‘What is the most underrated event of the past, and why is it so much more significant than people understand?’

On the night of 25 June 1850 Lord Palmerston asked the House of Commons ‘whether, as the Roman, in days of old […] could say Civis Romanus sum; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice.’[1] This paper will argue that his words have been fundamentally underrated. They were, above all, a response to pervasive criticism of his foreign policy theretofore: manifested in the House of Lords’ antithetical resolution of 17 June that British subjects ‘residing in foreign states’ should be entitled only to ‘the full protection of the laws of those states’.[2] However, that they emerged from a fairly trivial affair – namely, the maltreatment of a Portuguese Jew born in Gibraltar, who went by the name of Don Pacifico – does not render them insignificant. On the contrary: if taken in context, and with a fuller understanding of the (latent) interplay between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics, their intrinsic import is quickly made apparent. Further, whilst it is true that there is no shortage of comments regarding the Don Pacifico debate and the foreign secretary’s contribution (in the words of Herbert Bell, an ‘amazing demonstration of his reserves of strength’),[3] the long-term, foreseen and unforeseen consequences of his words – on his career, the public and on foreign policy thereafter – have been persistently overlooked.

Most Palmerstonian scholars have not failed to acknowledge the short-term ramifications of the Don Pacifico debate.[4] However, in many a political biography it does not receive the emphasis due to an important turning point in Lord Palmerston’s career. As he later noted, his immortal peroration had effectively revitalised his political stock. ‘Towards the End of the Session Ld John [sic] brought [the subject of removal from the Foreign Office] forward and proposed to me a change of office. I replied that after what had passed in the House of Commons […] it was quite impossible for me to consent to any such arrangement’.[5] In other words – or so the standard narrative goes – he had successfully overcome a concerted attack upon his foreign policy to date, and he was subsequently able to resist pressure for his removal from above. What is often not articulated is that when he was in fact dismissed in December 1851, the popular indignation that resulted – a product of his standing in the aftermath of his success – did much to establish his claim to high office. For example, the Morning Chronicle described his loss as a ‘national humiliation’.[6] If he was, indeed, ‘l’inevitable’ as prime minister in 1855 (as he so modestly put it),[7] this status must be understood in the context of the Don Pacifico debate.

Was the foregoing intended on the part of Lord Palmerston? The answer must be that he was fully aware of what he was doing in June 1850: for two, not unrelated reasons. First, his contribution to the Don Pacifico debate is, in fact, resounding evidence for a political Machiavellianism. Greville rightly said that the speech was hardly a sufficient answer to all the charges made, but admitted that it was ‘adorned with a profusion of magnificent and successful claptraps’.[8] This was not merely dodging the question on the foreign secretary’s part but was, rather, a calculated bid to capture patriotic sentiment. The fundamental fact about British politics at this time was the breakdown of the old-two party system following the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. As a result, there was a clear window of opportunity for Lord Palmerston to rally non-Conservatives behind an attractive, libertarian banner and, in so doing, to win the battle for advantage within a future non-Conservative administration.[9] In construing the resolution of the House of Lords as ‘totally incompatible with the interests, with the rights, with the honour, and with the dignity of the crown’; and in suggesting that his removal would be inimical to the ‘deepest interests’ of the nation, he was able to present himself as the only representative spokesman in the midst of manifest autocracy: both at home and abroad.[10]

If the above suggests a high political battle, then this must be qualified by the second facet of Lord Palmerston’s manoeuvres; namely, his appeal to the nation outside the walls of Westminster. This has, indeed, been often overlooked; that through the press, he could solicit the ‘approbation of [his] policy and conduct […] from One End of the Country to the other’.[11] The Globe, for example, commented that the foreign secretary had earned his countrymen’s ‘affection and respect’;[12] and this can no doubt be attributed to the ‘Civis Romanus’ doctrine. Not only had he defended his alleged folly; he had also carved out an image of himself as the true ‘patriot hero’; the ‘most English minister’, no less.[13] Indeed, he was invariably seen to be the personification of Victorian John Bullishness thereafter.[14] When, in September 1853, he was awarded the freedom of the city in Glasgow, the words spoken by Lord Provost, highlighting ‘the courage and determination [he had] so often displayed in protecting the interests and the privileges of [his] countrymen abroad’, were merely an extension of this public mood and clearly show the extent to which the Don Pacifico debate resonated through the 1850s and beyond: underpinning Lord Palmerston’s political resiliency and success.[15]

Now, we enter the realm of a more longstanding significance or impact on the trajectory of 19th century politics. Most obviously, in his claim to be the representative spokesman of the people, and in the irresistible appeal of his emotive rhetoric, Lord Palmerston contributed to the evolution of a new political style. ‘The strength of the government’, he reminded Henry Brand, Chief Whip, in 1863, ‘consists not simply in the balance of votes […] in the Commons, but mainly in favourable public opinion.’[16]  This was surely a lesson learnt in 1850, if not a statement of a direct consequence of the Don Pacifico debate. The Leicestershire Mercury had, after all, suggested in 1851 that Lord Palmerston would be ‘carried back to office on the shoulders of the people’; and this, it would seem, is what had happened.[17] Thus, Don Pacifico and its effects mark a shift away from the traditional elitist (or autocratic) model of early 19th century government and toward a British polity built on public confidence. Later, both Disraeli and Gladstone, faced with a far greater electorate following the 1867 extension of the franchise, had to find new and exciting ways of courting national strength and dominance: the Midlothian Campaign of 1879 being one example. However, the advent of party government was but a short-term factor, where the legacy of Lord Palmerston was part and parcel of this change.

Even more important than the audience who Lord Palmerston addressed was the very essence of the foreign secretary’s rhetoric and the momentous impact that it had. As alluded to above, the underlying intention of his speech was to exploit and neutralise a common fear: the fear that somehow, the age-old ‘English oligarchy’ would shortly be usurped.[18] 1848 had seen pervasive revolution on the continent: ‘thrones […] shattered […]; institutions overthrown’;[19] and only in this context can the Don Pacifico debate be fully understood. If, in appealing to the nation’s primitive desires – desires ubiquitous and ‘classless’ – Lord Palmerston had forged a national community of interests, he had also imbued this community with an awareness (fanciful or otherwise) of the superiority of Britain’s liberal constitutional arrangements: as contrasted with the despotic nature of the continental governments. ‘We have shown that liberty is compatible with order; that individual freedom is reconcilable with obedience to the law.’[20] In turn, this presumed superiority became the lynchpin of a very British obligation to spread justice overseas. Fear had given way to a ‘trigger happy ebullience’,[21] and the ‘reproach’ of Britons on the subject of foreign policy had thus been wiped away; ‘All [were] interested in foreign affairs’.[22]

The immediate consequence of this transition was the ‘drift’ toward the Crimean War of 1853–56. The precise details surrounding said conflict are unimportant here; except to say that John Russell’s first administration had, by this stage, been replaced by a weak and ineffectual coalition: susceptible to a British public in an alarmingly ‘febrile state’.[23] M.E. Chamberlain has suggested that this state was a function of the ‘excitement which had led to the revolutions in continental Europe […] dammed back in Britain’ and left to run in other channels.[24] This seems plausible but needs to be drawn out and incorporated within a framework centred on the Don Pacifico debate and its effects. It was, at bottom, ‘the defence of popular liberty against menacing reaction, incarnate and triumphant in the Tsar, that brought Great Britain into the field’;[25] or, at least this was the rationale entrenched in popular imagination and indirectly propagated by Lord Palmerston’s speech of June 1850. In other words, to explain the conflict we should look, not toward the various external factors, but rather inward at the domestic situation as it stood in the years preceding. Yes, a major factor in the outbreak of the war was ‘the breakdown of the traditional understandings between the powers’;[26] however, this breakdown was itself driven by a British polity motivated (and united) by a Palmerstonian conception of the pecking order.

In the long run, this conception was not to go away: from the people, nor (reciprocally) from the political discourse and foreign policy of the years and decades following Lord Palmerston’s death in 1865. Don Pacifico had shown, above all, that foreign affairs were better suited to the construction of a cross-class domestic politics than, say, Reform or Ecclesiastical Titles;[27] and this became increasingly significant in the context of the late 1860s: when Disraeli, in particular, sought to ‘acquire the national colours for his own party’.[28] On succeeding to the premiership in 1866, for example, he could not fail to avoid the common movement for electoral reform: given the known dangers of extra-parliamentary discontent. However, the extension of the franchise created a reaction whereby certain ‘constitutional bastions’ were revoked.[29] The position of the ruling classes under threat – their ability to govern called into question – the need to exemplify the principles of national leadership and create a community, ‘instead of a number of mutually exclusive classes’, was once again the order of the day: thus prompting the Abyssinian Expedition of 1868.[30] War was, in effect, a national cause or patriotic purpose that would relieve domestic tensions; in which sense, Don Pacifico had emerged as the root political exemplar of the latter half of the 19th century.

The phrase ‘Civis Romanus sum’ might be forgotten, but the idea to which Lord Palmerston gave form on the night of 25 June 1850 deserves recognition as a significant factor in modern British history. In the first place, the Don Pacifico debate is underrated because ‘it awoke a sentiment through the length and breadth of England’ akin to the feelings felt in the run-up to ‘Free-trade and the [Great] Reform-bill’;[31] and yet it has not been venerated by the national consciousness, nor systematically analysed by historians in quite the same way. However, its status as the most underrated event of the past is due to the lasting impact of a speech synonymous with the debate itself. As Lord Palmerston put it, the resolution of the House of Lords – and, by implication, his own ‘principle of national policy’ – involved ‘the future as well as the past’;[32] that is, the future of a national hero, the future of the British polity and, perhaps most significantly, the future of British foreign policy aims and objectives. His lasting legacy, then, was to popularise foreign affairs for the first time and ‘to illustrate the political capital to be made from efficient representation of popular interests’.[33] The result – the Pax Britannica, or an unremitting (arguably delusional) sense of Britain as a ‘spectacle […] worthy of the admiration of mankind’[34] – may still be with us to this day.

Endnotes – 

[1] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. cxii, c. 444.

[2] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. cxi, c. 1296.

[3] Bell, H.C.F. Lord Palmerston (London, 1936), vol.  ii, p. 22

[4] See, e.g., Bell, Lord Palmerston, pp. 27–8; Chamberlain, M.E. Lord Palmerston (Cardiff, 1987), p. 74; Ridley, J. Lord Palmerston. (London, 1970), pp. 387–9.

[5] Broadlands Papers, GC/RU/343/enc. 1; cit. in Brown, D. Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy (Manchester, 2002), p. 112.

[6] Morning Chronicle, 25 Dec. 1851; cit. in [ibid.], p. 123.

[7] Ashley, E. The life of Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston: 1846–65 (London, 1876), p. 77; letter to brother, William, 15 Feb. 1855.

[8] The Greville memoirs, 1814–1860, Lytton Stratchey and Roger Fulford (eds.), 1938, vol. vi, p. 232; cit. in Southgate, D. The most English minister…’: The policies and politics of Palmerston (London, 1966), p. 276.

[9] Parry, J. The politics of patriotism: English liberalism, national identity and Europe, 1830–1886 (Cambridge, 2006), p. 65.

[10] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. cxii, cc. 380–81.

[11] Broadlands Papers, GC/RU/343/enc. 1; cit. in Brown, Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy, p. 112.

[12] Globe, 26 June 1850; cit. in [ibid.] p. 113.

[13] Broadlands Papers, MM/GR/50, Sligo Champion [Irish Tory paper], June 1850; cit. in [ibid.] p. 117; Daily Telegraph obituary; cit. in Southgate, Most English minister, p. xxviii.

[14] Chamberlain, M.E. ‘Pax Britannica?’: British foreign policy 1789–1914 (Harlow, 1988), p. 99; cf. also Ritchie,  J.E. The life and times of Viscount Palmerston: embracing the diplomatic and domestic history of the British Empire during the last half century (London, 1866–7), vol. ii, p. 13: ‘Of his John Bullism the nation was proud’.

[15] Broadlands Papers, SP/B/3/1–4; cit. in Brown, Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy, p. 156.

[16] Palmerston to Brand, 14 Aug. 1863; cit. in Hawkins, A. British party politics, 1852–1886 (Basingstoke, 1998) p. 80.

[17] Broadlands Papers, GMC/52, Leicestershire Mercury, 24 Jan. 1852; cit. in Brown, Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy, p. 127.

[18] Nonconformist, 3 May 1848, p. 314; cit. in Parry, The politics of patriotism, p. 173.

[19] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. cxii, c. 443

[20] Ibid.

[21] Parry, The politics of patriotism, p. 174.

[22] Ritchie, Lord Palmerston, vol. ii, p. 14.

[23] Chamberlain, Pax Britannica, p. 106.

[24] Chamberlain, Lord Palmerston, p. 84; cf. also Chamberlain, Pax Britannica, p. 106.

[25] Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy, vol. ii (Cambridge, 1923), p. 380.

[26] Parry, The politics of patriotism, p. 218.

[27] Ibid. p. 204.

[28] Blake, R. Disraeli (London, 1969), p. 283.

[29] Harcourt, F. ‘Disraeli’s Imperialism, 1866–1868: A Question of Timing?’ The Historical Journal, vol. xxiii (1980), p. 92.

[30] Morley, J. ‘Young England and the political future’, Fortnightly Rev. vol. i (1867), p. 496; cit. in Harcourt, ‘Disraeli’s Imperialism’, p. 93.

[31] Globe, 29 June 1850; cit. in Brown, Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy, p. 113.

[32] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. xii, c. 381.

[33] Brown, Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy, p. 217.

[34] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. cxii, c. 443.

Contributed by Jack Nicholson, History Editor

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