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. . . My retirement would be the more easy, because the Government would not thereby lose, in a moment of European crisis, a leader of the House of Commons, a Minister of Foreign Affairs, or a Minister of War, three offices in regard to which it might justly be urged that any change at the present moment would be injurious to the public service. . . .—Yours sincerely, PALMERSTON.
Another colleague made a still more striking appeal:—
BELGRAVE SQUARE: April 11, 1854. MY DEAR LORD JOHN,—I have now served under your lead for sixteen months, and I have learned to take a strong interest in whatever concerns your political and personal position. . . . Surely this is a moment when no one ought to evade what are great difficulties and great responsibilities. . . . Whatever course you take, the country will believe, as I shall believe, in the rectitude of your motives, but there will have been a sacrifice to be made and a service to be rendered which will not have been done, and I cannot think you will stand in the position you ought if you leave it undone. . . . I earnestly hope that you will not lightly abandon [the] position, which you occupy under engagements not only to party but to the country. It will be a great political error and a great public misfortune, and I doubt whether the country, on whom the loss will fall, will think your course justifiable. Pardon me for writing so freely; I would venture to do it for no reason but that stated in the first sentence of this letter. Whatever course you take, I shall recollect with pleasure the period during which I have served under you, and learned to know the many noble qualities of one to whom I was once politically opposed.—Believe me, my dear Lord John, most faithfully yours, SIDNEY HERBERT.
Moved by this appeal, and the entreaties of his Queen and colleagues, Lord John consented to go on; and on the night of April 11 he accordingly explained in the House of Commons the reasons which had induced the Government to postpone the measure. It is hardly necessary to refer to the speech which he then made. Many people still recollect how Lord John declared that he was well aware that the course which he was pursuing exposed him to the taunts and sarcasms of his opponents, of which he should not complain, and to the suspicions of his supporters, which could hardly be entertained without weakening and destroying his utility and his position; and how, when his voice broke down from emotion, he was sustained by sympathetic cheering from every part of the House. The scene, in fact, was as remarkable as it was unusual, and from the letters of congratulation which poured in upon him it is only necessary to give a few extracts. Lord Aberdeen wrote—
I cannot help congratulating you on the success which attended your decision last night. Had it been otherwise, I should have reproached myself as having been more or less instrumental in leading you to adopt it: but I felt that there would be no danger to yourself. It is true that we have lost the Reform Bill, which is undoubtedly a great sactifice; but we have preserved your honour, character, and influence, not only undiminished but increased.
Sir Francis Baring said—
The reception you met with in the House will have shown you that they know how to estimate the conduct of a man who risks his position for what he considers his duty.
Lord Clarendon said—
You cannot doubt the unanimity of public opinion, or that the House of Commons regards your honour as precious public ploperty. Lord Oranmore, “as a Reformer of fifty years, congratulated Lord John
on the universal testimony to your noble conduct.
While Mr. Vernon, as a very humble member of the Peelite party, wrote—
The cheers from every part of the House of Commons which greeted the touching sentences at the close of your speech must have convinced you of the general sentiment: . . . and, I speak from knowledge, the eyes of young men and of old were brimming with tears of sympathy and almost affectionate respect, than which perhaps no richer tribute, no more grateful homage, could be wished for or received by a statesman and a patriot.
THE sympathetic cheers which sustained Lord John on the withdrawal of the Reform Bill of 1854 only partially allayed the mortification which he felt at the loss of the measure. He was disappointed to find that both his colleagues and his party were ready to sacrifice a project, which he thought just and necessary, for the purpose of concentrating attention on a war which he disliked. Nor was there anything either in the causes of the war or in the conduct of the negotiations which reconciled him to the sacrifice. He had thought, throughout 1853, that war might have been avoided if the Cabinet had resolved on a more definite policy or spoken with a firmer voice. He thought, throughout 1854, that the best chances of a speedy peace consisted in more vigorous measures than those which his colleagues undertook. He wished the war to be short and sharp; and the summer wore away in inaction." These circumstances oppressed Lord John with grave public anxiety. It so happened that, throughout 1854, he was also worn with private trouble which came very near to him. Lady Russell wrote years afterwards—
When I look back to 1854 I wonder that his health and strength did not fail under the weight of public cares and the acute trials in our home.
Domestic trouble always produced a marked effect on Lord John's public course; and those, who think that in 1854 he was occasionally betrayed into an irritation which was unusual with him, should recollect that throughout the year he was racked with public and private anxiety. It was the misfortune of the Aberdeen Cabinet that the two men who from their position and character exerted the chief influence, and who were bent on the same end, were intent on attaining it by contrary routes. Lord Aberdeen and Lord John both desired peace; and, if either of them had held his own course throughout, peace might probably have been secured. If Lord Aberdeen's will had prevailed, the Sultan would have been forced to make terms with his opponent, or would have been left to fight his battle alone. In that case the campaign of 1877 might possibly have been fought out in 1854. If, on the contrary, Lord John's advice had been strictly followed, Russia would from the first have been told the consequences of her action. She would in that case have in all probability discovered some means for withdrawing her claims. But, while Lord John was strong enough to shape the policy of the Cabinet, he was never able to regulate its words. He could secure the presence of the fleet in the Bosphorus or the Euxine, but he could not compel Lord Aberdeen to say to Russia, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no farther.” And so it happened that while the Czar was irritated by the action, he was encouraged by the language, of the Cabinet; for the acts were the acts of Lord John, and the voice was the voice of Lord Aberdeen.
1 Punch's cartoon of Lord Aberdeen and Lord John as two washerwomen, in which Lord John (Johanna) asks his colleague ‘When's the fighting goin' to begin, George-ena?' not incorrectly expresses Lord John's desire. He wished the fighting to begin in order that it might quickly end.
As war became visibly nearer, the Prime Minister reproached himself for not having struggled more stoutly for his own policy. Lord John frankly replied that if peace were the sole object the fleet should never have left Malta. Lord Aberdeen thought differently. He replied—
ARGYLL HousE: March 3, 1854.
I have not the least wish to continue a correspondence upon a subject which in my view of the case could only lead to my own condemnation: but I cannot help expressing my dissent from your opinion that war could only have been prevented by detaining the fleet at Malta. On the contrary, I believe that there were, in the course of the negotiations, two or three occasions when, if I had been supported, peace might have been honourably and advantageously secured. I will especially refer to the opportunity afforded by the transactions which took place at the meeting of the two Emperors at Olmütz. But I repeat that the want of support, although it may palliate, cannot altogether justify to my own conscience the course which I pursued. However, there is no use in further discussions upon that which is past; we must now look to the future.
Most people acquainted with history will differ from the conclusion which Lord Aberdeen thus expressed. War became inevitable from the moment when the Vienna Note was modified by Lord Stratford and the British Cabinet adopted its envoy's modifications. It so happened, however, that even on February 22, 1854, a chance was presented, not, perhaps, of preserving peace, but of strengthening the alliance against Russia. The Austrian Minister told the French Ambassador at Vienna that, if the Western powers would fix a delay for the evacuation of the Principalities the expiration of which should be the signal for hostilities, Austria would support the summons. The British Cabinet, informed by telegraph of this conversation, despatched a message to Vienna to ascertain whether, if war consequently arose, Austria would side with the allies. But, though the Cabinet thought it prudent to ask the question, for some reason Ministers did not think it necessary to await the answer. They actually despatched their ultimatum to St. Petersburg on the day preceding that on which the Austrian reply to their inquiry was received,
There is nothing in the Russell papers which explains the reasons that induced the Cabinet to take this course. Yet it is at least plain that Lord John thoroughly realised the importance of securing Austria as an active ally. In a paper, which he drew up for the Cabinet early in March, he declared that “every one seemed to wish that the war should be short and sharp;’ and he went on to ask–
Will it not be advisable to direct Lord Westmorland and
1 See Kinglake's Crimea, ii. 112.