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Lord Liverpool And the United States
Spokesman for a rising industrialism, this prime minister bid for free trade with the United States and helped to create something quite different
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
No doubt, Mr. Kaufmann lends himself at times to what one might call the “official fallacy”—that is, he takes diplomats at their own valuation, giving their plans a lucidity, precision and forethought by which these men hoped to be distinguished, often were distinguished, and more often merely thought that they were. Of course, if one is to create a harmonious picture (and it is the duty of the historian, to some extent, to do so) one cannot altogether avoid this official attitude. What is more to the point is that Mr. Kaufmann is too good a historian not to question the very certainties he has been attempting to establish.
He admits that Lord Castlereagh impaled himself upon the horns of a dilemma; and of Canning’s great boast “I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old” he asks whether it contained a real vision of some emerging equilibrium, or whether Canning was simply talking through his hat.
This is not the place in which to examine in detail Lord Castlereagh’s dilemma. Roughly speaking, it was as follows. On the one hand, English commercial interests needed to trade with the rebellious Spanish colonies and could do so only if England recognized their independence from Spain. On the other hand, the major European powers were convinced that these colonies should be restored to the Spanish Crown. Castlereagh was deeply involved with the Concert of Europe; how could he reconcile England’s commercial demands with his European commitments?
It is often maintained that Castlereagh was edging towards a break with the Concert; but as far as I can see he labored to bring about a condition of stalemate, where no reconciliation would ever be necessary, where nothing would ever occur. The effort proved to be too much for him. His health broke down through overwork. The hatred of the British public, to whom his glacial aristocracy was the very image of oppression, did the rest. His reason began to totter, he thought that he was being blackmailed, he was convinced that he had committed some unnamable crime; and one summer morning in 1822, standing before his bedroom window, he cut his throat with a small penknife.
George Canning, his successor at the Foreign Office, was a witty parvenu, with a robust genius, a cynical taste for popularity, and no commitments to Europe. The European Concert was anti-national, anti-liberal, anti-democratic; it was unpopular in England; it was, symbolically, a barrier to business enterprise. Canning perceived that the independence of the Spanish colonies was the fulcrum he needed. He proposed to manoeuvre the Concert into a position where it would show itself helpless to intervene successfully in Spanish America; he would then recognize the independence of the Spanish colonies; the collapse of the Concert would be the inevitable result. And so it turned out, with some luck and some muddle; and Canning became, as a diplomatist, the champion of nationalism and the champion of democracy.
But was he really? In order to understand Canning’s relation to the Spanish colonies and the Concert—in order fully to understand Mr. Kaufmann’s book—one must study the age of Palmerston and the era of Lord Salisbury; and that would be only the beginning.
Lord Acton laid down the precept “Study problems, not periods.” Coming as it does from one of the greatest and most provocative of minds, this precept is immensely difficult. Most historians, who study a certain problem and confine it within a certain period (and that is what most historians do), can hardly avoid being confronted, at the end of their labors, with the accusing stare of Lord Acton. It is no consolation whatsoever to know that Lord Acton was crushed by his own precept, that he never wrote his History of Liberty; this tragedy only seems to make the stare more direct and accusing.
Mr. Kaufmann has made a study of a certain problem, and has carried it through a period of years long enough to indicate the possible course of its development; in fact, he has brilliantly succeeded in doing exactly what he set out to do. The only question that remains is: can one detach a certain phase of foreign policy from its surrounding context without giving a somewhat false or one-sided impression? The answer is, of course, that special studies are not concerned with such questions; otherwise they would not be special studies. Or, conversely, that one must stop somewhere. Very well, but can one discuss any phase of foreign policy without examining the nature of the government from which it proceeded?
As regards Anglo-American relations, however, which were both vivid and ambiguous at this time, the answers do not quite satisfy. In respect of Lord Castlereagh’s dilemma and Canning’s concept (if he had one) of a new balance of power, perhaps they do: here Anglo-American relations can be examined exclusively in terms of the hostility which English statesmen felt for the United States.