Robert Jenkinson, Second Earl of Liverpool: Guarantor of Britain’s Stability in a Turbulent Time

Of the many curious objects that attracted the attention of Alexis de Tocqueville during his first visit to the United Kingdom in the early 1830s, none struck him more vividly than the peculiar survivalin what might otherwise have been considered the most modern of Europe’s post-Napoleonic regimesof a fully functioning, traditional, landed aristocracy. Moreover, inequality of conditions characterized not merely the form but also the substance of early 19th century British society. Peers of the realm dominated at court. Men of rank prevailed in the king’s government and over its representative institutions. Not coincidentally, the territorial elite included most of the richest persons in the realm. High land values, low taxation, and primogeniture ensured that they continued to do so well into the 1880s.

But so, too, did a certain kind of political prudence. Contemporary legend had it that the German junkers would happily have dug their own graves provided they had first been granted a monopoly over the spades with which to do so. By contrast, the British (anyway, the English) landed classes were more than capable of trading away ancient advantages for a continued influence in an ever-more-industrial and urban society.

Tocqueville doubted whether even so pragmatic an attitude toward the realities of power would guarantee the Anglo-Saxon ruling classes perpetual immunity to the melancholy fate of the ancien régime elsewhere. Yet by the end of his life (he died in 1859) the Frenchman had come to the prescient conclusion that the fall of the British aristocracy might be delayed for at least another generation. Democracy in America (1835) spoke to the immediate future of much of Continental Europe. But its lessons need careful qualification when applied to the British case, at least until the First World War.

The survival of the 19th century British aristocracy was rooted in the economic facts of life. Land long remained Britain’s most valuable capital resource, even as agricultural production was replaced by mineral extraction as the most profitable way of exploiting it. Urbanization furnished rents that farmers could only dream of. The landed classes were shrewd rulers, too. They not only adapted to change; they often championed it themselves. Think of the Duke of Bridgewater and all those canals. Naturally, they seldom governed other than in their own interests. But they usually took care to protect the property of others as well. Think of Robert Peel and the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws.

Unfairly Ignored, and Even More Unfairly Derided

Few now recall the contribution of Robert Jenkinson, Second Earl of Liverpool, made to that remarkably successful rearguard action. This is very curious. Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for 15 years, from 1812 to 1827. No one has held that office for longer since. Moreover, he presided over a nation rent by social dislocation, even threatened by revolutionary fervor, for almost a decade on either side of the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Yet he bequeathed a peculiarly stable kingdom to his successors. There was no “French Revolution” in England in 1830, and the Continental conflagrations of 1848 passed almost unnoticed throughout the British Isles. Few did more to ensure that peaceable progress during the years when it might easily have faltered. Few have subsequently been afforded less credit for the admirable legacy they left.

More curious still, Liverpool was generally derided by those who followed. Benjamin Disraeli, his fellow Tory Prime Minister, dismissed him as “an arch mediocrity” who “presided rather than ruled” over a cabinet of “similar non-entities.” Lord Brougham and Harriet Martineau concurred. If contemporaries were cruel, posterity has been charitable only in its neglect. Charles Duke Yonge’s tombstone biography (1868) was largely ignored. Norman Gash’s Life (1984) has generally been derided as a lesser, later, work.  

A man without sons, Liverpool was also a politician without protégés. He nurtured no William Gladstone to continue Peelite purposes. Even in his lifetime, Liverpool’s preference for acting as primus inter pares led othersnotably the Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh and the Duke of Wellingtonto claim more kudos for the successes of his governments even as they attracted less opprobrium for their inevitable failures.  

Until now. The word “revisionist” is much overused in historiographical discussion, but William Anthony Hay’s Lord Liverpool: A Political Life fully deserves the description. By way of a patient reexamination of all the available evidence, Hay’s new biography has forged a fresh and convincing account that restores Liverpool to his proper role as a pivotal figure in the politics of early 19th century Britain. In so doing, Hay, an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University, has also enabled his fellow historians to reevaluate both the causes and the consequences of Britain’s post-Napoleonic dispensation. That something like a European ancien régime survived in the United Kingdom down to the 1880s has long been understood in modern British historiography.  Now, at last, we are able to recognize the long-term roots of its peculiar longevity. Finally, we can begin to appreciate Liverpool’s critical role in cultivating them.

Robert Banks Jenkinson was born, and to some degree always remained, a child of the 18th century. This was not least because he was always his father’s son. His family, however, was not one of timeless wealth and power. The Jenkinsons were provincial gentry. Charles, Robert’s father, inherited no fortune. He made his way through politics and marriage, but above all, by means of public office. The elder Jenkinson became head of the Board of Trade in 1784, and forever after remained commercial fixer to Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Charles groomed his son for a similar political career. He hoped from the first for still greater things. That meant a good education (Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford), early entry to the House of Commons (by the age of 20), and speedy nomination to the Indian Board (aged 23). Thereafter, Robert Jenkinson was rarely out of administrative authority. He served as Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, and War Secretary before becoming, in succession to Spencer Perceval in 1812, the head of His Majesty’s government.

Containing the Spread of the Jacobin Spirit

No one born in 1770 could have lived other than in the shadow of the French Revolution. Robert Jenkinson’s life was largely shaped by that calamity. He was present in Paris at the time of the storming of the Bastille. Its violent (and dishonorable) denouement left him with a lasting distaste for the rule of the mob. He was instrumental in securing the Peace of Amiens between Britain and France 13 years later. Napoleon’s cynical repudiation of this 1802 treaty soon afterwards convinced Jenkinson never to trust that adventurer again. Above all, he observed from the first the inevitable link between revolutionary Jacobinism on one side of the Channel and incipient social unrest on the other. No less did he appreciate the impossibility of peaceful coexistence between an ideologically and militarily insurgent French foreign policy after 1793, and the pragmatically limited geopolitical rules of the erstwhile international order. Put another way, he understood earlier than most and better than many that the French Revolution was something that simply had to be defeated. He spent much of his early adult life at the forefront of British and allied efforts to do so.

By the time these succeeded, the Second Earl Liverpool was already British Prime Minister. That said, he saw the Congress of Vienna as an opportunity to make peace for the future, not as an opportunity to return Europe to a mythical past. He opposed Tsar Alexander’s “Holy Alliance” and regarded the Bourbons as little better than the Stuarts. He was willing to face down the radical challenge that confronted Britons, notably at the time of the Cato Street Conspiracy, but he never intended to inaugurate a reactionary regime at home. In fact, he strove to dismantle much of the fiscal-military state and to curb the corruption that went with it. He restored the Corn Laws merely as a means to guarantee supply. In all other respects, his preferred economic policies reflected the “Liberal Toryism” that he had imbibed in his youth.

Blazing the Trail that Peel and Gladstone Followed

All of this involved a respectful reading of the Scottish economists, especially Adam Smith. But above all, it meant a pragmatic economic policy. The goals on which this pragmatic statesman stayed focused were to promote domestic growth and raise living standards. But the underlying ideal was to pursue a disinterested administration that ensured the general good through observing a studious neutrality between all interests, “each [conceived] as links in a great social chain, all connected and dependent upon each other for their mutual welfare,” simultaneously sustaining the commonweal whilst maximizing private initiative and individual liberty. This was an ideal of British governmentaristocratic certainly, even autocratic on occasion, but also public-spirited and frugalthat lasted into the last quarter of the 19th century. Peel and Gladstone are more associated with this ideal than is Liverpool. But they followed his lead as much as they invented the doctrine for themselves.

Liverpool’s world was seemingly swept away by the “confessional crisis” of 1828 to 1832. The threat of civil unrest in Ireland prompted Wellington to enact Catholic Emancipation. This, in turn, provoked Reform. Under the multi-denominational constitution and party-dominated politics that followed, Liverpool’s commitment to a “mixed regime’” of king, lords, and commons quickly came to appear an anachronism, and his defense of Anglican exclusivity was contemptuously dismissed as narrow-minded intolerance.

Neither judgement is fair. Much more survived than the Victorians ever acknowledged. “Balanced government” might have been dead by the time Walter Bagehot eulogized The English Constitution (1867), but most practicing British politicians continued to believe in it for long afterwards. Daniel O’Connell’s Irish insurgency might have destroyed the confessional Anglican state forever; yet Liverpool had believed in it more as a vehicle for religious latitudinarianism than doctrinal bigotry. In any event, its passing caused as many problems as it solved.

How Liverpool would have coped with the challenges of the post-1832 world will never be known. He was incapacitated by a stroke in 1827, and died in 1828. He might have been felix opportunitate mortis. But his reputation suffered a near permanent eclipse. He became the representative of another, inferior, age. The Victorians could afford to despise him. We now have no such excuse.