Book review of Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny by John Bew
“There is nothing dramatic in the success of a diplomatist,” the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury wrote of his hero, Lord Castlereagh, in a book review in 1862. “His victories are made up of a series of microscopic advantages; a judicious suggestion here, or an opportune civility there: of a wise concession at one moment, and a far-sighted persistence at another; of sleepless tact, immovable calmness, and patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunders can shake.” As a result, Salisbury feared, “A diplomatist’s glory is the most ephemeral of all forms of that transient reward. There is nothing in the achievement which appeals to the imagination; nothing which art can illustrate, or tradition retain, or history portray.” In the last sub-clause at least, Salisbury was wrong, because Dr John Bew of the War Studies Institute at King’s College London has now portrayed the glory of Lord Castlereagh, who — besides Salisbury himself — was the greatest of all Britain’s foreign secretaries.
The reason that Castlereagh has not been accorded his rightful place in the highest pantheon of British statesmen, despite his central role in creating and maintaining the coalitions that defeated Napoleon, and then in negotiating the most durable European peace settlement for 130 years, was because he was the first victim of demonisation by the liberal media. “I met Murder on the way;” rhymed Shelley in his 1819 poem “The Masque of Anarchy“, “he had a mask like Castlereagh.” Byron called Castlereagh “an intellectual eunuch” and a “tyrant” and when he died suggested that travellers should “stop…and piss” on his grave. So hated was the great Tory that a hired gang of louts cheered at the gates of Westminster Abbey as his coffin was carried inside (to be interred, such were his achievements, between Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox).
One of the accusations that the Romantic poets such as Thomas Moore, Radical MPs such as John Cam Hobhouse and Francophile journalists and editors such as William Cobbett regularly made against Castlereagh was that he was ignorant and ill-read, which Bew destroys in this well-researched, well-written and riveting book. Castlereagh in fact read voraciously — Rousseau, William Godwin, Edgeworth, Walter Scott, all the Scottish Enlightenment authors. This could also be divined from the classical and literary allusions and references he dropped in his speeches. (He was not a practised orator, however, and seemed to believe that people should care more about what he said than how he said it, a fatal misjudgment in a politician.)
On top of his intellectual interests, Castlereagh added much real-world experience. Unlike many of his critics, he actually saw the French Revolution at first hand, living in Paris in 1790-91, an experience that soon turned him against a phenomenon he had initially supported in principle. The Tory minister and writer John Wilson Croker praised Castlereagh for his “unostentatious sagacity”, contrasting him to the more pompous of the Whigs. The Revolution gave Castlereagh a Hobbesian view of the world, and small wonder by the time of the Jacobin Terror. Both in France and in his native Ireland, he saw the ultimate nightmare that haunted British statesmen of the day, a combination of religious frenzy and utopian fanaticism.
Bew goes very much against the current historical trend, at least in the academy, of regarding the Toryism of the day as all about the Church of England and evangelical Protestantism. The Established Church meant little to Castlereagh, who saw his conservatism as merely a common-sense creed, partly forged out of the need to win the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Bew shows how it was no coincidence that (with the exception of Wellington) the strongest supporters of Catholic Emancipation in the government were also the strongest hawks. They wanted domestic tranquillity and the minimum possible religious tension for the Jacobins to exploit. It was for stances such as this that Lord Salisbury described Castlereagh as “a practical man of the highest order, who yet did not by that fact forfeit his title to be considered a man of genius”.
Radicals never forgave Castlereagh for his roles in thwarting the intended French invasion of Ireland in 1796, which they (wrongly) saw as an attempt at liberation, then for crushing the 1798 Rebellion there, and finally passing the Act of Union in 1800, which led to 121 years of legislative union and the dawn of our United Kingdom. The political unity of the British Isles kept Ireland free of a Napoleonic rule that would have been far worse than that of Britain, and set the scene for the huge expansion of the British Empire — especially once Castlereagh had secured key imperial nodal points at the Congress of Vienna — which also hugely benefited his countrymen. Although Castlereagh supported Catholic Emancipation, he is given scant credit for that by his detractors.
Castlereagh spent most of his adult life in government. An admirer and faithful follower of William Pitt the Younger, he was President of the Board of Control from 1802 to 1806 and appointed by Pitt to the War and Colonial Office in 1805; indeed, it was in his anteroom that Nelson and Wellington met for the only time. As War Secretary he secured the Danish fleet and saved the Swedish and Portuguese fleets from being captured by Napoleon. In 1808 he sent Wellington to the Peninsula (against George III’s wishes) and supported him through the court-martial and obloquy that followed the Convention of Cintra. When in 1809 Castlereagh discovered that the Foreign Secretary, George Canning, had been conspiring against him, he fought a duel on Putney Heath and shot him in the thigh. (After both men had missed at ten paces, he had demanded a second shot. Canning behaved slightly better thereafter.)
Resigning after the duel he was back in office in 1812 as Foreign Secretary, and also became leader of the House of Commons until he succeeded to his father’s marquessate in 1821, although he carried on at the Foreign Office until his suicide on August 12, 1822. His period as Foreign Secretary saw Britain concluding treaties with Russia, Austria, Turkey, Sweden and Russia; mediating peace between former enemies; massively increasing subsidies to countries willing to fight Napoleon; arranging the affairs of Italy with Austria; signing the Treaty of Chaumont and installing representative government in France after Napoleon’s first abdication; abolishing the slave trade in France, Belgium and Spain; refusing a separate peace when Napoleon escaped from Elba, and sending him to St Helena after Waterloo; and securing a peace at Vienna in 1815 that was to last until the Crimean War in 1854. It was a stupendous achievement, often in the face of wildly histrionic attacks from the Whigs and Radicals.
Fortunately, however, Castlereagh had a rhinocerine hide for criticism; Salisbury commended him for his contempt for “whipper-in statesmanship” and the way he made “petty parliamentary tactics appear infinitely despicable”. On walking down to Parliament with the (almost equally hated) Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth and encountering a mob, Sidmouth said: “Here we go, the two most popular men in England.” “Yes,” replied Castlereagh, “through a grateful and admiring multitude.” He added that it was more “gentlemanly” to be disliked by the mob than liked by them, which was some compensation for their habit of constantly smashing the windows of his London house.
Bew’s diligence in 13 archives in several countries and deep reading in the literature of the day — no fewer than 37 contemporary newspaper publications are cited in the notes — has produced a scholarly defence of this great Tory paladin. Personally incorrupt, Castlereagh had a fine eye for appointing the right man to the right job: Richard Wellesley was given the governor-generalship of India on his recommendation, for example, and consolidated British rule there with the help of his brother Arthur, later Duke of Wellington.
Although the Liverpool government’s repressive measures after Waterloo — particularly the Peterloo Massacre and the Six Acts of 1819 — were not solely Castlereagh’s doing, as leader of the Commons he represented their public face, and they gave the opposition the perfect opportunity to blacken the reputation of someone they had loathed for a quarter of a century. Castlereagh personally hated having to impose dictatorial laws that Napoleon himself had used, but as Salisbury later pointed out there is in politics a “just Nemesis which generally decrees that partisans shall be forced to do in office precisely that which they most loudly decried in opposition”. Bew makes a good case for Castlereagh’s support for law and order and his opposition to mob rule, which is a convincing one and in light of the Hobbesian descent into mayhem and tragedy on British streets in August will hopefully strike a chord with readers.
Bew also questions Douglas Hurd’s admiration for Castlereagh. He believes Hurd pictured Castlereagh as a do-nothing realist. But as Bew points out, Castlereagh — with the exception of a brief period in 1802-3 when he half-heartedly defended the Peace of Amiens — “was one of the most unremitting exponents of the view that no deal could be negotiated with Napoleon and that he must be fought to the end. To that end, both he and Canning were prepared to take daring, unilateral and pre-emptive action, without the sanction of other allies — the bombardment of Copenhagen being the most infamous example.” Also, “If Castlereagh is to be regarded as the British Foreign Secretary who cooperated more effectively with the Continental powers than any other, this should come with the concomitant recognition acknowledging that he was also the War Secretary who created the biggest British army in history to that point, precisely so that it could operate on European soil.” Bew also states: “In Castlereagh’s career, negotiation was never confused with appeasement and he recognised that talking sometimes had its limits, such as from 1812 to 1815, before the Congress system took shape, when he was unwilling to countenance appeasement of Napoleonic France or Tsarist Russia. ‘It was a measure not of war but preventative of war,’ Charles Stewart later wrote of his brother’s refusal to bend to Russia over the issue of Poland.” Bew concludes: “Viewed in this way, the echoes of Castlereagh’s career perhaps evoke different historical analogies than those which Hurd, or others, have considered.”
Of Castlereagh’s suicide, Bew gives us all the facts about the complete mental collapse that led to it, allowing us to make up our minds about the surrounding controversy. After ten years in two of the most stressful jobs in government, Castlereagh had a breakdown and cut the carotid artery in his throat with a penknife. It seems to have been a complete fantasy of his that he was being blackmailed over homosexuality, as he confided to George III the day before, not least because he wasn’t homosexual. He was, however, paranoid, exhausted and depressed. Radicals like William Cobbett and Byron were jubilant at his death, but the truest epitaph was that of Field Marshal Sir Henry Hardinge, who pointed out that Castlereagh had died a martyr to his country, just as much as if he had been killed on the field of Waterloo.
Castlereagh was “surprisingly adept at making enemies”, and these included Charles James Fox and William Wilberforce. Yet the greatest Britons of the day — giants such as Pitt, Nelson and Wellington — as well as foreigners such as Metternich, Talleyrand-Périgord and Tsar Alexander I all admired him, as have modern authorities such as Henry Kissinger. Shelley’s accursed doggerel about murder will always dog him, of course, but Bew’s book will save him in the eyes of anyone tempted to inquire into the subject of the slur. “I think those people who are acquainted with me,” Castlereagh told the Commons in 1817, “will do me justice to believe that I never had a cruel or unkind heart.” John Bew has done a fine job in acquainting us with him two centuries later, and we can wholeheartedly concur.