Castlereagh, Viscount (Robert Stewart)

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CASTLEREAGH, VISCOUNT (ROBERT STEWART) (1769–1822), influential Anglo-Irish statesman.

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh and Second Marquess of Londonderry's tenure as one of Britain's most influential foreign secretaries (1812–1822) coincided with a period of considerable tumult both at home and abroad. Born into an Anglo-Irish landed family and baptized a Presbyterian, Castlereagh had the requisite background for a smooth entry into Irish politics. Following the lead of his father, who sat in the Irish Parliament from 1771 to 1783, Castlereagh began his political career by winning a seat for County Down in 1790. He became chief secretary of Ireland in 1798, the same year the Irish Rebellion erupted. Prompted by the radical changes witnessed in the French Revolution and initially led by the anti-English and republican Society of United Irishmen (established 1791), the Rebellion and the small French invasion accompanying it were quickly and ruthlessly suppressed. To prevent further threats to stability, Castlereagh looked to union with Great Britain. He shouldered the difficult task of securing the Irish Parliament's approval of his plan for Irish representation in the British Parliament. Convincing Irish politicians to support the dissolution of their own representative institution has been described as a process of intense bullying and bribery, but it is also true that this aptly reflected an eighteenth-century politics of patronage. Despite fierce opposition from many Irish Protestants, Castlereagh pushed through the Act of Union, which took effect on 1 January 1801. For Castlereagh, the success of the union depended on addressing Irish grievances. He thus supported progressive measures like Catholic emancipation, the right of Catholics to hold seats in Parliament. When King George III (r. 1760–1820) refused to sanction this policy, Castlereagh joined the Tory prime minister, William Pitt (1759–1806), by resigning from office in 1801.

His principles failed to thwart his ambition. Castlereagh returned to office in July 1802 as president of the Board of Control for India. The government's primary concern throughout this period was the ongoing war against Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15). As secretary of war (1807–1809), Castlereagh expanded British regiments by offering a bounty to militiamen who transferred to the regular army. Later charged with corruption and military incompetence, and facing the likelihood of losing his War Office post, Castlereagh resigned. Having learned that the foreign secretary, George Canning (1770–1827), had secretly maneuvered against him, Castlereagh challenged his rival to a duel and wounded him in the thigh.

Castlereagh's major contributions to British politics were still to come. Back in office in 1812 as foreign secretary in the Tory administration of Robert Banks Jenkinson (Lord Liverpool, 1770–1828), Castlereagh this time battled Napoleon through diplomacy. His first priority was reinvigorating a military alliance of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Britain and thus preventing any one state from negotiating a separate peace with Napoleon. He achieved this needed unity with the Treaty of Chaumont (1814), which committed each allied power to fielding 150,000 troops. His next priority was shaping the peace settlement, which stands as his most striking legacy. Working closely with his Austrian counterpart, Clemens von Metternich (1773–1859), at the Congress of Vienna, Castlereagh promoted a "just equilibrium," in which a European balance of power was maintained by protecting the sovereignty of small states and preventing the aggression of large ones. No state would gain enough power to threaten European stability. Adhering to this principle during negotiations in Vienna and Paris, Castlereagh rejected a punitive peace against France but supported the formation of buffer states, an independent Kingdom of the Netherlands for example, to check future French aggression. The Quadruple Alliance (1815) incorporated another of Castlereagh's goals by establishing the Congress System, whereby Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Britain agreed to meet periodically to monitor the peace settlement and anticipate conflicts.

Castlereagh soon realized, however, that the other Great Powers sought to use the postwar framework in a way he never intended. Castlereagh rejected their assertion that the Congress powers could interfere with the internal affairs of other states, which in practice meant crushing liberal and nationalist movements. Castlereagh instead favored nonintervention and gradually detached Britain from the Allies' reactionary policies. This was not apparent to many at home, where he was criticized for hobnobbing with European autocrats. Moreover, the added burden of serving as the leader of the House of Commons exposed him to attacks on unpopular and often repressive policies at a time of acute domestic unrest. A mental breakdown and increasing paranoia preceded his suicide on 12 August 1822. His old rival Canning succeeded him at the Foreign Office, and although with a very different style, largely followed the general direction of British foreign policy already established by Castlereagh.

See alsoCongress of Vienna; Great Britain.


Primary Sources

Castlereagh, Robert Stewart, Viscount. Memoirs and correspondence of Viscount Castlereagh, second Marquess of Londonderry. … Edited by Charles Vane. 12 vols. Lon don, 1848–1853.

Secondary Sources

Bartlett, Christopher John. Castlereagh. London, 1966. A valuable summary but does not use unpublished sources.

Hinde, Wendy. Castlereagh. London, 1981.

Thorne, R. G. "Stewart, Hon. Robert." In The House of Commons, 1790–1820, edited by R. G. Thorne. London, 1986. A useful corrective to the emphasis on Castlereagh's career as foreign secretary.

Elisa R. Milkes

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Castlereagh, Viscount (Robert Stewart)

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