Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Canning, George
CANNING, GEORGE (1770–1827), statesman, was born in London on 11 April 1770. His family, which claimed descent from William Canynges of Bristol [q. v.], was at one time seated at Bishops Canning in Wiltshire, and afterwards at Foxcote in Warwickshire. A cadet of the family obtained the manor of Garvagh in Londonderry from Elizabeth, and died there in 1646. The statesman's father, George Canning, was the eldest of three brothers, sons of Stratford Canning of Garvagh (1703–1775), and, according to one report, was disinherited by his father in consequence, it seems, of some early attachment of which the family disapproved. He came to London in 1757 with an allowance of 150l. a year, was called to the bar in 1764, wrote for the papers, published a translation of the ‘Anti-Lucretius’ (1766) and a collection of poems (1767). In 1768 he married Mary Anne Costello, a young lady of great beauty, but without any fortune, and, sinking under the burden of supporting himself and his family, died of a broken heart 11 April 1771. His second brother, Paul, had a son George (1778–1840), created baron Garvagh of Londonderry in the Irish peerage in 1818. The youngest, Stratford, was a banker in London, and the father of Lord Stratford de Redcliffe [see Canning, Stratford].
After her husband's death his widow went upon the stage, and was twice married, her second husband being Redditch, an actor, and her third a Mr. Hunn, a linendraper of Plymouth, whom she also outlived for many years. She never achieved any great success in her profession, and finally quitted it in 1801, when Canning, who had then been under-secretary of state for five years, arranged to have his pension of 500l. a year settled on his mother and sisters.
Mrs. Canning had two children, a boy and a girl, and when the former was eight years old her brother-in-law, the banker, took him into his own house, and educated him as his own son. He was sent to school in London, and afterwards to the Rev. Mr. Richards, at Hyde Abbey, near Winchester, and finally to Eton, where he soon distinguished himself for his wit, his scholarship, and his precocious powers of composition. In concert with his friends John and Robert Smith, Hookham Frere, and Charles Ellis, he brought out a school magazine, called the ‘Microcosm,’ which attracted sufficient attention to induce Knight, the publisher, to pay the young editor fifty pounds for the copyright—in all probability the first copy money ever yet paid to a schoolboy. Canning always loved Eton, and in 1824 was ‘sitter’ in the Eton ten-oar, the post of honour reserved for distinguished old Etonians. In October 1788 he went up to Christ Church, where he made the acquaintance of Jenkinson (afterwards Lord Liverpool), Sturges Bourne, Lord Granville, Lord Morley (then Lord Boringdon), Lord Holland, and Lord Carlisle, and extended his classical reputation by gaining the chancellor's prize for Latin verse, the subject for that year, 1789, being the ‘Pilgrimage to Mecca.’ In the following year he took his bachelor's degree, and entered himself at Lincoln's Inn, though his residence chambers were at 2 Paper Buildings, in the Inner Temple.
His uncle, the banker, was a staunch whig, and his house was a favourite resort of the whig leaders. Here the young Oxonian made the acquaintance of Fox and Sheridan, who introduced him to Devonshire House at a grand supper party given by the duchess to all the wit, rank, and beauty of the whig party. There can be no doubt that at this time Canning called himself a whig, and his intimate friend, George Ellis, his colleague in the ‘Anti-Jacobin,’ and one of the founders of the ‘Quarterly Review,’ was even now writing in the ‘Rolliad.’ But the French revolution exercised the same influence on Canning as it did on many older men, hitherto the most distinguished ornaments of the whig party—Burke, Windham, Spencer, Lord Fitzwilliam—and brought them over in a body to the tory camp. Sir Walter Scott says that Canning's conversion was due to a visit from Godwin, who came to him in Paper Buildings, and told him that the English Jacobins, in the event of a revolution, had determined on making him their leader. Canning, according to this account, took time to consider the proposal, and, coming to the conclusion that he had better at once make his plunge in the opposite direction, instantly hurried off to Pitt. Scott seems to have heard this story at Murray's, but he does not say from whom, though he adds that Sir W. Knighton was the person to whom Canning told it. Godwin's visit, however, was only one out of many causes all converging to the same result. Moore declares that the treatment of Burke and Sheridan by the whigs had some effect in leading Canning to unite himself with the tories. A long letter of 13 Dec. 1792, written to his friend, Lord Boringdon, at Vienna, gives Canning's own explanation of his views and inclinations at the period, and shows that he already regarded Mr. Pitt as the man of the age. Whether, however, Canning went to Pitt, or Pitt sent for Canning, the result was the same. In 1793 he finally enrolled himself under that statesman's banner, and took his seat in the House of Commons as member for Newtown in January 1794. His maiden speech was delivered on the 31st of that month, the subject being the proposed grant of a subsidy to the king of Sardinia. Canning himself wrote an account of it to Lord Boringdon, in which he describes his own sensations at the moment of rising, and his annoyance towards the middle of his speech by seeing some members on the front opposition bench laughing, as he thought, at himself. The cheers of his friends, however, soon restored him, and he got through his task triumphantly.
In 1796, when he exchanged Newtown for Wendover, Canning was made under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, a position which he held till 1799, when he was made commissioner of the board of control. From 1800–1 he was paymaster-general. He was M.P. for Tralee 1802–6, Newtown again 1806–7, and Hastings 1807–12. From September 1797 to July 1798 he contributed to the ‘Anti-Jacobin or Weekly Examiner,’ with Ellis, Frere, the Smiths, Lord Wellesley, Lord Carlisle, and even Pitt. Canning himself, it is said, never directly acknowledged the authorship of any of the pieces attributed to him. But we may safely assert that the ‘Needy Knife-grinder,’ the lines on Mrs. Brownrigg, the ‘New Morality,’ the song on Captain Jean Bon André, the lament of Rogero, and Erskine's speech to the Whig Club, were almost exclusively his. The paper was perhaps the most brilliant success of its kind on record. The intention of it was to make the revolutionary party ridiculous. Previously it had been the upholders of law and order, the ‘Dons,’ the ‘Bigwigs,’ who had been favourite objects of popular satire. Now, perhaps for the first time, it was their assailants who were covered with contempt; and such was the success of the experiment, that we can only wonder that it was discontinued so soon. It came out in September 1797, and was stopped in the following July.
On 8 July 1800 Canning married Joan, daughter of Major-general John Scott, a young lady with 100,000l. and sister to the Duke of Portland. This made him independent, and when Pitt resigned on the Roman catholic question, Canning could follow him without any pecuniary misgivings.
During the administration of Addington, who succeeded Pitt at the treasury, Canning seems to have represented that kind of irregular opposition which, coming from below the gangway on the ministerial side of the house, is more familiar to us than to our grandfathers. He was in favour of the Roman catholic claims and for a vigorous prosecution of the war, and Addington was inclined to neither. Pitt, however, held him in check for the first two or three years, though he could not prevent him from indulging in those flights of humour at the expense of the Addingtonian party, which greatly irritated the minister's own friends, and laid the foundation of that bitter and widespread animosity which pursued him to his grave. In May 1804, however, Pitt returned to power, and Canning with him as treasurer of the navy, an office which he held till Pitt's death in 1806. He was offered high office by Lord Grenville in the cabinet of All the Talents, but declined it on what Lord Malmesbury allows to have been honourable and honest grounds—that is to say, on grounds which showed how complete a tory Canning had now become. His reason was that in the formation of the government the king's wishes had not been sufficiently consulted. In the spring of 1807, however, the new government was dismissed, and the tories again returned to power under Canning's near relative, the Duke of Portland, even then, however, in declining health and unequal to the duties of his position. In this cabinet Canning, at the age of thirty-seven, took his seat as foreign minister.
The ministry lasted two years and a half, and during its existence occurred the seizure of the Danish fleet by Lord Cathcart, the campaign of Sir John Moore, the Walcheren expedition, and the orders in council of November 1807, which, however, were not the beginning of that series of retaliatory measures. The capture of the Danish fleet was planned by Canning, and it was certainly one of the boldest and most successful operations of the whole war. It entirely disabled the northern confederacy against England, which Napoleon had formed with so much care, and put the finishing stroke to the work of Nelson at Trafalgar. The expeditions to Spain and to the Scheldt were less fortunate. Castlereagh was secretary for war and the colonies, and though the cabinet decided on the policy to be pursued, on him devolved the duty of superintending and carrying out the details. Canning thought that Moore's expedition had been greatly mismanaged, and that reinforcements which arrived ‘too late’ to alter the course of the campaign might easily have been despatched in time to convert defeat into victory. The following year, when, principally owing to Canning's energetic remonstrances, it was decided once more to renew the war in the Peninsula, Lord Wellesley accepted the Spanish embassy on the distinct understanding that his brother, Lord Wellington, should be vigorously supported from home. Canning was much mortified and disappointed on finding that the troops which were originally destined for Portugal had been diverted by Lord Castlereagh to an expedition against Flushing. That it was expedient to protect this country against the possible consequences of a French occupation of Antwerp will hardly be denied. The question was whether, if we had not troops enough for both purposes, Portugal or Holland was to have the preference. To Canning it seemed that the despatch of these forces against Antwerp was a distinct breach of faith with Lord Wellesley, and this was his second ground of complaint against Lord Castlereagh. A third was that when the convention of Cintra was under the consideration of the cabinet, a resolution approving it was adopted in Canning's absence, who, as foreign secretary, had a pre-eminent right to be consulted. The result was that in April 1809 he told the Duke of Portland that either Lord Castlereagh must be removed to some other office, or that he (Canning) must resign. Canning's resignation, as the duke well knew, would break up the ministry. To propose to Castlereagh that he should retire from the management of the war required an amount of moral courage of which the duke was not possessed. But he undertook, nevertheless, that it should be done, and at once placed himself in communication with the principal friends of Lord Castlereagh in the cabinet, Eldon, Bathurst, and Camden.
Of what followed—of the long train of consultations, negotiations, stipulations, entreaties, and remonstrances with which the next five months were taken up, during the whole of which time Lord Castlereagh was left in ignorance of what was hanging over his head—such conflicting and complicated accounts have been given to the world that to extract the precise truth from them seems almost impossible. The charge brought against Canning was this, that after having declared to the prime minister his want of confidence in Lord Castlereagh, and having consented to retain office only on condition that his lordship should be removed from the war department, he continued all through the summer to meet him as if nothing had occurred, to transact public business with him as usual, to allow him to go on with the Scheldt expedition, though all the time he disapproved of it, and daily and hourly therefore to practise towards him a species of deception which no consideration for the ministry or anxiety for the public welfare could justify. Canning's answer was that he was more sinned against than sinning; that the deception of which Castlereagh complained had been first practised on himself, who had been distinctly assured that Lord Camden had undertaken to make the necessary communications; that, on finding himself deceived, he repeatedly urged on the Duke of Portland the immediate fulfilment of his promise, and that on each of these occasions he was begged by Lord Castlereagh's own friends to acquiesce in a further suspension of it; first till the end of the session, then till the Flushing expedition had set sail, then till the result of it was known; and that finally, when no further pretext for delay remained, and no steps had yet been taken for informing Castlereagh of the resolution arrived at by the cabinet, he fulfilled his own part of the understanding by the immediate resignation of his office.
To these counter statements we have to add Lord Camden's denial that he had ever ‘undertaken’ to tell Lord Castlereagh what had been determined on, though he had not positively refused; and there is no difficulty, perhaps, in supposing that the Duke of Portland may have understood him to mean more than he did himself. That, however, is between the Duke of Portland and Lord Camden, and does not affect Canning. We can only refer our readers to the account of these transactions to be found in the diary of Lord Colchester, in Twiss's life of Eldon, in the memoir of Canning by Therry, in Stapleton's life of Canning, in Alison's life of Lord Castlereagh, and in the ‘Annual Register’ for 1809. At the last moment Lord Castlereagh only became acquainted with the truth by an accident. Dining with Lord Camden one evening, after a meeting of the cabinet, he commented on Canning's absence from it, when his host, it seems, at length mustered up courage to deliver himself of his message. In those days there was only one thing to be done. A challenge was at once sent, and the two statesmen met on Putney Heath on 21 Sept. Lord Yarmouth was Lord Castlereagh's second, and Charles Ellis (Lord Seaford) Canning's. Neither party fired in the air, but each missed his first shot; at the second fire Canning's bullet hit the button of Lord Castlereagh's coat, and Lord Castlereagh's wounded Canning in the thigh. The hurt, however, was but slight, and he was able to walk off the ground.
Thus ended the first part of Canning's ministerial career. The Duke of Portland resigned in October and was succeeded by Mr. Perceval, to whom Canning gave an independent support, though he declined to serve under him in the cabinet. Canning has been blamed for the part which he played at this conjuncture, as if he had been ‘intriguing’ against Perceval. We see no signs of any intrigue. He told Perceval fairly that he thought he had the better right of the two to the first place, and that he should try to secure it, but that if he failed himself he would give all his interest to his friend. Perceval and Canning, however, like Addington and Canning, and like the Duke of Wellington and Canning, represented two rival sections of the tory party, of which neither did justice to the other, but of which the less numerous of the two has necessarily suffered the most from misrepresentation and calumny.
Canning had made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott in 1806 through the introduction of George Ellis, and an intimacy was at once formed which lasted their lives. Scott dined with Canning at Montagu House, the residence of the Princess of Wales, and found him a charming companion. Canning in his turn was delighted with Scott, and especially with his song on the acquittal of Lord Melville. In 1808 he interested himself greatly in the foundation of the ‘Quarterly Review,’ of which Scott, George Ellis, and himself may be said to have been the principal projectors. It does not seem, however, that Canning contributed anything to its pages, except a humorous article on the bullion question, the joint work of himself and Ellis, which appeared in October 1811. Scott was in town in the spring of 1809, and seems to have gathered from Canning's conversation that a break-up of the ministry was at hand. Accordingly, when he heard of the quarrel with Lord Castlereagh, it did not take him by surprise. Scott, who was the soul of honour and had access to the best information, did not think that Canning was to blame, and hoped now, he said, that he ‘would take his own ground in parliament, and hoist his own standard,’ as ‘sooner or later it must be successful.’ This tribute to Canning from the old Scotch tory, who had no idea of any coquetting with liberalism, is important, as it indicates the extent of Canning's hold upon the abler section of the tories, unbending conservatives though they were.
Canning had now some leisure for literature, and in the following year he wrote a letter to Scott on English versification. He was ‘more and more delighted’ with the ‘Lady of the Lake,’ he said, every time he read it. But still he did not altogether approve of the metre. He wished Scott to try his hand at Dryden's style, and seems to have contemplated at one time clothing some parts of the ‘Lady of the Lake’ ‘in a Drydenic habit’ with a view of showing Scott of what that measure was capable. Scott himself was so far influenced by Canning as to write a poem in imitation of Crabbe called the ‘Poacher,’ and an heroic epistle from Zetland to the Duke of Buccleuch. But when Canning read them he must have seen at once that Scott's strength did not lie in heroics.
In the Perceval administration Lord Wellesley was foreign secretary, and he in office and Canning out of office combined to urge on the ministry to a vigorous prosecution of the Peninsular war and a cordial support of Lord Wellington. Sir Archibald Alison is mistaken in asserting that the whole burden of defending the Peninsular war in the House of Commons during the ministry of Mr. Perceval devolved on Lord Castlereagh, because Canning had gone abroad. Canning was in his place in parliament and spoke brilliantly in support of the war in 1810, 1811, and 1812. But in spite of all that he could do the war was not conducted to the satisfaction of Lord Wellesley, who, early in 1812, retired from the ministry. The assassination of Perceval followed soon afterwards, and then came another interregnum, during which fruitless efforts were made to form a united administration in which Wellesley and Canning and Lords Grey and Grenville should all have places. The failure of the negotiations was really owing to the fact that the prince regent reserved to himself the right of naming the prime minister, thus violating one of the cardinal doctrines of the whig creed; and in the end he was obliged to fall back upon Lord Liverpool, who offered the foreign office to Canning, coupled, however, with the condition that Lord Castlereagh must lead the House of Commons. On these terms Canning refused the offer, though it is hardly to be doubted that he regretted his refusal afterwards. He used to say himself that two years of the foreign office at that time would have been worth ten years of life. However, the die was cast, and his rival was installed for life.
Canning's article on the bullion question in the ‘Quarterly Review’ has been noticed, and such was the readiness with which he mastered questions not naturally congenial to him that in the great currency debates of 1811 he showed to no disadvantage by the side of Huskisson and Horner. These gentlemen represented the views of the ‘bullion committee’ of which Horner had been chairman, recommending that the Bank of England should be compelled to resume cash payment within two years. The government opposed the resolutions embodying the views of the committee, partly on the anti-bullionist theory in favour of an inconvertible paper currency, partly on the ground that the time was ill chosen. Canning took a middle course, agreeing with one half of the government argument, and dissenting from the other. He was in theory a decided bullionist. But he thought cash payments could not be resumed till the restoration of peace, and on that understanding the question rested for the moment. When in 1814 it was resumed, Canning was out of England, and took no part in the further postponements, which eventually reached to 1819.
At the general election of 1812 Canning was returned for Liverpool, on which occasion he made the memorable declaration that his political allegiance was buried in the grave of Pitt. Seeing no probability of any immediate return to office, he in the following year disbanded the small party of friends who had followed his fortunes in the House of Commons, and in 1814 left England for Lisbon. The journey was undertaken in the first instance for the benefit of his son's health, but Lord Liverpool as soon as he heard of it pressed on him the post of ambassador extraordinary at Lisbon. After remaining there for nine months Canning repaired with his family to the south of France, where he spent about a year, and returned to England in the summer of 1816, when he became president of the board of control. The circumstances of his appointment to Lisbon gave rise to a vote of censure in the House of Commons, to which Canning's reply is one of the greatest monuments of his genius which he has left behind him. A message had been sent home from Lord Strangford, the English ambassador at Brazil, to the effect that the king of Portugal would like to return to Europe under British protection. The ministers determined to appoint an ambassador extraordinary to receive him at Lisbon, and Canning was selected for the post. It turned out, after Canning's arrival at his post, that the king had changed his mind. But it was urged by Mr. Lambton, the mover of a vote of censure on the appointment, that it had been known all along that he never intended to come; that the appointment therefore was a simple job, and the salary (14,000l. a year) under any circumstances excessive. Canning made mincemeat of his assailant, and no more was ever heard about the Lisbon ‘job.’
Between 1817 and 1820 the English ministry had to deal with two separate conspiracies of which the avowed objects were the plunder of society and the overthrow of the constitution. That the means at the disposal of the conspirators were ridiculously disproportioned to their ends, that they themselves were men of no ability, and that, after their schemes were discomfited, they appeared to be contemptible, may readily be granted. But the swell of the great revolutionary storm was still agitating Europe. The English conspirators were known to be in communication with foreigners; if despicable, they were still desperate; and though they might be incapable of effecting a revolution, it was not obviously beyond their power to excite an insurrection, or riots at all events on so large a scale as to plunge the country into confusion, and expose many ignorant and credulous persons to death or ruin. The detected plot for assassinating all the ministers in Lord Harrowby's dining-room shows of what these men were capable. Canning accordingly supported the precautionary measures adopted by the government, and had the satisfaction of seeing the old liberal tories, who had hitherto stood aloof under Lord Grenville, once more reunited with their former associates in defence of the public safety. Canning's speech on the subject is the best explanation of his conduct. Lord Liverpool's government has frequently been blamed, and Canning as a member of it, for the unnecessary severity of the Six Acts. But whether the return of tranquillity which follows the introduction of repressive measures would equally have succeeded without them is one of those unpractical questions to which no satisfactory answer can by any possibility be given.
In 1820 occurred the affair of Queen Caroline, when the ministry were overpersuaded by the king to introduce a divorce clause into the bill which they wished to confine to the exclusion of her majesty from England; the agreement to be that she was to be paid 50,000l. a year as long as she resided abroad. To a bill so limited Canning was not opposed, but as he had been on very friendly terms with the queen he wished to take no part in the proceedings against her, and therefore tendered his resignation. The king, however, declined to accept it, and in August 1820 Canning, who had been much distressed by the death of his eldest son in the previous March, again went abroad for the autumn. The queen's trial lasted from 17 Aug. to 10 Nov., when the bill being carried in the House of Lords by the small majority of nine only, Lord Liverpool at once withdrew it. Immediately afterwards Canning returned to England, but it was only to retire from the government on the ground that he could not be absent from parliament any longer, and that he could not be a party even to the unobjectionable measures which the government had still to carry out in connection with the queen. On the queen's death in August 1821 Lord Liverpool wished to bring him back, but the king, offended not so much with Canning as with the part taken by his friends in the House of Commons, declined to receive him, and after another brief trip to the continent he in 1822 accepted the governor-generalship of India. Before he could set sail, however, Lord Castlereagh, now Lord Londonderry, destroyed himself, and this time both Lord Liverpool and the Duke of Wellington told George IV that Canning must fill his place at the foreign office. Early in the autumn of 1822 accordingly he returned to that long-regretted post, and at the same time exchanged his seat at Liverpool for Harwich.
We now enter on the last and most important stage of Canning's life. When, after thirteen years' absence, Canning again took his seat at the foreign office, the aspect of affairs in Europe had entirely changed. Napoleon was dead. The reign of conquest and aggression was over. Yet it seemed to the European monarchies that they had only exchanged one enemy for another, and that the Jacobinism which on the removal of Napoleon's iron hand had sprung to life again, could be combatted only by the same means which had overthrown imperialism. The English statesmen who had stood side by side with the kings and emperors of the continent in their life-and-death struggle naturally fell in with this train of ideas. They had not deposed a European dictator to enthrone a European democracy. And though Lord Castlereagh and the Duke of Wellington refused to be parties either to the Holy alliance or to the much more practical and formidable understanding which eventually grew out of it, they did not, perhaps they felt they could not, express any marked disapproval of its measures.
In the settlement of Europe effected by the treaty of Vienna (9 June 1815) Canning had no part. He is said to have condemned it; but how far the end justified the means is too long a question to examine in these pages. The object in view was such a reconstruction of Europe as should offer the strongest barrier to the revival of the Napoleonic system. The means adopted were the incorporation of minor states with larger ones, and the partition of the two countries which had alone joined the standard of Napoleon, Saxony and Poland. This last arrangement was concerted between Russia and Prussia, the latter receiving a large slice of Saxony in return for handing over to Russia the duchy of Warsaw, which had been formed out of Prussian Poland after the treaty of Tilsit in 1809. England, France, and Austria were extremely indignant at the transaction, but ultimately accepted it rather than run the risk of another European war. The disregard of national feeling, and in some cases of actual pledges, which attended this great pacification, gave a handle to the opponents of the English ministry, of which they freely availed themselves. But Canning of course accepted it as a fait accompli on his return to office, and upheld it on all occasions as the international law of Europe.
It was on the nature of the obligations entailed by the congress of Vienna on the contracting powers that England differed from her allies, partially during the lifetime of Lord Castlereagh, and more widely on the accession of Canning. While president of the board of control he had attended the congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, which provided for the evacuation of France by the allied troops, and had consented to the pledge given by England to join in resisting any fresh efforts of the French Jacobins to disturb the Restoration government. But this was an exceptional case, and by no means committed us to a similar co-operation against insurrectionary movements in general. Lord Castlereagh was as strong on this point as Canning. In a circular addressed to our ambassador while the congress was sitting at Laybach in 1821, Castlereagh pointed out that the congress of Vienna bound us to support, if necessary by force of arms, the territorial arrangements concluded in 1815, but nothing more. As Canning said afterwards, our guarantees were territorial, not political. But then arose the further question, whether the treaty of Vienna not only did not enjoin political intervention, but actually forbade it, and entitled neutral powers, if they chose, to interfere to prevent it. Castlereagh and Wellington seem to have answered this question in the negative, Canning in the affirmative. The letter of the treaty is certainly in favour of the former interpretation; for, while it distinctly prohibits aggressive intervention, it is altogether silent on protective. But Canning may have rightly judged that it was difficult to draw any abiding line between the two; that the one was very likely to run into the other; and that, if the treaty was not to become a dead letter, intervention must be forbidden altogether, and the right of nations to do as they liked inside the boundaries allotted to them by the public law be unreservedly recognised. It is to be added, however, that resistance to political intervention was, in Canning's opinion, a right merely and not a duty, and a question to be determined entirely by our own interests at the moment.
We shall now be able to understand the new point of departure taken by English foreign policy on the return of Canning to the foreign office in 1822. The new revolution, which had begun originally in Spain in 1820, had spread to Portugal and Naples. The Austrians had already intervened, and in 1821 stamped out the movement in Naples. In Spain the people themselves, then under the influence of the priesthood, had rebelled against the new constitution, and kept up a species of guerilla warfare on its adherents. In Portugal something of the same kind had occurred. The king, John VI, hurried back from Brazil in 1821, and, having at first accepted the constitution, afterwards revoked it, promising at the same time to give his subjects a better one. There was at this time in Portugal what there was not either in Spain or Naples, a moderate constitutional party which, while utterly hostile to the absurd scheme of government put forward by the Spanish revolutionaries, and known to history as ‘the constitution of 1812,’ were still of opinion that the people must be admitted to some share in the government, and that the old system of purely paternal absolutism could no longer be maintained. Of this party the king himself and the Marquis Palmella were at the head, and it was to this party that Canning gave his own support.
In 1823, the revolutionary party in Spain still holding their ground, the king of France marched an army into the Peninsula under the command of the Duc d'Angoulême, which speedily reduced the rebels to submission. Canning protested, but protested in vain; and, not thinking it for the interest of this country to exercise her right of going to war in order to drive the French away, he retaliated in another fashion by acknowledging the independence of the Spanish American colonies. If French influence was henceforth to predominate in Spain, it should not be ‘Spain with the Indies.’ He called the new world into existence to redress the balance of the old. These words have been supposed to shed immortal lustre on both the eloquence and the principles of Canning. But it is only due to Lord Castlereagh to say that in the instructions which he drew up for the Duke of Wellington on his setting out for the congress of Verona in 1822, occurs the following passage: ‘But the case of the revolted colonies is different. It is evident from the course which events have taken that their recognition as independent states has become merely a question of time.’
On the Portuguese absolutists the presence of the French army in Spain produced the worst possible effect. At their head were the queen and her second son Don Miguel, the eldest, Don Pedro, preferring to remain at Brazil, half as emperor, half as regent for his father, his daughter, Donna Maria, being the direct heiress to the throne. In 1824, encouraged by French emissaries, the absolutists began gradually to assume a very alarming attitude, and the king applied to England for assistance. Canning was unwilling to go to the length of sending troops to Lisbon, as that would have the appearance of doing exactly what he himself had condemned when it was done by France. But he thought that a squadron might be sent to the Tagus without exposing us to the same criticism, and by these means a coup d'état attempted by Don Miguel was frustrated, and he himself obliged to take refuge at Vienna. In March 1826 John VI died, having appointed his daughter Isabella regent, and Don Pedro sent over a decree establishing a constitutional form of government. The absolutist party, however, were still strong in Portugal. They had the queen dowager on their side, and the presence of a French army in Spain to encourage them. In the course of the following year a regular rebellion broke out, fomented by the Spanish authorities, and their participation in the war brought the circumstances within the scope of our original treaties with Portugal, which bound us in such case to assist her. British troops were despatched to Lisbon in January 1827, the insurrection was soon crushed, and the government of the regency experienced no further disturbance down to the death of the great English minister in the following August.
The Austrian intervention in Naples, the French intervention in Spain, and the virtual intervention of Spain in Portugal were the three great exemplifications of the policy of the Holy alliance during Canning's administration of the foreign office. The only occasion on which he interfered, it will be observed, was one on which we were bound by previous treaties long antecedent to the treaty of Vienna to afford the assistance which we rendered.
In the summer of 1824 Canning paid a visit to Lord Wellesley, then lord-lieutenant of Ireland, and had promised to take Abbotsford on his way home, but was called back to town in a hurry by the death of Louis XVIII. In September of the following year, however, Scott and he met for the last time on the banks of Windermere, at the house of Mr. Bolton, where Scott found Southey and Wordsworth, as well as the foreign minister. Canning, whom Scott thought even then looking very ill, was the life of the circle. Many pretty women were of the party, and as they rode through the woods by day, or paddled in the lake by moonlight, there was ‘high discourse,’ says Lockhart, ‘mingled with as gay flashings of courtly wit as ever Canning displayed.’ From this brilliant scene Canning returned to London and to all the gloomy mysteries of a great commercial crisis. This had been produced by a variety of causes which the reader will find carefully explained in m'Culloch's ‘Commercial Dictionary’ and Tooke's ‘History of Prices,’ as well as by Mr. Walpole and Mr. Stapleton. The business did not belong to Canning's department, but he took a great interest in it notwithstanding, and warmly supported Lord Liverpool in resisting the importunities of the bank directors who begged the government to issue exchequer bills and suspend cash payments. One of their bitterest assailants was Mr. Manning, the father of the present cardinal; but the government stood firm, and by so doing saved the country from great financial calamities. In the session of 1826 government introduced a bill for putting an end to the circulation of notes under five pounds in value. The measure was adopted for England, but not for Scotland, principally owing to Scott's ‘Letters of Sir Malachi Malagrowther,’ at which it is said Canning was considerably annoyed.
In 1826 Canning went to Paris to see the king and his ministers in person, and seems to have had reason to congratulate himself on the success of his visit. He had been able, he said, ‘to assure himself to absolute conviction that had the English government been rightly understood at the Tuileries in 1822–3, no invasion of Spain would ever have taken place.’ Sir Walter Scott was in France at the same time, and was detained on the road between Calais and Paris by Canning having engaged all the post-horses. It is mentioned that on this occasion he was invited to dine with Charles X in the great saloon of the Tuileries, to which all the public were admitted, an honour which that sovereign had never conferred on any one not of royal blood except the Duke of Wellington and Prince Metternich.
When Canning became foreign minister the Greek rebellion had broken out for some time, and the chronic misunderstanding between Turkey and Russia was in its usual festering condition. Canning, like every other English statesman, addressed himself to the maintenance of peace between these two powers, which he succeeded in preserving during his own lifetime, but he failed in his efforts to mediate between the Porte and its insurgent subjects. Neither, in fact, would listen to a compromise till the successes of Ibrahim Pasha, in 1825, brought the Greeks into a more tractable mood, and induced them to solicit the good offices of England. These were the more readily granted that Ibrahim was staining his victories in the Morea by gross excesses which Canning more than once declared to the Porte it was impossible for the western powers to endure. In April 1826 the Duke of Wellington signed a protocol at St. Petersburg, according to which England and Russia agreed to offer their mediation to Turkey on the condition that Greece should remain a tributary but otherwise independent state, acknowledging only the suzerainty of the Sultan (much like Egypt); the Porte being informed at the same time that, in case of its refusal, the christian powers would withdraw their ambassadors from Constantinople, and would ‘look to Greece with an eye of favour, and with a disposition to seize the first occasion of recognising, as an independent state, such portion of her territory as should have freed itself from Turkish dominion, provided that such state should have shown itself substantially capable of maintaining an independent existence, of carrying on a government of its own, of controlling its own military and naval forces, and of being responsible to other nations for the observance of international laws and the discharge of international duties.’
The refusal of Austria and Prussia, however, to concur in the protocol rendered the first menace unavailing, while the failure of any part of Greece to comply with the conditions essential to the acknowledgment of its independence equally neutralised the second. Turkey rejected the proposals altogether, the result being that the protocol was converted into the treaty of London, signed by England, France, and Russia on 27 July 1827, the terms of which were nearly the same as those of the protocol, with the exception of a secret article, on the right interpretation of which a great deal of controversy has hung. It was resolved by the signatory powers that the Porte should be required to agree to an armistice in order to give time for the quarrel to be composed by amicable negotiation. The secret article provided that, if within a month's time the Porte did not accede to this proposal, the allies should take the necessary measures for establishing an armistice of themselves, and putting an end to the barbarities and also the piracies by which the contest was disfigured, but in such a manner, nevertheless, as might not amount to a breach of their friendly relations with the Porte. Canning had always been careful to repudiate any intention of using force. As late as 4 Sept. 1826 he wrote to Prince Lieven that the ‘continuance of a contest so ferocious, and leading to excesses of piracy and plunder so intolerable to civilised Europe … did justify extraordinary intervention and render lawful any expedients short of positive hostility.’ It is clear then that Canning saw in his own mind some plain distinction between the use of force to prevent one country from making war upon another, and making war upon either of them ourselves. The ‘high powers’ were to use all the means ‘which circumstances should suggest to their prudence, to obtain the immediate effects of the armistice,’ but ‘without taking part in the hostilities between the contending parties.’ It is certain that from first to last Canning had no idea of going to war with Turkey to compel her to acknowledge the independence of Greece. It is equally certain that he must have contemplated the possibility of firing on her ships and soldiers if she persisted in her efforts to put down the insurrection. How he could have done the one without doing the other it is not very easy to understand, nor shall we now ever learn. To the great misfortune of this country he died little more than four weeks after the signature of the treaty.
We must now retrace our steps for a short distance to the time when it became known that Lord Liverpool would be unable to resume his duties at the treasury. On 5 Jan. 1827 the Duke of York died, and was buried by night in St. George's Chapel, Windsor. The members of the cabinet who attended dined at Canon Long's, and afterwards proceeded to the chapel, where they were kept waiting for two hours standing on the cold flagstones in very bitter weather. Canning made Lord Eldon stand upon his cocked hat, but he took no such precaution himself, and the result was a cold, from which he never entirely recovered. A few days afterwards he went with his private secretary to Bath on a visit to Lord Liverpool, who was there for the benefit of his health, and Stapleton records the delightful dinners they used to have when, on the pretext of amusing the youngster, the two old college friends told stories of their own youth which were evidently, he says, quite as entertaining to the old as to the young. From Bath, Canning went to stay with Huskisson at Eastham, where he was obliged to pass a day in bed, and on arriving at Brighton became so seriously ill that Stapleton thought it his duty at once to communicate with Lord Liverpool. It was while reading one of these letters, on 17 Feb. 1827, that Lord Liverpool was seized with a fit, and on Canning's partial recovery, as soon as it was seen that further delay was useless, he had an interview with the king to consult on the formation of a new ministry. Canning first of all suggested to his majesty that he should endeavour to construct an exclusively protestant administration, of which he himself, while giving it an independent support, should not be a member. This advice was given on 28 March, and between this time and 9 April George IV had interviews with the Duke of Wellington and Peel, who recommended just the contrary—namely, that his majesty should make no attempt to form an exclusively protestant administration. All three, Canning, Wellington, and Peel, would have been glad to form a neutral government like Lord Liverpool's, but they could find nobody exactly qualified to fill Lord Liverpool's place. The matter, in fact, stood as follows: If an anti-catholic premier was appointed over Canning's head, solely on religious grounds, there was a clear violation of neutrality; if a pro-catholic was appointed, then it could be nobody but Canning. He himself would not accept the first alternative, nor Peel and Wellington the second. The choice, therefore, lay between Canning without these, and these without Canning. The duke and his friend contrived to leave an impression on the king's mind that they were trying to dictate to him, and this was quite enough to turn the scale in Canning's favour. George IV, who, if he cared for nothing else, cared a good deal about his own prerogative and his right to name his own ministers, told the Duke of Buckingham, almost in so many words, that this was his reason for giving the seals to Canning, who accordingly on 10 April received his majesty's commands to form a new administration. Lord Eldon, the Duke of Wellington, Lord Westmorland, Lord Melville, Lord Bathurst, Lord Bexley, and Peel at once resigned, and drove Canning to an alliance with the whigs, for which he has frequently been blamed, but which he could hardly have avoided without either damaging the cause of Roman catholic emancipation and bringing doubts upon his own sincerity, or violating one of the cardinal doctrines of toryism by refusing to assist the king against an aristocratic cabal. That this was the light in which the situation appeared to Canning is evident from the letter to Croker, which is published in the first volume of the ‘Croker Papers.’ And that the reason we have assigned was the one which actuated George IV may safely be concluded not only from the Buckingham diary to which we have already referred, but also from a letter of Huskisson's likewise to be found in the ‘Croker Papers.’
It is known that the Duke of Wellington conceived himself to have been very ill treated by Canning in the course of these transactions, and those who are curious on such passages may consult their correspondence on the subject, which is to be found in full both in the ‘Duke of Wellington's Despatches,’ and also in Stapleton's ‘Life.’ A not unimportant question raised in it is whether the person first sent for by the sovereign is the one whom he necessarily intends to be prime minister. It does not seem to us that Canning is fairly open to the charge of underhand dealing, while as to the second point they seem to have been at cross purposes—Canning referring to the interview in which the king directly charged him with the formation of a ministry, Wellington to another in which the king only asked for his advice.
In justice to the memory of Canning it must be recorded here that in his agreement with the whigs he did not abandon a single article of his own creed, but that on the contrary he exacted from those who took office with him a pledge that they would neither raise the question of parliamentary reform nor support the repeal of the Test Act. In Canning's ministry, as finally constituted, Lord Lyndhurst was chancellor, Lord Lansdowne secretary for the home department, Lord Dudley for the foreign, Lord Carlisle privy seal, and Mr. Tierney master of the mint. Canning himself was chancellor of the exchequer, Huskisson president of the board of trade, and Lord Palmerston, remaining secretary-at-war, was now admitted into the cabinet. The ministry was strong in ability, and commanded a working majority in the House of Commons. Whether, had its existence been prolonged, it would have gathered round itself the confidence of the public and insured a new lease of power to the tory party, once again liberalised by Pitt's pupil as it had been formerly by Pitt himself, is now a matter of pure speculation. The session of 1827 was made bitter to Canning by the unrelenting hostility exhibited by his former friends. On all commercial questions both Lord Liverpool and Canning had always taken the same view as Pitt, and were, in theory at all events, free-traders. No one was readier than Lord Liverpool to acknowledge the mistake that had been made in the corn law of 1815, and before Canning's accession some modification of it had been adopted. In 1826 he was busily engaged in devising a further relaxation of the law, and it was the last thing on which he was intent before his retirement from public life. The measure, which was the joint production of himself and Huskisson, was introduced by Canning on 1 March 1827. It was founded on what is called the sliding scale, and provided that foreign wheat should be admitted at a 20s. duty when the price had fallen to 60s., the duty to fall as the price rose, and to rise as the price fell. The bill passed the House of Commons by large majorities before the Easter recess, but was knocked on the head by the Duke of Wellington, who carried an amendment in the House of Lords to prohibit bonded corn from being brought into the market till the price rose to 66s. The bill was withdrawn, but Canning introduced a temporary measure for allowing the bonded corn then in the country to be brought into the market under the conditions prescribed by the bill, and the measure passed both houses without opposition. Canning was very angry at the loss of the bill, and made some remarks on the conduct of the House of Lords, which had better been spared. But he was smarting under the treatment which he supposed himself to have experienced from the aristocracy, and especially from a violent attack made upon him by Lord Grey on 10 May, which stung him so severely that he is said to have contemplated taking a peerage himself that he might answer him in person. The speech has been answered very effectively by his private secretary, Mr. Stapleton, in his ‘Political Life of Mr. Canning;’ and as it is probably only a digested report of what he heard from Canning's own lips, it may be accepted as the case for the defence which the great statesman would have desired to place on record.
But his career was now fast drawing to a close. He struggled through the session against a combination of difficulties peculiarly trying to one of his warm and sensitive disposition, and which did not require to be aggravated by bodily sickness. No mercy, however, was shown to him; and when parliament was prorogued on 2 July he left the House of Commons, which he had so long ruled ‘as Alexander ruled Bucephalus,’ a dying man. The Duke of Devonshire invited him to Chiswick for change of air, but it was all in vain. On 29 July he was able to see the king, when he told his majesty that ‘he did not know what was the matter with him, but he was ill all over.’ On 1 Aug. his life was seen to be in danger; and on the 5th his condition was made public. On Wednesday the 8th he died in the very same room in which, twenty-one years before, died his early friend Charles Fox. Canning had three sons and a daughter. His eldest son (b 25 April 1801) died 31 March 1820. The second son, William Pitt, a captain in the navy, was drowned at Madeira 25 Sept. 1828. The third son, Charles John, afterwards Earl Canning, is separately noticed. Canning's widow was created Viscountess Canning 22 Jan. 1828, with remainder to Canning's heirs male. She died 15 March 1837, and was succeeded by her only surviving son, Charles John. The daughter, Harriett (d. 8 Jan. 1876), married Ulick John, first marquis of Clanricarde.
Canning's toryism was the toryism of the second Pitt, modified by the new class of considerations which the French revolution had imported into political life. It was founded, in the first place, on the maintenance of the royal prerogative, and included among its primary tenets the repeal of the Roman catholic disabilities and the gradual removal of restrictions upon trade and commerce. But Canning did not share his master's views on the question of parliamentary reform, probably because it was demanded in 1820 in a very different spirit and with very different objects from those which actuated the reformers of 1780. Canning believed, in fact, that the old system was capable of being administered in a thoroughly popular manner, and with that conviction he naturally shrank from a change which was confessedly hazardous, and which, even if successful, would only remove anomalies of no practical importance. Accustomed as we are now to the doctrine of inherent right and the dominion of abstract ideas, we no longer feel the force of Canning's reasoning. But in his own day it rested on a basis which was generally recognised, or the ancient régime would never have been tolerated so long.
Both at home and abroad Canning aspired to hold the balance even between the two extremes, between oligarchical and democratic, between despotic and licentious, principles. That in carrying out this idea he should have given offence to both parties is only what we should expect to discover; and in truth this one great fact is at the bottom of nearly all the difficulties which he experienced, and most of the mysteries which attach to him. As, on his return to the foreign office in 1822, he found, or thought he found, the liberal party in Europe the weaker of the two, he threw the whole weight of England into that scale. At home, on the contrary, as he seems to have thought that the two parties were differently balanced, he brought his genius to the support of conservatism. Hence his approval of the Six Acts and his opposition to parliamentary reform.
Of Canning as an orator conflicting accounts have been handed down to us; but they all agree in this, that in what may be called literary eloquence he has had few rivals. His manner, his aspect, his voice, his elocution, the selection of his words, the beauty of his imagery, and, when the subject called for it, the closeness and clearness of his reasoning, combined to make him the foremost man in the English parliament after the death of Fox. But he does not seem to have possessed in an equal degree what Aristotle calls ēthikē pistis, that quality in virtue of which the orator impresses every one who hears him with an absolute conviction of his sincerity. Many who listened to Canning thought him only a consummate actor, nothing doubting his intellectual belief in the doctrines he was enforcing, but uncertain only whether his feelings were engaged to the extent which his language would imply. It is commonly supposed that rhetoric and passion do not mingle very kindly with each other. Mr. Stapleton, however, has proved beyond risk of contradiction that, if any such rule holds good, Canning at least was an exception to it, and that in all his great orations, however elaborate the texture, he spoke from his heart. Canning's collected poems were issued with a memoir in 1823. His speeches, edited by R. Therry, were published in six volumes in 1828. A French translation in two volumes appeared in 1832.[Stapleton's Political Life of Canning, 1831; Stapleton's Canning and his Time, 1835; Bell's Life of Canning; Memoirs by Therry, prefixed to edition of Speeches, 1828; Grenville's, Wellesley's, and Malmesbury's Diaries and Memoirs; Lord Colchester's Diary; Twiss's Life of Eldon; Lord Stanhope's Life of Pitt; Lord J. Russell's Memoirs of Fox; Pellew's Life of Lord Sidmouth; Yonge's Life of Lord Liverpool; Supplementary Despatches of the Duke of Wellington; Brougham's Statesmen of the reign of George III; Sir G. C. Lewis's Administrations of Great Britain, 1783–1830; Kebbel's History of Toryism, 1783–1881; Lockhart's Life of Scott; Greville Memoirs; Croker Papers; Sir T. Martin's Life of Lord Lyndhurst.]
Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.52
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line
|421||i||10 f.e.||Canning, George: for Newport read Newtown|
|ii||4-7||for In 1796 . . . Wendover read In 1796, when he exchanged Newtown for Wendover, Canning was made under-secretary of state for foreign affairs. He held that post till 1799, when he became a commissioner of the board of control and (1800-1) was paymaster-general. He was M.P. for Tralee (1802-6), for Newtown again (1806-7), arid for Hastings (1807-12)|
|8-9||for From 1799 to 1801 . . . . Ellis read From September 1797 to July 1798 he contributed to the 'Anti-Jacobin or Weekly Examiner ' with Ellis|
|28||omit such was|
|29-32||for that we only wonder . . . . in the following July read was great. The 'Anti-Jacobin or Weekly Examiner' was continued after July 1798 as the 'Anti-Jacobin Review,' a monthly magazine, which lasted till 1821|
|35-36||for and sister to the Duchess of Portland read (Her sister married in 1795 William Henry Cavendish Scott Bentinck, Marquis of Titchfield, who became Duke of Portland in 1809)|
|422||i||35||for at war read for war and the colonies|
|41||for the fall read the course|
|425||i||41-42||for his only son in the previous April read his eldest son in the previous March|
|9||after Harwich insert In 1826-7 he was M.P. for Newport, and in 1827 for Seaford|
|11-12||for fifteen read thirteen|
|427||i||18 f.e.||omit his relative|
|428||ii||30||for 27 Jan. read 5 Jan. 1827|
|430||ii||8||for marquis Clanricarde read marquis of Clanricarde|