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Palmerston, Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount

Palmerston, Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount (1784–1865), Prime minister. A pupil of Dugald Stewart at Edinburgh, he went on to Cambridge University and shortly afterwards stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate there—his peerage being an Irish one, he was eligible to sit in the House of Commons. He was elected in 1807 for a pocket borough in the Isle of Wight and subsequently represented Cambridge University 1811–31, Bletchingley 1831–2, Hampshire South 1832–4, and Tiverton 1835–65. Palmerston was perhaps the most famous foreign secretary of the 19th cent. He began his long career as a lord of Admiralty 1807–9 and then served in the relatively junior office of secretary at war from 1809 to 1828. He declined a seat in the cabinet not so much from modesty, as he claimed, as from doubt whether Perceval's government would last. In the Commons he largely confined himself to the necessary business of his office and, a later colleague recollected, ‘he slept much in the House of Commons, and never omitted, if he could get away by twelve o'clock, to trot home in his cabriolet, and dress himself, and go to some party’. He kept racehorses and was much liked by the ladies. This carefully cultivated image as a man about town however belied the industry which he brought to his office, laying the foundation for his later success as a hard-working and knowledgeable foreign secretary.

Palmerston became a follower of Canning, and resigned with his fellow-Canningites from Wellington's administration in 1828 over the question of parliamentary reform. He was not an enthusiastic reformer, however, and when he decided to join Grey's ministry rather than return to Wellington in 1830 it was another example of his ability to spot the winning side. He was a somewhat reluctant supporter of Grey's Reform Bill though he was a loyal colleague.

Palmerston modelled his foreign policy on Canning's. He was foreign secretary from 1830 to 1841, excepting only the interlude of Peel's ‘hundred days’, and again from 1846 to 1851. His principles were to defend British political, strategic, and economic interests in Europe and overseas, to remain aloof as much as possible from long-term commitments, to mediate in European disputes to preserve peace, and to assert British power when necessary. His first great success was his settlement of the Netherlands crisis of 1830–9, when as chairman of the London conference of great powers he secured the independence of Belgium under international guarantee and with a monarch, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who was friendly to Britain. This prevented the Low Countries from falling under French control, a long-established objective of British policy. He saw France as Britain's major potential enemy and was always concerned to preserve the Vienna settlement of 1815 which placed restrictions on future French expansion. Thus he also tried to prevent the Spanish and Portuguese thrones from falling under French influence, though without full success. He generally supported ‘liberal’ constitutional movements in Europe, as being more likely to be friendly to Britain than absolutist regimes, but his attitude was wholly pragmatic and non-ideological. He opposed Russia not because of the tsar's absolutism but because of the threat to British interests in southern Europe and Asia; yet he was willing to co-operate with Russia to thwart French ambitions in the Middle East for the sake of British commercial expansion there. British trade with Turkey increased eightfold between 1830 and 1850. He was less successful in Afghanistan but he followed a policy of extending British control in north-west India. All these policies were popular with the British public and Palmerston followed Canning in cultivating public opinion as a source of support. His prosecution of the ‘Opium War’ against China, designed to force the Chinese to open some of their markets to British trade, was received with moral disapproval in some quarters, but was beneficial in economic terms.

Palmerston as foreign secretary was outstandingly successful. Peace was maintained, the cost of military and naval establishments reduced, and yet British power, prestige, and trade were enhanced. Palmerston's popularity as ‘John Bull’ was sealed by his robust defence in 1850 of a Portuguese merchant named Don Pacifico who claimed British citizenship and who appeared to have been victimized by the Greek government. Palmerston's appeal to patriotic sentiment and his bullying attitude towards weaker nations came to be seen as the hallmarks of his ‘gunboat diplomacy’. His confidence led him too far in 1851, however, when he sent congratulations to Louis Napoleon on his coup d'état in Paris without first consulting the queen or his colleagues and he was dismissed. He remained in the government as home secretary but became prime minister by popular demand when Aberdeen's ministry collapsed during the Crimean War.

Palmerston's foreign policy gave the Liberal Party a somewhat incongruous electoral appeal but in domestic affairs his attitudes were never particularly ‘liberal’. He strenuously opposed further electoral reform. In Europe, his support for ‘liberal’ movements such as Italian independence, or in the European revolutions of 1848, was always secondary to his concern for national interests which required stability in Europe.

Palmerston was tall and handsome; he had many affairs and was nicknamed ‘Cupid’ but he did not marry until he was 55, chiefly because of his attachment to Emily Lamb, wife of Lord Cowper, which began in 1813 and lasted until his death. They had at least four children out of wedlock and he also had children by other women. In 1839, two years after Cowper's death, they married and enjoyed another 25 years of ‘unfamiliar married bliss’.

E. A. Smith


Bourne, K. , Palmerston: The Early Years 1784–1841 (1982);
Ridley, J. , Lord Palmerston (1970);
Southgate, D. G. , The Most English Minister (1966).

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