David Barber, fl.1828-1837
Portrait of Lord John Russell first Earl Russell (1792–1878), Prime Minister
Portrait of Lord John Russell first Earl Russell

Labelled to reverse by David Barber (fl.1828-1837)

oil on canvas
31 x 21 cm. (12 x 8.1/2in.)


Half length portrait of Lord John Russell holding a copy of the Great Reform Act.


Russell, John [formerly Lord John Russell], first Earl Russell (1792–1878), prime minister and author, born at Hertford Street, Westminster, on 18 August 1792, was the third son of Lord John Russell (1766–1839) and his first wife, Georgiana Elizabeth (1768?–1801), second daughter of George Byng, fourth Viscount Torrington, and his wife, Lady Lucy Boyle, only daughter of the fifth earl of Cork and Orrery. Lord John was a seven months' child, and fully grown he stood under 5 feet 5 inches tall. Throughout his life he was subject to colds and felt faint in ‘hot rooms, late hours and bad air’ (G. W. E. Russell, 11). He was his mother's last and favourite child, and he had just been sent away to school for the first time when she died, on 11 October 1801, when he was nine. In 1802 his father succeeded Lord John's uncle as sixth duke of Bedford. In 1803 the duke married Georgiana (d. 1853), fifth daughter of Alexander Gordon, fourth duke of Gordon. There were seven sons and three daughters of the new union.


Lord John entered Westminster School in 1803 and fagged for his elder brother, Francis. The school was ‘too much’ for his health, and his stepmother had him brought home and entrusted to the domestic chaplain, Edmund Cartwright, inventor of the power-loom, for his lessons. From 1805 to 1808 he was a living-in pupil of the Revd John Smith, the vicar of Woodnesborough, near Sandwich. In 1806, when the whigs were in office, Lord John passed the summer in Dublin with his father, who was the lord lieutenant. There, as in London, he loved the theatres. In 1807 he accompanied his father on a tour through Scotland, and met Sir Walter Scott. In 1808 Lord and Lady Holland, who ‘kept a knife and fork’ for him at Holland House, took him to Lisbon, Seville, and Cadiz, where they instructed Spanish insurgents in British constitutional practices. In 1809 Lord John's father, observing that ‘nothing was learned’ in the English universities, proposed to send his son to Edinburgh. Lord John did not wish to go, but Lord and Lady Holland persuaded him to attend. He lodged for three years with Professor John Playfair, heard lectures by Dugald Stewart, joined the Speculative Society, and met Francis Jeffrey, the editor of the Edinburgh Review. Frail as he was, Lord John had acquired a taste for travel. In the long vacation of 1810 he returned to the Peninsula to visit his elder brother William, who was a soldier, and witnessed the Cortes in session. In 1811 Professor Playfair took him on a tour through the manufacturing districts, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, and Leeds. In 1812–13 he paid another extended visit to Spain, and examined the fields of Barossa and Talavera, where William had been in action. He joined his brother upon the last hill in Spain and gazed into France, where, but for the wars, his grand tour would have begun. In 1814 he sailed to Italy, and on Christmas eve he had a private audience with Napoleon in Elba. In 1815, when the wars finally came to an end, he set off for Paris, and continued all his life to visit France as often as he could, and Italy as well.

A thorough whig

In 1813, while Lord John was abroad, he was returned to parliament for the family borough of Tavistock. On 12 May 1814 in his maiden speech he argued against compelling the Norwegians to unite with the Swedes. In the years which followed, when the whigs were in opposition and he had no prospect of official employment, he began lifelong friendships with Tom Moore, the Irish poet, Sydney Smith, the witty priest, and Samuel Rogers, the poet. For occupation, he turned to writing. He started with The Life of William Lord Russell(1819), one of the whig martyrs who had been executed in 1683. The next year he published Essays and Sketches of Life and Character by a Gentleman who has Left his Lodgings(1820); a novel, The Nun of Arrouca (1820); and a five-act play, Don Carlos, or, Persecution (1820), which was written in blank verse and dedicated to Lord Holland. These were followed by An Essay on the History of the English Government and Constitution, from the Reign of Henry VIII to the Present Time (1821; enlarged edn, 1823; rev. edn, 1865 and 1873), Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe from the Peace of Utrecht (1824), Establishment of the Turks in Europe (1828), a second volume of Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe (1829), and The Causes of the French Revolution (1832).

History contributed a strange mixture of depth and anachronism to Lord John's politics. He had been born into a great whig house, where he was taught that the aristocracy occupied a middle place between crown and people and held their great estates in trust for the preservation of the constitution. The defining moment in his politics, which occurred nine years before he was born, was George III's dismissal of Charles James Fox in 1783. Throughout his life he worked with a statue of Fox on his desk, and like Fox he thought that even in an age of revolutionary societies and tumults a wilful monarch posed a greater threat to parliament than the people, who were slow. He acknowledged that the French Revolution had been accompanied by acts of violence and outrage. It taught us that ‘great changes accomplished by the people were dangerous, although sometimes salutary’. But on whom to lay the blame of their excesses? As he said in the preface to his Essay on the History of the English Government and Constitution (1821), the monarchies of the continent of Europe had been, generally speaking, ‘so ill-adapted to make their subjects virtuous and happy, that they require, or required, complete regeneration’ (p. iii). But ‘the government of England ought not to be included in this class; … it is calculated to produce liberty, worth, and content … whilst its abuses easily admit of reforms consistent with its spirit’ (p. iv). Tories attributed the popular discontent of the war and post-war period to wickedness, Lord John to misgovernment. The composition of the lower house had remained unchanged since the revolution of 1688. Now there was a need for ‘great changes’, and these, provided they were accomplished by the aristocracy, at the desire of the people, would prove to be ‘at once salutary and safe’.

Political apprenticeship

In February 1817 Lord John spoke against the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. Shortly afterwards, being unwell, he resigned his seat. He was returned again, unopposed, for Tavistock at the general election of 1818, and for Huntingdonshire in 1820. In 1826 he lost his seat and took refuge in Bandon, an Irish borough controlled by the duke of Devonshire, with whom he had been at school at Woodnesborough. During the 1820s Lord John took up the cause of parliamentary reform. As he saw it, Liverpool's government lived in fear of the large unrepresented towns, and relied for its majority upon the members for small boroughs who voted with government in return for patronage. In 1819 he condemned the Peterloo massacre, which would never have taken place, he thought, had there been elections at Manchester. In 1820–21 he pursued the disfranchisement of Grampound for gross corruption. The ministry refused to transfer the seats to Leeds, or to any other large town (they went to Yorkshire). In the House of Commons, on 25 April 1822, Lord John advocated reform in a speech which passed into the annals of English oratory:

At the present period the ministers of the Crown possess the confidence of the House of Commons, but the House of Commons does not possess the esteem and reverence of the people. … The ministers of the Crown, after obtaining triumphant majorities in this House, are obliged to have recourse to other means than those of persuasion, reverence for authority, and voluntary respect, to procure the adherence of the country. They are obliged to enforce, by arms, obedience to acts of this House—which, according to every just theory, are supposed to emanate from the people themselves. (Hansard 2, 7.73–5)

He proposed to take one member away from each of 100 small boroughs, and redistribute 60 of the seats to the counties and 40 to the large towns. His motion was lost by 269 votes to 164, and in 1826, when he tried again, he was defeated by a larger majority.On 26 February 1828 Lord John tasted success for the first time when he brought forward a motion to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts. Characteristically, he used the exact words employed by Fox in 1790, and was thrilled when fifteen tory ultras changed sides and the motion was carried by 237 to 193. Catholic emancipation followed (from a different chain of events) in the ensuing year. In the meantime, Lord John campaigned to transfer the two seats taken from Penryn, which was disfranchised after the 1826 election, to Manchester. Disappointed in this, he proposed to enfranchise Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham immediately, without waiting for more seats to become vacant. That was the position when George IV died in 1830. At the general election which followed Lord John stood for Bedford. His opponent publicized a passage from Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe in which Lord John animadverted upon the irrational behaviour of Methodists, and he was defeated. He departed for Paris, and was still out of parliament on 16 November when Wellington announced the resignation of the ministry. Lord John was back in the family borough at Tavistock, canvassing the electors, when Earl Grey invited him to become paymaster of the forces.

The Great Reform Act

A few days after Lord John had been returned unopposed, Lord Durham asked him to join a committee of four to draft a reform bill. The people complained of the sale of boroughs, nomination by individuals and closed corporations, and the expense and corruption of elections. The committee agreed that a reform bill must be substantial enough to settle the question for a generation. Lord John suggested that this meant they should redistribute 150 seats, and it seems to have been his draft they worked to. Boroughs with fewer than 2000 inhabitants were to lose both members, those with between 2000 and 4000 were to lose one. That would stop boroughmongering. Then, the ancient rights voters were to be extinguished, condemned for their venality. Seats were to be redistributed to the large towns and to the populous counties. In the towns the test of fitness to vote was to be the occupation of a house of a certain value. In the counties the existing electorate of 40 shilling freeholders was to be enlarged by the addition of some leaseholders and copyholders. A register of electors was to be established and revised every year in order to eliminate the time spent examining claims during a poll, and the duration of a poll and the opportunities for carnival and drunkenness were to be reduced from fourteen days to two.

The constitution was to be restored and a new era of virtuous politics inaugurated. But there was to be no revolution. Lord John aimed to forestall what he termed ‘reform upon a principle’, and to baffle the ‘fanatics’ who demanded universal suffrage and annual parliaments. On one issue, the introduction of the secret ballot, he disagreed with the other members of the committee. Non-electors had a right to know how electors voted. Without it, they would raise an irresistible cry for universal suffrage. The secret ballot was among the recommendations submitted to the cabinet by the committee. But the cabinet threw it out, and Lord John's view prevailed. It was an issue upon which he never changed his mind, and his opposition was probably decisive in delaying its introduction for forty years until his political career was over.

The whig leader in the House of Commons, Lord Althorp, was a poor speaker, and Lord John was invited, even though he was not a member of the cabinet, to introduce the bill to the House of Commons on 1 March 1831. After all the intense speculation of the preceding weeks, he passed over the arguments which he had developed at length in 1822, and went straight into ‘a clear and intelligible statement’ of the proposed changes. The announcement that 168 constituencies were to disappear stunned the house, and changed the mental map of a whole generation. In contrast to Pitt's proposals in 1785, there was to be no compensation to the owners of rotten boroughs which were abolished.

The second reading was carried, by one vote, on 22 March 1831. In April, when his ministry was defeated, Lord Grey appealed to the country. Lord John was re-elected for Tavistock and elected for Devonshire, and he chose the county seat. By the time the new parliament met, the duke of Bedford and Lord Holland had prevailed upon Grey to take Lord John into the cabinet. On 24 June he introduced a second Reform Bill. The committee stage lasted until 7 September, and a month later the Lords rejected the bill. When Nottingham Castle was burnt, and the centre of Bristol sacked, everything underlined the whig case that small adjustments made voluntarily in the 1820s would have saved the nation from much larger changes conceded in the face of excitement now. Replying to an address from the Birmingham Political Union, Lord John wrote that it was ‘impossible that the whisper of a faction [the House of Lords] should prevail against the voice of a nation’ (Hansard 3, 8.599). The phrase upset the king. On 12 December Lord John introduced the third Reform Bill. Towards the end of his life he said that the crisis which followed, in May, when the king dismissed Grey and sent for Wellington, was the only moment of real peril to the country that he could recall. The bill received the royal assent on 7 June 1832. The Lords had reinstated the ancient rights voters, but little else. Writing in the Edinburgh Review in January 1846, Lord John said that the tories had been wrong in thinking the bill could be rejected, the whigs had been wrong in foreboding failure for so extensive a measure, and the radicals had been wrong in supposing that ‘so large a ruin must lead to a more uniform construction. The authors of the plan were alone justified by the event’.

The condition of Ireland

Lord John headed the poll for South Devonshire in December 1832. The paymaster's duties being so light, he began to look around him for something to do in the reformed parliament. In 1826 his brother William had drawn his attention to ‘suffering, ill-used Ireland’, adding that ‘the gratitude of millions, the applause of the world would attend the Man who would rescue this poor Country’ (Early Correspondence, 1.253). In the summer of 1833 Lord John visited Ireland, and concluded that, even after Catholic emancipation, Ireland under the protestant ascendancy resembled ‘nothing so much as Spain in 1810, in the occupation of the French’ (Russell to Grey, 2 Oct 1833, Grey MSS). The entire population was required to pay tithes to the established church, which was the church of one-tenth of the population, and soldiers were used to repress the disturbances which occurred and collect the money. In 1834 there would have to be a new tithe act. The sums involved were large, and Lord John believed that, after the needs of the protestant church had been met, there would be a surplus which could be used to pay the Catholic clergy or, if the Roman Catholic hierarchy would not allow their clergy to become clients of the state, to subsidize the education of all classes of Christians. In the cabinet the resistance to what came to be known as ‘appropriation’ was led by Lord Stanley, who had been Irish secretary from 1830 to 1833, and was now colonial secretary. Stanley had just carried the act to emancipate the slaves, and he was at this stage more highly esteemed in the cabinet than Lord John. But Lord John had the ear of Lord Althorp and the support of the reform party. On 6 May 1834 he announced in the House of Commons that once parliament had vindicated the state's right to legislate for the church's property in tithes he would be ‘prepared to assert his opinion with regard to their appropriation’ (Walpole, 1.199). Johnny had, as Stanley said, ‘upset the coach’, and on 27 May Stanley, Graham, Richmond, and Ripon resigned.

Lord John took no part in the intrigues which caused Grey to give up the premiership in disgust. Melbourne became prime minister, and in November, when Althorp succeeded to his father's title and went to the House of Lords, Lord John was the obvious choice to succeed him as leader in the House of Commons. Lord John's father doubted whether his son's constitution would bear the strain. Grey warned that he must learn ‘a little discretion both in speaking and writing’, and Lord Holland acknowledged that he did not take the requisite pains ‘to collect the opinions of others’ (Prest, Russell, 72). Even his friends sometimes felt they had been snubbed. His enemies supposed he was a dangerous radical, who proposed to undermine the established church. On 14 November William IV dismissed the ministry while it still enjoyed a huge majority in parliament and sent for the duke of Wellington, who in turn advised him to summon Peel.

The Lichfield House compact

The king's action was a bolt from the past, a rerun of 1783, and the whigs were determined that it should not be followed by another fifty years of almost uninterrupted tory rule. Peel dissolved parliament, and while Lord John was in south Devon, where he was returned unopposed, he met and courted Adelaide Lister, Lady Ribblesdale (1807–1838). She was the daughter of Thomas Henry Lister, the author of Granby, a novel published in 1826 which referred, in a manner Lord John would have warmed to at the time, to a ministerial borough called Rottentown. Adelaide was now a very youthful-looking widow (her husband, Thomas Lister, second Baron Ribblesdale, died in 1832) of twenty-seven with four children. Inspired by this brightening of his fortunes, Lord John took up his new role as leader of the opposition in the House of Commons. He decided to avenge the party on the king by opposing the re-election of the speaker, Charles Manners-Sutton, who had collaborated in the royal coup d'état. On 18 February, the eve of the opening of parliament, members of the three opposition groups, whigs, radicals, and Irish, met Lord John in Lichfield House. The agreement reached then implied co-operation thereafter. Manners-Sutton was ousted by 316 votes to 306, and on 25 February Lord John carried an amendment to the address expressing support for the ministry which William had dismissed in November. But the margin was small, 294 to 287, and Peel did not resign. Moderates wanted Peel to be given a fair trial, and Lord John dare not initiate a motion of no confidence. When Peel brought in an Irish tithe bill, Lord John was warned that if he did not move the appropriation question it would be raised from the back benches. There were two more meetings at Lichfield House on 12 and 23 March. Early in April Peel was defeated three times, and on 8 April he resigned. In his first trial as leader Lord John had ejected Peel, the greatest politician of the age, and he had vindicated the constitution. It was his finest hour. On 11 April 1835 Melbourne began the formation of a new ministry, and Lord John and Lady Ribblesdale were married, and went to live in 30 Wilton Crescent, London.

The Melbourne administration, 1835–1841

Lord John (or the Widow's Mite, as he was dubbed) now had the opportunity to construct a whig future upon the foundation of an unexpectedly relevant whig past, and he chose the Home Office from which to do it. In May, when Lord John sought re-election in South Devon at the obligatory by-election, he was opposed and defeated by 3755 votes to 3128, and was obliged, for a third time, to take refuge in a small borough, Stroud. As home secretary he had overall responsibility for the government of Ireland. The wrongs of centuries could not be put right in a year, but Lord John was determined to speak in ‘the language of conciliation’ and to treat the Irish Catholics as ‘the free subjects of a free country’. The ministry was committed to an appropriation bill. But the whigs' dependence upon the Irish members was not popular in England, and this allowed the House of Lords, one quarter of whose members were connected to the protestant ascendancy in Ireland, to wreck the ministry's Irish legislation. The Lords would not pass an appropriation bill, and until that was dropped they would not allow any other measure of reform for Ireland to pass either. In 1836 Lord John pressed Melbourne, unsuccessfully, to request the king to create sufficient peers to get the bill through. The stalemate lasted until William IV died on 20 June 1837. At the general election which followed Lord John retained his seat at Stroud. When parliament met he took the view that the new parliament was not committed to the appropriation clause, and after consulting the authorities in Dublin, he abandoned it in 1838. But his opponents were remorseless. They allowed him to introduce a poor law into Ireland. But they threw out a bill to enable the state to construct the main lines of railway. In the Commons, they introduced a motion to expunge the appropriation resolution from the journals of the house. Then, on 21 March 1839, after the lord lieutenant, the earl of Mulgrave, had returned to England as the marquess of Normanby, the Lords set up a select committee to inquire into the whole course of Irish government since 1835. They continued to hold up the Municipal Corporations Billfor Ireland until 1840, when the ministry appeared to be approaching its end, and Lord John was forced to settle, in the sixth bill in six years, for an act which re-formed a handful of corporations and extinguished the rest.

The whigs could scarcely legislate for Ireland. But Lord John was saved from the fate he dreaded, of ‘being responsible for the government of Ireland without having any thing just or kind to offer’ (Russell to Palmerston, 24 July 1843, Palmerston papers). Ireland was governed through soldiers, police, magistrates, courts, and judges, and the executive had many powers and much patronage. Inspired by Lord John, the lord lieutenant, with Morpeth the chief secretary and Thomas Drummond the private secretary, stopped using troops to collect the tithe. Catholics were recruited into the police, protestant policemen were dismissed if they attended Orange lodges, stipendiary magistrates were appointed to counteract the bias of protestant magistrates, the crown stopped challenging Catholic jurors, Catholic solicitors were employed to conduct crown cases, and as vacancies arose the judiciary was remodelled. The result was that, as O'Connell wrote to Henry Warburton on 29 December 1836, the ministry was ‘for the first time in History conquering the “Anti-Saxon” spirit of Ireland and adding eight millions to the King's subjects’ (O'Connell to Warburton, 29 Dec 1836, Russell papers, TNA: PRO).

In Great Britain as in Ireland Lord John sought to eliminate causes of disaffection by modernizing the country's institutions. Hitherto they had been ‘lax, careless, wasteful, injudicious in the extreme’. Now he wanted to introduce ‘system, method, science, economy, regularity, discipline’ (R. A. Lewis, Edwin Chadwick and the Public Health Movement, 1832–1854, 1952, 321). Melbourne's government inherited a backlog of contentious issues relating to civil and religious liberty. First, in 1835, came the bill to reform the municipal corporations in England and Wales (those in Scotland had been reformed in 1833). Many of the ancient corporations exercised influence over elections to parliament, and it was time to expose them to popular (householder) feelings. Towards the end of the session Russell and Peel came to a bargain across the floor of the house. Lord John disappointed his radicals, Peel the House of Lords, and the bill passed. Simultaneously, Melbourne allayed fears that he and Lord John were hostile to the Church of England. Certainly Lord John took a utilitarian view of organized religion, as a form of social cement and a tool for the reduction of crime. But he was not a scoffer, and he was attached to the gospel. He enjoyed a good sermon, and when in London attended services either at St Paul's, Knightsbridge, or at the Belgrave Chapel. He valued the historic role of the dissenting sects in the creation of a pluralistic and tolerant society. But he also esteemed the established churches in both England and Scotland, and held a consistent opinion in favour of the compulsory collection of church rates. Peel had appointed an ecclesiastical commission, and Melbourne and Lord John agreed with the archbishop of Canterbury that the church would be allowed to set its own house in order. Provided it eliminated sinecures and equated salaries to responsibilities, the whigs would defend it from the radicals. Tithe, however, was not within the remit of the commission, and in 1836 Lord John arranged for the tithe in England and Wales to be commuted into a fixed rent charge. Next he instituted a system of national registration of births, marriages, and deaths, and followed it with an act enabling dissenters to be married in their own chapels.

In Britain as in Ireland the results of the general election of 1837 imposed new constraints upon government policy. The radicals began a fresh agitation for the secret ballot. Lord John responded with a speech at Stroud in August 1837, in which he refused to reconsider the provisions of the 1832 Reform Act. The confirmation of this stance upon the opening of parliament in November earned him the nickname Finality Jack. In 1838 the economy went into recession and the Chartist movement was born. On 1 November Lady John died after giving birth to their second daughter, two-year-old Georgiana's sister, Victoria. The three and a half years Lord John had spent with Addy were the happiest period in his life. For several weeks he was unable to attend to business. When he resumed work he was determined not to become responsible for another Peterloo, and he refused to contemplate emergency legislation against the Chartist leaders. Instead, in an inspired move, he sent Fox's nephew, General Sir Charles Napier, to take command of the northern districts. The crisis came in May 1839, and passed, and the permanent under-secretary at the Home Office, Samuel March Phillipps, remarked how ‘Lord John in his quiet way, without parade, but with a steady decided hand, and a most undisturbed temper’ had steered the ship among the breakers (S. M. Phillips, 17 Oct 1839, Russell papers, TNA: PRO).

Even while speaking against the Chartist petition Lord John was trying to establish a universal system of schooling all over the country. He dismissed fears of the tories ‘seizing hold of the [proposed] Education Boards, as they do of all other machinery’, because ‘education in the end must have a liberal tendency [and] this evil ought to be submitted to, rather than leave such multitudes in ignorance’ (Russell to Brougham, 27 Aug 1837, Brougham papers). The cabinet preferred to go on working through the voluntary societies, but Lord John did secure the creation of a committee of council on education and the appointment of school inspectors, though his plan for a normal school for training teachers fell victim to Anglican jealousy. He found it easier, in the climate of 1839, to pass an act permitting the justices in quarter sessions to establish rural police forces complementing those which the new town councils were already required to maintain.

Religion, schooling, and justice all had a part to play in Lord John's ideal society. He secured pardons for the Dorchester labourers. He appointed manufacturers to balance the landed gentlemen on the justices' bench. He attempted to coax the legal profession towards the codification of English law. He attended to the criminal law, and abolished the death penalty for forgery and other offences. He distinguished between serious offenders, who were to be transported, and the remainder, who were to be imprisoned in the United Kingdom. He established a prison inspectorate, opened a prison for young offenders at Parkhurst, and prepared the way for the construction of model prisons at Pentonville and Perth, and the phasing out of the hulks.

By the time Normanby left Ireland in 1839, there was a crisis in Canada. The ministry had already suspended the constitution in Lower Canada in 1837, and was now engaged on a bill of indemnity for the members of Lord Durham's administration. Normanby accepted the Colonial Office on the understanding that he would be allowed to exchange departments with Lord John at some future date. Before that could happen Peel attacked the ministry's policy towards Jamaica. Lord John argued that 300,000 former slaves must be protected from the misbehaviour of 2000 white landowners, but the government majority fell to five, and Melbourne resigned. The queen sent for Peel, who asked her, if he was to form a new ministry, to dismiss some of the whig ladies of the bedchamber. When she refused, the partisan in Lord John was too strong for the constitutionalist to agonize about the manner in which the whigs returned to office. Towards the end of the session Poulett Thomson agreed to go to Canada to implement the union of Upper and Lower Canada provided he was to be responsible to Lord John, and Normanby and Lord John did at last change places (August 1839). A few weeks later Lord John's father died, and his elder brother became duke of Bedford.

Sir James Stephen, the permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office, said that Lord John was ‘one of the very few men in the World, who in the exercise of great political power, is filling the precise function for which nature designed, and education qualified him’ (Knaplund, 16). Lord John began thinking about ridding New South Wales of its penal character, and annexed New Zealand in order both to forestall the French and to save the indigenous population from uncontrolled British settlement. But the great issue was Canada, and much of the session of 1840 was devoted to a new Canada act. Thomson secured agreement to the union of Upper with Lower Canada, and solved the problem of the lands reserved for the clergy of the different denominations. In this way, he wrote to Lord John, he had carried ‘the Reform Bill and Irish Church [Bill] of Canada’ (Letters from Lord Sydenham, 47). It then fell to Lord John to carry these measures through the United Kingdom parliament. Once again, just as he had done the year before over the Chartist petition, O'Connell faithfully delivered the votes of the Irish members, and the government survived.

The Irish members now stood between the Conservatives and power. Parliamentary electors in Ireland were registered for eight years at a time, there was some impersonating of the removed and the dead, and Stanley took a leaf out of Lord John's book and brought in a bill to assimilate Irish practices to British ones (equal treatment under the Union) and insist upon an annual registration. The effect would be to injure the O'Connellites, who invoked the Lichfield House compact and called upon the whigs to save them from disaster. Lord John did not find the case for electoral impurity an easy one to argue, and the session was nearly over before he was able to outwit Stanley and persuade him to give up for that year. The recess brought the first serious disagreement with Palmerston, about the crisis in the Near East. Stanley would return with another Irish Registration Bill in 1841, and Lord John began to look for ways of getting politics onto new ground. Hence his decision to invite parliament, in 1841, to substitute a fixed duty of 8s. a quarter on corn for the sliding scale of 1828. Before the ministry could unfold its plan, Peel defeated it on 18 May over the sugar duties, and then, on 4 June, won a motion of no confidence by one vote. Melbourne dissolved parliament and prepared for a general election. The whigs and the Irish parted. In his electioneering Lord John emphasized that the corn laws were an issue Peel could not handle: ‘the blockheads of their party will make their insurrection’ (27 Oct 1841, Later Correspondence, 1.49).

Peel's ministry, 1841–1846

Lord John was invited to stand for the City of London with its four members. He was elected, but he came fourth. The whigs lost the election, but Melbourne waited to meet parliament, and the change of ministry took place at the end of August. In the meantime, on 20 July 1841, Lord John was married to Lady Fanny Elliot [see Russell, Frances Anna Maria (1815–1898)], daughter of the second earl of Minto. Fanny made a home in Lord John's new London house at 37 Chesham Place for the four Ribblesdale children and for Georgiana and Victoria, and brought them all up together with her own children, John Russell, Viscount Amberley (1842–1876), George Gilbert William (Willy; b. 1848) , Francis Albert Rollo Russell (1849–1914), and Mary Agatha (b. 1853). Fanny also suffered miscarriages, and was often laid up for months on end. She was not a very successful political hostess, but she was ambitious for her husband, and Bertrand Russell, her grandson, thought that a meticulous conscientiousness was preached to his grandfather at home with ‘unfortunate’ results.

Lord John passed his time editing the Correspondence of John, Fourth Duke of Bedford (3 vols., 1842–6) and reading works of political economy. In 1842 Peel's revision of the sliding scale for corn imports and his tariff reforms were so successful that it began to look as though the difference between the parties might after all remain Ireland. Peel abandoned the whig policy of appointing Catholics to offices, and O'Connell revived the repeal movement. Lord John concluded that Peel and the good government of Ireland were a contradiction in terms, and that the great object now must be ‘to prevent the establishment of a settled hatred between the two nations’ (Walpole, 1.395). But Peel then appointed a commission to inquire into the problem of land tenure. Lord John responded with chagrin; ‘if we had thus thrown the subject loose … we should have been charged with endangering all property’ (Russell to Palmerston, 26 Aug 1843, Palmerston papers). In 1845 Peel proposed to increase the annual grant to the Roman Catholic seminary at Maynooth. The tory party split, and Lord John lent Peel his support, the measure being carried by whig votes. By this time the scenario envisaged by Lord John in 1841 was beginning to unfold. In 1843 the Canada Corn Act alarmed tory back-benchers. In 1844 Lord John doubted whether Peel was prepared to stand the test of even one bad harvest. In the Commons on 10 June 1845 he challenged ministers to deny ‘that the present Corn Law is intended to, and does in the opinion of political economists, add to the rent of the landlords. Only conceive the effect of this impression working on the minds of the people for many years’ (Hansard 3, 81.368).

In the autumn of 1845 the potato failed. While Peel's cabinet dithered Lord John was in Edinburgh with Lady John who was unwell. Without consulting any of the other whig leaders he penned an Edinburgh letter announcing his conversion to complete free trade. This was published in the Morning Chronicle on 26 November 1845. On 8 December he received a summons from the queen. On 11 December he reached Osborne, where he was invited to form a new ministry, and thus became the leader of the party. While Lady John fantasized about his forming the most religious and moral government the country had ever known, her husband presided over a week of indecision. The whigs were in a minority. If they formed a ministry and proposed immediate suspension of the corn laws followed by gradual abolition would Peel support them? Peel could not say. That being so the whigs decided, with an eye on the constituencies, to adopt total and immediate repeal. But when Lord John moved on to discuss the allocation of offices Grey raised insuperable objections to Palmerston's going back to the Foreign Office. On 19 December Lord John abandoned his first attempt to form a government. It was Peel who was to have the honour of repealing the corn laws—with whig support—and not the other way round. Peel's party split. In April 1846 Lord John overcame a mutiny by whig peers hoping to revert to a fixed duty. On 25 June the bill to repeal the corn laws passed all its stages with whig support, and in the early hours of 26 June the protectionists and the whigs together defeated Peel upon his Irish Coercion Bill.

Prime minister, 1846–1852

The queen sent for Lord John on 28 June 1846, and in due course she lent him Pembroke Lodge, at Petersham, where he could relax away from London. It remained his country home for the rest of his life. Lord John's cabinet had many strengths. Palmerston returned to the Foreign Office, and Grey, who did not renew his objections to Palmerston, accepted the Colonial Office. Sir George Grey took the Home Office, where he was much less accident-prone than his predecessor Sir James Graham. Lord Bessborough, who became lord lieutenant of Ireland, died a year later and was succeeded by Lord Clarendon. Sir Charles Wood became chancellor of the exchequer. Lord Lansdowne held the lead in the House of Lords. But in other respects the prospects were not so bright. Lord John's brother William died in 1846. His other brother, Francis, the seventh duke of Bedford, helped with Lord John's expenses, but meddled in his politics and unsettled him. The whigs were in a minority, and the Peelites refused Lord John's overtures. Within the cabinet Lord John depended upon Lansdowne to help him resolve differences of opinion with Palmerston. But upon Ireland, where the ministry was faced, as Lord John said, with a thirteenth-century famine acting upon a nineteenth-century population, Palmerston and Lansdowne, who were both Irish landlords, presented a common front against Lord John.

Twice, in 1841 and 1844, Lord John had exposed the sophistry of striking moral attitudes about the importation of slave-grown sugar without a word said about the country's reliance upon slave-grown cotton. Now he used the one chance which any new ministry has of carrying out a coup, to reduce the duties upon foreign sugar, and prepare the way for the gradual equalization over five years of the duties upon foreign and colonial sugar. Next, he began to plan measures for the relief and regeneration of Ireland. The potato was failing again. There could be no repetition of Peel's purchase of maize the year before, and delegations to Downing Street were told that the government could not undertake to provide a supply of food. The ministry did however introduce a Labour Rate Act, to last for one year, to employ the destitute upon works of public utility and pay them wages with which to buy food. Under this act the Treasury advanced £10 million, and Lord John continued to the end of his life to deny that his government had allowed the Irish to starve. The act was intended to hasten the development of a modern economy. Cottiers whose potato grounds had failed would become wage labourers, and a new class of shopkeepers would arise to supply their wants. Before the act expired the government would amend the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 to bring it into line with that in England and Wales, with less eligibility and a right to relief.

The principal measure of the 1847 session, then, was the enlargement of the Irish poor law. Other measures involved finding distinctively Liberal solutions for unresolved problems inherited from previous parliaments. Lord John spoke up in favour of John Fielden's Ten Hours Act. He himself brought forward a bill to reconstruct the English poor-law commission and make it responsible through a minister to parliament. He excelled at constitutional issues of this kind and his solution was accepted. A public health bill prepared by Morpeth proved to be too much for the digestion of a dying parliament, but education fared better. Lord John believed ‘that you never could effectually raise education in this country till you raised the condition and prospects of the schoolmaster’ (Hansard 3, 91.957–8, 19 April 1847). Henceforward teachers were to be allowed to select apprentices from among their best pupils, and teachers with fifteen years' service were to be entitled to pensions. The Methodists were brought within the scope of the privy council grants (followed by the Roman Catholics the year after). Then there was the creation of a bishopric at Manchester. Peel had established no new sees. Lord John did the right thing by the Church of England by creating one, and soothed the radicals by declining to add to the number of bishops in the House of Lords and inventing the formula according to which the bishops are elevated to the upper house in order of seniority.

After the general election of August 1847 party ties were loose and Lord John could not command a regular majority, though he hoped, by drafting his measures to attract Peelite support, to be able to muster 395 supporters of moderate progress. The election was scarcely over before the country faced a financial crisis, and Lord John and Sir Charles Wood (who had consulted Peel) had to authorize the Bank of England to break Peel's Bank Act of 1844. In Ireland, the famine now continued into another year. Further relief was restricted to donations in aid of soup kitchens manned by voluntary organizations. Destitute Irish were thrown, as planned, upon the new poor law. In order to reduce the rates, landlords responded with clearances which led to a wave of highly publicized assassinations. The new parliament met in November 1847, and Lord John was obliged to consider an emergency powers act. Before he would agree to that he insisted that the cabinet's measures must bear upon both sides in the contest. Tenants should be given security of tenure, and in order to bring new capital into Ireland distressed landlords should be sold up through an Encumbered Estates Act. To keep the priests loyal, the court of St James should establish diplomatic relations with Rome. The Crime and Outrage Act passed before Christmas. In 1848 security of tenure was sidetracked into a select committee for fear it would cross the water. TheEncumbered Estates Act passed, but parliament amended the Diplomatic Relations Act to insist, insultingly, upon the pope's ambassador being a layman. Soon 1848 became a miserable year. Supporters of cheap government attacked the income tax, and the government was able to renew it for only one year at a time. Unemployment consequent upon the financial crisis of 1847 led to a revival of Chartism, which was now centred upon London. The climax came on 10 April, when Feargus O'Connor MP planned to lead a march upon the houses of parliament. The duke of Wellington attended a meeting of the whig cabinet, Sir George Grey kept calm, and the crowd on Kennington Common was persuaded to disperse. For a few weeks, while most of Europe appeared to have fallen into the hands of revolutionaries, alarm gave way to a mood of pride in the people's loyalty to parliamentary institutions. But this ended in July with Smith O'Brien's rising in Ireland. The year did, however, bring one great success in the Public Health Act, which established a general board of health and laid down the conditions, some compulsory others voluntary, under which towns (excluding, as was unkindly noticed, Lord John's London constituency) were to be made or allowed to cleanse themselves.

The parliament elected in 1847 never recovered from its bad beginning. That being so, it is remarkable how much useful work it did in the years that followed. In 1849 the ministry repealed the navigation laws, and thus extinguished the old colonial system. So far as Irish legislation was concerned it became a listening government. The Irish MPs were offered a choice between an income tax and a rate in aid of emigration, which was passed. Peel broke a long silence and pointed out that the Irish court of chancery was not equal to the work of the Encumbered Estates Act. Taking their lead from him the ministry created a new court of three encumbered estates commissioners. The procedures were draconian, and already, by 1858, one-tenth of the land of Ireland had been sold up and passed into the hands of new owners, many of whom were native Irish. In 1850 the ministry passed an IrishRepresentation of the People Act, to enlarge an electorate reduced by the famine, and an act which began to combine the separate colonies into a self-governing dominion of Australia. Tackling one of the last great untouched interests, Lord John set up a commission of inquiry into Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Towards the end of the session of 1850 Palmerston's stock rose with the Don Pacifico debate, and Peel died. Lord John's authority within the party and in parliament began to weaken, and his judgement became less sure. He had already been taken aback, towards the end of 1847, by the bishops' response to his appointment of Renn Dickson Hampden, an academic theologian with latitudinarian views, to the see of Hereford. He had since been rattled by the high-church reaction to the Gorham judgment, and by the hostility expressed by the new archbishop of Armagh, Paul Cullen, to the British government at the Synod of Thurles. In October 1850, when the pope divided England into twelve sees, whose bishops would assume titles taken from English place names, Lord John wrote another letter, this time to the bishop of Durham, denouncing the pope for his ‘aggression’ and the Puseyite spies within the gates for corrupting the established church with ‘the mummeries of superstition’. Once again, none of his colleagues had been consulted. Russell's ‘Durham letter’, as it was at once called, brought applause, but it was an intemperate and undignified epistle and it lost him the confidence of the Irish members and of the Peelites. All his life Lord John had spoken up in favour of toleration. He appeared now to have compromised his character, and he was never to be so useful again.

The session of 1851 began with a debate upon Locke King's motion to equalize the county and borough franchises. Lord John undertook, if the motion was withdrawn, to bring in a reform bill of his own the following year. Instead, it was the government that was defeated, on 20 February, by 100 votes to 54, and their resignation was followed by a ministerial crisis. Stanley could not form a government, and the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill was an insuperable obstacle to a junction between the Peelites and Lord John. Russell was forced to continue, without any addition of strength, and all through the early summer, while crowds flocked to the Crystal Palace to witness the marvels of modern technology, the British parliament was busy with the committee stages of a bill more relevant to the sixteenth century than the nineteenth. The protectionists voted with Lord John, and the second reading was carried by 438 votes to 95. But the act belonged to the strange world of post-1846 politics, where a small minority might hold up important legislation and a large majority might be assembled in support of something which meant little or nothing at all. The act was a dead letter, and was repealed by Gladstone in 1871. After the session was over, however, Lord John did succeed in bringing two Peelites, Lord Seymour [see St Maur, Edward Adolphus] and the second Viscount Granville, and Frederick Peel, the son of the deceased prime minister, into the administration.

As in 1840–41 Lord John's last hope was to find an issue which would carry the ministry onto new ground and enable the march of modernization to continue. Experience had shown that even the Reform Act of 1832 was not perfect. It had not solved the imbalance between the two houses, and it had led to town versus country politics and a sense of exclusion among the working classes. He had taken the matter up again for the first time in 1848, after the Chartist demonstrations. Action, he had argued, might bring on a revolution, but inaction must do so. His colleagues had not been impressed. Life peers, whose introduction Russell favoured, would lower the tone of the House of Lords, and the representation of the working classes through guilds would satisfy no one. Since then, Lord John had given his hasty undertaking when resisting Locke King's motion. In the autumn of 1851 he persuaded an unenthusiastic, if not actually mutinous, cabinet to set up a committee to draft a reform bill. Then, in December, he was obliged to dismiss Palmerston, whose calculated insubordination at the Foreign Office he could no longer restrain. He appointed Granville in his place. Before parliament met he made another fruitless effort to persuade the duke of Newcastle and other Peelites to join his ministry. In February he introduced the Reform Bill. A few days later, on 20 February 1852, Palmerston enjoyed his ‘tit for tat with Johnny Russell’, when the government was defeated by 136 votes to 125 upon an amendment to its Militia Bill. Lord John resigned, and was replaced on 23 February by Derby.


Having already done so much between 1835 and 1841 to remove the obstacles to a union of hearts between Britain and Ireland, Lord John had not been able, in the wake of the famine and the deaths, to complete the work he had begun. But looking back over the whole period between 1835 and 1852, it is clear that he had made the whig creed relevant to the modern world, and saved the party from dying of its former languid and indifferent worldly wisdom. His voice was ‘small and thin’, his pronunciation was archaic, and he scarcely knew, when speaking, where ‘to dispose of his hands or feet’. But ‘there was something manly and even vigorous in his bearing’. ‘He held his head erect’, and he was heard with attention by a full house. When Joseph Parkes, the whig whip, found himself staring into the abyss of a probable defeat, he consoled himself with the thought that ‘Johnny counts for 25 himself, which so balances parties’ (Parkes to Ellice, 5 July 1841, Ellice papers). Lord John had been, by common consent, the only man who could lead the party. He had neglected his supporters, and he had refused to curry favour with the editors of newspapers. But he took a relaxed view of colleagues whose conduct was wayward or whose thoughts were unorthodox (such as Lord Brougham and Joseph Hume). He understood that opinions could not be coerced, and he had faith in the power of discussion to move men forward in the end. Bills of his which had to be abandoned or modified were not, as his enemies suggested, a stain upon the reputation of government, but waves advancing little by little upon a shore where a Liberal tide was coming in. His opponents mistrusted his feeling that history was on his side, and accused him of being partisan, and it was true that he espoused the novel view that the whigs, when in office, were just as much entitled to govern and to make appointments, on whig principles, as the tories, when they were in office, were on tory principles. In this and other ways he offered an alternative to Peelite Conservatism. He was not Peel's equal in the ordered sequence of a set speech, but he had a sharper turn of phrase, a gift for riposte, and a feeling for everything enlightened and rational. Here, as the portrait by Sir Francis Grant in the National Portrait Gallery shows, was ‘a man of mind, of thought, and of moral elevation’. Above all, he was absolutely without fear of change (only of no change). When he became leader in 1835 it was still not certain that the Reform Act was going to lead to a revolution in government. By the time he ceased to be prime minister in 1852 there was hardly an institution remaining which had not been reformed, apart from the army. The anxieties of the war and post-war years had yielded to the march of intellect and an almost universal preference for modernity and progress.

Quarrels with colleagues, 1852–1859

Out of office, Lord John honoured a dead friend in editing eight volumes of Tom Moore's Memoirs, Journal, and Correspondence (1853–6). Simultaneously he began preparing The Memorials and Correspondence of Charles James Fox (4 vols., 1853–7) and the Life and Times of Charles James Fox (3 vols., 1859–66) for publication. But he did not abandon politics. At the general election held in July 1852 he came second in the poll for the City of London. With Palmerston refusing ever to serve under Lord John again, the whigs devised a plan for union under Lord Lansdowne, as prime minister. In December, when Lansdowne declined the role assigned to him, Lord John was manoeuvred by his brother into agreeing to serve under Lord Aberdeen. Lord John believed that Aberdeen had given an undertaking to retire in his favour in due course, behaved as though Aberdeen and he were the twin heads of the administration, and argued bitterly over the allocation of cabinet places between Peelites and whigs. He accepted the lead in the Commons, but could not make up his mind whether to become foreign secretary or to remain a member of the cabinet without portfolio. In the event he opted for the first course, and then, bewilderingly, changed his mind and insisted, when parliament met in February, upon the other, and gave up his office after eight weeks on 21 February 1853. Aberdeen humoured him, and the ministry, thanks to Gladstone's budget, which Lord John described as ‘large, honest, and framed for duration’, came through its first session with credit.

Aberdeen promised that, in 1854, Lord John should be allowed to bring in a reform bill, and faithfully supported him against all Palmerston's objections. The bill proposed to extend the franchise to £10 occupiers in the counties and to reduce the borough franchise from £10 to £6. Fifty-five seats were to be redistributed to the large counties and large towns. The bill also contained novel proposals for fancy franchises, which would allow property, intelligence, and station extra influence, and for the creation of three-member two-votes constituencies, which would facilitate the representation of minorities, of the tories in the large towns and of the whigs in the counties. But the prospect of war with Russia was working on Palmerston's side. The bill was received with a mixture of indifference and hostility, and Lord John was obliged to abandon it before the second reading.

Lord John turned to the conduct of the war. He urged Aberdeen to separate the war department from the Colonial Office, and to remove the duke of Newcastle from the war department. But Aberdeen would not sacrifice the duke to Lord John, so the duke kept the war department and Sir George Grey accepted the colonies. In May Lord John capriciously insisted upon resuming office himself and becoming lord president of the council (an office which, as the queen said, had not been held by a commoner since the reign of Henry VIII). Granville was ejected from the cabinet to make room for him, and Gladstone thought the whole transaction worthy of a set of clowns. The one achievement of the session was Gladstone's act setting up a body of executive commissioners to reform Oxford University—thus continuing a process initiated by Lord John in 1850. The summer brought news of defeats in the Crimea, and by November Lord John was in a state of excited desperation. He pressed Aberdeen to take control of the war effort, and said that unless this was done he could not go through with another session. When parliament met in January 1855, and J. A. Roebuck gave notice of a motion to inquire into the conduct of the war, Lord John deserted his colleagues, and resigned on 24 January 1855. By the time the vote took place five days later, he was so incensed by the reproaches of old friends that he actually contemplated voting with the majority which brought the coalition down.

The third person to be invited to form a new ministry, after Lord Derby and Lord Lansdowne, was Lord John. There was no possibility of his succeeding, but it was necessary to bring home to him how isolated he had become, and clear the way for his rival, Palmerston. The new prime minister wondered what to do with Lord John, and decided to send him to Vienna, where the Austrian government was about to host a conference which, it was hoped, would lead either to a negotiated peace or to Austria's entering the war upon the allied side. In February 1855, when he was on his way, the Peelites resigned from the ministry, and Palmerston offered him the post of colonial secretary. Lord John accepted the office and continued to Vienna. He was instructed to insist upon a limit to Russian armaments upon the Black Sea. The Russians would not accept this, and the Austrians proposed that the allies should be allowed to keep as many warships there as the Russians. Lord John said he thought this was reasonable. In the meantime the French and British governments had changed their war aim to the neutralization of the Black Sea. When Lord John returned to London he allowed Palmerston to talk him out of resignation, and supported the demand for neutralization. The Austrians exposed his inconsistency. The British press then fell on him for having been willing to truckle to the Russians, and for deceiving the House of Commons.

Lord John was forced out of office, and resigned on 13 July 1855. He was on the verge of a breakdown, and bought Rodborough Manor near Amberley in Gloucestershire. He had only one engagement that autumn, when he addressed the YMCA on the causes which have retarded moral and political progress. The 1856 session brought the country back ‘to the old do-nothing days of Castlereagh’ (Russell to Minto, 30 July 1856, Minto papers), and Lord John moved resolutions in favour of putting education within the reach of every child. In 1857 he acted together with Cobden and the Peelites to condemn the Second Opium War and defeat the government. Palmerston dissolved parliament and Lord John survived an attempt to oust him from his City seat. In 1858 he delivered an inaugural address, ‘The improvement of the law: health, education and morals of the people’, to the meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. In the House of Commons he voted in the majority which defeated Palmerston's Conspiracy to Murder Bill. When Derby became prime minister in February 1858, Lord John encouraged him to allow the bill for the government of India to be shaped by resolution of the house. There could, therefore, be no question of a government defeat leading to the immediate restoration of Palmerston. By 1859 Lord John was recovering influence in the house. Derby brought in a reform bill, and Lord John drafted an amendment which was carried on 31 March by 330 votes to 291. At the general election which followed Lord John himself was returned without a contest. But the margin between the parties was close, and it was time for Palmerston and Lord John to bury their differences. Each agreed to serve under the other, but not under a third, the Peelites united with the whigs and Liberals, and on 10 June 1859 Derby was ejected by 323 votes to 310.

Foreign secretary, 1859–1865

The queen selected Palmerston to lead the new administration, and Lord John chose the Foreign Office. He had been there before, but only for a few weeks in 1853, when the issue of the holy places in Palestine was being handled in the traditional diplomatic terms of the concert of Europe and the balance of power. Now the powers themselves were being turned inside out by their component nationalities, and there were, during Lord John's six-year tenure, two players with an interest in redrawing the map of Europe, Napoleon III and Bismarck.

Palmerston, to whom Lord John turned for advice, believed that Napoleon III wished to avenge his uncle's defeat at Waterloo. In 1859 there was a panic about a possible French invasion. While Palmerston wanted to fortify the arsenals and Gladstone tried to lower war fever by concluding a commercial treaty with France, Lord John supported both camps and thus helped to avert a breach in the cabinet. Elsewhere in Europe, France and Britain often found themselves on the same side of the fault lines which divided the liberal powers from the autocracies. The immediate issue was Italy. Both Napoleon III and Lord John wished to see Italy freed from Austrian rule. When Lord John took office in 1859 Austria had already declared war on France, and the problem was how to encourage the Italians without enabling France to alter the balance of power. In March 1860 Lord John condemned the French annexation of Nice and Savoy. In July, when Garibaldi invaded Sicily, Cavour sent Sir James Lacaita on an urgent mission to Lord John, to persuade the British government not to prevent the insurgents from crossing the Strait of Messina and invading the kingdom of Naples. Lord John complied, and when Cavour annexed the whole of southern and central Italy, and other powers withdrew their ministers from Turin, Lord John sent his famous dispatch of 27 October 1860 informing the world that the people of southern Italy had had good reasons for throwing off their allegiance to their former governments. Instead of censuring them her majesty's government would ‘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’. In 1861 Britain officially recognized the new kingdom of Italy.

In 1860, while Lord John was associating Britain with the creation of the new Italian state, he was also busy with another reform bill. The formula was much the same as before, as was the response. He rued the mood of the country, which, as he said, was to ‘rest and be thankful’. In 1861 his brother the duke of Bedford died, and Lord John inherited the Ardsalla estate on the banks of the Boyne in co. Meath. This had been gifted to the Russell family by the third and last Earl Ludlow in 1842. It was too late for Lord John to become a model landlord. As Palmerston was still ‘as fresh as a four year old’ and Gladstone was becoming the star of the young Liberals, Lord John then asked for a peerage. Palmerston had tried to persuade the Lords to accept a life peer in 1856, and failed. There was nothing for it but to become a hereditary one, and Lord John became Earl Russell of Kingston Russell, and his eldest son became Viscount Amberley of Amberley and Ardsalla. Commentators were surprised, because young John was ardently interested in Liberal politics, and could now look forward to no more than an abbreviated career in the House of Commons.

By the time he went to the Foreign Office Russell had become the thinking person's politician, and any fine Sunday a stream of visitors might be seen making their way out of town to Pembroke Lodge. Macaulay came, until his death in 1859, and after him Alexander Kinglake and Edward Lecky. Dickens and Thackeray, whose works Russell read aloud to his children, were frequent guests; Tennyson a more occasional one. Mrs Beecher Stowe and Longfellow made a point of calling when they were in Europe. Dean Stanley had a short train journey from Westminster, and Charles Dodgson, Goldwin Smith, and H. G. Liddell a slightly longer one from Oxford. Another Oxford visitor, Benjamin Jowett, found that, notwithstanding his shyness, Russell could talk to you ‘on any subject of history or philosophy like a real man’ (Jowett to R. Morier, 10 May 1861, E. Abbott and L. Campbell, Letters of Benjamin Jowett, 1899, 58). On the lawn they mingled somewhat incongruously with the ambassadors of foreign powers accredited to the court of St James. Abroad as at home Russell wished to promote the development of representative institutions, and the didactic tone of his dispatches constituted ‘une littérature diplomatique tout à fait nouvelle’ (Walpole, 2.328). British ambassadors abroad, who were versed in the traditional circumlocutions, like Lord Cowley, were horrified when Russell likened King Victor Emmanuel to William III, and referred the emperor of Austria to the authority of ‘that eminent jurist Vattel’ for his opinion on a subject's right to resist his sovereign. Their opposite numbers in London, Charles Francis Adams, Count Apponyi, Count Bernstorff, and M. de Persigny, seem to have taken Russell's cheek in good part. Their worry was that they scarcely dare let Russell out of their sight, because there was no knowing what he might do next.

Russell enjoyed his years at the Foreign Office, but he did not achieve a second success equal to his Italian one. Like other members of the cabinet he was in two minds about the American Civil War. When a Northern cruiser took two Southern agents off the British ship Trent his peppery dispatch had to be toned down at the instance of Prince Albert, and when told that a ship being built in Laird's yard in Birkenhead, the Alabama, was being armed in order to prey upon Northern shipping, he delayed stopping it until too late. In 1863, when the Russians suppressed the insurrection in Poland, he found himself unable to concert a joint remonstrance with France. In 1864 he hosted a conference in London aimed at defusing the Schleswig-Holstein crisis. Palmerston had encouraged the Danes to believe that they would not stand alone, but the cabinet refused to sanction military intervention, and Lord John came before the conference empty-handed. This was one of the most significant failures of British foreign policy during the nineteenth century, and it led to a defeat, upon a motion of censure, in the House of Lords (July 1864).

Prime minister, 1865–1866

There was a general election in 1865, and Palmerston died on 18 October before the new parliament met. Russell was invited to carry on the existing government, and Gladstone took the lead in the House of Commons. Here was the alliance of whigs and Peelites under Russell's leadership for which he had hoped since 1846. When the cabinet met, Russell committed the ministry to another reform bill. In the months which followed London society appears to have been bitterly hostile to Russell's flirtation with ‘democracy’ and the wildest rumours circulated about what was taking place in cabinet. The work, as Russell realized, now fell upon Gladstone, who introduced the bill on 12 March. There were no redistribution of seats clauses, ministers were told they had not shown their hand, and the second reading was carried by only 318 to 313 votes. In May they brought in a redistribution bill which proposed to take one member away from small two-member constituencies, and to group other small boroughs. But thirty-five ‘liberals’ formed a ‘Cave of Adullam’ and voted against the bill. On 18 June the government was defeated, and on 26 June they resigned. In the meantime Amberley had entered parliament at a by-election and witnessed the last seven weeks of his father's government. Russell himself took it all very well, merely remarking that it was nice weather to go out in, and forecasting that his successor would have to bring in another bill ‘like ours’ with ‘some of Dizzy's elixir’ infused into the dose (Russell to Gladstone, 31 Aug 1866, BL, Add. MS 44293, fols. 197–198).

Final years, 1866–1878

When the winter came both the Russells and the Gladstones went off to Italy, where they met at Russell's request and discussed the Irish church. In 1867 Russell visited his estate in Ireland. In December he was ‘determined to make a move about education’, and brought a series of resolutions before the House of Lords in which he asserted the moral right of every child to the blessings of education (Dear Miss Nightingale, 417). He addressed a Letter to the Right Hon. Chichester Fortescue on the State of Ireland, followed by a second Letterand a third, arguing, as ever, in favour of concurrent endowment. He announced his retirement from politics, or did he?; no one was quite sure. He took no part in the general election of 1868, but followed Gladstone's campaign in the newspapers, or, as he put it, ‘drank a quart bottle of Gladstone every morning’ (Russell to Gladstone, 24 Oct 1868, BL, Add. MS 44294, fols. 137–138). Russell criticized the Gladstone ministry's new course in foreign policy, and attacked the submission of the Alabama claims to arbitration. Gladstone himself was ‘more sorry than surprised’ by all this. He reassured Russell that the bill to disestablish and disendow the Irish church was founded ‘upon principles of which you were the expositor long ago’, and that in all that related to the constitution he looked upon him as his oracle and master (Walpole, 2.437). In 1869–70 and again in 1871–2 Lord and Lady Russell spent the winter in the south of France, but in 1873 they proceeded no further than Dieppe. In 1874 Russell finished dictating his Recollections and Suggestions. His last years were saddened by the illness of his sons Rollo and William, and the death in June 1874 of Kate Amberley and her daughter, his granddaughter. In January 1876 Lord Amberley died. In 1878 Russell himself fell ill. Gladstone went to Pembroke Lodge and found him ‘a noble wreck’ (Gladstone, Diaries, 8.308). He was ‘quite ready to go now’. He died at Pembroke Lodge on 28 May 1878, and was buried on 4 June in the family vault at Chenies, Buckinghamshire.

Historical reputation

Russell should have retired in 1852. But he had insisted upon carrying on, and behaved with a mixture of mortification and petulance which cost him a great reputation. By the time he died, there was only one person who might have been able to write a Life that would have restored Russell in the public estimation, and that was John Morley. But Russell had never been businesslike, his archives were in confusion, and Morley refused. After a delay the commission passed to Spencer Walpole and the Life was published in 1889. But by that time the world was moving on. Asquith and Lloyd George had not been brought up to revere Russell in the way that he had revered Fox. In the century after Spencer Walpole wrote, there were only three more biographies of Lord John, and when books were written about the whigs it was to treat them as dinosaurs—wonderful, but extinct. Towards the end of the twentieth century, however, when British politicians appeared to have much to learn from other more prosperous nations about civil rights, the toleration of dissent, and respect for education, there was a revival of interest in the whigs. The works of Richard Brent (1987), Peter Mandler (1990), and Jonathan Parry (1993) struck an increasingly appreciative note. Nineteenth-century whigs, it was then clear, got many things right. They had a rational understanding of the relationship between the past and the present. They dismissed the political superstitions of Edmund Burke, and welcomed new ideas and the dialectical turns of debate. They favoured inquiry and the collection of statistics. They took a positive and realistic view of what could be achieved by legislation and government. For a generation they—and Lord John Russell most of all—practised a high-minded and disinterested form of politics which stands to this day as the high-water mark of parliamentary government.

John Prest   DNB

Artist biography

David Barber , exhibited at the RA (4), SBA (8), 1828-37 from London, Brighton and Paris.