Temple, Third Viscount Palmerston Henry John
b. 1784-10-20
d. 1865-10-18
Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, prime minister and statesman, was born on 20 October 1784.
Privileged with a lavish aristocratic education from early childhood, Palmerston could speak five languages and attended both Edinburgh University (1800-1803) and St John's at Cambridge (1803-1806), where he ran for Parliament while still an undergraduate.
Socially connected and with recognized potential, Palmerston became secretary of war in 1809 at the age of 25, a position he held under five consecutive prime ministers until 1827. Out of Cabinet in this younger period, Palmerston was cautious, declining higher office for fear of failing due to lack of experience, but joined with other liberal colleagues in bringing down Wellington's government in 1828.
An aristocratic liberal in sentiment, Palmerston believed in equitable laws, security of property and person, and the right for people to have something to say in the management of their community. He was also in favour of the abolition of slavery. However, he was generally opposed to the democratic government like that being practised in the United States. 1
From 1830 to 1834 and 1835 to 1841, Palmerston was foreign secretary. His grasp of European politics and public opinion was masterful. Greek independence, followed by the defeat of Muhammad Ali, pasha of Egypt, and finally the conquest of Chusan and Hong Kong from China in the first Opium War, were a few of the successes for British imperialism that marked his time in office. Palmerston's liberal world view rarely influenced his conduct of foreign policy, especially when it came to Britain's relations with the other great powers and weaker states; here, might was right as Palmerston acted in the interest of the British for the expansion and protection of its empire, rarely backing down. Palmerston, widely admired in thePparliament and in the public, left the government in 1841. He was out of office for the Oregon boundary dispute, and was disgusted with the wholesale surrender to the Americans in the subsequent treaty. 2
Palmerston was in opposition from 1841 to 1846, and then given the foreign office under Prime Minister Russell, a position he held until 1852. His policies were very popular with the British public, but engendered increasing unease from his party and the Queen. Independent and frequently taking actions without the knowledge of his government or the Queen, Palmerston was dismissed by Russell on 19 December 1851, but returned the favour by helping to bring down Russell's government on 20 February 1852.
The Crimean War, a military debacle that brought down the government of the day, launched Palmerston into the prime minister's office. Queen Victoria exhausted all options before asking Palmerston to form a government on 6 February 1855. Taking control just when historical chance precipitated Russian collapse, Palmerston brought the war to a victorious conclusion and absorbed much of the public's acclaim.
Palmerston's first sojourn as prime minister was brief, but led to a second, long-lasting term in office. Brought down by the absurd allegations of insult to the British flag by the Chinese seizure of the British captained pirate ship Arrow in 1857, Palmerston dissolved Parliament and appealed to the nation. His enemies in Parliament characterized the British Consul's naked aggression against the Chinese that followed the seizure of the Arrow as an immoral and illegal act that should not be tolerated by the British government. Palmerston, understanding perhaps the power of nascent British nationalism, rallied to the flag and backed the British Consul's belligerence, despite the damning details. The public in turn rallied to Palmerston and returned a massive majority for his party. 3
Palmerston's second term in office lasted from 1859 until his sudden death in 1865. Slow, careful social reforms like the Divorce Act of 1857, modest expansion of the voter franchise, and some small improvements of factory conditions characterized his domestic policy while his government successfully navigated the tumultuous international scene. Neutrality, while still hoping for a Confederate victory in the American Civil War (with its consequent weakening of America) further revealed the stark realism of Palmerston's international policy.
Elected again in July 1865 at the age of 81, Palmerston caught a chill and died suddenly in October 1865. Given a state funeral, he was interned in Westminster Abbey.
  • 1. Galbraith, John S. The Hudson's Bay Company as an imperial factor, 1821-1869. New York : Octagon Books, 1977, c1957.
Mentions of this person in the documents
  1. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. Temple, Henry John, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27112 (accessed June 2, 2009).
  2. John S. Galbraith, The Hudson's Bay Company as an imperial factor, 1821-1869 (New York : Octagon Books, 1977, c1957), 220.
  3. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. Temple, Henry John, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27112 (accessed June 2, 2009).
People in this document

Russell, John

Victoria, Alexandrina

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Oregon Territory, or Columbia District