Front Page Titles (by Subject) LORD PALMERSTON. (1865.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 4 (Political, Literary, & Literary Essays)
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LORD PALMERSTON. (1865.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 4 (Political, Literary, & Literary Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 4.
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Lord Palmerston only died on Wednesday, and already the world is full of sketches and biographies of him. It is very natural that it should be so, for he counted for much in English politics: his personality was a power, and it is natural that every one should, at his death, seek to analyse what we used to have, and what we have now lost. We will do so, but, remembering how often the tale has been told, we will be as brief as possible.
Lord Derby happily said that he was born in the “prescientific” period, and Lord Palmerston was so born, or even more. He was, it is true, a boarder at Dugald Stewart’s, and we believe transcribed at least a part of the lectures on political economy of that philosopher, lately published. But the combined influence of interior nature and the surrounding situation was too strong. His real culture was that of living languages and the actual world. He was the best French scholar among his contemporaries—so much so that when he went to Paris in 1859, the whole society, which fancied he was an imperious and ignorant Englishman, was charmed by the grace of his expression. His English in all his speeches was sound and pure, and in his greater efforts almost fastidiously correct. The feeling for language, which is one characteristic of a great man of the world, was very nice in Lord Palmerston, and very characteristic.
It was from the actual knowledge of men—from close specific contact—that Lord Palmerston derived his data. We have heard grave men say with surprise, “He always has an anecdote to cap his argument. He begins, ‘I knew a man once,’ ” and the anecdotes had no trace of the garrulity of age, they were real illustrations of the matter in hand. They were the chosen instances of a man who thought in instances. Some think, as the philosophers say, by “definition,” others by “type”. Lord Palmerston, like an animated man used to the animated world, thought in examples, and hardly realised abstract words.
It was because of this that in international matters—the only ones for which in youth he cared—he was a great practical lawyer. He knew what hardly any one knows, the subject-matter. He knew the cases with which during a long life he had to deal. To most men international law is a matter of precedent and words; to him it was a matter of personal adventure and reality. Some people not unqualified to judge have said that his opinion on such matters was as good as any law officer’s. He might not have studied Vattel or Wheaton so closely as some, but he had, what is far better, followed with a keen interest the actual and necessary practice of present nations.
It was this sort of worldly sympathy and worldly education which gave Lord Palmerston his intelligibility. He was not a common man, but a common man might have been cut out of him. He had in him all that a common man has, and something more. And he did not at all despise, as some philosophers teach people to do, the common part of his mind. He was profoundly aware that the common mass of plain sense is the great administrative agency of the world; and that if you keep yourself in sympathy with this you win, and if not you fail. Sir George Lewis used to say that as Demosthenes declared action to be the first, second, and third thing in a statesman, so intelligibility is the first, second, and third thing in a constitutional statesman. It is to us certainly the first, second, and third thing in Lord Palmerston. This is not absolutely eulogistic. No one resembled less than Lord Palmerston the fancied portrait of an ideal statesman laying down in his closet plans to be worked out twenty years hence. He was a statesman for the moment. Whatever was not wanted now, whatever was not practicable now, whatever would not take now, he drove quite out of his mind. The prerequisites of a constitutional statesman have been defined as the “powers of a first-rate man, and the creed of a second-rate man”.1 The saying is harsh, but it is expressive. Lord Palmerston’s creed was never the creed of the far-seeing philosopher; it was the creed of a sensible and sagacious but still commonplace man. His objects were common objects: what was uncommon was the will with which he pursued them.
No man was better in action, but no man was more free from the pedantry of business. People, he has been heard to say, have different minds. “When I was a young man, the Duke of Wellington made an appointment with me at half-past seven in the morning, and some one asked me, Why, Palmerston, how will you keep that engagement? Oh, I said, of course, the easiest thing in the world. I shall keep it the last thing before I go to bed.” He knew that the real essence of work is concentrated energy, and that people who really have that in a superior degree by nature, are independent of the forms and habits and artifices by which less able and active people are kept up to their labours.
Lord Palmerston prided himself on his foreign policy, on which we cannot now pronounce a judgment. But it is not upon this that his fame will rest. He had a great difficulty as a Foreign Minister. He had no real conception of any mode of life except that with which he was familiar. His idea, his fixed idea, was that the Turks were a highly improving and civilised race, and it was impossible to beat into him their essentially barbaric and unindustrial character. He would hear anything patiently, but no corresponding ideas were raised in his mind. A man of the world is not an imaginative animal, and Lord Palmerston was by incurable nature a man of the world: keenly detective in what he could realise by experience—utterly blind, dark, and impervious to what he could not so realise. Even the best part of his foreign policy was alloyed with this defect. The mantle of Canning had descended on him, and the creed and interests of Canning. He was most eager to use the strong influence of England to support free institutions—to aid “the Liberal party” was the phrase in those days—everywhere on the Continent. And no aim could be juster and better—it was the best way in which English strength could be used. But he failed in the instructed imagination and delicate perception necessary to its best attainment. He supported the Liberal party when it was bad, and the country unfit for it, as much as when it was good and the nation eager for it. He did not define the degree of his sympathy, or apportion its amount to the comparative merits of the different claims made on it. According to the notions of the present age, too, foreign policy should be regulated by abstract, or at least comprehensive, principles, but Lord Palmerston had no such principles. He prided himself on his exploits in Europe, but it is by his instincts in England that he will be remembered.
It was made a matter of wonder that Lord Palmerston should begin to rule the House of Commons at seventy, and there is no doubt that he was very awkward at first in so ruling it. Sir James Graham, and other judges of business management, predicted that “the thing would fail,” and that a new Government would have to be formed. But the truth is, that though he had been fifty years in the House of Commons, Lord Palmerston had never regularly attended it, and even still less attended to it. His person had not been there very much, and his mind had been there very little. He answered a question on his own policy, or made a speech, and then went away. Debate was not to him, as to Mr. Pitt or Mr. Gladstone, a matter of life and pleasure. Mr. Canning used to complain, “I can’t get that three-decker Palmerston to bear down”. And when he was made leader of the House, it came out that he hardly knew, if he did know, the forms of the House. But it was a defect of past interest, not a defect of present capacity. He soon mastered the necessary knowledge, and as soon as he had done so the sure sagacity of his masculine instincts secured him an unconquerable strength.
Something we wished to say more on these great gifts, and something, too, might be said as to the defects by which they were alloyed. But it is needless. Brevity is as necessary in a memorial article as in an epitaph. So much is certain, we shall never look upon his like again. We may look on others of newer race, but his race is departed. The merits of the new race were not his merits; their defects are not his. England will never want statesmen, but she will never see in our time such a statesman as Viscount Palmerston.
[1 ] Bagehot’s own words, see Vol. ii., page 183.