Palmerston, Lord (Henry John Temple)

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PALMERSTON, LORD (HENRY JOHN TEMPLE) (1784–1865), British politician.

Born in London on 20 October 1784, Palmerston inherited his Irish peerage in 1802 on the death of his father, Henry Temple, who had served as an English member of Parliament (MP) for forty years. Palmerston would soon enter politics as well, but not before completing what for an aristocrat was a remarkably solid education at Edinburgh University (1800–1803), where he studied with the moral philosopher Dugald Stewart, and also at Cambridge University (1803–1806), where he obtained important social connections and credentials. His first electoral victory for Horsham in 1806 was invalidated the following year, but he nevertheless gained a seat in 1807 for the pocket borough of Newport, Isle of Wight. Palmerston sat in the House of Commons for nearly fifty-eight years, a political career that only ended because of his death. During that long span, his political loyalties shifted from right to left; he began as a Tory, drifted to the Whigs, and ended up in the Liberal Party. He also held several offices, most notably foreign secretary (1830–1834, 1835–1841, 1846–1851) and prime minister (1855–1858, 1859–1865).

As foreign secretary, Palmerston successfully articulated a vision of Britain's place in the world that resonated loudly with a British public increasingly aware of its voice in national politics. The substance of this vision was relatively straightforward: Britain should serve as a model for, and align itself with, nations fighting for liberal, constitutional governments, but at the same time, Britain had to maintain its independence and the freedom to pursue and defend its own interests. In practice, of course, the resulting policies appeared contradictory. Palmerston actively secured an independent Greece and Belgium and forcefully promoted constitutionalism in Portugal and Spain. Yet, apart from moral support, he did little to assist rebelling Poles in the 1830s or Italians in 1848, and he backed the use of military force against China in the Opium Wars (1839–1842, 1856–1860), which expanded British trade far more than the sphere of liberty. Because Britain had, as Palmerston claimed, no permanent allies, only permanent interests, he pursued policies that were sometimes belligerent, sometimes conciliatory.

Palmerston papered over these apparent inconsistencies by skillfully courting favorable public opinion and shrewdly exploiting the press. In his famous June 1850 speech before the House of Commons, he defended his brash actions in the Don Pacifico affair, when he sent a naval fleet to Athens to back up the monetary claims of an aggrieved Gibraltar-born merchant. His strong appeals to British nationalism won over the public. Then when the government barred him from meeting with the exiled Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth in 1851, he met instead with a group of London radicals who presented an address fiercely condemning Kossuth's enemies, the Austrian and Russian emperors. On the surface, these were merely gestures, but Palmerston's blunt and blustery manner endeared him to the public at the same time as it irritated Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901) and his parliamentary colleagues. Because of his ability to attract support from across the political spectrum with his patrioticvision of a morally superior and militarily strong nation, it is hardly surprising that he became prime minister when Britain experienced serious setbacks during the Crimean War (1854–1856). He managed to extract a peace and end the war on a victorious note.

Any assessment of Palmerston's political legacy must take into account his remarkable longevity. It has been argued that because he became prime minister at the age of seventy, he was out of touch with the changing times, a conservative who blocked the needed reforms that his brilliant chancellor of the Exchequer, William Ewart Gladstone, would eventually undertake as prime minister. Yet it has been argued more recently that because of his cultivation of public opinion, for example with forward-looking policies that attracted dissenters to the Liberal Party, Palmerston ushered in a mode of modern, democratic politics, which later politicians then expanded. Was Palmerston a genuinely progressive politician, or a regency rake who favored aristocratic dominance—as well as aristocratic dalliance, judging from his relations with women? Perhaps he was two politicians in one, a liberal in foreign policy and conservative in domestic policy. While the historiographical debate will continue, it will nevertheless remain true that Palmerston himself had little difficulty finding his way through two very different political worlds, one dominated by the French Revolution and the other by the Industrial Revolution. He was a consummate political survivor, having won an impressive electoral victory (July 1865) just a few months before he died.

See alsoGladstone, William; Great Britain.


Primary Sources

Bourne, Kenneth, ed. The Letters of the Third Viscount Palmerston to Laurence and Elizabeth Sulivan, 1804–1863. London, 1979.

Guedalla, Philip, ed. The Palmerston Papers: Gladstone and Palmerston: Being the Correspondence of Lord Palmerston with Mr Gladstone, 1851–1865. London, 1928.

Secondary Sources

Bourne, Kenneth. Palmerston: The Early Years, 1784–1841. New York, 1982. The definitive biography for that period.

Steele, E. D. Palmerston and Liberalism, 1855–1865. Cambridge, U.K., 1991. An important revisionist work.

Elisa R. Milkes