1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ampthill, Odo William Leopold Russell, 1st Baron

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 1
Ampthill, Odo William Leopold Russell, 1st Baron
12270231911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 1 — Ampthill, Odo William Leopold Russell, 1st Baron

AMPTHILL, ODO WILLIAM LEOPOLD RUSSELL, 1st Baron (1829–1884), British diplomatist and ambassador, was born in Florence on the 20th of February 1829. He was the son of Major-General Lord George William Russell, by Elizabeth Ann, niece of the marquess of Hastings, who was governor-general of India during the final struggle with the Mahrattas. His education, like that of his two brothers—Hastings, who became eventually 9th duke of Bedford, and Arthur, who sat for a generation in the House of Commons as member for Tavistock—was carried on entirely at home, under the general direction of his mother, whose beauty was celebrated by Byron in Beppo. Lady William Russell was as strong-willed as she was beautiful, and certainly deserved to be described as she was by Disraeli, who said in conversation, “I think she is the most fortunate woman in England, for she has the three nicest sons.” If it had not been for her strong will it is as likely as not that all the three would have gone through the usual mill of a public school, and have lost half their very peculiar charm. In March 1849 Odo was appointed by Lord Malmesbury attaché at Vienna. From 1850 to 1852 he was temporarily employed in the foreign office, whence he passed to Paris. He remained there, however, only about two months, when he was transferred to Vienna. In 1853 he became second paid attaché at Paris, and in August 1854 he was transferred as first paid attaché to Constantinople, where he served under Lord Stratford de Redcliffe. He had charge of the embassy during his chief’s two visits to the Crimea in 1855, but left the East to work under Lord Napier at Washington in 1857. In the following year he became secretary of legation at Florence, but was detached from that place to reside in Rome, where he remained for twelve years, till August 1870. During all that period he was the real though unofficial representative of England at the Vatican, and his consummate tact enabled him to do all, and more than all, that an ordinary man could have done in a stronger position. A reference, however, to his evidence before a committee of the House of Commons in 1871 will make it clear to any unprejudiced reader that those were right who, during the early ’fifties, urged so strongly the importance of having a duly accredited agent at the papal court. The line taken by him during the Vatican council has been criticized, but no fault can justly be found with it. Abreast as he was of the best thought of his time—the brother of Arthur Russell, who, more perhaps than any other man, was its most ideal representative in London society—he sympathized strongly with the views of those who laboured to prevent the extreme partisans of papal infallibility from having everything their own way. But in his capacity of clear-headed observer, whose business it was to reflect the actual truth upon the mind of his government, he was obliged to make it quite clear that they had no chance whatever, and in conversing with those whose opinions were quite unlike his own, such as Cardinal Manning, he seems to have shown that he had no illusions about the result of the long debate. In 1868 Odo Russell married Lady Emily Theresa Villiers, the daughter of Lord Clarendon. In 1870 he was appointed assistant under-secretary at the foreign office, and in November of that year was sent on a special mission to the headquarters of the German army, where he remained till 1871.

It was in connexion with this mission that an episode occurred which at the time threw much discredit upon Gladstone’s government. Russia had taken advantage of the collapse of France and her own cordial relations with Prussia to denounce the Black Sea clauses of the treaty of Paris of 1856. Russell, in an interview with Bismarck, pointed out that unless Russia withdrew from an attitude which involved the destruction of a treaty solemnly guaranteed by the powers, Great Britain would be forced to go to war “with or without allies.” This strong attitude was effective, and the question was ultimately referred to and settled by the conference which met at London in 1871. Though the result was to score a distinct diplomatic success for the Liberal government, the bellicose method employed wounded Liberal sentiment and threatened to create trouble for the ministry in parliament. On the 16th of February 1871, accordingly, Gladstone, in answer to a question, said that “the argument used by Mr Odo Russell was not one which had been directed by her Majesty’s government,” that it was used by him “without any specific instructions or authority from the government,” but that, at the same time, no blame was to be attached to him, as it was “perfectly well known that the duty of diplomatic agents requires them to express themselves in that mode in which they think they can best support and recommend the propositions of which they wish to procure acceptance.” This Gladstonian explanation was widely criticized as an illegitimate attack on Russell. What is certain is that the foreign office and the country profited by Russell’s firmness. (See Morley’s Gladstone, ii. 534.)

A little later in the same year he received the well-deserved reward of his labours by being made ambassador at Berlin.

During the months he passed at the foreign office he was examined before the committee of the House of Commons, already alluded to, and had an opportunity of stating very distinctly in public some of his views with regard to his profession. “If you could only organize diplomacy properly,” he said, “you would create a body of men who might influence the destinies of mankind and ensure the peace of the world.” In these words we have the key to the thought and habitual action of one of the best and wisest public servants of the time.

Russell remained at Berlin, with only brief intervals of absence, from the 16th of October 1871 till his death at Potsdam on the 25th of August 1884. He was third plenipotentiary at the Berlin congress, and is generally credited with having prevented, by his tact and good sense, the British prime minister from making a speech in French, which he knew very imperfectly and pronounced abominably. In 1874 Odo Russell received a patent of precedence raising him to the rank of a duke’s son, and after the congress of Berlin he was offered a peerage by the Conservative government. This he naturally declined, but accepted the honour in 1881 when it was offered by the Liberals, taking the title of Baron Ampthill. He became a privy councillor in 1872 and was made a G.C.B. somewhat later. At the conference about the Greek frontier, which followed the congress of Berlin, he was the only British representative. During all his long sojourn in the Prussian capital, he did everything that in him lay to bring about close and friendly relations between Great Britain and Germany. He kept on the best of terms with Bismarck, carefully avoiding everything that could give any cause of offence to that most jealous and most unscrupulous minister, whom he, however, did not hesitate to withstand when his unscrupulousness went the length of deliberately attempting to deceive.

He was succeeded as 2nd baron by his son, Arthur Oliver Villiers Russell (b. 1869), who rowed in the Oxford eight (1889, 1890, 1891) and became a prominent Unionist politician. He was private secretary to Mr Chamberlain, 1895–1897, and governor of Madras, 1899–1906. In 1904 he acted temporarily as Viceroy of India.  (M. G. D.)