Melbourne, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount

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Melbourne, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount (1779–1848). Prime minister. Melbourne was such an agreeable man—perhaps the most pleasant prime minister since Lord North—that it is not easy to form a detached judgement. In some respects he was an essentially 18th-cent. figure: his idea of government was static, if not negative—the maintenance of law and order, conduct of foreign relations (usually with tiresome powers), and the implementation of those changes that could neither be postponed nor avoided.

To appearances he was an archetypal old-fashioned Whig—lounging, aristocratic, amiable, amateurish. But appearances were deceptive. He was not of the old nobility. His grandfather was a clever attorney who had acquired a baronetcy and obtained Melbourne Hall by marriage: his father, an obscure MP and follower of the prince of Wales, added an Irish and then an English peerage. Though Melbourne's attitude of ironic unconcern was not a pose, he was capable of hard and sustained application. ‘I am sorry to hurt any man's feelings,’ wrote Sydney Smith, another ironist, ‘and to brush away the magnificent fabric of levity and gaiety he has reared, but I accuse our minister of honesty and diligence.’ But near the core of Melbourne was a sadness: ‘the man was mournful in his heart of hearts,’ wrote W. M. Praed, in a poetical assessment. His mother was pretty and charming but, as Melbourne was overheard muttering in old age, ‘not chaste, not chaste’: consequently it is uncertain who his real father was and the earl of Egremont is as good a bet as any. At the age of 26 he was unlucky enough to marry Lady Caroline Ponsonby, whose indiscretions, scenes, and tantrums reinforced Melbourne's horror of unpleasantness and confrontation, which she adored. Their only child was retarded. Politically Melbourne turned all this to advantage in that he was a sensible and conciliatory man among Whig prima donnas—Grey, Brougham, Durham, and Russell. But it also meant a reluctance to face disagreeable reality, and to some extent Melbourne was a Wilsonian figure, the very man to hold the party together, but less well equipped to tackle the urgent problems of a great nation.

He grew up in a large, high-spirited cliquish family, went to Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, and spent a year at Glasgow under Professor John Millar. With few pretensions to scholarship, he finished with a lifelong love of books and a well-stocked mind. His fortunes changed abruptly in 1805 when the death of his elder brother left him as heir to the peerage. He abandoned the legal career upon which he had started and began a political one. He joined the Whig opposition but was on the right of the party, and had much in common with Peel, Huskisson, and the liberal Tories. His rise was slow, and, indeed, coping with Lady Caroline was a full-time job. He was 48 before, in 1827, he held office in Canning's ministry as chief secretary for Ireland, and within a year he was out again, resigning with the Huskissons.

This limited service was of consequence since the Whigs, when they took office in 1830, were short of experience and Melbourne became home secretary in Grey's government. He showed unexpected firmness in dealing with the Swing riots in 1831 and the Tolpuddle martyrs in 1834. He was the obvious choice to succeed Grey in 1834. It was to his advantage that, after six years of reform, the country was not averse to a pause. But his colleagues were unusually quarrelsome, William IV mistrusted the government, and Grey scrutinized every action, looking for backsliding. After six months, the king turned out the ministry and brought in the Tories. Peel dissolved, failed to win a majority, and Melbourne returned, taking the opportunity to drop Brougham, one of the more impossible ministers.

It cannot be said that Melbourne's second administration made much of a mark. It was dependent upon Irish and radical votes and the Tory House of Lords killed off several of its measures. Melbourne soldiered on, swearing, jesting, despairing. But the succession of Victoria in 1837 changed everything. He experienced an Indian summer in which he basked in royal favour, the young queen hanging on every word, enjoying every joke. Greville wrote kindly: ‘he is passionately fond of her as he might be of his daughter if he had one, and the more because he is a man with capacity for loving without having anything in the world to love.’ He talked less and less about retirement and though his attitude to his opponents was generous, it merely confirmed to Victoria that they were horrid, horrid Tories. She and Melbourne were hissed at the races and ‘Mrs Melbourne’ was a vulgar taunt. The Bedchamber crisis of 1839, when Peel failed to form a ministry in the face of the queen's evident hostility, gave Melbourne's government two more years. It lost by-elections with regularity though surviving a sharp foreign crisis over Mehemet Ali with some skill. But in 1841 he went to the country and was defeated. The parting with Victoria was painful, even though an irresistible competitor in the shape of Albert had arrived. Melbourne kept in touch in a series of confidential letters of an unconstitutional nature. But in 1842 he suffered a stroke and well before his death in 1848 he was a figure from the past. ‘Not a good or firm minister,’ was Victoria's cool judgement on a man she had once adored.

As a prime minister, Melbourne does not rank high. He had no great achievements to his credit, no grand principles to enunciate. But he was kind, honest, and not self-seeking—he refused both the Garter and promotion in the peerage—and these are not inconsiderable virtues.

J. A. Cannon


Mitchell, L. G. , Lord Melbourne (Oxford, 1997).

2nd Viscount Melbourne

views updated May 29 2018

2nd Viscount Melbourne

The English statesman William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848), served as prime minister in 1834 and from 1835 to 1841. He was the stern suppressor of early trade unionism and the political mentor of the young Queen Victoria.

Lord Melbourne was a member of the small aristocratic oligarchy which dominated English society and politics in the 18th and early 19th centuries. By taking a leading part in reforming the oligarchical system in 1832 and afterward, the great aristocrats preserved much of their power and influence for most of the century.

William Lamb was born on March 15, 1779, at Brocket Hall, the family's Hertfordshire seat. He was generally believed to be the son of the Earl of Egremont. The Lambs were relative newcomers to aristocratic society, but their great wealth and Lady Melbourne's beauty and charm gave them a place in the highest circles. William grew up among the flower of the Whig aristocracy. The Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Charles James Fox were some of his mother's close friends.

William was educated at Eton, Trinity College, Cambridge, and the University of Glasgow. Like most young men of the period, he profited little from his formal education; but he read widely in history and literature. An extraordinarily good-looking and brilliant young man, William was eagerly welcomed by society. Early on he displayed that good-natured cynicism which was to mark the rest of his career. He liked people, but he never expected much good to come from human endeavor. For a couple of years after completing his education in 1801, he did little but enjoy himself. However, as a younger son, William had to have a career. He finally settled on the law and in 1804 was admitted to the bar.

Early Career and Marriage

Lamb's legal career did not last long. His elder brother died in 1805, and Lamb became the future Lord Melbourne. As a prospective peer, he was expected to pursue a career in politics. He soon found himself a seat and entered Parliament in 1806. Just before this, in 1805, he had married Lady Caroline Ponsonby.

For the next 20 years Lamb was not to make a great success of his new career. He entered politics as Fox's devoted follower, but Fox died after a brief period in office, and the Whigs went out of power in 1807. Lamb soon found himself uncomfortable with Whiggery. He agreed with the Whigs on Catholic emancipation, but he found them too critical of the war against Napoleonic France. He also thought them soft toward parliamentary reform and popular radicalism. Lamb's closest sympathies were with a parliamentary group led by George Canning. But the Whigs were his friends, and he firmly rejected opportunities to advance his own career at their expense. This was not very satisfying, and in 1812 he retired from politics for a time.

Lamb's marriage was not a happy one. Lady Caroline was romantic to the point of mental imbalance, as she showed in her notorious affair with Lord Byron. The whole drama of the stormy romance was played in public from 1812 to 1816. Then, rejected by both Byron and society, she sank deeper into mental disorder until her death in 1828. Lamb remained loyal to his wife to the end.

Political Career

Lamb returned to Parliament in 1816. But it was not until 1827 that his career began to prosper. Then Canning finally came to power, and some of the Whigs joined his government. Lamb became chief secretary for Ireland. Canning soon died, but Lamb remained with the Canningites in two successive governments until 1828.

In 1829 Lamb succeeded to the Melbourne peerage, and in the following year he joined Lord Grey's great reform ministry. Melbourne still did not really believe in parliamentary reform. But now the great popular agitation for change seemed to make the choice one between reform and national convulsion. With such a choice, Melbourne chose reform.

But Melbourne believed that riotousness must be suppressed and, as home secretary, he was responsible for maintaining order. It was generally assumed that any kind of working-class organization was aimed at political revolution. Melbourne revived some old legislation against trade unions and encouraged its strict enforcement. The most famous sufferers were the "Tolpuddle Martyrs," agricultural laborers in Dorset who seem to have been innocent of any object other than the improvement of their miserable working conditions.

Prime Minister

Melbourne's reputation for firmness did him no harm among the upper classes. When Lord Grey resigned in 1834, Melbourne seemed the man most likely to be able to hold a Whig government together, and the King asked him to take Grey's place. Melbourne's reaction was typical. "I think it's a damned bore," he said. But he accepted.

With the exception of the brief Tory government of 1834-1835, Melbourne was to remain in office until 1841. He had a difficult task. His government, Parliament, and the country were deeply divided on the necessity for further reform and on its nature. Melbourne always greeted change without enthusiasm, but he was a realist and had a great talent for conciliation. Somehow he kept the government together and did what seemed necessary and practicable.

It was not until 1837, with the accession of Queen Victoria, that Melbourne began to enjoy office. Her innocent, straightforward character deeply appealed to him, and she responded with hero worship. It became the main object of Melbourne's life to educate the young queen for her role, and of hers to learn from "dear Lord M." On occasion, Melbourne's devotion may have got the better of his judgment, but his role as mentor was generally applauded. When he finally left office, he left a confident queen, with a competent new adviser in Prince Albert. For Melbourne his parting from the Queen was the beginning of the end. He died at Brocket Hall on Nov. 24, 1848.

Further Reading

A superb biography of Melbourne is the two volumes by Lord David Cecil: The Young Melbourne (1939) and Lord M. (1954). An interesting supplement to Cecil's books is Elizabeth Jenkins, Lady Caroline Lamb (1932), a biography of Melbourne's wife, who became known less for the novels she wrote than for her love affair with Lord Byron. Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement (1959; 2d rev. ed. 1960), is recommended for general historical background.

Additional Sources

Cecil, David, Lord, Melbourne, New York: Harmony Books, 1979, 1954.

Marshall, Dorothy, Lord Melbourne, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975?.

Ziegler, Philip, Melbourne: a biography of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, New York: Knopf, 1976. □

Melbourne, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount

views updated May 29 2018

Melbourne, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount (1779–1848) British statesman, prime minister (1834, 1835–41). Melbourne entered Parliament as a Whig in 1805. He joined the House of Lords in 1828. As home secretary (1830–34) in Earl Grey's administration, Melbourne was responsible for the suppression of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. As prime minister, he oversaw reform of the poor law (1834), but resisted changes to the Corn Laws. Melbourne gave Lord Palmerston control of foreign affairs and tutored Queen Victoria in statecraft. Sir Robert Peel succeeded him. Melbourne's wife, Lady Caroline Lamb (1785–1828), is chiefly remembered for her affair with Lord Byron.

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