently strongly attacked in the Commons on high moral grounds by Cobden and Gladstone during a censure debate. On the fourth night of the debate (3 March 1857), Lord Palmerston attacked Cobden and his speech as being pervaded by "an anti-English feeling, an abnegation of all those ties which bind men to their country and to their fellow-countrymen, which I should hardly have expected from the lips of any member of this House. Everything that was English was wrong, and everything that was hostile to England was right. Lord Palmerston went on to claim that if the motion of censure was carried it would signal that the House had voted to "abandon a large community of British subjects at the extreme end of the globe to a set of barbarians - a set of kidnapping, murdering, poisoning barbarians. The censure motion was carried by a majority of sixteen and Lord Palmerston requested to the Queen that Parliament be dissolved for a general election, which it duly was. On the international front, the Sino-British crisis escalated subsequently and culminated in the Second Opium War.
Lord Palmerston's stance was very popular in the country and his party achieved the biggest parliamentary majority since 1835. Cobden and Bright lost their seats and Lord Shaftesbury wrote of the election:
[Palmerston]'s popularity is wonderful—strange to say, the whole turns on his name. There seems to be no measure, no principle, no cry, to influence men's minds and determine elections; it is simply, "Were you, or were you not? are you, or are you not, for Palmerston?"
In June news came to Britain of the Indian Mutiny and the attacks on British people there. Lord Palmerston sent Sir Colin Campbell and reinforcements to India. Lord Palmerston also agreed to transfer the authority of the British East India Company to the Crown. This was enacted in the Government of India Act 1858.
After an Italian republican named Felice Orsini tried to assassinate the French emperor with a bomb made in Britain, the French were outraged. Lord Palmerston introduced a Conspiracy to Murder Bill which made it a felony to plot in Britain to murder someone abroad. At first reading, the Conservatives voted for it but at second reading they voted against it. Lord Palmerston lost by nineteen votes. Therefore, in February 1858 he was forced to resign. However, the Conservatives lacked a majority and Russell introduced a resolution in March 1859 arguing for widening the franchise, which the Conservatives opposed but which was carried. Parliament was dissolved and a general election ensued. Lord Palmerston rejected an offer from Disraeli to become Conservative leader, but he attended the meeting of 6 June 1859 in Willis's Rooms at St James Street where the Liberal Party was formed. The queen asked Lord Granville to form a government but although Palmerston agreed, Russell did not. Therefore, on 12 June the Queen asked Lord Palmerston to become Prime Minister. Russell and Gladstone agreed to serve under him.
At the beginning of the Civil War Britain had issued British proclamation of neutrality in the American Civil War on 13 May 1861. Lord Palmerston decided to recognise the Confederacy as a belligerent and to receive their unofficial representatives (although he decided against recognising the South as a sovereign state because he thought this would be premature). The United States Secretary of State, William Seward, threatened to treat any country which recognised the Southern separatists as a belligerent, as an enemy of the Union and the North. Lord Palmerston ordered that reinforcements be sent to Canada because he was convinced that the North would make peace with the South and then invade Canada. When news reached him of the Confederate victory at Bull Run in July 1861 he was very pleased, although 15 months later he wrote that "the American [Civil] War...has manifestly ceased to have any attainable object as far as the Northerns are concerned, except to get rid of some more thousand troublesome Irish and Germans. It must be owned, however, that the Anglo-Saxon race on both sides have shown courage and endurance highly honourable to their stock". When news came of the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Antietam a week later, this made Palmerston reject Napoleon III of France's offer to recognise the Confederacy. Palmerston continued to reject subsequent attempts by Confederate supporters to persuade him to recognise the South as he thought the military situation did not warrant it. The tide eventually turned in the United States' favour when the Confederacy was defeated in 1865.
After the seizure of the British ship Trent by a United States Navy vessel under Captain Charles Wilkes in November 1861 to prevent two Southern separatist diplomats making their way to Europe to campaign for support for the Confederacy against the United States, Lord Palmerston ordered the Secretary of State for War to send an extra 3,000 troops to Canada and demanded the release of the two diplomats. Lord Palmerston called Wilke's actions "a declared and gross insult" and in a letter to Queen Victoria on 5 December 1861 he said, "Great Britain is in a better state than at any former time to inflict a severe blow upon and to read a lesson to the United States which will not soon be forgotten. In another letter to his Foreign Secretary the next day, he expected there was going to be war between Britain and the North:
It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the rabid hatred of England which animates the exiled Irishmen who direct almost all the Northern newspapers, will so excite the masses as to make it impossible for Lincoln and Seward to grant our demands; and we must therefore look forward to war as the probable result.
However, the United States government decided to hand back the prisoners. Lord Palmerston was convinced that the reinforcements he had sent to Canada had persuaded the North to acquiesce.
Lord Palmerston received a law officer's report he had commissioned on 29 July 1862 which advised him to detain the CSS Alabama because it was being built for the South in the port of Birkenhead and it was therefore a breach of Britain's neutrality. Further, the cotton famine in industrial regions of the North was beginning to bite, just at the time when British popular opinion was starting to harden against the Confederates. The ship had left the port after the order had been sent on the 31 July but departed too soon for it to be detained, and it went on to damage Northern shipping. The United States government accused the British government of complicity in the construction of the ship and, in the so-called Alabama claims, demanded damages from Britain. Lord Palmerston refused to pay damages or to refer the dispute to arbitration. It was not until after his death that his successor (Gladstone) agreed to these demands and paid the United States $15,500,000 in gold as damages.
The American assault on Ireland under the name of Fenianism may be now held to have failed, but the snake is only scotched and not killed. It is far from impossible that the American conspirators may try and obtain in our North American provinces compensation for their defeat in Ireland.
He advised that more armaments be sent to Canada and more troops sent to Ireland. During these last few weeks of his life, Lord Palmerston pondered on developments in foreign affairs. He began thinking of a new friendship with France as "a sort of preliminary defensive alliance" against America and looked forward to Prussia becoming more powerful as this would balance against the growing threat from Russia. In a letter to Russell he warned him that Russia "will in due time become a power almost as great as the old Roman Empire...Germany ought to be strong in order to resist Russian aggression.
In early October Lord Palmerston caught a chill and a violent fever. His last words were, "That's Article 98; now go on to the next." (He was thinking about diplomatic treaties.) Another apocryphal version of his last words is: "Die, my dear doctor. That is the last thing I shall do". He died at 10:45am on Wednesday, 18 October 1865 two days before his eighty-first birthday. Although Lord Palmerston wanted to be buried at Romsey Abbey, the Cabinet insisted that he should have a state funeral and be buried at Westminster Abbey, which he was, on 27 October 1865. He was the third non-royal to be granted a state funeral.
Lord Palmerston was an Irish peer who always sat in the British House of Commons. He was regarded as a nationalist and as a social conservative. He was considered by some of his contemporaries to be a womaniser; The Times named him Lord Cupid, and he was cited, at the age of 79, as co-respondent in an 1863 divorce case. In 1839, following the death of her husband, he married his mistress of many years, Lady Emily Cowper, a noted Whig hostess and sister of Lord Melbourne. They had no legitimate children, although at least one of Lord Cowper's putative children was widely believed to have been Palmerston's. He was also an abolitionist where it suited his foreign policy; being a firm supporter of the pro-slavery South in the American Civil War in opposition to the anti-slavery societies.
Lord Palmerston is remembered for his light-hearted approach to government. He is once said to have claimed of a particularly intractable problem relating to Schleswig-Holstein, that only three people had ever understood the problem: one was Prince Albert, who was dead; the second was a German professor, who had gone insane; and the third was himself, who had forgotten it.
In actuality, Palmerston's attitude during the Second Schleswig War in 1864 considerably helped the German decisive victory in that war, by letting the Danes get the wrong impression that Britain would fight on their side and thus emboldening them to embark on a war they had no chance of winning alone. In that way Palmerston unwittingly faciliatated the meteoric rise of Otto von Bismarck and the Unification of Germany to become a dominant European power - with dire consequences which Palmerston's successors had to grapple with for many decades afterwards.
Florence Nightingale said of him after his death, "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."