Graham Goodlad Has Enjoyed Two Biographies of Towering 19th-Century Political Figures
Goodlad, Graham, History Review
Palmerston: A Biography David Brown
Yale University Press, 2010
555 pages, 25 [pounds sterling] hardback
ISBN: 978 0 300 11898 8
Sir Robert Peel: The Life and Legacy Richard Gaunt
I B Tauris, 2010
227 pages, 20 [pounds sterling] hardback
ISBN: 978 1 84885 035 4
Lord Palmerston was one of the dominant political figures of the nineteenth century. Foreign Secretary for 15 years and Prime Minister for almost a decade, he embodied British power at its zenith and at home played a key role in the emergence of the Liberal Party. His career has attracted considerable interest from historians yet a full-length life, based upon his private papers, has proved elusive. The late Kenneth Bourne published only the first of a projected two volume biography (Palmerston: the early years, 17841841, 1982) before his death. David Brown, who has already gained well-deserved attention for his 2002 study, Palmerston and the Politics of Foreign Policy 1846-55, has now admirably filled the gap. Palmerston: A Biography does justice to its subject, covering not only his long and varied political career but also his colourful love life and role as a landlord in England, Wales and Ireland.
One of the difficulties in writing about Palmerston has been his resistance to being pigeon-holed. Starting political life as a Tory during the Napoleonic Wars, he spent most of his career on the Whig-Liberal end of the spectrum. Unlike those magnates in whose Cabinets he served--Earl Grey, Lord Melbourne and Lord John Russell--he never truly belonged to the charmed circle of aristocratic Whig families. Often stereotyped as the philandering 'Lord Cupid', he was also remarkable for his powers of work. In the words of a bus driver whose route ran past Palmerston's office, "E earns 'is wages; I never come by without seeing 'im 'ard at it.' This comment also suggests another dimension of Palmerston's personality: his ability to attract the admiration of the masses, who saw him as a straightforward champion of Britain in his dealings with other powers. Yet as David Brown is at pains to emphasise, it is wrong to see Palmerston as a consistent exponent of 'gunboat diplomacy'. Only in two cases--the Don Pacifico incident of 1850 and the clash with China in 1857--did he resort to overt bullying in his relations with foreign states. Nor did Palmerston support movements for constitutional freedom on the European continent for their own sake. Brown sees him as a more subtle practitioner of foreign policy: certainly aware of the ways in which an assertive overseas stance could benefit his standing with the public, yet concerned above all with the maintenance of international stability, which he saw as vital for the preservation of British national interests.
Palmerston emerges from Brown's pages as a politician who was remarkably consistent in his underlying philosophy. A key influence on his later development was the time he spent as a young man at Edinburgh University, where he imbibed the Scottish Enlightenment values of his tutor, Dugald Stewart, from whom he derived his belief in government by a ruling class which both understood and guided public opinion. Brown views Palmerston as a child of his time--not, as some earlier writers have seen him, as a Regency era man about town who had incongruously survived into the world of mid-Victorian Britain. Nor does he wholly accept the thesis of E.D. Steele's 1991 study (Palmerston and Liberalism 1855-1865), which viewed its subject as a progressive figure who self-consciously prefigured the late Victorian transition to democracy Rather Brown portrays Palmerston as a politician with a commitment to moderate progress, who believed that power should remain in the hands of an enlightened aristocratic elite.
Brown has used archive material to good effect, for example in shedding new light on the reasons for his subject's unexpected decision to take the Home Office in the Aberdeen coalition of 1852-55, and in relating the complex manoeuvres which led to the formation of Palmerston's second government in 1859. …