The Story of the Life of Lord Palmerston by Karl Marx


RUGGIERO [1] is again and again fascinated by the false charms of Alcine, which, as he knows, disguise an old witch,—

“Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything,”

and the knight-errant cannot withstand falling in love anew with her whom he knows to have transmuted all her former adorers into asses and other beasts. The English public is another Ruggiero and Palmerston is another Alcine. Although a septuagenarian, and since 1807 occupying the public stage almost without interruption, he contrives to remain a novelty, and to evoke all the hopes that used to centre on an untried and promising youth. With one foot in the grave, he is supposed not yet to have begun his true career. If he were to die to-morrow, all England would be surprised to learn that he had been a Secretary of State half this century.

If not a good statesman of all work, he is at least a good actor of all work. He succeeds in the comic as in the heroic—in pathos as in familiarity—in tragedy as in farce; although the latter may be more congenial to his feelings. He is not a first-class orator, but an accomplished debater. Possessed of a wonderful memory, of great experience, of consummate tact, of never-failing presence of mind, of gentlemanlike versatility, of the most minute knowledge of Parliamentary tricks, intrigues, parties, and men, he handles difficult cases in an admirable manner and with a pleasant volatility, sticking to the prejudices and susceptibilities of his public, secured from any surprise by his cynical impudence, from any self-confession by his selfish dexterity, from running into a passion by his profound frivolity, his perfect indifference, and his aristocratic contempt. Being an exceedingly happy joker, he ingratiates himself with everybody. Never losing his temper, he imposes on an impassioned antagonist. When unable to master a subject, he knows how to play with it. If wanting in general views, he is always ready to weave a web of elegant generalities.

Endowed with a restless and indefatigable spirit, he abhors inactivity and pines for agitation, if not for action. A country like England allows him, of course, to busy himself in every corner of the earth. What he aims at is not the substance, but the mere appearance of success. If he can do nothing, he will devise anything. Where he dares not interfere, he intermeddles. When unable to vie with a strong enemy, he improvises a weak one. Being no man of deep designs, pondering on no combinations of long standing, pursuing no great object, he embarks on difficulties with a view to disentangle himself from them in a showy manner. He wants complications to feed his activity, and when he finds them not ready, he will create them. He exults in show conflicts, show battles, show enemies, diplomatical notes to be exchanged, ships to be ordered to sail, the whole ending in violent Parliamentary debates, which are sure to prepare him an ephemeral success, the constant and the only object of all his exertions. He manages international conflicts like an artist, driving matters to a certain point, retreating when they threaten to become serious, but having got, at all events, the dramatic excitement he wants. In his eyes, the movement of history itself is nothing but a pastime, expressly invented for the private satisfaction of the noble Viscount Palmerston of Palmerston.

Yielding to foreign influence in fact, he opposes it in words. Having inherited from Canning [2] England's mission to propagate Constitutionalism on the Continent, he is never in need of a theme to pique the national prejudices, to counteract revolution abroad, and, at the same time, to keep awake the suspicious jealousy of foreign powers. Having succeeded in this easy manner in becoming the bete noire of the continental courts, he could not fail to be set up as the truly English minister at home. Although a Tory by origin he has contrived to introduce into the management of foreign affairs all the shams and contradictions that form the essence of Whiggism. He knows how to conciliate a democratic phraseology with oligarchic views, how to cover the peace-mongering policy of the middle classes with the haughty language of England's aristocratic past—how to appear as the aggressor where he connives, and as the defender where he betrays—how to manage an apparent enemy, and how to exasperate a pretended ally—how to find himself, at the opportune moment of the dispute, on the side of the stronger against the weak, and how to utter brave words in the act of running away.

Accused by the one party of being in the pay of Russia, he is suspected by the other of Carbonarism.[3] If, in 1848, he had to defend himself against the motion of impeachment for having acted as the minister of Nicholas, he had, in 1850, the satisfaction of being persecuted by a conspiracy of foreign ambassadors, which was successful in the House of Lords, but baffled in the House of Commons. If he betrayed foreign peoples, he did it with great politeness—politeness being the small coin of the devil, which he gives in change for the life-blood of his dupes. If the oppressors were always sure of his active support, the oppressed never wanted a great ostentation of rhetorical generosity. Poles, Italians, Hungarians, Germans, found him in office whenever they were crushed, but their despots always suspected him of secret conspiracy with the victims he had allowed them to make. Till now, in all instances, it was a probable chance of success to have him for one's adversary, and a sure chance of ruin to have him for one's friend. But, if his art of diplomacy does not shine in the actual results of his foreign negotiations, it shines the more brilliantly in the construction he has induced the English people to put upon them, by accepting phrases for facts, phantasies for realities, and high-sounding pretexts for shabby motives.

Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston, deriving his title from a peerage of Ireland, was nominated Lord of the Admiralty, in 1807, on the formation of the Duke of Portland's Administration. In 1809, he became Secretary for War, and continued to hold this office till May, 1828. In 1830, he went over, very skilfully too, to the Whigs, who made him their permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Excepting the intervals of Tory administration, from November, 1834, to April, 1835, and from 1841 to 1846, he is responsible for the whole foreign policy England has pursued from the revolution of 1830 to December, 1851.

Is it not a very curious thing to find, at first view, this Quixote of “free institutions,” and this Pindar of the “glories of the constitutional system,” a permanent and an eminent member of the Tory administrations of Mr. Percival, the Earl of Liverpool, Mr. Canning, Lord Goderich, and the Duke of Wellington, during the long epoch when the Anti-Jacobin war was carried on, the monster debt contracted, the corn laws promulgated, foreign mercenaries stationed on the English soil, the people—to borrow an expression from his colleague, Lord Sidmouth—"bled” from time to time, the press gagged, meetings suppressed, the mass of the nation disarmed, individual liberty suspended together with regular jurisdiction, the whole country placed as it were under a state of siege—in one word, during the most infamous and most reactionary epoch of English history?

His debut in Parliamentary life is a characteristic one. On February 3, 1808, he rose to defend—what?—secrecy in diplomatic negotiations, and the most disgraceful act ever committed by one nation against another nation, viz., the bombardment of Copenhagen, and the capture of the Danish fleet, at the time when England professed to be in profound peace with Denmark. As to the former point, he stated that, “in this particular case, his Majesty's ministers are pledged” by whom? “to secrecy” but he went further: “I also object generally to making public the working of diplomacy, because it is the tendency of disclosures in that department to shut up future sources of information.” Vidocq [French Criminal, turned ‘father of modern criminology’ and ‘first private detective’] would have defended the identical cause in the identical terms. As to the act of piracy, while admitting that Denmark had evinced no hostility whatever towards Great Britain, he contended that they were right in bombarding its capital and stealing its fleet, because they had to prevent Danish neutrality from being, perhaps, converted into open hostility by the compulsion of France. This was the new law of nations, proclaimed by my Lord Palmerston.

When again speechifying, we find this English minister par excellence engaged in the defence of foreign troops, called over from the Continent to England, with the express mission of maintaining forcibly the oligarchic rule, to establish which William had, in 1688, come over from Holland with his Dutch troops. Palmerston answered to the well-founded “apprehensions for the liberties of the country,” originating from the presence of the King's German Legion,[4] in a very flippant manner. Why should we not have 16,000 of those foreigners at home, while you know that we employ “a far larger proportion of foreigners abroad” ?—(House of Commons, March 10, 1812.)

When similar apprehensions for the Constitution arose from the large standing army, maintained since 1815, he found “a sufficient protection of the Constitution in the very Constitution of our army", a large proportion of its officers being “men of property and connections."—(House of Commons, March 8, 1816.)

When a large standing army was attacked from a financial point of view, he made the curious discovery that “much of our financial embarrassments has been caused by our former low peace establishment.” —(House of Commons, March 8, 1816.)

When the “burdens of the country” and the “misery of the people” were contrasted with the lavish military expenditure, he reminded Parliament that those burdens and that misery “were the price which we (viz., the English oligarchy) agreed to pay for our freedom and independence.” —(House of Commons, May 16, 1821.)

In his eyes, military despotism was not to be apprehended except from the exertions of “those self-called, but misled reformers, who demand that sort of reform in the country, which, according to every first principle of government, must end, if it were acceded to, in a military despotism."—(House of Commons, June 14, 1820.)

While large standing armies were thus his panacea for maintaining the Constitution of the country, flogging was his panacea for maintaining the Constitution of the army. He defended flogging in the debates on the Mutiny Bill, on the 5th of March, 1824; he declared it to be “absolutely indispensable” on March 11, 1825; he recommended it again on March 10, 1828; he stood by it in the debates of April, 1833, and he has proved a fan of flogging on every subsequent occasion.

There existed no abuse in the army he did not find plausible reasons for, if it happened to foster the interests of aristocratic parasites. Thus, for instance, in the debates on the Sale of Commissions.—(House of Commons, March 12, 1828.)

Lord Palmerston likes to parade his constant exertions for the establishment of religious liberty. Now, he voted against Lord John Russell's motion for the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts.[5] Why? Because he was “a warm and zealous friend to religious liberty,” and could, therefore, not allow the dissenters to be relieved from “imaginary grievances, while real afflictions pressed upon the Catholics."—(House of Commons, February 26, 1828.)

In proof of his zeal for religious liberty, he informs us of his “regret to see the increasing numbers of the dissenters. It is my wish that the established church should be the predominant church in this country,” and from pure love and zeal for religious liberty he wants “the established church to be fed at the expense of the misbelievers.” His jocose lordship accuses the rich dissenters of satisfying the ecclesiastical wants of the poorer ones, while, “with the Church of England, it is the poor alone who feel the want of church accommodation. ... It would be preposterous to say that the poor ought to subscribe for churches out of their small earnings."—(House of Commons, March 11, 1825.)

It would be, of course, more preposterous yet to say, that the rich members of the established church ought to subscribe for the church out of their large earnings.

Let us now look at his exertions for Catholic Emancipation, one of his great “claims” on the gratitude of the Irish people. I shall not dwell upon the circumstances, that, having declared himself for Catholic Emancipation[6] when a member of the Canning Ministry, he entered, nevertheless, the Wellington Ministry, avowedly hostile to that emancipation. Did Lord Palmerston consider religious liberty as one of the rights of man, not to be intermeddled with by legislature? He may answer for himself:

“Although I wish the Catholic claims to be considered, I never will admit these claims to stand upon the ground of right.... If I thought the Catholics were asking for their right, I, for one, would not go into the committee."—(House of Commons, March 1, 1813)

And why is he opposed to their demanding their right?

“Because the legislature of a country has the right to impose such political disabilities upon any class of the community, as it may deem necessary for the safety and the welfare of the whole...This belongs to the fundamental principles on which civilised government is founded."—(House of Commons, March 1, 1813.)

There you have the most cynical confession ever made, that the mass of the people have no rights at all, but that they may be allowed that amount of immunities the legislature—or, in other words, the ruling class—may deem fit to grant them. Accordingly Lord Palmerston declared, in plain words, “Catholic Emancipation to be a measure of grace and favour.”—(House of Commons, February 10, 1829.)

It was then entirely upon the ground of expediency that he condescended to discontinue the Catholic disabilities. And what was lurking behind this expediency?

Being himself one of the great Irish landed proprietors, he wanted to entertain the delusion that “other remedies for Irish evils than Catholic Emancipation are impossible", that it would cure absenteeism, and prove a cheap substitute for Poor-laws.—(House of Commons, March 19, 1829.)

The great philanthropist, who afterwards cleared his Irish estates of their Irish natives, could not allow Irish misery to darken, even for a moment, with its inauspicious clouds, the bright sky of the landlords and moneylords.

“It is true,” he said, “that the peasantry of Ireland do not enjoy all the comforts which are enjoyed by all the peasantry of England [only think of all the comforts enjoyed by a family at the rate of 7s. a week]. Still,” he continues, “still, however, the Irish peasant has his comforts. He is well supplied with fuel, and is seldom [only four days out of six] at a loss for food. [What a comfort!] But this is not all the comfort he has—he has a greater cheerfulness of mind than his English fellow-sufferer!”—(House of Commons, May 7, 1829.)

As to the extortions of Irish landlords, he deals with them in as pleasant a way as with the comforts of the Irish peasantry.

“It is said that the Irish landlord insists on the highest possible rent that can be extorted. Why, sir, I believe that is not a singular circumstance; certainly in England the landlord does the same thing.”—(House of Commons, March 7, 1829.)

Are we then to be surprised that this man, so deeply initiated into the mysteries of the “glories of the English Constitution,” and the “comforts of her free institutions,” should aspire to spread them all over the Continent?