While traveling with Tsar Alexander and the allied army campaigning against Napoleon as Britain’s ambassador in 1813, the Earl of Aberdeen remarked that “the heroes we read of at a distance with respect dwindle into minor figures at a near approach.” Much the same applies in reverse with statesmen whose public standing falls short of their real merits and accomplishments. Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool and Britain’s prime minister from 1812 to 1827, offers a case in point. Leading colleagues—among them Lord Castlereagh, George Canning, the Duke of Wellington, and Sir Robert Peel—held the limelight even as Liverpool provided the keystone holding together the political architecture of early nineteenth century Britain.
Liverpool spent nearly fifteen years as prime minister, an uninterrupted tenure no successor has yet matched. Only two earlier prime ministers, Sir Robert Walpole and William Pitt the Younger exceeded it. Holding office so long itself marks an accomplishment, but Liverpool built a formidable record leading Britain through the final stages of the Napoleonic Wars, a peace settlement that won unprecedented security, and then social turmoil worsened by a postwar slump. Prime ministers before and after him dealt effectively with either foreign crises or equally difficult problems at home. Liverpool handled both with more success than most. Weathering those challenges, he set down a line of conservative policy with lasting effect. If, as an observer remarked, whoever writes England’s history of the period must necessarily write Liverpool’s biography, his life and career offer a revealing palimpsest for a pivotal era.
Liverpool became prime minister having mastered both policy and the administrative machinery that implemented it. His father Charles Jenkinson, a commercial expert and political fixer with close ties to George III, had risen to a peerage and seat in Pitt’s cabinet. Appointed foreign secretary at the age of thirty, Liverpool negotiated the brief Peace of Amiens with France. He later served as home secretary (1804–6 and 1807–9), handling Irish unrest along with the whole range of domestic policy. Working closely with magistrates attuned him to concerns among local political establishments across Britain. As war secretary (1809–1812), Liverpool guided British strategy and became Wellington’s essential partner in the struggle against Napoleon. Leading the House of Lords for seven and a half years under three prime ministers, he defended the government’s conduct and managed legislation. Colleagues turned to him as their leader after Spencer Perceval’s assassination in June 1812.
His premiership from 1812 to 1827 encompassed what Paul Johnson has called “the birth of the modern” as social, cultural, and other dynamics held back by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars found expression after 1815. While E. P. Thompson famously argued that a slightly longer period between 1790 and 1830 saw the making of an English working class, the historian James Sack offered compelling evidence for a conservative ethos developing from the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and James Boswell’s Life of Johnson to Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto in 1834. Those years saw a struggle in Europe and North America along with Britain over institutions, practices and ideas that shaped political order. Norman Gash, who pioneered the study of early Victorian politics, looked back from that era to credit Liverpool with developing policies which anticipated a recognizable conservative party.
Given his role at formative time, why did Liverpool fade into relative obscurity? A crippling stroke in February 1827 left him, as The Times wrote, “politically, if not literally, dead.” Conflicts among the colleagues who succeeded him overshadowed his memory even before he died in 1828. The Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel refused to serve under George Canning as prime minster. Canning’s friends repaid the favor after his death by operating as a semi-detached group within the government Wellington formed in 1828. Differences among Tories gave Whigs an opening they had lacked since 1783 and brought to power in 1830 a government led by Lord Grey committed to parliamentary reform. Along with the earlier repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the 1832 Reform Act dismantled much of the constitutional order Liverpool had spent his career defending.
Liverpool seemed out of step with changes the Tory politician and writer John Wilson Croker described as “a revolution gradually accomplished by due form of law.” Thomas Babbington Macaulay echoed Croker from a different perspective when he called the 1832 Reform Act “the revolution which brought parliament into harmony with the nation” just as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had “brought the Crown into harmony with harmony with parliament.” Harriet Martineau, another liberal writer, cast reform “as that vital renovation of our representative system which will be to thoughtful students of a thousand years what Magna Charta is to us.”
An emerging liberal consensus presented the decades before 1830 as a stagnant, reactionary period that had delayed necessary change. Historians, publicists, and opposition politicians who had seen their aims thwarted by Liverpool and his colleagues had a considerable stake in framing the closing decades of the long eighteenth century in those critical terms. Walter Bagehot believed the French Revolution had left the wealthy and comfortable “afraid of catching revolution” as if it were “an infectious disease beginning no one knows how, and going no one knows where.” Anxiety fueled reflexive opposition to reform and what liberals deemed a thoughtless approach to public questions. Tories from the 1790s, the historian William Lecky claimed, adopted Burke’s dread of organic change in state, church, and society without his disposition toward administrative reform. Stagnation followed until 1830. These views set a lasting narrative that guided historians as their subject developed into an academic discipline and shaped general view of Liverpool’s era into the twentieth century.
Moreover, Liverpool lacked protégés to uphold his reputation. Canning’s followers carried on his reputation as the standard bearer of Liberal Toryism. Peel drew sympathy as a reformer easily cast as a forerunner of Gladstonian Liberalism. By contrast, Benjamin Disraeli famously dismissed Liverpool in his 1844 political novel Conningsby as “the Arch Mediocrity who presided rather than ruled over this Cabinet of Mediocrities.” Henry Brougham acknowledged Liverpool’s popularity—“while others were the objects of excretion and scorn, he was generally respected, never assailed”—but attributed it to the fact that colleagues set policy and managed business. “Respectable mediocrity,” Brougham observed, “offends nobody.”
Such impressions came partly from Liverpool’s approach to politics, including a willingness to share credit with colleagues unusual among politicians in any day. Personal reserve and a temperamental aversion to publicity masked his real authority. During the turbulent years after 1815, Liverpool also developed political tactics to avoid controversy and deflect attention. Facing unpopular choices likely to antagonize vocal interests, he used parliamentary committees with backbenchers and opposition figures sympathetic on specific issues to share responsibility beyond the government. Keeping policy disputes out of the cabinet—and in the hands of specialist figures operating behind the scenes—limited differences among ministers until 1823. Allowing colleagues, whether Castlereagh, Canning, Peel, or Wellington, to take a public lead spared Liverpool from being a lightning rod for discontent. At the same time, he quietly imposed a clear lead on his cabinet that Pitt and North before him had not managed, which made his administration far stronger as it faced much greater challenges than theirs.
Liverpool’s approach served a particular conservative defense of Britain’s balanced constitution in the eighteenth century. Crown, parliament, and the established Church of England together secured public order and liberty while uniting disparate interests. No interest, Liverpool declared at a civic banquet honoring him in 1825, stood alone, “all were links in a great social chain, all connected and dependent on each other.” Ideas of a balanced political order drew upon Cicero and Polybius through Aristotle to reinforce more recent British custom and practice. Parliament joined principles of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy in a dynamic equilibrium while ensuring representation for the estates of the realm. Balance checked usurpation, whether by royal tyranny, aristocratic faction, or the people. Neither reactionary nor repressive, Liverpool sought to defend Britain’s social and political order with the institutions that gave them expression.
Those aims reflected family tradition along with his own formative experiences. The Jenkinsons were Oxfordshire gentry whose church and king commitments since the 1660s set them within an emerging Tory tradition. Siding with the Whigs in 1754 to advance his career did not change opinions Charles Jenkinson passed along to his son. Indeed, Liverpool’s colleagues later noted how much he quoted his father, whose tenure coincided with the Tory party’s revival under George III. Seeing the French Revolution at first hand—Liverpool witnessed the storming of the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789—taught him the fragility of public order. Subsequent experience with unrest in Britain and the long struggle with revolutionary and Napoleonic France reinforced those lessons, along with Liverpool’s commitment to the British constitution.
What later historians called Liberal Toryism gave Liverpool the means to pursue that end as prime minister. It sought to promote economic growth and raise living standards while separating particular, targeted reforms from restructuring the political system as a whole. Administrative reform met charges of elite parasitism and reduced expense. The shift to laissez faire marked a lasting change that set a trajectory later governments followed. Success allaying discontent reduced pressures for the larger political changes Liverpool sought to avoid. It also vindicated his claim to govern in the interests of the country as a whole.
A closer look at Liverpool’s career reveals him as anything but the “arch mediocrity” of Disraeli’s jibe. It also challenges the way nineteenth-century liberals described the decades before 1830. Both Liverpool and his era marked a formative period that merits renewed study. Liverpool showed considerable imagination building on Pitt’s legacy and other influences to meet the challenges those years presented. Indeed, his stature as a statesmen, unlike many contemporaries, grows at nearer approach. The lines Canning wrote in 1802 lauding Pitt as “the pilot that weathered the storm” which became a staple of Tory occasions much better describes Liverpool who guided Britain through a turbulent era and charted a course toward the calmer waters of mid-Victorian prosperity.
William Anthony Hay is an associate professor of history and director of the Institute for the Humanities at Mississippi State University. His new book, Lord Liverpool: A Political Life, will be released by Boydell Press later this month.