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Lord Liverpool And the United States

May 2024
11min read

Spokesman for a rising industrialism, this prime minister bid for free trade with the United States and helped to create something quite different

When Jean Baptiste Isabey made his preliminary sketch for a painting of the Congress of Vienna, he imparted an incongruous air of romanticism to his little group of leading personalities.


When Jean Baptiste Isabey made his preliminary sketch for a painting of the Congress of Vienna, he imparted an incongruous air of romanticism to his little group of leading personalities.

As far as posture and gesture can express such things, all is sensibility, passion, youth itself. Since the aging statesmen who ran the Congress were attempting to perpetuate in treaty form something which one can only describe as the foreseeable past, it must be admitted that Isabey had allowed his imagination to run away with him—after all, he had once been Napoleon’s court painter The order which his figures sought to impose was distinctly mechanistic, indeed mechanical—it was as if, with remarkable skill and even some measure of genius, they were engaged in restoring an old broken clock and endowing it with the gift of running backwards. No, they were anything but romantic.

And yet, if one ventures into the general history of the early Nineteenth Century, as it came reeling out of the smoke and tumult of the Napoleonic Wars, if one reads its biographies or dips into some of its more outspoken correspondence, one gets the impression, by no means an uninteresting one, that the whole official world has got a case of the fidgets.

Romanticism, as a vague but pervasive rebellion against rational decorum, invades that world like some kind of itching powder, like a huge practical joke. The most important people in their most punctilious moments suddenly start scratching themselves; anachronisms and imbecilities leap from their armchairs or their thrones and begin an involuntary dance. Perhaps Isabey had a point, or missed one. It is only when we consider the other disturbing factors—industrialism, nationalism, democracy—that we ask ourselves whether the point was well taken, or worth missing.

The social history of post-Napoleonic Europe and America fascinates the student because of its unappeasable disquiet. The diplomatic history, on the other hand, attracts him for two somewhat different reasons.

It attracts him, first of all, because of its relative placidity. Though it encroaches upon modern times—in the sense that we can perceive that some of its problems are analogous to our own—it is equipped with none of the modern instruments. No electric telegraph, no steamship, no railroad hastened communications in those days: in this respect the world was closer to Augustus Caesar than it was to 1900. Decisions could be made with a deliberation unknown to the statesmen of today; triumphs were sometimes triumphantly abstract, crises were occasionally settled long after they had ceased to exist. The majority of state papers, therefore, are something like impressive façades—the writer has time to conceal behind them the panic, ignorance and indecision which are the general lot of man.


It attracts the student, in the second place, because of its recorded mass. He drifts helplessly towards that immense nebula of archival information and scholarly exegesis, humming and exploding with the collisions of schools of thought, of national prides, and of party prejudices. He longs to impose order upon it: to emulate, perhaps, the calm masterpiece of a Dexter Perkins. Or he hopes to discover some vital connection between complicated monographs on obscure and unrelated topics. Or he looks for evidence of that social frisson which the leading statesmen of those days were so anxious to keep out of their writings. In any case, he knows that he is drifting into a period which is perpetually fresh: for the post-Napoleonic era, in its urgency, its bewilderment, its hope and its cruelty, has a harsh quality of early springtime which its diplomatic history cannot extinguish.

I am thinking particularly of a remarkable book called British Policy and the Independence of Latin America, 1804-1828, written by William W. Kaufmann, and published by the Yale University Press in 1951. It is a graceful and witty book, doing full justice to the amazing variety of character thrown up by statesmen, politicians and rulers as they made their painful journey out of the Eighteenth and into the Nineteenth Century. It is also a valuable and deeply serious study, not only of one phase of British history, but also of the sad predicament of all the Vienna statesmen, who tried to pretend that ecumenical history was simply European history, and whose calculations were thrown into disorder by the sudden emergence of the New World—by the immense and irretrievable collapse of the Spanish Empire in Latin America. About one-third of it is devoted to exploring those tentative and traditional areas occupied by Mr. Pitt, Sir Home Popham, General Miranda, Lord Melville and so on: then it moves on into the post-Napoleonic world, and its leading characters are—as they should be—Lord Castlereagh and George Canning.

No doubt, Mr. Kaufmann lends himself at times to what one might call the “official fallacy”—that is, he takes diplomats at their own valuation, giving their plans a lucidity, precision and forethought by which these men hoped to be distinguished, often were distinguished, and more often merely thought that they were. Of course, if one is to create a harmonious picture (and it is the duty of the historian, to some extent, to do so) one cannot altogether avoid this official attitude. What is more to the point is that Mr. Kaufmann is too good a historian not to question the very certainties he has been attempting to establish.

He admits that Lord Castlereagh impaled himself upon the horns of a dilemma; and of Canning’s great boast “I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old” he asks whether it contained a real vision of some emerging equilibrium, or whether Canning was simply talking through his hat.

This is not the place in which to examine in detail Lord Castlereagh’s dilemma. Roughly speaking, it was as follows. On the one hand, English commercial interests needed to trade with the rebellious Spanish colonies and could do so only if England recognized their independence from Spain. On the other hand, the major European powers were convinced that these colonies should be restored to the Spanish Crown. Castlereagh was deeply involved with the Concert of Europe; how could he reconcile England’s commercial demands with his European commitments?

It is often maintained that Castlereagh was edging towards a break with the Concert; but as far as I can see he labored to bring about a condition of stalemate, where no reconciliation would ever be necessary, where nothing would ever occur. The effort proved to be too much for him. His health broke down through overwork. The hatred of the British public, to whom his glacial aristocracy was the very image of oppression, did the rest. His reason began to totter, he thought that he was being blackmailed, he was convinced that he had committed some unnamable crime; and one summer morning in 1822, standing before his bedroom window, he cut his throat with a small penknife.

George Canning, his successor at the Foreign Office, was a witty parvenu, with a robust genius, a cynical taste for popularity, and no commitments to Europe. The European Concert was anti-national, anti-liberal, anti-democratic; it was unpopular in England; it was, symbolically, a barrier to business enterprise. Canning perceived that the independence of the Spanish colonies was the fulcrum he needed. He proposed to manoeuvre the Concert into a position where it would show itself helpless to intervene successfully in Spanish America; he would then recognize the independence of the Spanish colonies; the collapse of the Concert would be the inevitable result. And so it turned out, with some luck and some muddle; and Canning became, as a diplomatist, the champion of nationalism and the champion of democracy.

But was he really? In order to understand Canning’s relation to the Spanish colonies and the Concert—in order fully to understand Mr. Kaufmann’s book—one must study the age of Palmerston and the era of Lord Salisbury; and that would be only the beginning.

Lord Acton laid down the precept “Study problems, not periods.” Coming as it does from one of the greatest and most provocative of minds, this precept is immensely difficult. Most historians, who study a certain problem and confine it within a certain period (and that is what most historians do), can hardly avoid being confronted, at the end of their labors, with the accusing stare of Lord Acton. It is no consolation whatsoever to know that Lord Acton was crushed by his own precept, that he never wrote his History of Liberty; this tragedy only seems to make the stare more direct and accusing.

Mr. Kaufmann has made a study of a certain problem, and has carried it through a period of years long enough to indicate the possible course of its development; in fact, he has brilliantly succeeded in doing exactly what he set out to do. The only question that remains is: can one detach a certain phase of foreign policy from its surrounding context without giving a somewhat false or one-sided impression? The answer is, of course, that special studies are not concerned with such questions; otherwise they would not be special studies. Or, conversely, that one must stop somewhere. Very well, but can one discuss any phase of foreign policy without examining the nature of the government from which it proceeded?

As regards Anglo-American relations, however, which were both vivid and ambiguous at this time, the answers do not quite satisfy. In respect of Lord Castlereagh’s dilemma and Canning’s concept (if he had one) of a new balance of power, perhaps they do: here Anglo-American relations can be examined exclusively in terms of the hostility which English statesmen felt for the United States.

But if we accept the idea that Canning was a grandparent of “splendid isolation,” then this aspect of Anglo-American relations becomes somewhat misleading. We have to turn to quite another kind of event: Castlereagh’s refusal, in 1819, to make an issue out of the execution of Arbuthnot and Ambrister, two British citizens, by General Jackson in Spanish Florida; the pressure which London exerted upon Madrid in 1821, in order to bring about a ratification of the great Transcontinental Treaty between the United States and Spain; the extremely pro-American Trade Act of 1822; even Canning’s language ("the daughter and the mother stand alone against the world,” etc., etc.) when for a brief while, in 1823, he was seeking American support against the Holy Allies. These are all evidences of English friendship; all were overtures; all were rejected.

If there is a portent in all this, and I think there is, it will be discovered in the economic drift of Castlereagh’s and Canning’s government; and specifically in the aims of that somewhat otiose figure in English history, Robert Banks Jenkinson, second Earl of Liverpool, prime minister of England from 1812 to 1827.


It would be a thankless task to write an apologia for Lord Liverpool. He looms in English history like some dolmen, some irremovable relic of a forgotten religion, some crude archaic arrangement which would be all the cruder with a coat of whitewash, some monument to a peculiar kind of impenetrability—the hard but drowsy impenetrability of the High Tory mind.

And so, in some ways and to some extent, he was. He had no respect for civil liberties and no notions whatsoever concerning the rights of man. He confessed himself an enemy to “general reform.” He had that extreme insensitivity to the human misery of industrialism for which we are still paying. A witty Frenchman said of him that if he had been present at the Creation, he would have cried in dismay, “Mon Dieu, conservons le chaos.”

There was, however, another side to him, which English history is just beginning to recognize. He may have answered the sorest grievances with repression, but not the grievances of manufacturers; he may have been deaf to human pleas, but not to the pleas of chambers of commerce. He was a prophet, acutely aware of his country’s industrial future and uttering, with great caution but with obvious conviction, the new language of enlightened self-interest. He was, in short, that unpalatable but portentous mixture—a High Tory as regards all human relations, an early Liberal as regards the release of industrial energy.

An amiable, fidgety, uninspiring man, he was an obscure but powerful manipulator of legislative strings. As prime minister during the War of 1812, he discovered that access to free markets was of more consequence than a monopoly of the carrying trade; he seems never to have forgotten what he had learned, or to have forgotten that it was America that taught him.

He had patience, he was persevering, he was obstinate. He listened to middle class reformers; he smuggled the great Huskisson into his Cabinet as president of the Board of Trade; and, against everyone’s wishes, over the agonized protests of George IV, he insisted on making Canning his foreign secretary. While he and Huskisson moved cautiously towards laissez faire in the domestic field, Canning rushed at it in the field of foreign relations. The three of them were the committee of public safety of the Industrial Revolution, hacking away at tariff schedules, mercantilist concepts, European absolutists, all obstacles to the free flow of industrial energy.

In 1820, Lord Liverpool made a speech which gives us the essential connection between English overture and American rejection. He told the House of Lords that the recent falling-off in British exports should be attributed “principally if not exclusively” to distress in the United States. He declared that America’s immense territory and increasing population offered the best prospect for British manufactures.


“My lords,” he said, “everybody who wishes prosperity to England, must wish prosperity to America.” He added that the United States, because it was not hampered with old and ingrown commercial regulations, was the only nation which could “act unreservedly on the principle of unrestricted trade.” Clearly the United States, with its immense territory and increasing population, would create no irreparable divisions so long as it never resorted to protective tariffs; obviously American democracy itself had no dangers so long as it consented to become the handmaid of British industrialism.

Liverpool was no friend to democracy and nationalism. He spoke in terms of self-interest; like Huskisson and Canning, he could only hope that it would prove to be enlightened. In this spirit, England wooed America with the Trade Act of 1822; in this spirit she broke away from the Concert of Europe; in this spirit, years later, when England was becoming the workshop of the world, Palmerston supported liberalism abroad and squashed it at home. Industrial free trade, or enlightened self-interest in its most persuasive and energetic form, created a world market and broke down the isolation of the most remote peoples, but it was free markets that mattered, not free men. A curious prevision of world trade seems to arise from Lord Liverpool’s speech.

It made little impression on the House of Lords, and there is no evidence that any American so much as heard of it; it was a soliloquy on friendship. American administrations, in any case, were already slipping down an inclined plane which led to the economic nationalism of President John Quincy Adams.

As secretary of state and as President, Adams fought the encroachments and cajoleries of British industrialism in any form and on any field; he fought them with threats; he fought them with tariffs; and he went on fighting until he fought himself out of the White House. His whole plan of a national economy—careful stewardship of the public lands, protection of industry, national banking, federal subsidies for roads and canals—seemed to conjure up a vision of the kind of America which Lord Liverpool, in 1820, had so piously hoped would never emerge.

It conjures up another vision, too—one which Adams himself would have thought a nightmare—a vision of government aid to business in the Sixties and Seventies with thumping subsidies and huge free slices of the public domain and the corrupt building of high tariff walls, a vision of the emergence of the great trusts in the 1880’s. All this did indeed help to reduce British laissez faire to a condition of splendid isolation. A free trade based on Canning’s concept of enlightened self-interest, “each nation for itself, and God for us all,” is, of course, headed there anyway.

We are left with Lord Liverpool’s little bridge, “whoever wishes prosperity to England must wish prosperity to America.” He was thinking of a state of “open trade,” with England making some large concessions, and the United States offering a permanent, expanding and unprotected market.

Lord Liverpool meant well; but he is, in fact, the one figure who seems to unify Anglo-American rivalries in those days in terms of some shadowy battle between early protectionists and early free traders. It is he who reminds us that a study of Canning’s policy in Latin America leads on and away to the larger problem of British industrialism in the Nineteenth Century, and of how it was checked, and why.

Lord Liverpool’s bridge was swept away by the portent, rather than the fact, of the Tariff of 1828, an event which he did not live to see. Yet his words about prosperity have in them more of the quality of survival than Canning’s empty boast about calling the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old. If we could abstract the element of self-interest from them, they would become “Whoever wishes prosperity in his part of the world, must wish prosperity in every part.”

This would have disgusted Lord Liverpool. He was one of the most realistic and successful heralds of industrial laissez faire: but he seems only to emphasize the unhappy truism that the world may painfully correct the errors of its statesmen, but has yet to find a way of defending itself against their successes.

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