Russell, Lord John

Russell, Lord John
   A reforming prime minister of Great Britain, John Russell entered politics as a young man, and was by both family connection and conviction a reformist Whig and an admirer of Charles James Fox. He opposed the repressive measures of Lord Liverpool ’s government, and became an early advocate of parliamentary reform. Although never a democrat, and opposed to a universal manhood suffrage, he played a prominent role in pushing the 1832 Reform Act, and the abortive bills that preceded it only to be rejected in the House of Lords, through the House of Commons. Russell became home secretary in under Lord Melbourne in the 1830s, where he pursued reformist policies, particularly with respect to Ireland. As the topic of the Corn Laws became prominent, Russell was one of the first Whigs to see the issue as a weapon with which to divide the Tories of Sir Robert Peel. When the Tories did in fact split in 1846, Russell succeeded Peel as prime minster.
   Always friendly on principle to self-government, he had considerable doubts about the introduction of responsible government in Canada, fearing that an autonomous Canadian government might embroil Britain in quarrels with the United States. It was nevertheless under his premiership that the principle was conceded, establishing the model for colonial governance elsewhere in the settlement empire. With the Tories split, Russell’s governments survived until 1852, when a dispute with his Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston brought down the Whig government. Russell served as British plenipotentiary to negotiations with the Russia during the Crimean War, but found himself embarrassed by policy changes in London over the neutralization of the Black Sea. Russell was out of office until 1859, when Russell and Palmerston, the two leading Whigs, agreed to put aside their personal differences. Russell became foreign secretary under Palmerston, in which post he gave fulsome support to Italian unification. He also, however, incurred some blame for the British government’s equivocal attitude toward the American Civil War and its negligence in allowing the Confederate ship Alabama to be built in a British yard. On Palmerston’s death in 1865, Russell succeeded him, becoming once more prime minister. Russell brought in a reform bill promising a substantial extension of the franchise, which was defeated in 1866 owing to opposition from the antidemocratic section of his own party. Russell was succeeded in power by the Conservative administrations of Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli. Russell’s primary concerns were in the realm of domestic reform, although for him, this category included Ireland. He was less bellicose than Palmerston, but like him supported European nationalists and liberals. His imperial policies were ad hoc, and in that respect typical of his age.
   See also <>, First Earl of.
    Prest, John. Lord John Russell. London: MacMillan, 1972;
    Walpole, Spencer. The Life of Lord John Russell. London: Longman, Green and Co, 1891.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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