Henry John Temple
Viscount Palmerston

Palmerston was one of the giants of Britain's political landscape in the mid-Nineteenth Century. A charismatic and popular figure, Palmerston did not become PM until he was 71, making him the oldest prime minister in history to take up the office for the first time. However he had already built up a formidable reputation serving in many different cabinets. He served first under Tory prime ministers as Junior Lord of the Admiralty and then, for two decades, as Secretary for War.

Around 1830, Palmerston defected to the Whigs because of his support for Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. Earl Grey made him Foreign Secretary, a position in which he excelled, if done in a characteristically independent fashion. For two decades, Palmerston was at the centre of foreign affairs not only in Europe but also in Turkey, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Asia. In fact he would bankroll and support the two wars with China, in 1842 and 1860. He managed to escape culpability for the Crimean war disasters as he was serving as Home minister under Earl of Aberdeen at the time. Indeed, it was Palmerston who would pick up the pieces of the Crimean War and who would gain much of the credit for its successful conclusion. He would soon show his combination of decisiveness and subtlety with his handling of the Indian Mutiny. Troops were despatched and the situation normalised but he was strong enough to resist most of the calls for harsh treatment of swathes of the Indian population. He supported more lenient measures and dissolved the East India Company and replaced it with British government direct rule.

Palmerston was out of office for a year and a half. During that time he helped to form the Liberal Party in 1859 on the back of support for Italian Resorgimento. He returned to government as PM a few days later.

In his second admninistration he managed to stay neutral in the American Civil War despite provocation and lobbying from both sides. He did allow British shipyards to build Confederate ships but only on a commercial and not a political basis. He also supported Denmark over ownership of Schleswig-Holstein but did not intervene when Prussia invaded in February 1864 wishing to avoid the possibility of engagement in a Continental war.

In 1865, following a vote of censure, Palmerston called a general election which he won with a convincing majority; however, he did not see the new parliament convened because he died of a fever on 18 October 1865 after catching a chill while out in his carriage.

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by Stephen Luscombe