Henry, 3rd Viscount Palmerston

1855 - 1858, 1859 - 1865

Palmerston (1784-1865) was a hard-living but intelligent and exceptionally diligent young man, gaining a good grasp of economics at Edinburgh before attending St John’s College, Cambridge. He was appointed Secretary at War (outside the Cabinet) by Perceval in 1809 and performed admirably in that role for 19 years. Regrettably, he did not get on with Liverpool, so no promotion came until Canning included him in the Cabinet in 1827. Resigning with the other Canningites in 1828, he then negotiated successfully with the Whigs, who lacked Ministerial experience, becoming Foreign Secretary in 1830, and remaining so in the Whig administrations of the next 22 years.

Palmerston’s foreign policy was an extension of Canning’s: opposed to the continental “autocracies,” generally supportive of revolutions, whether or not they had genuine popular backing, and bombastic and prickly when it came to British interests. It was thus poetic justice that the first real sign of British impotence came during his Premiership, in the Schleswig-Holstein question of 1863-64. Overall, he was a less successful upholder of British power and prestige than would be Salisbury, in more difficult circumstances forty years later.

After two years as Home Secretary, Palmerston succeeded to the Premiership with a mandate to win the Crimean War, for which he had agitated. This he did successfully, beginning a decade in power in which he was the country’s most popular statesman, while blocking further attempts at parliamentary reform or indeed most reform in general. While Palmerston’s foreign policy followed Canning, his domestic and economic policies followed Liverpool; consequently, his Whig followers, notably Gladstone, were discontented but the country as a whole thoroughly approved. With the economy continuing rapid expansion under his benign economic policies, it was a generally happy decade, with only Lancashire suffering from the U.S. Civil War cotton embargo.

Palmerston was a much-loved prime minister in easy times but, being in the wrong party, did little to solve Britain’s structural problems. The best of the Victorians before Salisbury, he should rank somewhere in the teens.

More biographical information can be found in Palmerston's Chronology entry

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson