1902 Encyclopedia > George Canning

George Canning
English politician

GEORGE CANNING (1770-1827), one of the greatest of English statesmen and orators, was born in London on the 11th April 1770. He was descended from an ancient family; but his father, having incurred the displeasure of his parents, was cut off with a scanty allowance, and obliged to try his fortune in the metropolis. Here he studied for the bar, but literature proved too attractive for him, without yielding him even a tolerable livelihood. His affairs were not improved by a marriage with an Irish lady, of good connections and some beauty, but as poor as him-self. He died of a broken heart, a year after the birth of his son. The widowed mother took to the stage without achieving any great success, and in this new way of life married twice,'—neither time wisely.

It was thus, in the society of the stage, that the future premier of England passed his earliest years. It was well for him, therefore, when one of his paternal uncles, a wealthy banker in London, took upon himself the care of his education Young Canning was then in his eighth year, and from that time had all the advantages of the best education and the most cultured society, for Burke, Fox, Sheridan, and other leading Whigs were guests at his uncle's house After spending a few years at a London school he went in due time to Eton and Oxford. At both places he highly distinguished himself. He was a brilliant scholar, gave promise of the future orator in the debating societies, became known as a wit in a wide circle of admiring friends, and even at Eton, at the age of sixteen, gave decided evidence of literary talent, in a periodical got up amongst his schoolmates. From Oxford he returned to London with the reputation of a man able to perform great things. And now he had to choose between two careers, not easily to be combined by one who had his own way to make in the world. The generous enthusiasm of youth tempted him into a political career ; worldly prudence pointed him to the bar as the safer profession for a man without means. Circumstances decided in favour of the former. Pitt was now being drawn into the terrible crusade against the French Revolution, and greatly needed able associates to make head against the fiery elo-quence of Fox and Sheridan. To Canning, who soon became known in the clubs and other political circles of the metropolis as a young man of the most brilliant promise, he made the offer of the nomination borough of Newport. This was accepted, and Canning entered Parliament as an adherent of Pitt in 1793, being twenty-three years of age.

Canning is charged with having taken this step from interested motives. In the debating societies of Oxford and the metropolis he had been an enthusiastic Liberal, and had long been the friend of the Liberal leaders. Now, when the prospects of the Whig party were becoming gloomier every day, this crossing over to the ranks of Pitt had a suspicious appearance of convenience. But there is no real ground for such suspicion. With regard to the French Revolution, which was now the all-absorbing political question, Canning simply underwent the same change of opinion as the immense majority of educated Englishmen, Pitt included, hailing it at first as the dawn of a new day for France and Europe, but turning away from it in dismay and indignation, and determined to oppose it, when he saw it was more likely to subvert than to reform society.

From his entrance into Parliament till the death of Pitt in 1806, Canning was an ardent and devoted supporter of all the measures of that statesman. In the House of Commons he soon took his place as one of the most brilliant and successful debaters of the time, though unhappily his efforts needed to be directed against his own friends, Fox and Sheridan ; and he gave proof of his business capacity in some of the less prominent departments of the administration. Out of Parliament he fought the Revolution almost as effectively by starting (in 1797) the Anti-Jacobin, a weekly paper, in which the principles of innovation in morals, in literature, and above all, in politics, were mercilessly attacked, and their advocates covered with ridicule and abuse. Canning contributed many of the humorous articles, and in this way extended the reputation for caustic wit he had already acquired in Parliament.

In 1800 Canning married Miss Joan Scott. The marriage was in every way a happy and a fortunate one, based on mutual love and esteem, which continued unbroken to the end; while Miss Scott had a large fortune, and was connected with some of the highest of the aristocracy.

On the death of Pitt in 1806, and the formation of a Whig ministry by Fox and the Grenvilles, Canning went into opposition, and showed that, even on a question of humanitarian interest, he was not above the pettiest feelings of party. He supported, but very coldly, the bill for the abolition of the slave-trade.

On the return of the Tories to power in 1807, Canning entered on his first great Government office, the secretaryship for Foreign Affairs. It was one of the darkest periods in the history of England. The great European coalition had been overthrown at Austerlitz, Austria compelled to an ignominious peace, Prussia nearly annihilated, and Russia obliged, at the peace of Tilsit, to connive at the supremacy of Napoleon, or induced to share in the division of the Continent. Canning performed the arduous duties of his office with extraordinary tact and energy. It was he that planned the expedition to Copenhagen, for the seizure of the Danish fleet, with such secrecy and despatch as completely to antici-pate Napoleon, and excite in him the liveliest astonishment and wrath. The negotiations for peace opened with the English Government by Napoleon and Alexander, and the invasion of Spain, still further complicated the difficulties of his position, only to throw new lustre on his genius. He soon saw that the Peninsula was the battlefield on which England could bring her strength advantageously to bear against the armies of the French conqueror. He encouraged the spirit of resistance in tho Spanish nation, supported the ' Spanish armies, first with supplies of arms, and then with the active co-operation of the English forces, and was one of the first to recognize and employ the military capacity of the future duke of Wellington. Unfortunately, an event soon occurred which deprived the country of his services, when the need was greatest, and when he was the only statesman in England whose talents were of the first order. In 1809, Lord Castlereagh, as Secretary-at-War, had organized the expedition to Walcheren, the worst conducted and the most disastrous of the whole war. In consequence of it a dispute arose between his lordship and Canning, which resulted in a duel, and in the resignation of both. From this unfortunate incident till 1822, Canning took no very prominent part in the Government of the country. This is particularly to be regretted, as the period in question includes the decisive years of the Napoleonic struggle, and the new settlement of Europe by the peace of Vienna, when Canning might have done good service by insisting, more than was done, on the claims of nationality and constitu-tional liberty. In this he was not free from blame, as he allowed his personal dislikes too much to interfere with his duty to his country. But the chief reason was his advocacy of Catholic Emancipation, which lost him favour at court Men's motives must always remain to some extent doubtful; still it seems clear that at one time his dislike of Castlereagh, at another his insistance on Catholic Emancipation, prevented him from resuming his place in the Foreign Office. He lived to regret this deeply, and to declare that two years of office at the termination of the European struggle would, have been worth ten years of life. Even now, however, he was not idle. In 1812 he made a powerful speech in favour of Emancipation, which was carried in the Commons by a large majority, but rejected by the Lords. From 1814 to 1816 he was ambassador at Lisbon, and from 1817 to 1820 President of the Board of Control for India As a member of the Cabinet during the latter period he was very active in support of Government, strongly advocating the coercive measures employed at home during the years which immediately followed the Revolution. It is indeed a noteworthy fact in his political career that, though unable to act with Castlereagh in the most dangerous crisis of the French war, he found it right to join him and his associates in such severe measures of repression,—noteworthy, but quite explicable, as Canning never professed to be anything else than a disciple of Pitt.

At the head of the Board of Control, Canning gained the entire confidence of the directors of the East India Company. In consequence, they had appointed him to the governor-generalship of India, and he had proceeded to Liverpool to take leave of the constituents who had four times returned him to Parliament, when news came of the death of Castlereagh (then earl of Londonderry). The voice of the country had already named him successor in the Foreign Office, and, in this capacity, under the premier-ship of Lord Liverpool, Canning entered upon the last and most brilliant period of his career. The state of Europe had greatly changed since his resignation of the same office in 1809. The Holy Alliance now aspired to regulate the affairs of the world. Inaugurated by the emperor of Russia, under the inspiration of Madame Krudener, it was at first a sincere attempt of the rulers of Europe to govern on Christian principles. But even the Russian emperor was soon frightened from the path of benevolent reform by the revival of the revolutionary spirit and its appearance in his own army; while interested statesmen like Metternich so utilized the pious aspirations of kings to the profit of despotism, that the Holy Alliance soon became a byword in Europe. Castlereagh had yielded too far to this tendency. The country was getting weary of it. And now Canning came forward to assert the free action of England and the universal right of self-government. He was, how-ever, no revolutionist. In his home and foreign policy alike he aimed at holding a middle course. At home he advocated Catholic Emancipation, and believed in Free Trade, but strenuously opposed Parliamentary Reform. In his foreign policy his principle was that England should hold the balance between the reactionary and the revolutionary parties, " that in order to prevent things going to extremities, she should keep a distinct middle ground, staying the plague both ways." Seeing that the reactionary party predominated in 1822, he judged that England should throw the weight of her influence into the Liberal scales. In accordance with these views, he protested against the doctrine that free institutions should be held only as a spontaneous gift of the sovereign, and disapproved of the measures adopted at the Congress of Verona in 1822, especially of the French invasion of Spain for the restoration of absolutism in 1823,—a year, too, which was marked at home by the passing of the Reciprocity Act, the first step in the direction of Free Trade. In order to render the protest against the invasion of Spain more effectual, it was determined in 1824 to recognize the independence of the South American colonies. On the threatened invasion of Portugal by reactionary Spain in 1826, Canning again interposed with the utmost decision, and the invasion was abandoned. The speeches he made on these occasions, and his general attitude of defiance to despotism, had a marvellous effect, not only in Parliament and in England, but in all civilized communities. He was everywhere hailed as the champion and spokesman of national and popular liberty. The party of progress recovered from the torpor consequent upon the Revolution, and returned to new life. The enthusiasm for his name was heightened when it became known that he had taken the initiative in another act of international justice, by proposing (1826) to France and Russia that combination of the three Powers which led to the battle of Navarino and the establishment of Greek independence.

But ere that result had been attained the great statesman was no more. Early in 1827 Lord Liverpool, who had been the nominal head of the Government since 1812, was disabled Canning, who now became premier, expected the co-operation of the members of the late administration, but was disappointed, and had to struggle on under the greatest difficulties, and against the most virulent opposition. His exciting labours and the alienation of so many friends were too severe for his sensitive temperament. He caught a severe cold, and died on the 8th of August 1827. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the Statesmen's Corner, by the grave of his master Pitt.

His death created a sensation commensurate with his world-wide fame and with the hopes still entertained of him. The splendour of his talents was only matched by their versatility. In his high and brilliant career he had proved himself equal to anything—from guiding the destinies of a great nation through the storms of the Napoleonic wars, down to the editing of a comic journal. He had all the natural endowments of a great orator,—a graceful and commanding form, a musical voice, a perfect mastery of the choicest language, and a ready wit that played with all the resources of his intellect. In private life he was even more admirable,—in his own family an almost perfect model of all the household charities, and towards his mother, whose imprudent marriages had endangered his infancy, full of the tenderest and most affectionate piety. (T. K.)

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