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Useful Notes / The Viscount Palmerston

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"Die, my dear doctor. That is the last thing I shall do."
— Last words

"That's Article 98; now go on to the next."
— Other possible last words

Henry John Temple (20 October 178418 October 1865), 3rd Viscount Palmerston, KG GCB PC, popularly nicknamed "Pam", he was in government office almost continuously from 1807 until his death in 1865, beginning his parliamentary career as a Tory and concluding it as a Liberal.

He directed Britain's foreign policy (as Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister) when it was at the height of its power. Many of his actions were highly controversial then as now. They include:

  • Almost getting Britain into a war with France in 1840 due to assuming France's threats (after being snubbed as part of an anti-Egyptian alliance) were a bluff, when they most assuredly weren't (France's Foreign Minister was the belligerent Adolphe Thiers). Queen Victoria had to go over his head with Lord Melbourne to smooth things over with King Louis-Philippe.
  • Convincing Napoleon III of France to break off peace talks with Russia because the peace would have been too soft on the Russians and the French could do more damage. When the Peace was later agreed he got the Black Sea de-militarized: it remained so for the next 15 years. For this he got The Order of The Garter.
  • Unilaterally declaring the right to stop and search the ships of various nations which were suspected of engaging in the slave trade, and informing the Portuguese (with whom Britain had been allied since 1373) when they protested that they could declare war if they so chose.
  • Palmerston had a knack for surviving political disasters and changes of government. The most famous probably being the result of the Arrow incident. When the Chinese coastguards boarded a junk registered in Hong Kong under the British flag and arrested her crew for piracy, the Governor of Hong Kong argued that only British authorities could try British subjects and demanded their release. An unwillingness to back down on both sides led to the Royal Navy bombarding Canton and a Chinese commissioner offering a bounty for British heads. When news arrived in London, Palmerston chose to support the governor on what he recognised were extremely shaky grounds: in the vote of confidence that followed, he was defeated and forced to call a general election- which he proceeded to win with an increased majority.
  • He pushed through the legislation that changed marriage from a Sacrament and divorce from a matter for Ecclesiastical courts to a Contract with divorce as a matter for civil courts, the first large scale divorce availability in the UK.
  • He dispatched troops to restore British rule in northern India after the rebellion of 1857, and introduced a bill to end the rule of the East India Company.
  • During the American Civil War, Palmerston steered a path of neutrality despite the urging of cabinet colleagues such as Earl Russell and Gladstone that Britain should negotiate between the two sides- an act he described as being like trying to reconcile two prizefighters during the third round. He had little affinity for the South, blaming their influence for preventing the United States taking action against the slave traders flying the American flag, and went to the extent of purchasing two ironclads being built for the Confederacy to appease Washington. However, his dispatch of troops to Canada during the Trent Affair- when the United States Navy boarded a British ship and arrested two Confederate diplomats- means that you can expect to see him in most Alternate History stories which portray the Confederacy winning the war.

In early October 1865 Lord Palmerston caught a chill and a violent fever and died two days short of his 81st birthday. He got a full state funeral, the fifth person not royalty to be granted a state funeral (after Admiral Robert Blake, Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Horatio Nelson, and Arthur Wellesley.)

The Viscount Palmerston in fiction:

  • In The Simpsons episode Homer at the Bat, baseball player Wade Boggs and local drunk Barney Gumble debate whether Pitt the Elder or The Viscount Palmerston was the greatest Prime Minister of Great Britain, with Boggs taking William Pitt The Elder's side and Barney taking Lord Palmerston's.
  • Many Alternate History stories set around the American Civil War. Of particular note is 1862 by Robert Conroy, which concludes his story with his premature death from a stroke in 1862, brought on from the shock of a crushing defeat for the combined Anglo-Confederate army during its attack on Washington.
  • Palmerston makes the occasional cameo in the Flashman series.
  • In several novels by Anthony Trollope, the character of Lord Brock is a stand-in for Palmerston. (see No Celebrities Were Harmed)
  • He is given a fairly accurate characterisation in Edward the Seventh, where his influence on Queen Victoria is shown quite clearly.
  • In Harry Potter's Expanded Universe, it's revealed that then-Minister for Magic Priscilla Dupont had an intense hatred of Palmerston, her Muggle contemporary. It was apparently bad enough that after recorded incidents such as Dupont causing Palmerston's pocket change to turn into frogs, Dupont was forced to resign from office just two days before Palmerston's resignation in real life.
  • A major figure starting in Series 3 of Victoria, played by Laurence Fox. Initially portrayed as an abrasive, spotlight-hogging creep, Victoria comes to respect his advice about the importance of public opinion in modern politics, as well as his observations about diplomacy and married life.