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John Russell, 1st Earl Russell
John Russell, 1st Earl Russell

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, KG, GCMG, PC, FRS (18 August 1792 – 28 May 1878), known by his courtesy title Lord John Russell before 1861, was a leading Whig and Liberal politician who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1846–1852, and 1865–1866 during the early Victorian era.

The third son of the Duke of Bedford, Russell was educated at Westminister and Edinburgh University, and represented various various districts in Commons including the City of London. In 1828 he took a leading role in the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts which discriminated against Protestant dissenters. In 1829 he was a leader in support of Catholic emancipation. He was a prominent leader in passing the Great Reform Act of 1832. It was the first major reform of the representative system in two centuries, and the first step on the road to democracy and away from rule by the aristocracy and landed gentry. He favoured reduction of the property qualifications to vote but never advocated universal suffrage. He served in many high offices over the decades, including home secretary and colonial Secretary under Melbourne; he was leader of the house under Aberdeen; he was foreign secretary under Aberdeen and Palmerston. He was outspoken on many issues, calling for the repeal of the corn laws in 1845, denouncing the revival of Catholic bishoprics in 1850, supporting Italian nationalism, and keeping the nation neutral during the American Civil War. In the 1860s he sympathized with the cause of Poland and Denmark, but took no action as prime minister. Over the years he was closely associated with Palmerston, although there were stormy times as when he helped force Palmerston out as prime minister in 1851, and in revenge Palmerston defeated his government in 1852. Russell often acted before building a consensus among his leadership team. He mishandled the reform movement during the second premiership, and left office only to watch Disraeli carry a strong Reform Bill.[1]

On the negative side, he headed a government that failed to deal adequately with the Irish Famine, a disaster which saw the loss of a quarter of Ireland's population. It has been said that his ministry of 1846 to 1852 was the ruin of the Whig party: it never composed a Government again, and his ministry of 1865 to 1866 was very nearly the ruin of the Liberal Party also.[2]

Background and education

Russell was born small and premature on 18 August 1792 into the highest echelons of the British aristocracy, being the third son of John Russell, later 6th Duke of Bedford, and Georgiana Byng, daughter of George Byng, 4th Viscount Torrington. The Russell family had been one of the principal Whig dynasties in England since the 17th century, and were among the richest handful of aristocratic landowning families in the country, but as a younger son of the 6th Duke of Bedford, he was not expected to inherit the family estates. As a younger son of a duke, he bore the courtesy title "Lord John Russell", but he was not a peer in his own right. He was, therefore, able to sit in the House of Commons until he was made an earl in 1861 and transferred into the House of Lords.

After being withdrawn from Westminster School due to ill health, Russell was educated by tutors. He attended the University of Edinburgh from 1809 to 1812, lodging with Professor John Playfair, who oversaw his studies.[3] He did not take a degree. Although of small stature—he grew to no more than 5 feet 4-and-three-quarter inches tall[4]—and often in poor health, he traveled widely in Britain and on the continent,[5] and held commission as Captain in the Bedfordshire Militia in 1810.[4] During his continental travels, Russell had a 90-minute meeting with Napoleon in December 1814 during the former emperor's exile at Elba.[6]

Public life

Russell entered the House of Commons as a Whig in 1813. The future reformer gained his seat by virtue of his father, the Duke of Bedford, instructing the 30 or so electors of Tavistock to return him as an MP even though at the time Russell was abroad and under age.[7] In 1819, Russell embraced the cause of parliamentary reform, and he led the more reformist wing of the Whigs throughout the 1820s. When the Whigs came to power in 1830 in Earl Grey's government, Russell entered the government as Paymaster of the Forces, and was soon elevated to the Cabinet. He was one of the principal leaders of the fight for the Reform Act 1832, earning the nickname Finality Jack from his complacently pronouncing the Act a final measure.[8] In 1834, when the leader of the Commons, Lord Althorp, succeeded to the peerage as Earl Spencer, Russell became the leader of the Whigs in the Commons. This appointment prompted King William IV to terminate Lord Melbourne's government, the last time in British history that a monarch dismissed a prime minister.[9] Nevertheless Russell retained his position for the rest of the decade, until the Whigs fell from power in 1841. In this position, Russell continued to lead the more reformist wing of the Whig party, calling, in particular, for religious freedom, and, as Home Secretary in the late 1830s, played a large role in democratising the government of British cities other than London. During his career in Parliament, Lord John Russell represented the City of London.[10]

Taylor emphasised Russell's central role in the expansion of liberty and in leading his Whig party to a commitment to a reform agenda.[11] In 1845, as leader of the Opposition, Russell came out in favour of repeal of the Corn Laws, forcing Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel to follow him. In December 1845, with the Conservatives split over this issue, Queen Victoria asked Russell to form a government, which he was unable to do since Lord Grey refused to serve with Lord Palmerston as Foreign Secretary.[12] In June the following year the Corn Laws were repealed but only by virtue of Whig support. The same day Peel's Irish Coercion Bill, which the Whigs did not support, was defeated and the Prime Minister resigned.[13] Russell became Prime Minister, this time Grey not objecting to Palmerston's appointment.[14]

Russell's government secured social reforms such as funding teacher training and passage of the Factory Act of 1847, which restricted the working hours of women and young persons (aged 13–18) in textile mills to 10 hours per day.[15] His premiership was frustrated, however, because of party disunity and infighting, and he was unable to secure the success of many of the measures he was interested in passing. Russell was religious in a simple non-dogmatic way and supported the "Broad church" element in the Church of England. He opposed the "Oxford Movement" because its "Tractarian" members were too dogmatic and too close to Romanism. He supported Broad Churchmen or Latitudinarians by several appointments of liberal churchmen to vacant sees. In 1859 he reversed himself and decided to free non-Anglicans of the duty of paying rates (taxes) to the local Anglican parish. His political clumsiness and opposition to Church finance made him a target of attack and ridicule in many Church circles.[16][17][18]

He fought with his headstrong Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, whose belligerence and support for continental revolution he found embarrassing. In 1847 Palmerston provoked a confrontation with the French government by undermining the plans of the Spanish court to marry the young Spanish Queen and her sister into the French royal family.[19] He subsequently clashed with Russell over plans to augment the army and navy in order to defend against the perceived threat of French invasion, which subsided with the overthrow of the French king in 1848.[20]

In 1850 further tension arose between the two over Palmerston's gunboat diplomacy in the Don Pacifico affair, in which Palmerston sought compensation from the Greek Government for the ransacking and burning of the house of David Pacifico, a Gibraltarian holder of a British passport.[21] Russell considered the matter "hardly worth the interposition of the British lion," and when Palmerston ignored some of his instructions, the Prime Minister wrote to Palmerston telling him he had informed the Queen that he "thought the interests of the country required that a change should take place at the Foreign Department."[22] However, less than a month later Lord Stanley successfully led the House of Lords into passing a motion of censure of the Government over its handling of the affair and Russell realised that he needed to align with Palmerston in order to prevent a similar motion being passed by the House of Commons, which would have obliged the Government to resign.[23] The Government prevailed, but Palmerston came out of the affair with his popularity at new heights since he was seen as the champion of defending British citizens anywhere in the world.[24]

Palmerston was forced to resign when he recognised Napoleon III's coup of 2 December 1851 without royal approval. Russell tried to strengthen his government by recruiting leading Peelites such as Sir James Graham and the Duke of Newcastle to his administration, but they declined.[25]

Palmerston turned the vote on a militia bill into a vote of confidence on the Government. The majority vote in favour of an amendment proposed by Palmerston caused the downfall of Russell's ministry on 21 February 1852. This was Palmerston's famous "tit for tat with Johnny Russell," a revenge for his dismissal by Russell as Foreign Minister.[26]

The July 1852 general election saw the election of 330 Conservatives and 324 Whigs to the Parliament. Neither had an overall majority, because 38 members who were technically Conservatives were actually Peelites (followers of the late Robert Peel). The Peelites had deserted the Conservatives to vote for the repeal of the Corn Laws in June 1846. The Corn Laws had imposed a tariff on all cheap imported wheat and thus kept the price of wheat and the bread made from wheat high. This served the interests of landed aristocracy, which was the main body of support for the Conservative Party. However, the high price of wheat and bread added greatly to the desperation of the poor and hungry in England and Ireland.[26]

The new Parliament included 113 "Free Traders" who were more radical than the Peelites. They felt that the tariffs on all imported consumer goods should be removed, not just the tariff on wheat or "corn." There were also 63 members of the "Irish Brigade," made up of Irish members interested in the Tenant Rights legislation for the protection of the tenant farmers in Ireland. None of these minor groups were interested in forming a government with the Conservatives because of the bitterness left over from the repeal of the Corn Laws. However, John Russell of the Whigs could not attract enough of the minor party members to form a government either. Other issues handled during the recent Russell government had alienated these three minor groups from the Whigs also. Thus, Queen Victoria asked the Earl of Derby to form a minority government. It only lasted until December 1852.[26]

Russell, as the leader of the Whig party, then brought it into a new coalition government with the Peelite Conservatives, headed by the Peelite Lord Aberdeen. Palmerston could not possibly be appointed as Foreign Minister but he had to be a part of the new Aberdeen government and became Home Secretary. Russell continued to serve as leader of the Whig party in the House of Commons. As the leader of the largest party in the Aberdeen coalition government, Russell was needed in the new government. Accordingly, on 28 December 1852, Russell was appointed Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

In the eyes of many, including the Queen and Aberdeen, his jockeying for position against Palmerston was one of the causes of the inability of the administration to take a firm direction. It was a contest that Palmerston won. Having entered the administration as the expected Whig heir, Russell left it having been overtaken by Palmerston.[27]

Together with Palmerston, Russell was instrumental in getting Britain to join France in the Crimean War (1853-1856) to thwart the threat of Russia against the Ottoman Empire. They did so as members of the Aberdeen government and against the wishes of the cautious, Russophile Earl of Aberdeen. Lord Russell, frustrated by the Prime Minister's delays, resigned from the government on 21 February 1853. A motion in Parliament to investigate the mismanagement became a vote of confidence in the Aberdeen government and in the Secretary for War. Accordingly, when the Roebuck motion passed, Aberdeen resigned. Russell was unable to forma a government. Lord Palmerston formed a new government. John Russell, accepting the Colonial Office, was sent to Vienna to negotiate, but his proposals were rejected and he temporarily retired from politics in 1855[28][29]

In 1859, following another short-lived Conservative government, Palmerston and Russell made up their differences, and Russell consented to serve as Foreign Secretary in a new Palmerston cabinet, usually considered the first true Liberal cabinet. This period was a particularly eventful one in the world outside Britain, seeing the Unification of Italy (the change of British government to one sympathetic to Italian nationalism had a marked part in this process[30]), the American Civil War, and the 1864 war over Schleswig-Holstein between Denmark and the German states. Russell arranged the London Conference of 1864, but failed to establish peace in the war. His tenure of the Foreign Office was noteworthy for the famous dispatch in which he defended Italian independence: "Her Majesty's Government will turn their eyes rather to the gratifying prospect of a people building up the edifice of their liberties, and consolidating the work of their independence, amid the sympathies and good wishes of Europe" (27 October 1860).[31]

In 1861 Russell was elevated to the peerage as Earl Russell, of Kingston Russell in the County of Dorset, and as Viscount Amberley, of Amberley in the County of Gloucester, and of Ardsalla in the County of Meath in the Peerage of the United Kingdom.[32] As a suo jure peer, he sat in the House of Lords for the remainder of his career.

When Palmerston suddenly died in late 1865, Russell again became Prime Minister. His second premiership was short and frustrating, and Russell failed in his great ambition of expanding the franchise, a task that would be left to his Conservative successors, Derby and Benjamin Disraeli. In 1866, party disunity again brought down his government. Russell never again held any office. His last contribution to the House of Lords was on 3 August 1875.[33]

Marriages and children

Lord Russell married Adelaide Lister (widow of Thomas Lister, 2nd Baron Ribblesdale, who had died in 1832.[34]) on 11 April 1835. She died three years later on 1 November 1838. They had two daughters:

  • Lady Georgiana Adelaide Russell (1836 – 25 September 1922). She married Archibald Peel (son of General Jonathan Peel) on 15 August 1867. They had seven children.
  • Lady Victoria Russell (1 November 1838 – 9 May 1880). She married Henry Villiers (the son of The Honorable Henry Montagu Villiers) on 16 April 1861. They had ten children and left many descendants.[35]

He remarried Lady Frances Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound (daughter of Gilbert Elliot, 2nd Earl of Minto) on 20 July 1841. They had four children:

  • John Russell, Viscount Amberley (10 December 1842 – 9 January 1876). He married The Hon. Katherine Stanley on 8 November 1864. They had four children, including a stillborn daughter.
  • Hon. George Gilbert William Russell (14 April 1848 – 27 January 1933). He married Alice Godfrey (d. 12 May 1886) on 21 April 1885. They had one son. He remarried Gertrude Joachim on 28 April 1891. They had two children.
  • Hon. Francis Albert Rollo Russell (11 July 1849 – 30 March 1914).
  • Lady Mary Agatha Russell (1853 – 23 April 1933).

They lived at Pembroke Lodge, Richmond Park.[36]

Russell and his second wife brought up the children of his eldest son Lord Amberley, orphaned by the deaths of their mother Katharine Russell, Viscountess Amberley in 1874 and their father two years later. These included philosopher Bertrand Russell, who recalled his grandfather in his later life as "a kindly old man in a wheelchair."[37]

The 1st Earl Russell is buried at the 'Bedford Chapel' at St. Michael's Church, Chenies.

Legacy and reputation

Scion of one of the most powerful aristocratic families, Russell was a leading reformer who weakened the power of the aristocracy. His great achievements, wrote A. J. P. Taylor, were based on his persistent battles in Parliament over the years on behalf of the expansion of liberty; after each loss he tried again and again, until finally, his efforts were largely successful.[38] E. L. Woodward, however, argued that he was too much the abstract theorist:

Nevertheless, Russell led his Whig party into support for reform; he was the principal architect of the great Reform Act of 1832.

He was succeeded as Liberal leader by former Peelite William Gladstone, and was thus the last true Whig to serve as Prime Minister. Generally taken as the model for Anthony Trollope's Mr Mildmay, aspects of his character may also have suggested those of Plantagenet Palliser. An ideal statesman, said Trollope, should have "unblemished, unextinguishable, inexhaustible love of country.... But he should also be scrupulous, and, as being scrupulous, weak."[40]

The 1832 Reform Act and extension of the franchise to British cities are partly attributed to his efforts. He also worked for emancipation, leading the attack on the Test and Corporation acts, which were repealed in 1828, as well as towards legislation limiting working hours in factories in the 1847 Factory Act, and the Public Health Act of 1848.

His government's approach to dealing with the Great Irish Famine is now widely condemned as counterproductive, ill-informed and disastrous. Russell himself was sympathetic to the plight of the Irish poor, and many of his relief proposals were blocked by his cabinet or by the British Parliament.[41]

Queen Victoria's attitude toward Russell had been coloured by his role in the Aberdeen administration. On visiting Windsor Castle to resign, Aberdeen had told the Queen: "Nothing could have been better," he said, "than the feeling of the members towards each other. Had it not been for the incessant attempts of Lord John Russell to keep up party differences, it must be acknowledged that the experiment of a coalition had succeeded admirably," which attitude she shared.[42] The Queen continued to criticise Russell for his behaviour for the rest of his life, and on his death in 1878 her journal records that he was "a man of much talent, who leaves a name behind him, kind, & good, with a great knowledge of the constitution, who behaved very well, on many trying occasions; but he was impulsive, very selfish (as shown on many occasions, especially during Ld Aberdeen's administration) vain, & often reckless & imprudent."


In 1819 Lord John Russell published his book Life of Lord Russell about his famous ancestor, William Russell, 1st Duke of Bedford; and a year later his Essays and Sketches of Life and Character, "By a Gentleman who has left his lodgings" (1820), a series of social and cultural commentaries ostensibly found in a missing lodger's rooms.[43]

In 1822 Russell published a historical drama Don Carlos: or, Persecution. A tragedy, in five acts.[44]

Between 1853 and 1856, he edited the Memoirs, Journal and Correspondence of Thomas Moore, which was published by Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans over 8 volumes.[45][46]

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens was dedicated to Lord John Russell, "In remembrance of many public services and private kindnesses."[47] In speech given in 1869, Dickens remarked of Russell that "there is no man in England whom I respect more in his public capacity, whom I love more in his private capacity."[48]


See also

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