Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gordon, George Hamilton
GORDON, GEORGE HAMILTON-, fourth Earl of Aberdeen (1784–1860), statesman, eldest son of George Gordon, lord Haddo, by his wife Charles, the youngest daughter of William Baird of Newbyth, Haddingtonshire, and sister of Sir David Baird [q. v.], was born at Edinburgh on 28 Jan. 1784. His father died in October 1791, and his mother in October 1795. Pitt and Lord Melville were his guardians. At the age of ten he was sent to Harrow, where Charles Christopher Pepys, afterwards lord-chancellor Cottenham, Lord Althorp, afterwards third earl Spencer, and Henry John Temple, afterwards lord Palmerston, were among his contemporaries (Baker, Lists of Harrow School, 1849, pp. 53-8). On the death of his grandfather in August 1801 he succeeded to the Scotch earldom of Aberdeen, and soon afterwards went for a tour on the continent, and spent much of his time in Greece. Returning to England an ardent philo-Hellenist in 1803, he founded the Atheman Society, and in 1805 wrote an article on Gell's 'Topography of Troy' for the July number of the 'Edinburgh Review'(vi. 257-83). His appearance among the 'Edinburgh Reviewers' gave rise to Byron's lines in 'English Bards and Scotch Reviewers:'—
First in the oat-fed phalanx shall be seen
The travell'd thane, Athenian Aberdeen.
Aberdeen matriculated as a nobleman at St. John's College, Cambridge, on 30 June 1804, and graduated M.A. in the same year. He was elected a Scotch representative peer on 4 Dec. 1806, and took his seat on the tory side of the house on the 17th of the same month (Journals of the House of Lords, xlvi. 6). He appears to have spoken for the first time in the House of Lords during the debate on the change of administration in April 1807 (Parl. Deb. ix. 352-4). He was invested with the order of the Thistle on 16 March 1808, and on 12 Feb. 1811 moved the address to the prince regent (ib. xviii. 1148-54). Though he opposed Lord Donoughmore's motion on the Roman catholic petition in June 1811, he declared his conviction 'that a time would come when the catholics would ultimately succeed' (ib. xx. 672-3). He became president of the Society of Antiquaries on 23 April 1812 (a post which he resigned in 1846), and in November 1812 was elected for the third and last time a Scotch representative peer. On 11 Aug. 1813 he was despatched on a special mission to the emperor of Austria, who on the following day declared war against France (Gent. Mag. 1813, lxxxiii. pt. ii. 185). On 28 Sept., he was appointed ambassador extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Vienna, and, as the representative of Great Britain, signed on 3 Oct. the preliminary treaty of alliance with Austria at Toplitz. Aberdeen accompanied the Emperor Francis through the campaign, and in company with Humboldt rode over the field of Leipzig. Aberdeen, assisted by Lord Cathcart and Sir Charles Stewart, represented Great Britain at the congress of Chatillon in February and March 1814, and, as one of our representatives, signed the treaty of Paris on 30 May following. As a reward for his diplomatic skill he was created a peer of the United Kingdom by the title of Viscount Gordon of Aberdeen by letters patent dated 16 July 1814, and was admitted to the privy council on the 23rd of the same month. For several years after his return to England Aberdeen took but little part in politics, occupying his time chiefly in agricultural pursuits, and in planting his Scotch estates. Wilberforce, while on a visit to Haddo in 1858, records in his diary that Aberdeen 'reckoned that he had planted about fourteen millions of trees in his time. Nothing when he came to it at Haddo but the limes and a few Scotch firs' (Life of Bishop Wilberforce, 2nd edit. ii. 411). On the formation of the Duke of Wellington's ministry in January 1828 Aberdeen accepted the post of chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster with a seat in the cabinet, and, on the secession of Huskisson and the other Canningites in the following May, was appointed foreign secretary in the place of Lord Dudley (2 June 1828). While Aberdeen was foreign secretary the Porte acknowledged the independence of Greece by the treaty of Adrianople in September 1829, and its territory was fixed by a protocol signed in London on 3 Feb. 1830. He refused to interfere with Dom Miguel, who had been proclaimed king of Portugal, and instantly recognised Louis-Philippe as the king of the French. He resigned office with the rest of the Wellington administration in November 1830. On the overthrow of Lord Melbourne, Aberdeen was appointed secretary for war and the colonies on 20 Dec. 1834 in Sir Robert Peel's shortlived ministry, which lasted only until the following April. In May 1840 he made a well-meaning attempt to avert the impending schism in the Scotch church by bringing in his Non-Intrusion Bill (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. liii. 1209-29), a half-and-half measure, which failed to satisfy the members of the free church party, who denounced both the bill and its author. Though it passed the second reading in the House of Lords, it was afterwards withdrawn by Aberdeen in consequence of the opposition of the government and of the majority of the general assembly (ib. lv. 593-5). The correspondence which passed between the negotiators of the bill and Aberdeen gave rise to a heated controversy, and Aberdeen was charged with a distinct breach of faith in introducing a clause obnoxious to the free church party into the bill. In May 1843 the secession took place, and Aberdeen being then in office shortly afterwards introduced a bill 'to remove doubts respecting the admission of ministers to benefices.' The bill, which was modelled on the lines of the former one, was passed into law that session (6 and 7 Vict. c. 61), but failed to have any effect in healing the breach. In Sir Robert Peel's second administration Aberdeen resumed his old post of secretary for foreign affairs (3 Sept. 1841). His conciliatory language soon changed the character of the American negotiations, and in the following year Lord Ashburton was despatched to Washington with full powers to conclude a definitive treaty on the long-vexed question of the north-eastern boundary. Aberdeen's friendship with Guizot enabled him to establish a better understanding between England and France, which was further promoted by the visit of the queen, accompanied by her foreign secretary, to Louis-Philippe in September 1843. By his skilful management of the Pritchard incident at Tahiti in the following year the danger of a war between the two countries was averted. With regard to the Spanish marriages he contented himself with taking up a position of complete neutrality, relying on Louis-Philippe's promise, which was afterwards so disgracefully broken. He refused to listen to the request of Louis Napoleon, when a prisoner at Ham, that the English government should intercede on his behalf with Louis-Philippe (Memoirs of an Ex-Minister, i. 157-60). In spite of the warlike tone aroused both in England and America on the publication of President Polk's inaugural address in 1845, Aberdeen successfully seized the first opportunity of renewing the negotiations with regard to the north-western boundary, and by the Oregon treaty terminated a controversy which had been a constant source of danger for many years (12 June 1846). When Peel recommended in the cabinet that the operation of the existing corn law should be suspended in order that the ports might be opened for the admission of foreign corn duty free (31 Oct. 1845), Aberdeen gave 'his cordial and unhesitating assent' to the proposal (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. lxxxiii. 183). He was succeeded as foreign secretary by Lord Palmerston on Peel's resignation in July 1846, and for the next few years took little share in the debates in the House of Lords excepting in those on foreign affairs. In June 1850 Aberdeen spoke in the debate on Lord Stanley's motion condemning the Greek embargo, and attacked the foreign policy of the government generally (ib. 3rd ser. cxi. 1350-62). Soon after the death of Sir Robert Peel in the following month he became the recognised leader of the Peelites, and in February 1851 was invited to co-operate in the reconstruction of Lord John Russell's government, but declined, owing to their difference of opinion on the Ecclesiastical Titles Assumption Bill. He also refused to form an administration of his own on the same account, believing that his opinion of the bill was not shared by a majority in either house (ib. cxiv. 999-1003). He moved the rejection of the bill in the House of Lords in an admirable speech, conceived in a spirit of the wisest toleration, but was defeated by the enormous majority of 227 (ib. cxviii. 1072-93). In December 1852 Lord Derby resigned in consequence of the defeat of his ministry by the combined forces of the whigs and Peelites in the House of Commons on the house-tax resolution. Upon Lord Lansdowne's refusal to undertake the task, Aberdeen was entrusted with the formation of a new administration, and was appointed first lord of the treasury. His cabinet, as originally constituted, consisted of thirteen members, five Peelites, seven whigs, and one radical. Lord John Russell took the foreign office, Lord Palmerston the home department, the Duke of Newcastle the war and colonies, and Mr. Gladstone the chancellorship of the exchequer. Though the ministry represented a coalition of the parties which under Peel and Russell had fought against one another a few years before, there was but little conflict of opinion on subjects of domestic policy among the members of the cabinet, all of whom were in favour of free trade and moderate progress. Since the ministry of All the Talents no cabinet had contained so many brilliant politicians. The queen, writing to the king of the Belgians on 28 Dec. 1852, speaks of the formation of so brilliant and strong a cabinet as 'the realisation of the country's and our own most ardent wishes, and it deserves success, and will, I think, command great support' (SirT. Martin, Life of the Prince Consort, ii. 483). The eastern question brought unexpected difficulties. While in perfect concord with the other great powers Aberdeen allowed himself to be gradually drawn into a separate union with France, and thus the chief security for the maintenance of peace, which depended upon the united action of the four great powers, was destroyed. Profoundly influenced by the doctrines of the peace party, he was not strong enough to withstand the pressure put on him by Sir Stratford Canning and Lord Palmerston. The cabinet 'drifted' into the Crimean war for want of a more resolute and decided policy. The government soon lost the public favour. Forced by circumstances into a policy of which he disapproved, Aberdeen was unable to feel any enthusiasm about the war. The misfortunes due to the defects of our military system were unfairly attributed to the shortcomings of the ministers. On 10 Jan. 1856 the queen, as a 'public testimony of her continued confidence' in his administration, offered him the vacant blue ribbon, which he accepted after some hesitation (ib. iii. 198 n.) On the reassembling of parliament, after a short Christmas recess, on 23 Jan. Roebuck gave notice in the House of Commons of a motion for the appointment of a select committee to inquire into the conduct of the war. On the same day Lord John Russell, the leader of the government in the House of Commons, placed his resignation in Aberdeen's hands. On the 29th, after two nights' debate, the government was defeated on the motion by the decisive majority of 157 votes, and on the following day Aberdeen, treating the vote as one of want of confidence, resigned. On 7 Feb. following he was invested with the order of the Garter at Windsor. He occasionally took part in the debates in the House of Lords after his resignation, and spoke for the last time there during the debate on the Scotch Universities Bill on 13 July 1858 (Par1. Debates, 3rd ser. cli. 1359-61, 1369). He died at Argyll House, near Regent Street, London, on 14 Dec. 1860, in the seventy-seventh year of his age, and was buried at Stanmore, Middlesex, on the 21st of the same month.
Aberdeen was a spare man, of grave and formal but singularly refined manners, with studious habits and fastidious tastes. Though he was an ungraceful speaker, and his voice dull and monotonous, his speeches were weighty and impressive. Without genius or ambition he showed a remarkable love of justice, honesty, and simplicity, and singular courage in expressing unpopular opinions. Despite his cold exterior he was a delightful companion. With the exception of the Greek intervention in 1829, Aberdeen, while foreign secretary, resolutely followed a policy of nonintervention. His cautious and conciliatory foreign policy contrasted strangely with Palmerston's methods, and the friendly relations which he had established with the foreign courts often led to unjust suspicions of his sympathy with continental despotism. Aberdeen married first, on 28 July 1805, Lady Catherine Elizabeth Hamilton (who died on 29 Feb. 1812), third daughter of John, first marquis of Abercorn, by whom he had one son, who died in infancy, and three daughters, all of whom died unmarried; secondly, on 8 July 1815, Harriet, daughter of the Hon. John Douglas and widow of James, viscount Hamilton, by whom he had four sons and one daughter. In November 1818 he obtained a royal license to assume the surname of Hamilton immediately before that of Gordon, 'as a last memorial of his respect for the memory of his late father-in-law, John James, Marquis of Abercorn, K.G., deced.' (London Gazette, 1818, ii. 2225-6). His second wife died on 26 Aug. 1833, and he was succeeded in his titles and estates by the eldest of his four surviving sons, George John James Hamilton-Gordon. There is a bust of Aberdeen by Noble in Westminster Abbey. The best portrait of Aberdeen is a three-quarter length by Sir Thomas Lawrence, belonging to Sir Robert Peel. It was painted in 1828. Another portrait, by the same painter, painted in 1807, is in the possession of the present earl. A portrait by John Partridge was exhibited in 1868 at the Loan Collection of National Portraits at South Kensington (Catalogue No. 401). An engraving by T. Woolnoth, after a portrait of Aberdeen by A. Wivell, will be found in the third volume of Jerdan's 'National Portrait Gallery' (1832).
He wrote: 1. The preface and notes to the Rev. G. D. Whittington's 'Historical Survey of the Ecclesiastical Antiquities of France,' London, 1809, 4to. 2. 'An Introduction containing an Historical View of the Rise and Progress of Architecture amongst the Greeks,' prefixed to a translation by William Wilkins of 'The Civil Architecture of Vitruvius,' London, 1812, 4to. This introduction was afterwards printed and published separately under the title of 'An Inquiry into the Principles of Beauty in Grecian Architecture,' London, 1822, 8vo. It was again reprinted in 1860 as No. 130 of Weale's 'Series of Rudimentary Works for the use of Beginners,' London, 12mo. 3. 'The Earl of Aberdeen's Correspondence with the Rev. Dr. Chalmers and the Secretaries of the NonIntrusion Committee from 14th January to 27th May 1840,' Edinburgh, 1840, 8vo. 4. 'The Correspondence of the Earl of Aberdeen,' privately printed, not published, 1858-88, 8vo. This collection was arranged by his youngest son, the Hon. Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, G.C.M.G., the present governor of Ceylon, and contains a complete record of the more important transactions of Lord Aberdeen's life. Two of his speeches upon the church of Scotland were published in 1840 and 1843.[Sir Theodore Martin's Life of the Prince Consort; Greville Memoirs; Spencer Walpole's Hist. of England, vols. ii. iii. iv. v.; Spencer Walpole's Life of Lord John Russell, 1889; Kinglake's Invasion of the Crimea, 1863, vol. i.; Memoirs of an Ex-Minister, by the Earl of Malmesbury, 1884. The Correspondence of Viscount Castlereagh (1853), 3rd ser. vol. i., contains several letters written by Lord Aberdeen while abroad, 1813-14. The British Cabinet in 1853, 1853; Macknight's Thirty Years of Foreign Policy, a History of the Secretaryships of the Earl of Aberdeen and Viscount Palmerston, 1855; Thornton's Foreign Secretarics of the XIX Century, 1851-2, ii. 269-306, iii. 63-105 (with portrait); Edinburgh Review, clviii. 547-77; Annual Register, 1860. 376-83; Gent. Mag. 1851, new ser. x. 205-7, 238; Times, 15 and 22 Dec. 1860 ; Doyle's Official Baronage, 1886, ii. 36-7; Douglas's Peerage of Scotland, 1812, i. 23; Grad. Cantabr. 1856, p. 1.]