Lord Liverpool And the United States


When Jean Baptiste Isabey made his preliminary sketch for a painting of the Congress of Vienna, he imparted an incongruous air of romanticism to his little group of leading personalities.


When Jean Baptiste Isabey made his preliminary sketch for a painting of the Congress of Vienna, he imparted an incongruous air of romanticism to his little group of leading personalities.

As far as posture and gesture can express such things, all is sensibility, passion, youth itself. Since the aging statesmen who ran the Congress were attempting to perpetuate in treaty form something which one can only describe as the foreseeable past, it must be admitted that Isabey had allowed his imagination to run away with him—after all, he had once been Napoleon’s court painter The order which his figures sought to impose was distinctly mechanistic, indeed mechanical—it was as if, with remarkable skill and even some measure of genius, they were engaged in restoring an old broken clock and endowing it with the gift of running backwards. No, they were anything but romantic.

And yet, if one ventures into the general history of the early Nineteenth Century, as it came reeling out of the smoke and tumult of the Napoleonic Wars, if one reads its biographies or dips into some of its more outspoken correspondence, one gets the impression, by no means an uninteresting one, that the whole official world has got a case of the fidgets.

Romanticism, as a vague but pervasive rebellion against rational decorum, invades that world like some kind of itching powder, like a huge practical joke. The most important people in their most punctilious moments suddenly start scratching themselves; anachronisms and imbecilities leap from their armchairs or their thrones and begin an involuntary dance. Perhaps Isabey had a point, or missed one. It is only when we consider the other disturbing factors—industrialism, nationalism, democracy—that we ask ourselves whether the point was well taken, or worth missing.

The social history of post-Napoleonic Europe and America fascinates the student because of its unappeasable disquiet. The diplomatic history, on the other hand, attracts him for two somewhat different reasons.

It attracts him, first of all, because of its relative placidity. Though it encroaches upon modern times—in the sense that we can perceive that some of its problems are analogous to our own—it is equipped with none of the modern instruments. No electric telegraph, no steamship, no railroad hastened communications in those days: in this respect the world was closer to Augustus Caesar than it was to 1900. Decisions could be made with a deliberation unknown to the statesmen of today; triumphs were sometimes triumphantly abstract, crises were occasionally settled long after they had ceased to exist. The majority of state papers, therefore, are something like impressive façades—the writer has time to conceal behind them the panic, ignorance and indecision which are the general lot of man.


It attracts the student, in the second place, because of its recorded mass. He drifts helplessly towards that immense nebula of archival information and scholarly exegesis, humming and exploding with the collisions of schools of thought, of national prides, and of party prejudices. He longs to impose order upon it: to emulate, perhaps, the calm masterpiece of a Dexter Perkins. Or he hopes to discover some vital connection between complicated monographs on obscure and unrelated topics. Or he looks for evidence of that social frisson which the leading statesmen of those days were so anxious to keep out of their writings. In any case, he knows that he is drifting into a period which is perpetually fresh: for the post-Napoleonic era, in its urgency, its bewilderment, its hope and its cruelty, has a harsh quality of early springtime which its diplomatic history cannot extinguish.

I am thinking particularly of a remarkable book called British Policy and the Independence of Latin America, 1804-1828, written by William W. Kaufmann, and published by the Yale University Press in 1951. It is a graceful and witty book, doing full justice to the amazing variety of character thrown up by statesmen, politicians and rulers as they made their painful journey out of the Eighteenth and into the Nineteenth Century. It is also a valuable and deeply serious study, not only of one phase of British history, but also of the sad predicament of all the Vienna statesmen, who tried to pretend that ecumenical history was simply European history, and whose calculations were thrown into disorder by the sudden emergence of the New World—by the immense and irretrievable collapse of the Spanish Empire in Latin America. About one-third of it is devoted to exploring those tentative and traditional areas occupied by Mr. Pitt, Sir Home Popham, General Miranda, Lord Melville and so on: then it moves on into the post-Napoleonic world, and its leading characters are—as they should be—Lord Castlereagh and George Canning.