Aberdeen, George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th earl of

views updated Jun 11 2018

Aberdeen, George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th earl of (1784–1860). Aberdeen represents a classic case of a politician whose reputation has been permanently sullied by an unfortunate premiership. As prime minister during the Crimean War he paid a high price for underestimating public anxiety about the conduct of the war. Yet he had a long career of public service behind him. Educated at Harrow and Cambridge he first made his mark as a diplomat. In the closing stages of the war against Napoleon he was closely involved with the maintenance of the Grand Alliance against France and with the negotiation of the peace of Paris in 1814. In 1828 he became foreign secretary in Wellington's administration and he was briefly secretary for war and the colonies in 1834–5. In 1841 he was once again foreign secretary under Peel. Through patience and sound judgement he achieved some improvement in Anglo-French relations, despite British suspicions of French policy in Spain and the South Seas, and happily settled the long-standing border dispute between Canada and the USA. He ended the war with China by the treaty of Nanking in 1842, which opened up five Chinese ports to British trade and leased Hong Kong to Britain. In domestic affairs Aberdeen loyally supported Peel, resigning with him after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Aberdeen did not lack political courage. He opposed Palmerston over the ‘ Don Pacifico’ incident in 1850, believing that Palmerston was unnecessarily bellicose, and did not shrink from criticizing Russell over the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill in 1851.

When Russell's government fell in 1852 Aberdeen headed a ministry which held out every prospect of stability. He was widely respected as a man of sober judgement and sound temperament, and with Palmerston, Gladstone, Russell, Graham, and Herbert in the administration, the government lacked neither talent nor experience. But Aberdeen was unlucky in that he was drawn into war with Russia. Despite its notoriety the Crimean War was not without justification. British suspicions of Russia were well founded and of long standing, but although the political nation was convinced of the wisdom of containing Russian designs, public opinion was soon appalled by the incompetence exposed by the war and demanded scapegoats. Critics forgot that they had often called for economies in defence spending. It was sad that a government which was drawn towards cautious domestic reform should fall victim to war hysteria, but Aberdeen could not resolve conflicting reactions among his colleagues to the pressures of war. He had little choice but to resign when Roebuck's motion calling for an inquiry into the condition of the army was carried in the Commons by 305 votes to 148 on 29 January 1855. A further complication was that Aberdeen could not call on party loyalty to see him through. His government was a coalition of Whigs, Peelites, radicals, and independents and the issues raised by the war accentuated differences between them. Aberdeen also faced clashes of personality within the government, Russell being the most difficult of several touchy colleagues. Aberdeen was a politician of integrity, intelligence, and goodwill, and a man of culture and discernment, but thrust into a position of leadership at a uniquely trying time, he was tested beyond endurance.

John W. Derry


Chamberlain, M. E. , Lord Aberdeen (1983).

Aberdeen, George Hamilton Gordon, 4th Earl of

views updated Jun 11 2018

Aberdeen, George Hamilton Gordon, 4th Earl of (1784–1860) British statesman, prime minister (1852–55). As foreign secretary (1841–46) to Sir Robert Peel, he negotiated the Webster-Ashburton and the Oregon Boundary treaties with the United States. He and Peel resigned over the issue of the Corn Laws. Aberdeen emerged to form the ‘Aberdeen coalition’ Ministry. He was swayed into entering the Crimean War by Viscount Palmerston, but was blamed for the mismanagement of the war and was forced to resign.


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George Hamilton-Gordon 4th earl of Aberdeen