David Brown, senior lecturer in history at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, has produced a detailed account of the public and personal lives of Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, (1784-1865), surely one of the five most significant statesmen in 19th-century British history. He was also one of the most interesting. Extremely able, impetuous but canny, charming, tough, rich, handsome, sardonic, generous, an active ladies’ man, he was a bundle of contradictions. He was noted for seizing problems by the forelock and impressing his own terms on them.
While noted by historians chiefly for his management of foreign relations, Palmerston served as secretary at war (sort of deputy secretary of war), secretary of state for war, home secretary, secretary of state for foreign affairs, and twice prime minister. His public career bridged George Canning and Benjamin Disraeli, the regency of George IV and the flowering of the empire under Queen Victoria. It was chiefly in his time that Britain became the most stable and influential power in Europe while standing clear of the political tremors shaking the rest of Europe.
Under his purview came crises over succession to the throne of Spain, the union of Italy and its independence from Austria, the 1848 revolutions on the continent, war with China, the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the transfer of Indian rule from the Honorable Company to the crown, the creation of the French second empire under Napoleon III, the Irish potato famine of 1845-1846, the Crimean War and finally, the ticklish relations with America during the Civil War. Mr. Brown effectively conveys Palmerston’s hands-on mastery of the work of his departments and his agility in navigating the shifting alliances with Sir Robert Peel, William Gladstone, Disraeli, Lord John Russell, the Duke of Wellington and other political luminaries. He made time for his private business, the management of his Hampshire estate, Broadlands, and the improvement of his Irish estates. He kept his colleagues and Queen Victoria on edge by not waiting for their consent to official dispatches before sending them off (thus sharing with Wellington a reputation as dictatorial), even when foreign diplomatic relations were at a boil.
The public liked his style and he played to them with zest. He was energetic in promoting education, improving factory working conditions and initiating environmental policies. Personal ability, force of character and political longevity gave Palmerston towering stature in 19th-century Britain.
An editorial feature of the book that readers will find helpful is the arrangement of the index by episodes, so that one may turn quickly to the desired transaction. Less happy features are the small type and narrow margins, giving the pages a formidable density that makes reading slower and more tiring than necessary. Another recurrent fault is the murky and complicated writing style with frequent lengthy dependent clauses, a feature this reviewer has encountered sometimes in academic writing, when perhaps simple sentence structure is equated with a lower order of literary accomplishment.
In short, Palmerston’s biography is a rewarding, but not an easy read, about one of the most commanding characters in British political life.
David C. Acheson is a past president of the Atlantic Council of the United States.