‘Stop, traveler, and piss!’
By John Bew
Oxford University Press, 2012
The life of a diplomat ordinarily might not be thought to lend itself to compelling biography. What could be more boring than the minutiae of endless conferences, full of dry quibbles over the punctuation of forgotten treaties and the agonized adjustment of long-since vanished frontiers? However, the career of Robert Stewart, known as Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary who shaped the enduring settlement of the Napoleonic Wars at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, is a decided exception to the norm of diplomatic futility and tedium. He put down a French-backed Jacobin rebellion in his native Ireland and then orchestrated the Act of Union that made it part of the United Kingdom; dueled with his arch-rival, the future Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister George Canning, whom he shot in the thigh; took charge of the British war effort, sustained over two decades, that culminated in the defeat of Napoleon; and succumbed to paranoia and madness and committed suicide while still in office. And beyond all this, he inspired some of the most savage invective ever hurled at a statesman by the leading literary figures of his age.
Shelley, in his epic poem The Masque of Anarchy, delivered the couplet, “I met Murder on the way—/ He had a mask like Castlereagh,” and later caricatured him as “Swellfoot the Tyrant.” Byron, in the dedication to Don Juan, excoriated Castlereagh as a “Cold-blooded, smooth-faced, placid miscreant” and an “intellectual eunuch” good only for “Cobbling at manacles for all mankind.” Later he exulted over Castlereagh’s suicide, penning an epitaph that urged anyone passing his grave to “Stop, traveler, and piss!” The Irish poet Thomas Moore dubbed him the “Malaprop Cicero” for his notorious slips of the tongue. The English essayists William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb joined in heaping more mockery and opprobrium on him. And it was not only the literati who hated Castlereagh: for years he was the stock villain of mobs in Ireland and London, who pelted him and his houses with stones. Once in Dublin he was struck with “a putrid dead cat”; he bowed to the crowd, whereupon “this uncharacteristic act of showmanship earned him thunderous applause.” What was it about this supremely successful peacemaker that inspired such scorn, and was it deserved?
As the gifted young historian John Bew notes in the Prologue to Castlereagh: A Life, his book “tackles what might be called the Byron–Shelley view—the prevailing and resilient assumption that Castlereagh was an anti-Enlightenment or reactionary figure.” Bew argues that Castlereagh, even though he was to become a preeminent Tory, infamous for his supposed intellectual deficiencies and chronic inarticulateness, had his outlook formed by progressive (and primarily Scottish) Enlightenment influences during his Presbyterian upbringing on the family estate in the north of Ireland. The philosopher Francis Hutcheson, who taught Adam Smith, was a friend of Castlereagh’s grandfather, a wealthy Belfast merchant who bought his way into the landed aristocracy.
Although Castlereagh’s university career lasted little more than a year at Cambridge (apparently due to his contracting a venereal infection, which Bew suggests may have been a case of syphilis that eventually caused his abrupt descent into insanity), and he never acquired that familiarity with the classics that was considered essential to a successful parliamentary orator at the time, Bew claims that his early immersion in Enlightenment thought gave him broadly tolerant views, particularly concerning religion. Furthermore, “the formative moment of his political career,” Bew says, was his visit to France in 1791, at the age of 22, to observe the revolution at first hand. While he traveled with a copy of Edmund Burke’s vehemently counterrevolutionary Reflections on the Revolution in France, he was also an appreciative reader of Rousseau, and his long letters to his grandfather and mentor, the cabinet minister Earl Camden, reveal a balanced and precociously sophisticated analysis of the revolution whose consequences would consume him for the rest of his life:
I discover in what they have done much to approve, and much to condemn. I feel as strongly as any man, that an essential change was necessary for the happiness and dignity of a great people, long in a state of degradation.
Bew makes the bold claim that Castlereagh “is best understood—indeed that he can only be understood—as an inheritor and champion of what he, too, saw as ‘enlightened’ values.” While this assertion is somewhat undermined by his own account of Castlereagh’s involvement in various acts of repression, there is nonetheless some degree of truth to it, especially when Bew tempers his claims with the insistence that Castlereagh must be judged as a man of his own time, and primarily as a practical politician, not a theorist. His was an “enlightenment grounded in realpolitik.”
It is evident from a wide range of testimony that one reason for Castlereagh’s undeserved reputation as an intellectual lightweight was his lack of skill as a parliamentary debater; he was particularly prone to malapropisms (one gruesome example: “the constitutional principle wound up in the bowels of the monarchical principle”). Even if this weakness was exaggerated by malicious Whig wits, his close associate, the Duke of Wellington, conceded, “He could do everything but speak in Parliament, that he could not do.” Fortunately he was lucid as a letter-writer, and one of the pleasures of this thick book, packed with generous quotations, is to follow Castlereagh and his correspondents grappling in elegant Regency prose with political and diplomatic problems that remain pressingly relevant to today’s world. In a Machiavellian aphorism on the wisdom of post-conflict reconciliation, expressing his view that the French ultra-royalists should not exclude former revolutionaries from the government, he remarked, “Tyrants may poison or murder an obnoxious character, but the surest and only means a constitutional sovereign has to restrain such a character is to employ him.”
Castlereagh rose to his first position in government, as Chief Secretary of the British regime in Ireland, just as the Jacobin rebellion was breaking out, and his role in its bloody suppression in 1798 would tar him for life with charges of presiding over torture and summary executions. Bew absolves him of responsibility for the excesses of the loyalist forces, and in fact shows that he stood up for restraint in the face of demands for more ferocious counterinsurgency tactics:
Castlereagh believed not only that such measures were unconstitutional, but also that it would be a political disaster to do so while there was a chance to win back the allegiance of the “deluded inhabitants” of the country.
Castlereagh’s subsequent success in enacting the Act of Union (helped along by the extensive bribery of Irish grandees, financed by British secret service funds), which abolished the Irish Parliament, was widely held to be an even greater betrayal of his homeland. But he argued, as had Adam Smith and Montesquieu, that being incorporated in Britain’s commercial empire, with the promise of shared prosperity, was of far more value to Ireland than the illusory independence of its notoriously corrupt Parliament, dominated by big landholders and their rotten boroughs.Castlereagh waged a long and determined campaign for Catholic emancipation in Ireland, although he was unsuccessful in getting it through Parliament, or past the stiff opposition of King George III—it finally was enacted in 1829, after Castlereagh’s death. He also served the abolitionist cause, albeit under continuous pressure from the crusading William Wilberforce, by extracting pledges from other European powers to accelerate the phasing out of the slave trade. Bew sees Enlightenment ideals of tolerance at work in these actions, for which Castlereagh received only grudging credit from his opponents. But while Bew makes a strong case for the sincerity of these endeavors, he also points out that Castlereagh was always driven by pragmatism: he never tired of arguing that conciliating the Catholics would make Ireland easier to govern.
The centerpiece of Castlereagh’s career, and the most serious black mark against him, for his liberal critics, was his instrumental role in the restoration of a monarchical balance of power in Europe after the upheaval of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars; for in their view, as the Napoleonphile Hazlitt put it, “If Buonaparte was a conqueror, he conquered the grand conspiracy of kings against the abstract right of the human race to be free.” Castlereagh was also a decisive player in the military defeat of Napoleon: while serving as War Secretary for several years he oversaw a massive buildup of Britain’s army, which allowed it to launch the Peninsula campaign in Portugal and Spain. As Bew says,
If Castlereagh is to be regarded as the British Foreign Secretary who cooperated more effectively with Continental powers than any other, this should come with the concomitant recognition that he was also the War Secretary who created the biggest British army in history to that point, precisely so that it could operate on European soil.
He also chose a fellow Irishman, Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, to lead that campaign, despite other ministers’ preference for a more senior commander. According to Bew, Wellington “would never have been given the opportunities which he seized so successfully had it not been for the promotion and loyalty shown to him by Castlereagh.”
Bew convincingly demonstrates that, contrary to Castlereagh’s still prevalent public image as an ideologically driven reactionary, he was motivated above all by the national interest and the pursuit of a workable international system of collective security after two decades of warfare had exhausted Europe: objectives that had little to do with ideology. Negotiating with canny diplomatic operators such as Austria’s Metternich and France’s Talleyrand (a sly survivor who had switched his allegiance first from Louis XVI to Napoleon, and then back to the Bourbon restoration), and restraining the impetuous Tsar Alexander—who threatened to make a bid for Russian hegemony to fill the void left by Napoleon—Castlereagh managed to gain control of the agenda and framed the treaties on moderate lines. He worked closely with Metternich, who shared his vision of a stable equilibrium of great powers. The first of the agreements, the Treaty of Chaumont, signed before the actual end of the fighting in 1814 by the four allies—Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia—committed them “to act in concert to preserve the European equilibrium for the next twenty years.” This was followed by the Treaties of Paris and Vienna, which settled territorial questions, returning France to its pre-revolutionary borders and drawing “the basic boundaries of post-Napoleonic Europe.” They would be criticized particularly for allowing the partition of Poland. But Bew asks, “[W]as Russian dominance—the alternative—really likely to be a liberating arrangement for the Poles?” He shows that Castlereagh “far exceeded his brief” by opposing Russian demands for dominance in Poland, coming close to risking another war rather than take what he saw as the greater risk of appeasing an expansionary power.
There were cracks in the new system almost from the beginning. After Napoleon’s escape from Elba in 1815 briefly resumed the war until his final defeat at Waterloo, the victors again gathered in Paris, where the Tsar, under the influence of a Russian mystic, Baroness Krüdener, proposed a Holy Alliance, in which Austria and Prussia joined Russia in “a sacred Christian alliance between the sovereigns of each allied power.” Castlereagh saw that Britain could never join such a retrograde pact, and called it ‘a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense.’” The fundamental difference that emerged between Britain and the other powers was over the issue of whether states had a right to intervene in others’ internal affairs. Castlereagh upheld the principle of non-intervention and respect for sovereignty, which today are trumpeted by states opposed to humanitarian action. In his day, the opposite was true: it was the autocratic eastern powers that sought to establish their right to intervene in smaller states to defend or restore monarchical regimes when these were faced with popular uprisings. In a paper written in 1818, Castlereagh said that “nothing would be more immoral or prejudicial to the Character of Government generally, than the Idea that their Force was collectively to be prostituted to the support of established Power without any Consideration of the extent to which it was abused.”
In his State Paper of May 1820, which would become known as a landmark statement of the principle of non-interventionism, Castlereagh rejected British involvement in any plan “intended as an Union for the Government of the World, or for the superintendence of the internal affairs of other States.” Yet again this was not necessarily a conservative principle intended to preserve the status quo; he noted that a number of European countries were “casting anew their Govts. upon the Representative Principle,” but warned against the dangerous “notion of revising, limiting or regulating the course of such Experiments.” He observed: “There was a difference of outlook between the autocratic, or Eastern Powers, and the democratic, or Western Powers.”
Why then was Castlereagh so hated by the likes of Byron and Shelley if he stood fast against autocratic meddling? One explanation might be that he simply had the misfortune of his career coinciding with a cultural movement, Romanticism, which was fundamentally inimical to all that he stood for. Where Castlereagh represented the restoration of order and the balance of power, the Romantics (setting aside conservatives such as Coleridge, well to the right of Castlereagh) were enthralled by the sublime ideals of revolution and liberty. Where he orchestrated a concert of empires, they sympathized with the rise of nationalism, which would eventually burst forth in the revolutions of 1848 across Europe, and would finally shatter the old regimes in the First World War. Byron’s death while leading an ineffectual freelance expedition in support of the Greek war for independence in 1824, less than two years after Castlereagh’s suicide, proved that intervention in foreign wars was far more complicated than he or his fellow intellectuals had imagined when they denounced Castlereagh’s policies. As Bew says, Castlereagh had sound strategic reasons for not joining Russia in support of the Greek revolt against the Turks: “the prospect of Russian expansionism in the area of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean threatened Britain’s long-term interests.”
Napoleon was the ultimate Romantic hero, a force of nature sweeping across Europe and overturning anciens régimes right and left. The Romantics could not forgive Castlereagh for defeating the little emperor and facilitating the restoration of the “legitimate” old order of rule by divine right. Admiring Napoleon’s audacity, they failed to recognize the illiberal character of his own system: the comic-opera proliferation of new kingdoms bestowed as prizes to his family and lieutenants, and the greedy self-aggrandizement with which he seized the imperial crown. Indeed, it was the downfall of Napoleon, not his encouragement, that led to the first real progress toward democratization in Europe after the French Revolution (which was co-opted and diverted away from democracy and toward imperialist aggression by Napoleon’s adventurism), and it was Castlereagh whose opposition to the interventionist urgings of the Holy Alliance prevented a reactionary crusade to stamp out revolutions in Spain and Portugal. When he came under a Whig attack in Parliament for standing by while Austria crushed a revolt in Naples, Castlereagh “recalled that when Napoleon—‘the grand subverter of the independence of states’—had put down rebellions in Venice and Genoa, ‘not a voice was raised in behalf of those republics by the gentlemen opposite.’”
Expecting more from Castlereagh in the way of support for independence movements abroad was surely unrealistic, considering that he represented not only a constitutional monarchy but a growing global empire. Not that he was an enthusiastic imperialist; he was criticized at home by business interests for his readiness to give away colonial possessions as negotiating concessions, including most of those that had been taken from France. The contrast between Napoleon and Castlereagh is well brought out by Napoleon’s own expressions of bafflement and contempt at the lenient peace terms that Castlereagh persuaded the allies to impose on France:
One cannot see how such a sensible nation can allow itself to be governed by such a lunatic…. Castlereagh had the Continent at his disposal. What great advantage, what just compensations, has he acquired for his country? The peace he has made is the sort of peace he would have made if he had been beaten.
However, as Bew points out, “it would be a mistake to presume this was a simple act of mercy; much more important was the consideration of balance of power realpolitik. To punish France even more risked opening up western and central Europe to the ambitions of the Prussians and Russians.” And the Congress of Vienna ushered in a century unbroken by another general continental war, a better result by far than the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed such punitive reparations on Germany after the First World War. What Napoleon saw as weakness, then, was actually one of Castlereagh’s shrewdest maneuvers to pacify the Continent.
Castlereagh may seem the antithesis of the Romantic era as epitomized by Napoleon or Byron; yet from a certain angle his life has something of the essence of Romanticism to it. At first glance he might appear more (prototypically) in the Victorian mold of Trollope’s Plantagenet Palliser, a plodding, tongue-tied, liberal-conservative, aristocratic statesman cautiously inclined to incremental reform and dedicated to a vague idea of upholding the fragile balance of the unwritten English Constitution. Had he lived in the Victorian age he might well have been confined to these limits; indeed, as Bew says, it has even been conjectured that Castlereagh served as a model for Phileas Fogg, the quintessential phlegmatic Victorian Englishman of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. But caught up in the revolutionary currents of his time, he paradoxically became a sort of Byronic antihero: a handsome, cold, isolated figure, an outcast from high Whig society because of his unspeakable crimes, at home on the Continent but a hated renegade in his native land. He also bore a suitably Romantic talisman: “Throughout his life he wore around his neck a large, square gold brooch, containing a picture of his mother and a plait of her hair, on which was inscribed the word ‘Irreparable.’” She had died in childbirth when he was just a year old. After he had cut his throat, when he was 53, his servants found the brooch still there. In the veins of this cruel master practitioner of realpolitik, it seems, flowed the warm blood of Romantic sentiment, which finally spilled out from that hidden, original, and irreparable wound.
Joshua Lustig is managing editor of the world affairs journal Current History, based in Philadelphia, and a contributing editor at Open Letters Monthly.