4th Earl of Aberdeen

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4th Earl of Aberdeen

The British statesman George Hamilton Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen (1784-1860), was noted for his work in the area of foreign affairs. He was prime minister of Great Britain at the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853.

George Hamilton Gordon was born on Jan. 28, 1784, in Edinburg, Scotland. His father died when George was 7 and his mother when he was 11; he was brought up by his guardians, William Pitt and Henry Dundas (Lord Melville). George was educated at Harrow and St. John's College, Cambridge. On the death of his grandfather in 1801, he became the 4th Earl of Aberdeen.

Travels on the Continent during 1802-1804, especially in Greece, quickened Aberdeen's interest in classical studies and archeology. In 1805 he married Lady Catherine Elizabeth Hamilton. She died in 1812, and in 1815 he married her sister-in-law, Harriet, the widow of Lord Hamilton.

Aberdeen's diplomatic career began in the Napoleonic era. He was sent by the foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, as special ambassador to Austria in 1813 to effect a final coalition against Napoleon. Aberdeen signed the Treaty of Töplitz with Austria and was present at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813. Somewhat at odds with the more conservative Castlereagh, Aberdeen retired after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1814; he was created a peer of the United Kingdom.

For the next decade Aberdeen remained in relative seclusion, improving his estates in Scotland. The Greek war of independence returned him to an active role; he joined the Duke of Wellington's Cabinet in 1828, first as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and then as foreign secretary. In the short-lived Wellington government (1828-1830), Aberdeen helped design a settlement guaranteeing the territorial integrity of an independent Greece. He was again out of public office until he joined Prime Minister Robert Peel's first Cabinet as secretary for war and the colonies in 1834. This brief ministry ended in 1835, and Aberdeen was out of office until 1841.

The most important part of Aberdeen's public career began in 1841, when he became foreign secretary in Peel's second ministry. Both men were advocates of free trade, and an entente with France was basic to this policy. Aberdeen, who had convinced Wellington in 1830 to recognize the Louis Philippe regime, now worked closely with F. P. G. Guizot, the French foreign minister, and avoided the danger of war in several disputes. Aberdeen also settled two boundary questions with the United States by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 and the Oregon Treaty of 1846. The most notable action of this ministry was the repeal of the British Corn Laws in 1846; Aberdeen supported Peel in this and continued to identify with him after his government fell later that year. Aberdeen was especially opposed to the belligerent foreign policy of Lord Palmerston.

On Peel's death in 1850, Aberdeen was recognized as the leader of the Peelites (Tory liberals), and in December 1852 he became prime minister of a coalition government. His Cabinet contained six Whigs, six Peelites, and a Radical. It was a Cabinet of talent but also of strong personalities (William Gladstone, Lord Palmerston, and Lord Russell), and Aberdeen was unable to maintain control. The major differences were in foreign policy. The fear of Russian power by Palmerston and Russell was not shared by Aberdeen and Gladstone, but public opinion through the press forced a reluctant Aberdeen into the Crimean War in March 1854. The war at the outset was popular, but the Aberdeen Cabinet was soon accused of mismanaging it. Stories of inadequate shelters, archaic medical care, and mounting British casualties flooded the press. Aberdeen could not withstand the parliamentary attack and resigned in January 1855 to be replaced by his rival, Palmerston.

The Crimean War marked the end of Aberdeen's public career. The war sickened him, and he never ceased to blame himself for Britain's involvement. He died in London on Dec. 14, 1860.

Aberdeen, as a politician and diplomat, was a compromiser. This characteristic was both his strength and his weakness. It helped to make his career as a foreign secretary, but he was too timid to lead the country in a time of crisis.

Further Reading

Two standard biographies of Aberdeen are Arthur Hamilton Gordon Stanmore, The Earl of Aberdeen (2 vols., 1893), and Lady Frances Balfour, The Life of George, 4th Earl of Aberdeen (1923); both are sympathetic but not very penetrating. An excellent discussion of the domestic impact of the Crimean War is in Olive Anderson, A Liberal State at War: English Politics and Economics during the Crimean War (1967). For Anglo-American relations during this period see Wilbur Devereux Jones, Lord Aberdeen and the Americas (1958).

Additional Sources

Chamberlain, Muriel Evelyn, Lord Aberdeen, a political biography, London; New York: Longman, 1983.

Iremonger, Lucille, Lord Aberdeen: a biography of the fourth Earl of Aberdeen, K.G., K.T., Prime Minister 1852-1855, London: Collins, 1978. □