Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny

By Wasserman, Jack Gumpert | The Byron Journal, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny


Wasserman, Jack Gumpert, The Byron Journal


CASTLEREAGH: ENLIGHTENMENT, WAR AND TYRANNY. By John Bew. London, Quercus, 2011. Pp. 722. ISBN 978 0 85738 186 6. £25.00.

In 1815, the Allies celebrated their total victory over the thuggish Napoleon's 20-year effort to establish and enforce his European-wide empire. At least a million combatants and civilians died or were mutilated in the savage battles fought across Continental Europe. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the settlement of Europe was crafted by statesmen and diplomats who represented the four Great Powers; they created, for the first time, an international federation (or 'Concert') of European states that agreed to pursue all means necessary to maintain peace and ensure the continuance of 'legitimate' empires and lesser states. Shocked by the barbarity unleashed by the French Revolution, they also agreed to intervene to eliminate violent demands for greater individual liberties and social justice (except for the abolishment of the slave trade which was to be immediate). The borders of Europe were redrawn, and France was readmitted to the Concert. Viscount Castlereagh, Foreign Minister of the United Kingdom, was the prime architect of the settlement that effectively prevented a Continental-wide war for 99 years.

In 1918, at the end of the Great War, the Allies celebrated their total victory over Germany. The Great War had claimed untold millions of dead and mutilated men and women. The economic despoliation was beyond calculation. Once again the diplomats and statesmen of the Great Powers redrew the borders of Europe as well as the Middle East. Germany was leftprostrate. A global system of unrestrained economic and political imperialism came into existence. The settlement of 'the war to end all wars' lasted barely 20 years.

There were many differences and similarities between the settlements of 1816 and 1919, but one similarity is particularly relevant to John Bew's masterful biography of Lord Castlereagh: the popular views of the purposes and conduct of both wars and the political and military leaders who led them were created by poets, artists, writers and intellectuals, and these views were virtually all wrong. It has taken historians two centuries to redress the grossly erroneous views that informed the public. In his Prologue, Bew states that his work 'tackles what might be called the Byron-Shelley view [...] that Castlereagh was an anti-Enlightenment or reactionary figure' who was reluctant 'to believe that Enlightenment's values' had or would triumph over 'bigotry, fanaticism and naked self-interest'. In this exemplary work of scholarship, Bew puts finish to such a view.

Robert Stewart was born in 1769 and named for his father, Robert, the scion of a successful merchant family, who entered Irish politics at an early age and rapidly advanced in power, prestige and titles. The elder Stewart became, in fairly rapid succession, Baron Londonderry in 1789, Viscount Castlereagh in 1795, and Earl of Londonderry in 1796, each of which was an Irish peerage. From 1795 until, on his father's death in 1821, his son was known by the Irish courtesy title, Viscount Castlereagh (and as such he is known to history). His mother, Lady Sarah, was the second daughter of the Marquess of Hertford, 'a member of one of the wealthiest Anglo-Irish families with vast estates in Ireland and Somerset'. She died in childbirth just after Castlereagh's first birthday. Castlereagh's father married his second wife, Lady Frances Pratt, in 1775. Lady Frances was the daughter of the well-connected English politician, Charles Pratt, first Earl of Camden. Lord Camden was a respected liberal Whig, and he developed a deep and lasting affection for his step-grandson. Camden inculcated the young Castlereagh with the Whig theory of history and the liberal political ideas advanced by Charles James Fox and others. Camden died in 1794.

Castlereagh did not have a classical education. Although baptised a Presbyterian, he was sent to Anglican schools and tutored by Anglican clergy. …

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