Modern British History

Palgrave master series

by Norman Lowe

Chapter 9

Palmerston and the reactions to his foreign policies

Study Sources A to G and then answer the questions which follow.

Source A:

Extracts from speeches in the House of Commons by Lord Palmerston, 1848-9.

The principle on which I have thought the foreign affairs of this country ought to be conducted is, the principle of maintaining peace and friendly understanding with all nations, as long as it was possible to do so consistently with a due regard for the interest, the honour, and the dignity of this country. My endeavours have been to preserve peace. All the governments of which I have had the honour to be a member, have succeeded in accomplishing that object...

We have a deep interest in the preservation of peace because we are desirous to carry on with advantage those peaceful relations of trade that we know must be injured by the interruption of our friendly relations with other countries. On the other hand it is essential for the protection of that commerce to which we attach so much importance, that it should be well understood by every nation on the face of the earth that we do not intend to submit to wrong, and that the maintenance of peace on our part is subject to the indispensable condition that all countries shall respect our honour and our dignity, and shall not inflict any injury upon our interests...At the same time I am quite ready to admit that interference ought not to be carried on to the extent of endangering our relations with other countries.

Source: Quoted in D. Holman (ed.), Earlier Nineteenth Century 1783-1867, Hutchinson, 1965 and F.E.Huggett, What They’ve Said about Nineteenth Century Statesmen, Oxford, 1972.

Source B:

A letter by Lord Shaftesbury, the Tory humanitarian social reformer, written in 1876.

The institution of a true and vigorous foreign policy suited to the honour and position of the Kingdom of England was one of Lord Palmerston’s guiding principles...Vigorous assertion of this principle in the face of very hostile and sensitive powers, was often misinterpreted as a readiness for war, nay even as recklessness...From war, I believe, he shrank with horror; but he was strongly of the opinion that the best way to avoid it was to speak out boldly, and ever be prepared to meet the emergency. Both in private and in public life he was of a very gentle and forgiving spirit. There might be, but very rarely, but now and then little bursts of irritation, but they soon passed away. Of public resentments he had no memory at all. In all my experience I have not seen any man so kind to all alike, so delicate, tender and considerate....

Source: Quoted in Jasper Ridley, Lord Palmerston, Constable, 1970.

Source C:

Article in The Times, on the death of Palmerston, 19 October 1865.

One of the most popular statesmen, one of the kindliest gentlemen, and one of the truest Englishmen that ever filled the office of Premier, is today lost to the country. The news of Lord Palmerston’s death will be received in every home throughout these islands, from the palace to the cottage, with a feeling like that of personal bereavement. The secret of his popularity was his boundless sympathy with all classes of his countrymen. Nor was his kindness and friendliness merely superficial...

Others may advise Her Majesty with equal wisdom and sway the House of Commons with equal or greater eloquence; but his place in the hearts of the people will not be filled so easily. His name will long be connected in the minds of Englishmen with an era of unbroken peace and unparalleled prosperity.

Source: The Times, 19 October 1865.

Source D:

The opinion of Talleyrand, a French statesman who was ambassador to Britain from 1830 to 1834.

Lord Palmerston is certainly one of the ablest statesmen I have ever met with in all my official career. He possesses indefatigable energy, an iron constitution, inexhaustible mental resources and great facility of speech in Parliament...There is one point in his character, however, which to my mind, entirely outweighs all these advantages, and would prevent his being considered in the light of a real statesman - he allows his passions to influence him in public affairs, to the extent of sometimes sacrificing the greatest interests to his personal feelings; nearly every political question resolves itself with him into a personal one; and whilst seeming to defend the interests of his country, it is nearly always those of his hatred or revenge that he is serving. He is very skilful in hiding this secret motive, under what I might call patriotic appearances.

Source: Quoted in F.E. Huggett, What They’ve Said about Nineteenth Century Statesmen, Oxford, 1972.

Source E:

A confidential letter from Prince Albert to Russell, the Prime Minister, written in 1850.

The Queen has two distinct complaints to bring against Lord Palmerston...First, his policy has generally had the effect that England is universally detested, mistrusted and treated with insult even by the smallest powers. There is not a sovereign or a government who do not consider Lord Palmerston as a personal enemy; there is not a people who is not convinced that their internal disagreements and sufferings are stirred up by England, in order to keep them weak and unable in consequence to compete with the English manufacturers. Since 1846 England has not had a single success [in foreign affairs]...

Secondly, as a minister the sovereign has a right to demand from him that she should be made thorougly acquainted with the whole object and tendency of the policy to which her consent is required, and, having given that consent, that the policy is not altered from the original line, that important steps are not concealed from her and her name used without her sanction. In all these respects Lord Palmerston has failed towards her...Besides which he has let it appear in public as if the sovereign's negligence in attending to papers sent to her caused delays and complications.

Source: Quoted in D. Holman (ed.), Earlier Nineteenth Century 1783-1867, Hutchinson, 1965.

Source F:

A private note written by Palmerston to Sir George Bonham, the Governor of Hong Kong, 29 September 1850.

The Time is fast coming when we shall be obliged to strike another Blow in China. These half-civilised governments such as those of China, Portugal, Spanish America, all require a dressing every eight or ten years to keep them in order. Their minds are too shallow to receive an impression that will last longer than some such period, and a warning is of little use. They care little for words and they must not only see the Stick but actually feel it on their shoulders before they yield to that only argument which to them brings conviction.

Source: Quoted in W. C. Costin, Great Britain and China, 1833-1860, Oxford, 1937.

Source G:

Some information from a modern historian about Palmerston’s relations with China

Following the Opium War with China (1839) in which Britain forced the Chinese to open to her, five ports, relations between the two remained strained. In 1856 the British at Hong Kong became involved in a dispute with the Chinese at Canton over a vessel built and owned by Chinese merchants and wrongly flying the British flag as a screen for acts of piracy. The British demanded an apology from the Governor of Canton for his seizure of the pirates aboard the Arrow, and when this was refused, the British bombarded the city. A state of war with China resulted...

Lord Derby brought forward a motion in the House of Lords strongly condemning the government's Chinese policy...When the debate ended in the defeat of the government by 16 votes, Palmerston ordered Parliament to be dissolved. In the following general election Palmerston and the Liberals were returned triumphantly to power with a majority of 70. He had opened his address to his electors at Tiverton by a volley of violent phrases: the Chinese governor of Canton was ‘an insolent barbarian who had violated the British flag, and planned the destruction of British subjects by murder, assassination and poison’. This address clearly suited the electors of the day and the victor flatly refused to change his policy by one iota. The disgraceful war against the Chinese continued.

Source: R. W. Seton-Watson, Britain in Europe 1789-1914, Cambridge, 1955.


  1. In 1848, Lord Palmerston said ‘My endeavours have been to preserve peace. All the governments of which I have had the honour to be a member, have succeeded in accomplishing that object’ (Source A). To what extent do the sources and the information in Chapter 9 support the truth of Palmerston’s statement? (7 marks)
  2. (i) In what ways could Palmerston’s note (Source F) be taken as a contradiction of what he says in Source A? (5 marks) (ii) What explanations can you offer for any apparent contradictions? (4 marks)
  3. Compare and contrast Sources B,C,D and E in their interpretations of Palmerston’s career. (12 marks)
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of Sources A to F for the historian trying to make a balanced assessment of Palmerston’s career? (12 marks)
(Total 40 marks)