The Political Evolution of Lord Palmerston, 1784-1830: R. E. Foster Explains the Young Palmerston's Progress from Tory to Liberal

By Foster, R. E. | History Review, March 2008 | Go to article overview

The Political Evolution of Lord Palmerston, 1784-1830: R. E. Foster Explains the Young Palmerston's Progress from Tory to Liberal


Foster, R. E., History Review


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Palmerston: the Political Chameleon

Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865), was one of the great political survivors. He was a member of the House of Commons (something which his Irish peerage entitled him to) for nearly 60 years. More remarkably still, he was a member of government for approaching half a century. In the past two centuries only Gladstone and Churchill can rival him in these respects. Unlike them, it took death to prise Palmerston from power. As he supposedly put it in typically laconic fashion, 'Die my dear doctor? That's the last thing 1 shall do!'

Historians have inevitably focused on Palmerston's career after 1830, during which time he was successively Whig Foreign Secretary (1830-34, 1835-1841, 1846-1851), Home Secretary (1852-54), and Prime Minister (1854-58, 1859-1865). Yet such a record all too easily obscures the fact that Palmerston had already enjoyed a long political career before 1830. It was, moreover, a career that had been spent in the Tory party. Small wonder, then, that obituarists were unsure how to label him in party terms.

Had he spent over 20 years in the wrong political party before realising his true liberal instincts? Or had he, on the contrary, made a mistake in quitting the Tory party for good in 18307 Was the switch less black and white, more a case of a Canningite or liberal Tory having logically progressed to the folds of Liberalism? Perhaps he had simply mixed and matched--Gladstonian Liberals certainly discerned Palmerston as being 'Tory at home and Liberal abroad'. But this was too complex an explanation for Lady Wilton: she thought him guilty of unbridled ambition. The precise truth of the matter has vexed historians ever since.

Forgotten Influences: Malmesbury and Pitt

Palmerston's biographers have tended to make much of his time at Edinburgh University (1800-03), where he fell under the tutelage of a Whig political economist, Dugald Stewart. Palmerston himself later attributed 'whatever useful knowledge and habits of mind I possess' to his time there. This should have made him, as his father had been, a Whig. In the view of James Chambers, author of the latest full life of Palmerston, his subject 'only joined the Tories on youthful impulse in answer to a flattering invitation'.

But too much can be made of Edinburgh. Curiously little attention, by contrast, has been devoted to the fact that when Palmerston's father died in 1802, the key influence in his upbringing was James Harris, first Earl of Malmesbury (1746-1820). Malmesbury was one of the foremost diplomats of the later eighteenth century, and was a devoted friend and supporter of William Pitt the Younger. His seat at Heron Court near Ringwood in Hampshire was close to the Temple family's seat at Broadlands in Romsey; the neighbours duly became close friends. Malmesbury determined to use both his experience and contacts to Palmerston's advantage. He it was who urged the young Palmerston into politics, accompanying his exhortations by trying to find him a seat. After five abortive attempts, Malmesbury eventually secured him one of the two seats for Newport on the Isle of Wight in 1807. The need was pressing, since Malmesbury had already procured him the offer of a Junior Lordship at the Admiralty in the Duke of Portland's administration. When Portland's government fell in 1809, Palmerston advanced to Secretary at War, an office he was to hold unbroken under five prime ministers until May 1828.

Given this patronage, it is difficult to see how Palmerston could have been anything other than a Pittite Tory in his early political career (albeit Pitt had died shortly before Palmerston first entered parliament!). What did this mean? First and foremost, Pitt had stood for prosecuting the war against France from 1793, an adjunct of which policy was a series of measures which clamped down on popular radicalism at home. …

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