- Palmerston, Henry John Temple, Lord
- (1784–1865)The Liberal prime minister of Great Britain from 1855 to 1865, with a hiatus in 1858–1859, and often foreign secretary in the preceding decades. Although he did not set out to expand the British Empire, Palmerston was the last Liberal prime minister able to position the Liberal Party as the voice of an assertive British nationalism. Palmerston first entered politics as a supporter of William Pitt the Younger; he was first elected to the House of Commons in 1807 after several unsuccessful attempts. He attained office at an unusually young age as secretary for war under Spencer Perceval in 1809. Palmerston sympathized with the growing movement for reform in the 1820s, and eventually resigned from the duke of Wellington’s cabinet in 1828 over its refusal to contemplate even small measures of electoral redistribution.He became foreign secretary in Lord Grey’s Whig government of 1830, and held that post when the Whigs or Liberals were in power over most of the following 25 years. Palmerston was a cautious reformer in domestic matters, and his foreign policy generally supported liberal causes where it could. In European affairs, he supported Italian, Hungarian, and Polish nationalism, but not to the extent of seriously offending major powers. In imperial affairs, he waged war against China in 1839–1842 and again from 1857–1860, opening Chinese ports to British commerce in the Opium Wars. He sought to put down the slave trade, threatening Portugal and Brazil, and expanding British power around the coasts of Africa as he did so. In the famous Don Pacifico affair of 1850, he used the Royal Navy to collect minor debts owed a British citizen by the Greek government, famously proclaiming that the Englishman, like the Roman of old, could say, “ civis Romanus sum .” Unusually, Palmerston served as home secretary in Lord Aberdeen’s government of 1852–1855, thus avoiding blame for the blunders that led to the Crimean War. When Aberdeen fell because of his handling of the war, Palmerston became prime minister on the back of popular feeling that the war needed more vigorous prosecution.As prime minister, Palmerston was generally friendly toward Louis Napoleon Bonaparte ’s France, so much so that he fell from power in 1858 over the Conspiracy to Murder bill, put forward in response to an assassination attempt against Napoleon that had been plotted in Britain, a bill perceived to be craven in its attitude to the French. The minority Tories being unable to govern, Palmerston came back into power in 1859, and remained prime minister until his death in 1865. He preserved a friendly neutrality toward France and Sardinia during their 1859 war with Austria, kept Britain out of the American Civil War, and admitted that support for Denmark in the 1864 war over Schleswig-Holstein was beyond Britain’s power. Critics on both left and right observed that Palmerston was more cautious in dealing with Americans and Prussians than with Greeks and Chinese, and accused him of hypocrisy; defenders credited his pragmatism. Although personally an aristocratic Whig and a man about town, Palmerston was effective as a democratic politician, using his forthright British nationalism to attract support from all classes - an appeal later taken over by Benjamin Disraeli. Palmerston is perhaps best understood as a nationalist: he believed that Britain was a great power that should use its power abroad for good and in its own interests, two purposes that did not in his mind often conflict.See also <
>; < >.FURTHER READING:Bell, H.C.F. Lord Palmerston. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1936;Chamberlain, Muriel. British Foreign Policy in the Age of Palmerston. London: Longman, 1980;Steele, E. D. Palmerston and Liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.MARK F. PROUDMAN
Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.