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Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston

(1784—1865) prime minister


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(1784–1865).

Prime minister. A pupil of Dugald Stewart at Edinburgh, he went on to Cambridge University. He was elected in 1807 for a pocket borough in the Isle of Wight and subsequently represented Cambridge University 1811–31, Bletchingley 1831–2, Hampshire South 1832–4, and Tiverton 1835–65.

Palmerston was perhaps the most famous foreign secretary of the 19th cent. He began his long career as a lord of Admiralty 1807–9 and then served in the relatively junior office of secretary at war from 1809 to 1828. In the Commons he largely confined himself to the necessary business of his office. He kept racehorses and was much liked by the ladies. This carefully cultivated image as a man about town however belied the industry which he brought to his office.

Palmerston became a follower of Canning, and resigned with his fellow‐Canningites from Wellington's administration in 1828 over the question of parliamentary reform. He was not an enthusiastic reformer, however, and when he decided to join Grey's ministry, it was another example of his ability to spot the winning side. He was a somewhat reluctant supporter of Grey's Reform Bill.

Palmerston modelled his foreign policy on Canning's. He was foreign secretary from 1830 to 1841, excepting only the interlude of Peel's ‘hundred days’, and again from 1846 to 1851. His principles were to defend British political, strategic, and economic interests in Europe and overseas, to remain aloof as much as possible from long‐term commitments, to mediate in European disputes to preserve peace, and to assert British power when necessary. His first great success was his settlement of the Netherlands crisis of 1830–9, when as chairman of the London conference he secured the independence of Belgium under international guarantee. This prevented the Low Countries from falling under French control. He saw France as Britain's potential enemy and was always concerned to preserve the Vienna settlement of 1815 which placed restrictions on future French expansion. Thus he also tried to prevent the Spanish and Portuguese thrones from falling under French influence. He generally supported ‘liberal’ constitutional movements in Europe, as being more likely to be friendly to Britain than absolutist regimes, but his attitude was wholly pragmatic. He opposed Russia not because of the tsar's absolutism but because of the threat to British interests in southern Europe and Asia. British trade with Turkey increased eightfold between 1830 and 1850. He was less successful in Afghanistan but he followed a policy of extending British control in north‐west India.

Palmerston as foreign secretary was outstandingly successful. His popularity as ‘John Bull’ was sealed by his robust defence in 1850 of a Portuguese merchant named Don Pacifico who claimed British citizenship and who appeared to have been victimized by the Greek government. His confidence led him too far in 1851, however, when he sent congratulations to Louis Napoleon on his coup d'état in Paris without first consulting the queen or his colleagues and he was dismissed. He remained in the government as home secretary but became prime minister by popular demand when Aberdeen's ministry collapsed during the Crimean War.

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Subjects: British History.


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