Magazine article The American Conservative

The Man Who Put Europe in Order

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Man Who Put Europe in Order

Article excerpt

Castlereagh: A Life, John Bew, Oxford University Press, 722 pages

There is nothing worse for the reputation of a major historical figure than to be reduced to the status of a cartoon villain. That is the fate to which the memory of Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822), has often been consigned. Instead of simply rehabilitating his subject, John Bew's generally sympathetic Castlereagh aims to understand his thinking and motives more completely than previous studies have done.

Challenging the caricature drawn by the likes of Byron and Shelley, Bew carefully reconstructs Castlereagh's private and public lives through extensive investigation of his personal correspondence, as well as that of his relatives and colleagues. Bew treats Castlereagh's statesmanship as a unified whole, rather than reducing it to his role in shaping Britain's foreign policy in the last decade of his career. Above all, this new biography tries to explain how Castlereagh came to form his distinctive view of world affairs.

Castlereagh began his political career with excellent credentials as an Irish "patriot." Raised as a Presbyterian and influenced by the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, Castlereagh pursued a course as a moderate reformer in Ireland's own parliament, before being elected to the British House of Commons in 1794. Bew does an excellent job of demonstrating how Castlereagh's Irish background had an enduring impact on his ideas. As Bew concludes, "Ireland was the crucible of his political thought."

The rebellion of 1798--the rising of the United Irishmen against British rule--convinced Castlereagh that the status quo was unsustainable and led him to support Ireland's full integration into the United Kingdom over the strenuous objections of his former political allies. As a facilitator of the 1801 Act of Union, which abolished the Irish parliament, Castlereagh became a hate-figure among Irish nationalists. That was the beginning of his alienation from the people of his native country.

Meanwhile, Castlereagh's support for Catholic rights, which he maintained throughout his career, earned him the distrust of many in the Anglican establishment, including George III himself. Despite being a genuine supporter of Catholic emancipation, he fell short of seeing it enacted into law because of continued resistance in Parliament and was viewed as a sell-out on this issue as well.

In many respects, Castlereagh's record on Irish issues presaged later periods of his career in which he was a lonely moderate caught between ultraconservatives and radicals. A case in point is his reaction to the French Revolution, which was hostile but not nearly as polemical as that of Edmund Burke; or his position on end of the slave trade, which was a gradualist one that repeatedly put him at odds with the abolitionist William Wilberforce. Whenever faced with two starkly opposed positions, Castlereagh's instinct was to avoid both and find a compromise.

The major theme of Castlereagh's career was his support for a foreign policy guided by the British national interest, a principle that caused him to be a stalwart supporter of war against France before and after Napoleon's rise to power but that also led him to abjure postwar policies that would leave France too weak and Russia too strong in Europe. After the Congress of Vienna, Castlereagh was wary of anything that would open the door to a Russian military presence in Western Europe--including the universal pretensions of the Holy Alliance, the czar's coalition with fellow monarchist powers Austria and Prussia--but he also aimed to keep Russia as a member of the European system to prevent it from disturbing the peace. He saw Britain's role in Europe as both mediator and balancer, and he hoped to maintain equilibrium among the great powers so that none would pose the threat to stability that France had posed in the two decades before the congress. …

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