August 8

1827

Death of Prime Minister George Canning

There is a certain moral grandeur popularly ascribed to the doctrinaire which is denied to the statesman. There are few politicians who receive the unreserved admiration accorded to those who have done nothing but write books, or yielded their lives to the advocacy of a single cause. The doctrinaire—the propounder of a fixed set of opinions— advises mankind, but does not under-take to manage them. Through a long series of years he may publish his convictions with pertinacious uniformity, without hindrance and without responsibility. Such consistency is sometimes contrasted with the wavering tactics of the statesman, to the unfair disadvantage of the latter. A statesman sets himself to lead a people, and is less careful to entertain them with his private convictions than to discover what principles they are inclined to accept and to commit to practice. The doctrinaire’s business is to proclaim what is true, whether men hear or reject; the statesman’s is to ascertain and recommend what is practicable.

The statesman is often compelled to defer his private judgment to popular prejudice, and to rest content with bending what cannot be broken. Sir Robert Peel was a free-trader long before free-trade was possible. These reserves are inseparable from statesmanship, nor need they involve dissimulation. A statesman, being a practical man, regards all speech as lost labour which is not likely to be reproduced in action. There is, as all know, a base statesmanship, which does not aspire to lead from good to better, but which panders to popular folly for selfish ends. Of this we do not speak. We merely note the f act, that the consistency of the doctrinaire is an easy virtue compared with the statesman’s arduous art: the first tells what is right; the other persuades millions to do it. A statesman who has led with any credit a free people, has necessarily encountered difficulties and temptations of which the solitary student has had no experience, and possibly no conception.

George Canning, whilst one of the ablest European statesmen of the present century, was not doctrinally far in advance of his generation; yet for England he did much worthy service, and through his genius English principles acquired new influence the world over. He was born in Marylebone, London, on the 11th of April 1770. His father was a young gentleman, whose family had cast him off for making a poor marriage; and, while Canning was an infant, he died, it is said, of a broken heart. His mother commenced school-keeping for her support, but it did not pay, and then she tried the stage, but with little better success. An uncle meanwhile intervened, and sent Canning to Eton, where he quickly made his mark by his aptitude for learning.

From Eton he passed to Oxford, and thence to Lincoln’s Inn, with the intention of studying for the bar; but such was his readiness in debate, that his friends persuaded him that politics were his true vocation. At this time he was on familiar terms with Sheridan and Fox, and other leading Whigs, but to their disappointment he sought alliance with Pitt, and under his auspices he entered parliament in 1793. As soon as by trial Pitt had tested the quality of his young recruit, he placed him on active service, and left him to bear the brunt of some formidable attacks. Canning enjoyed and grew under this discipline, and found wit and eloquence equal to all demands. With the Anti-Jacobin periodical—begun in 1797 and concluded in 1798, to resist and ridicule democratic opinions—he was largely concerned, and its best verses and jeux dèsprit were written by him. His Needy Knife-Grinder, a burlesque of a poem by Southey, is known to everybody, being a stock-piece in all collections of humorous poetry.

In 1800, Canning was married to Joan Scott, a daughter of General Scott, who brought with her a dowry of £100,000. Canning’s life, from 1793 to 1827, is inwrought with the parliamentary history of England, sometimes in office, and sometimes in opposition. He was a steady enemy of the French Revolution and of Napoleon; he advocated the Irish union, the abolition of the slave trade, and Catholic emancipation; but resisted parliamentary reform, and the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. As secretary of state for foreign affairs, he was peculiarly distinguished. His sympathies were heartily liberal; and the assertion of Lord Holland, that Canning had ‘the finest logical intellect in Europe,’ seemed to find justification in his state-papers and correspondence, which were models of lucid and spirited composition. Against the craft of the Holy Alliance he set his face steadily, and was always ready to afford counsel and help to those who were struggling after constitutional freedom. With real joy he recognised the republics formed from the dissolution of Spanish dominion in America, and one of his last public acts was the treaty which led to the deliverance of Greece from the Turks.

Canning was only prime minister during a few months preceding his death. On the resignation of the Earl of Liverpool, through illness, Canning, in April 1827, succeeded him as premier; and as a consequence of his known favour for the Catholics, Lord Eldon, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, and other Tories threw up their places. Canning had, therefore, to look for support to the Whigs, and with much anxiety and in weak health he fought bravely through the session to its close in July, when he retired to the Duke of Devonshire’s villa at Chiswick, and there died on the 8th of August 1827.

2 thoughts on “August 8”

    1. In the soon-to-be-justly-famous “Curmudgeon’s Commonplace Book” there is a quote about Canning:

      Eloquent men should never be made members of parliament. There is naturally so much depravity in the human heart, and so little wisdom in the human head, that those who possess the gift of eloquence are just as likely to employ it in the cause of mischief as in that of good. What portion of benefit did this nation ever derive from the eloquence of Canning and many others? – Robert Macnish, Aphorisms, 1834

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