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Lord Liverpool’s Antidote to Revolution
This review appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Lord Liverpool: A Political Life
By William Anthony Hay
(Boydell Press, 2018)
Lord Liverpool was an “Arch Mediocrity who presided rather than ruled over this Cabinet of Mediocrities,” Benjamin Disraeli jibed in 1844. Still a young novelist and a frustrated Tory backbencher, Disraeli thus disparaged Robert Banks Jenkinson, second earl of Liverpool (1770–1828), who led Tory ministries from 1812 until his sudden death in 1828. Only Robert Walpole and William Pitt the Younger served longer than Liverpool as prime minister, and no one since has matched his longevity in office. Yet Disraeli’s caustic judgment, as William Anthony Hay shows in this impressive book, not only went “substantially unchallenged” in his own day but quickly cemented itself into conventional wisdom.
Hay is not the first to write about Liverpool. He is preceded by the works of Norman Gash and Boyd Hilton, perhaps the leading scholars of the period. Unlike most professional historians, however, Hay has also spent time working in politics as a U.S. Senate staffer and think-tank leader. These practical experiences surely help to account for his wider ambitions. Rather than just a book about a long-serving, but now mostly forgotten, British prime minister, Lord Liverpool is intended to be a “study of statesmanship” that judges political figures in the context of their own time. Applying this standard, Hay offers a much more favorable assessment of Liverpool’s career than did Disraeli.
Hay rightly stresses that Liverpool brought an eighteenth-century worldview to early nineteenth-century problems. His formative influences were his father and the French Revolution. An experienced political hand who served in ministries throughout the 1760s and 1770s, Charles Jenkinson (1729–1808) brought up his oldest son for the same profession. Widowed soon after Robert’s birth, Charles sent him first to Charterhouse and then to Christ Church, Oxford, both of which offered rigorous educations in classics, mathematics, and theology. Hay reckons that both institutions shaped Liverpool’s almost universally commented-upon moral seriousness.
Charles Jenkinson also sent his son on a series of European tours. In 1789, Jenkinson witnessed the early stages of the French Revolution, including the storming of the Bastille. Liverpool called the event, during which the mob decapitated the garrison’s governor and paraded in triumph carrying his head, “one of the most extraordinary revolutions that ever has happened.” He never forgot what he saw. As Hay trenchantly puts it, “Without lapsing into cynicism, [Liverpool] completely avoided the error of idealistic contemporaries who welcomed the French Revolution as a triumph of liberty.”
This sounds a lot like Burkean conservatism. And though Liverpool was much younger than Burke, he also wrestled with how to ensure order while enacting necessary reforms. Practically, this meant upholding the established church, the monarchy, and landed property. Hay insists that “neither reactionary nor repressive, Liverpool sought to defend Britain’s social and political order along with the institutions he believed gave them expression.” This conservative instinct proved both a strength and a weakness for Liverpool, for it gave him an ideological polestar but sometimes led him in directions that were not reforming ones.
Hay sees Liverpool’s political career dividing into two parts. The first stretched from his election to Parliament in 1790 until he unexpectedly became prime minister in 1812. During most of this time, Britain was at war with France and at times was the lone country standing against her. Waterloo Station, Nelson’s column, Trafalgar Square, and the like are enduring reminders of the importance the British placed on their victory. During the war, though, Britain’s defeat of revolutionary, then Napoleonic, France seemed uncertain at best.
The man who led the early war effort was Pitt the Younger, Liverpool’s most influential patron. Pitt died in office in 1806 and was succeeded by two nonentities and then by Spencer Perceval, who has the unfortunate distinction of being the only British prime minister who was assassinated—an act that some contemporaries saw as a signal to begin a domestic revolution. The person who would take up the premiership in this febrile time faced a difficult task. When the cabinet considered the matter, it quickly and unanimously chose Liverpool for the office he would go on to hold without interruption for the next sixteen years.
It might have seemed an unusual choice. While Liverpool was undoubtedly principled, administratively accomplished, and first-rate in the dispatch box, he had a personality that many found off-putting. This was also a time of pervasive fear about popular unrest. It wasn’t obviously reassuring that the person chosen to lead the government sat not in the elected if rather undemocratic House of Commons but in the House of Lords. As it turned out, however, all these circumstances helped to make Liverpool’s ministry successful. Unable to establish a cult of personality, he was forced to lead a consensual cabinet government.
Liverpool’s greatest challenges as prime minister were, first, winning the war, and, later, dealing with its consequences. The disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812 weakened the French, but it did not finish off now-emperor Napoleon. Liverpool knew his limitations and did not micromanage British armed efforts. Instead, he did what he could to support forces led by Arthur Wellesley, who was pushing back the French in the Iberian Peninsula. While allied forces were gaining ground in Spain, Liverpool also tried to extricate Britain from its unnecessary and distracting war with the United States. After Napoleon’s crushing defeat at Waterloo in 1814, finally Liverpool gave his foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, wide latitude to represent the British interests at the Congress of Vienna. In order to bring about peace, Liverpool was even willing to give up the colonial holdings Britain had seized during the war.
After 1815, Liverpool turned his attention to domestic issues that had either been suppressed or unmet during the long war. Hay shows that in dealing with these matters, Liverpool’s lack of the popular touch was less often a strength than in his management of foreign policy. Three particular challenges stood out.
To begin with, the French wars had been economically distorting. Blockades disrupted trade, while British allies demanded expensive subsidies. Part of the reason Britain won the war, then, was its unprecedented ability to fund a worldwide conflict. This financial accomplishment required the imposition of an income tax in 1799. At the time, most thought it would remain in effect only “for the duration” (as a later generation said of wartime burdens). When the House of Commons repealed the tax in 1816, however, the revenue was disrupted. The prewar assessment system proved ineffective, and the government was compelled to borrow at unfavorably high rates.
Liverpool also fretted about the nation’s food security. Before the French Revolution, Britain had been a net grain exporter, but by the end it was a net importer. With the pressure of war gone, moreover, grain prices had fallen. This caused the income on landed property—a pillar of Liverpool’s conception of social order—to drop. Though an instinctive free trader, Liverpool therefore supported Britain’s first Corn Laws. Passed in 1815, these statutes banned grain importation until the domestic price reached a particular threshold. Not without reason did the great Tory historian Robert Blake describe the Corn Laws as “one of the most naked pieces of class legislation in English history.” Blocking trade impoverished the poorest English men and women by increasing food prices, while securing the fortunes of the landed elite.
So popular unrest was the second big problem that Liverpool’s ministry faced. Reformers’ demands mostly concerned the condition of the poor—a problem that Liverpool generally thought governments ill-equipped to handle. As he explained to one contemporary, “Government or Parliament never meddle with these affairs at all but they do harm.” All they had to do was wait “till trade comes round and the population can find employment in a natural way.”
This was not the way most saw it at the time. Agrarian riots and other disturbances culminated in the notorious “Peterloo Massacre,” in which eleven people died and nearly five hundred were injured when cavalry charged a mass meeting in Manchester. Liverpool’s ministry responded with the so-called Six Acts of 1819, which suspended habeas corpus, forbade meetings of more than fifty people, buttressed laws against seditious libel, made it more difficult for defendants to prepare their defenses, and tried to squash the radical press by hiking the duties on newspapers and pamphlets. While Liverpool’s government enforced the Six Acts relatively leniently and tried to dismantle the laws after the disturbances had passed, twice as many people in 1819 were executed as had been put to death a decade earlier. The lesson Liverpool apparently learned from the French Revolution was that political radicalism metastasizes without immediate and forceful repression.
Political economy was not the only area in which contemporaries clamored for reform during Liverpool’s ministry. There was considerable agitation for reform of the established church, especially as it related to religious minorities. During the 1820s, Liverpool proved willing to pursue policies aimed at ameliorating the country’s economic lot. Yet he blocked Catholic emancipation, despite popular pressure. Only in 1829, under a ministry led by Wellington, did the legal disabilities imposed on Catholics following the Glorious Revolution finally get abolished.
The “Great Reform Act” (1832) followed on the heels of Catholic emancipation. A landmark piece of legislation that helped to dismantle the so-called Old Corruption, it expanded the franchise, rationalized the parliamentary constituencies, and made the electoral process less amenable to elite manipulation. Hay’s book shows that its passage also marked the passing of the eighteenth-century world that produced Robert Banks Jenkinson and by whose rules he operated throughout his political life.
If Liverpool’s Tory heirs treated him with a mixture of scorn and neglect, they did so because they judged him by their standards, not his. Liverpool had led the nation during difficult times. His chief tasks were defeating France and securing peace and prosperity after that victory. Attacking the Old Corruption was the sort of thing that could only be done in a time of peace, something Liverpool, a quintessential product of the Old Corruption, made possible. Liverpool mostly succeeded in his own day because he demonstrated a clear vision, a mastery of his brief, and an ability to communicate his strategic aims effectively within the political forums that mattered during his own life. One lesson to draw from William Anthony Hay’s study of Liverpool the statesman is that these were good qualities in a political leader and remain so still. ♦
Robert G. Ingram is professor of history at Ohio University.
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