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  George  Hamilton-Gordon (1784–1860), by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1829–30 George Hamilton-Gordon (1784–1860), by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1829–30
Gordon, George Hamilton-, fourth earl of Aberdeen (1784–1860), prime minister and scholar, first child of six sons and a daughter of George Gordon, Lord Haddo (1764–1791), and his wife, Charlotte (or Charles; d. 1795) , the youngest daughter of William Baird of Newbyth, Haddingtonshire, and sister of General Sir David Baird, was born in Edinburgh on 28 January 1784. His father died as the result of a riding accident at Gight on 2 October 1791. His mother then quarrelled with his grandfather, the third earl. The third earl was a colourful character. In 1762 he had married Catherine Elizabeth Hanson, the daughter of a Yorkshire blacksmith, in a literally shotgun marriage (Walker, 2.530–31, and W. Yorks. AS). Later in life he kept several mistresses and had a number of illegitimate children. Lady Haddo took all her children to England. She died at Clifton, Bristol, on 8 October 1795.

Family and early life

George was sent to preparatory schools at Barnet and Parsons Green, and in June 1795 to Harrow School. He believed that his grandfather was reluctant to pay for him to go to Harrow and subsequently refused to pay for him to go to Cambridge. In fact his grandfather had wished to see him educated in Scotland ‘that he do not despise his own country’ (draft will, 6 Nov 1791, Haddo House MS 1/27), a not unreasonable wish, particularly when the Scottish universities were acknowledged to be better than the English ones. The third earl had also named several ‘curators’, or guardians, for his grandson in the event of his own death, including the duke of Gordon. Lady Haddo had, however, looked elsewhere for a protector and turned to Henry Dundas, later Lord Melville. Dundas and his wife became substitute parents to the young Gordons. Through Dundas, George, now Lord Haddo (he held this courtesy title from 1791 to 1801), met William Pitt the younger. At the age of fourteen, exercising his right under Scottish law, he chose Pitt and Dundas as his guardians.

William Pitt was the most important formative influence on the future earl's life and he still acknowledged him as his master when prime minister himself. It was Pitt who persuaded Haddo that public life was the only proper one. The Gordons of Haddo had not previously played a major role in English politics, although they had been staunch royalists in Scotland. An ancestor, Sir John Gordon, was the first royalist executed in Scotland during the civil war. His younger son, George, the first earl of Aberdeen, was made high chancellor of Scotland by James II, when duke of York. After 1688 he became a nonjuror. His son, the second earl, ‘fortunately for the interests of the family’ (Selections, 4), dropped dead on his way to join the Jacobite rising of 1745. The fourth earl was always deeply conscious of family history. On the grand tour in 1803 he sought out the Young Pretender's widow, the countess of Albany, in Rome, and in 1829 he was instrumental in entrusting the Stuart papers, belonging to the Old Pretender and his sons, which had been acquired by the prince regent, to Sir Walter Scott and J. G. Lockhart for publication (Aberdeen to Scott, 1 July 1829, NL Scot., MS 868).

Scholar and landlord

It may have been Pitt who paid for Haddo to go to St John's College, Cambridge, in 1800. He was a natural scholar and immersed himself in Renaissance, as well as classical, studies. He formed a close circle of friends, among them Hudson Gurney of the banking family and George Whittington, an ordinand. They all had literary ambitions and exchanged verses and other writings, some mildly scurrilous.

Haddo's Cambridge career was interrupted by the death, in August 1801, of the third earl. Contrary to a popular impression he had not been entirely cut off from Scotland in his youth, having frequently accompanied Dundas to Dumira in Perthshire, but it is unlikely he had been back to the family home, Haddo House, in Aberdeenshire. The homecoming was a shock. Most of the Aberdeenshire estates were entailed, but in addition to leaving the family silver to the widowed countess the third earl had provided lavishly for his illegitimate children. It left the heir with considerable debts. The estates were neglected and, as Aberdeen wrote to his lawyer, ‘Everything is in the most confused state … [the] accounts have not been settled since the year 90’ (letter from Aberdeen, 28 Aug 1801, NL Scot., MS 3418, fol. 13). But there was nothing Aberdeen could do immediately because he was not yet of full age.

Aberdeen returned to Cambridge, but in 1802 took advantage of the peace of Amiens to set out on the grand tour, in the company of Gurney and Whittington. The itinerary was planned by Whittington, who had become interested in the development of Gothic architecture. Whittington subsequently wrote a book, An Historical Survey of the Ecclesiastical Antiquities of France, which is remarkable for the modernity of some of its views. Following Whittington's premature death in 1807, Aberdeen himself contributed the notes and preface and saw it through the press.

Aberdeen kept a careful journal of his travels. His observations on the political and economic state of France are remarkably mature for a man of barely nineteen. He was pleasantly surprised by the freedom of speech but distressed by evidence of the ravages of the revolution. His connection with William Pitt ensured him a meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris. He was also able to indulge his love of the theatre and spend time in the Louvre, as well as visiting the painter David. He was already on the lookout for works of art to collect. From Paris the three young men proceeded to Rome by way of Nice, Genoa, and Florence. Gurney and Whittington returned home but Aberdeen, fired by his love of classical antiquities, determined to go on to the Levant.

In Naples, Aberdeen joined the party of a fellow Scot, William Drummond, who had just been appointed to succeed Lord Elgin as British ambassador in Constantinople. They sailed by way of Sicily, Malta, and Athens, where Aberdeen mourned the destruction of the Parthenon and walked along the via sacra to Eleusis. Off Athens they met up with pirates, but Aberdeen laconically recorded, ‘We fired one eight and twenty pounder, at the sound of which they made off’ (Aberdeen, diaries, 29 April 1803).

They arrived in Constantinople on 13 May 1803. Aberdeen accompanied Drummond on his first formal audience with the sultan but was soon off on his travels again: this time exploring Asia Minor in an attempt to find the site of Troy. He then set off on a solitary tour of Greece. In Athens he tried to buy some of the friezes from the Parthenon but found that Elgin was before him. The Morea was then a wild region and Drummond, not a timid man, later commented, ‘I should not have ventured on such a journey’ (Drummond to Aberdeen, 24 April 1804, BL, Add. MS 43229). Aberdeen made a collection of sculptures, which he later presented to the British Museum. He also recorded a large number of inscriptions, which have since been destroyed, and carried out various excavations which, on the evidence he was later able to supply to inquirers, were recorded in scientific detail far ahead of their time. Unfortunately his notebooks have now disappeared, perhaps discarded by his eldest son, whose religious fervour made him unsympathetic to ‘paganism’.

Aberdeen returned to England by way of Venice, Vienna, and Berlin in the summer of 1804. Although at first he found Haddo a depressing place, he energetically set about making over his estates according to the best models of the time. His fondness for planting trees (he estimated himself that he planted 14 million) amused his contemporaries, but it had a serious purpose for, aesthetic considerations aside, it remedied a chronic shortage of timber. Equally important were the new model leases he drew up, the carefully designed granite houses which replaced the rubble-stone cottages, roofed with peat, of the tenantry, and the experiments with new crops and stock breeding. Aberdeen was a good landlord, who set great store by continuity. At his eldest son's coming of age in 1837 he expressed his satisfaction that no tenant was missing because he had been turned off the estate—a claim echoed by the Banffshire Journal after his death, which added that he had never distrained for rent (Aberdeen to Haddo, 5 Oct 1837, Haddo House MS 1/27; GM, 3rd ser., 10, 1861, 207, quoting Banffshire Journal). From 1846 until his death he was lord lieutenant of Aberdeenshire.

Aberdeen also set out to improve Haddo House. Although it was a dignified Palladian house, designed for the second earl in the 1730s by William Adam, the father of the more famous Adam brothers, to replace the house damaged during the civil war, it was not a convenient building and Aberdeen always felt that it was plain compared with the great houses of his friends in England. He tried to soften it by developing the gardens and eventually creating that fashionable feature, a lake, out of a bog. He was influenced in his designs by his friend Uvedale Price, and his ideas of the ‘picturesque’. Despite its remoteness from London, Haddo was to be for a time in the 1840s and 1850s an important house where politicians and others met, and even the French chargé d'affaires commended Aberdeen's wine cellar.

Having put the first improvements at Haddo in train, Aberdeen returned to London in March 1805. He became a habitué of the three great salons at Devonshire House, Holland House, and Bentley Priory, the home of the Abercorns at Stanmore in Middlesex. Although the first two were accounted whig and the last tory, there was at this time, when most politicians had rallied to Pitt during the French wars, no clear distinction between the clienteles. The Bentley Priory circle included Sir Walter Scott, Richard Sheridan, Thomas Lawrence, John Kemble, and Richard Payne Knight the antiquary. Scott later wrote that the marquess of Abercorn, Payne Knight, and Aberdeen ‘made evenings of modern fashion resemble a Greek symposium for learning and literature’ (QR, 34, 1826, 213–14).

Aberdeen was establishing a reputation as a scholar. In July 1805 he and William Drummond contributed a long review of William Gell's The Topography of Troy to the Edinburgh Review. Aberdeen disagreed with Gell's speculations about the site of Troy and the tone of the article was satirical, but those who have seen it as unpleasantly sarcastic have missed the point. The three men were friends, and Payne Knight warned Drummond that Gell might retaliate: ‘to hunt down an Earl & a Privy Councillor in the Character of Reviewers would be a fine sport’ (Knight to Drummond, 5 Aug 1805, BL, Add. MS 43229). Gell bore no malice and Aberdeen helped him find the finance for future expeditions.

Aberdeen's quarrels with other scholars were more serious. The French scholar M. Dutens took exception to Aberdeen's review of his Recherches sur le tems, le plus reculé de l'usage des voûtes chez les anciens, although modern scholarship would be much closer to Aberdeen's views on the origins of the arch than to his. Aberdeen later clashed with the Abbé Fourmont on the significance of the marbles at Amyclae, laughing at Fourmont's suggestion that they represented human sacrifice and expressing his own views in his contributions to Robert Walpole's Memoirs Relating to Turkey in 1817 and Travels in Various Countries in the East. He also contributed a learned chapter on the mines of Laurium and Athenian currency to the former book. In 1812 he had written an introduction to William Wilkins's new edition of Vitruvius' De architectura. Ten years later he published an expanded version under the title An Inquiry into the Principles and Beauty in Grecian Architecture, in which he did not hesitate to question Edmund Burke's Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.

In May 1805 Aberdeen was elected to the , by that time an important group of patrons. A month later he was elected to the Society of Antiquaries, of which he became president in 1811, an office he held until 1846. He was a very active member of both until distracted by public office. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in April 1808 and served on its council in 1812–13, 1817–18, and 1821–2. He was there as a patron, rather than a scientist, but he took a steadily increasing interest in the scientific theories and controversies of the time. He became a trustee of the British Museum in December 1812 and was still active in that capacity in the 1850s.

Aberdeen's membership of the Dilettanti led him into the controversy about the Elgin marbles. Many scholars, including his own mentor, Payne Knight, were sceptical about both their authenticity and their importance when Elgin returned with them in 1807, but in 1816 Aberdeen appeared as a witness before the Commons select committee, rejected Payne Knight's views, gave his opinion that they might well be by the great Athenian sculptor Phidias, and recommended that they be bought for the nation at £35,000—the sum eventually agreed.

Aberdeen himself believed that it was permissible to remove sculptures to save them from destruction, but he attracted the ire of his own cousin, George Gordon, Lord Byron. Byron's reference to ‘the travelled Thane, Athenian Aberdeen’ in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers is well known, but he had originally written a much more savage stanza in Childe Harold, beginning,
Come then ye classic Thieves of each degree,
Dark Hamilton and sullen Aberdeen.
He had toned it down on hearing that Aberdeen was about to propose him for the Athenian Club, a dining club for those who had visited Athens, which Aberdeen formed but which did not last long.

Marriage and religion

Soon after his return to Britain in 1804 the duchess of Gordon tried to make a match between Aberdeen and her daughter. Aberdeen, however, had begun a flirtation with Harriet Cavendish, the younger daughter of the fifth duke of Devonshire, but Harriet was a lively young lady who could not resist teasing the rather stiff young Scot. Aberdeen soon transferred his affections to Catherine Elizabeth (1784–1812), the eldest surviving daughter of John James Hamilton, the first marquess of Abercorn. Catherine's personality radiates from her few surviving letters. She was beautiful, talented, and humorous, but, above all, warm-hearted. They were married on 28 July 1805. It was a love match which touched the heart even of hardbitten Regency London.

Catherine was to bear him three daughters, Jane (b. 1807), Caroline (b. 1808), and Alice (b. 1809). Aberdeen adored his daughters and would not allow anyone to express disappointment that they were girls, although a son was an urgent necessity in view of the strict terms of the entail. Unhappily, when the longed-for son was born in November 1810, he lived less than an hour. It slowly became apparent that Catherine herself was suffering from tuberculosis. She died, having fought gallantly to the end, on 29 February 1812. Aberdeen never fully recovered from her death. He wore mourning for her for the rest of his life and, for a year after her death, kept a diary in Latin in which he recorded her constant appearances to him: ‘Vidi, sed obscuriorem’, ‘Tota nocta vidi, ut in vita’ (‘I saw her, but dimly’, ‘The whole night I saw her, as in life’). In his distress he turned to William Howley, later bishop of London and archbishop of Canterbury, but then an Oxford don, with whom he had previously discussed his religious beliefs.

Religion did not come easily to Aberdeen. North of the border, he considered himself ex officio a Presbyterian, and was even a member of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland from 1818 to 1828. He was conscientious in using his patronage in Aberdeenshire parishes. In consequence he became embroiled in the schism which split the Church of Scotland in the 1840s on the conflicting rights of parishioners and patrons to choose their ministers.

In 1834 the general assembly passed the measure, generally called the Veto Act, which allowed parishioners to reject a nominee presented to them by the patron. This was tested in the famous Auchterarder case, in which first the court of session and then the House of Lords ruled that the parish had acted ultra vires in purporting to reject Lord Kinnoul's nominee. Aberdeen was sympathetic to the idea that parishioners should have some voice, although his sympathy was tested by a case in his own parish of Methlick. Aberdeen, as patron, presented a man named James Whyte, to whom some parishioners objected on the grounds that he had a reputation for immorality in his youth. Aberdeen referred the case to the presbytery (that is, the ministers of the district) which, after scrupulous inquiry, found Whyte innocent. Some parishioners, however, continued their objections. Aberdeen felt compelled to put his own authority on the line by appealing to his tenants' sense of fair play, even addressing them in the parish church. In the end the majority came into line and agreed to sign the ‘call’. Aberdeen admitted to his friend John Hope, the dean of faculty, that it had been a test of his own relations with his ‘people’. ‘If the truth must be told, I very much fear that I was secretly even more interested for myself than for Mr Whyte’ (Aberdeen to Hope, 17 Sept 1839; Selections, 127). Mr Whyte lived in amity with his parishioners for the next forty years.

The case made Aberdeen wary, but when Dr Thomas Chalmers, the leader of the so-called non-intrusionists and a personal friend, visited him at Haddo, he promised to support a compromise measure. On 5 May 1840 he introduced a bill into the Lords which would have given presbyteries, although not individual parishes, a right of veto on certain specified grounds. Lord Melbourne's government was divided as to whether to support the bill, and in the meantime a more extreme party, which thought the bill inadequate, gained control of the general assembly. Aberdeen's and Chalmers's co-operation ended amid mutual recriminations and Aberdeen withdrew his bill. In May 1842 the general assembly passed its ‘claim of right’, rejecting all secular interference in ecclesiastical affairs, and the following year about one-third of the ministers of the Church of Scotland seceded to form the Free Church of Scotland. Aberdeen reintroduced his compromise bill, which became law in August 1843 and remained in force until the abolition of patronage in 1874. His own view of the Disruption may be gauged from his reply to Charlotte Canning when she drew his attention to ‘an odd log church … of the free variety’ near Blair Atholl: ‘I would like to set it on fire’ (V. Surtees, Charlotte Canning, 1975, 136).

Privately, he always considered himself an Anglican, once telling William Gladstone that he preferred ‘the sister church’ (10 Dec 1840, BL, Add. MS 44088). He tended to the low- rather than the high-church side, always attending St James's, Piccadilly, when in London and habitually taking communion only once a year at Easter. He personally regarded the doctrine of transubstantiation as a ‘superstition’ but sympathized with Archdeacon Denison in 1857 because ‘to inflict penalties upon a man for believing more than his neighbour, in a matter neither of them can comprehend’ seemed unfair (Aberdeen to Gladstone, 17 Aug 1857, BL, Add. MS 44089). Aberdeen hoped that he faced the many tragedies of his life with Christian resignation but it was, perhaps, closer to stoicism. He always regretted his lack of a ‘lively faith’ and remained at heart a rational man of the eighteenth century.

Representative peer

The death of Aberdeen's wife helped to precipitate him into more involvement in public affairs. As a Scottish peer Aberdeen had no automatic seat in the House of Lords, but he was also debarred from sitting in the Commons. He could enter parliament only as one of the sixteen representative Scottish peers. William Pitt had promised him a United Kingdom peerage, but Pitt's premature death in January 1806 deprived him of his patron. Aberdeen, aged only twenty-two, did remarkably well to be returned as one of the representative peers in the general election of 1806, the only successful candidate not on the king's, that is the government's, list. He was re-elected in 1807 and 1812 (topping the poll in the latter year) but he hated the necessary politicking.

Aberdeen took his place in the Lords on the tory benches on 17 December 1806. He prepared a maiden speech in favour of the abolition of the slave trade but lost his nerve and failed to deliver it. He never overcame his fear of speaking in the Lords. His eventual maiden speech, on a complicated constitutional question, was not a success, and for some time he spoke almost entirely on Scottish matters. Nevertheless he had the entrée into the highest political circles and was active behind the scenes. Castlereagh went out of his way to secure his support at the time of his quarrel, and duel, with Canning in 1809. His friends were beginning to suggest that he might find his métier in diplomacy, and a number of appointments, including St Petersburg and Constantinople, were offered to him, but Aberdeen was too absorbed in his life in London and at Haddo to be much interested. His acceptance of the Vienna embassy in 1813 owed something to his desire to throw himself into work to assuage his grief at Catherine's death and perhaps something to his feeling that he had been a mere bystander in the war while four of his brothers had fought the French—Alexander and Charles with Wellington in the Peninsula ( was killed at Waterloo), and William and John in the navy.

Vienna embassy and Napoleonic wars

The appointment to the Vienna embassy was not so surprising as it has seemed to some later historians. Aberdeen was young, not quite thirty, but it was a young man's world. Metternich himself was not yet forty. War-torn Europe was a dangerous place (Aberdeen's predecessor, Benjamin Bathurst, had been murdered). It seemed to call for exactly the qualities of toughness and initiative that Aberdeen had shown during his Eastern travels. He had only a slight experience of diplomacy, but what was required was a grandee in the confidence of his government, which Aberdeen was. Aberdeen may originally have thought of it as mainly a ceremonial mission to reopen relations with Austria, if she broke with France, which would clinch his claims to a United Kingdom peerage. It turned into nine strenuous and dangerous months, accompanying the allied armies across Europe, which provided the most important formative political experience of his life.

Aberdeen's mission was carried out with professional efficiency, which probably owed much to the one experienced diplomat on his staff, David Morier. His own younger brother, , who had diplomatic experience in Tehran, was also present for part of the time. Another assistant, Frederick Lamb, the younger brother of Lord Melbourne, was also a novice and, in any case, preferred Vienna to campaigning.

When Aberdeen was appointed in the summer of 1813 it was not yet certain that Austria would join Russia and Prussia against Napoleon. Aberdeen left London on 6 August. Only on 12 August did Austria declare war on France. Since 1809 Britain had been excluded from European diplomacy. Castlereagh had taken advantage of the changed situation after Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 to appoint Lord Cathcart ambassador to Russia, and his own half-brother, Sir Charles Stewart, ambassador to Prussia. Both were soldiers, rather than diplomats, and neither was held in high esteem by the continentals. Metternich's secretary, Gentz, once referred to them as ‘real caricatures of ambassadors’ (Webster, 47). More importantly, they had been left out of the crucial negotiations of June 1813, culminating in the treaty of Reichenbach of 27 June, in which Austria, Prussia, and Russia agreed on the terms on which they would be prepared to conclude peace with Napoleon.

Castlereagh's first instructions to Aberdeen were to try ‘to penetrate in to [the] councils of the Austrian emperor’ and, more particularly, to get accurate copies of any treaties or engagements entered into (general instructions, 3 Aug 1813, TNA: PRO, FO 7/101). In other words, he had to try to re-establish the British presence in European diplomacy. He has seldom been given the credit for succeeding in this, although often condemned for the compromises which success entailed. Castlereagh's general instructions to Aberdeen on the post-war settlement to aim for, although based on William Pitt's draft of 1805, were open-ended and contingent. Both Castlereagh and Aberdeen were well aware that what could be demanded would depend entirely on how the war developed and that, although the British public was dazzled by Wellington's victories in the Iberian peninsula, the war would really be determined in central Europe, and that what Britain had most to fear was the so-called ‘continental peace’ (which the Reichenbach terms had embodied), in which matters were settled between Napoleon and the Eastern powers and British interests ignored.

Aberdeen declined to supply confidential information to his friends at home, even Lord Abercorn, but he did write of his own experiences to Lord Harrowby and, more particularly, to his sister-in-law, Maria, Lady Hamilton. Taken with his private, as well as his official, letters to Castlereagh, the mission is exceptionally well documented. But it should be remembered that his letters to Maria were partly intended for his three small, motherless daughters, who had wept on his departure, and his occasional boasting of his intimacy with kings and emperors should be taken no more seriously than his description of the carriage which put him in mind of ‘Cinderella and her attelage’, in which he crossed Sweden.

Aberdeen arrived in Berlin on 23 August full of almost schoolboy excitement at the idea of seeing war first hand. A few weeks later he had seen enough to last him a lifetime. Warned that the French were advancing and their road might be cut, they pressed on at full speed for Prague. In the night Aberdeen's carriage overturned and he suffered concussion which, rightly or wrongly, he blamed for the headaches which tormented him for the rest of his life. They caught up with the Austrian emperor at Teplitz. The tsar of Russia and the king of Prussia were also there with a dozen lesser princes. It was at this meeting that Gentz noted that Aberdeen was not completely ‘master’ of the French language, from which some historians have drawn the exaggerated conclusion that he could not speak French. In fact he was a competent linguist and Gentz withdrew most of his criticisms a few days later.

Aberdeen got on well with the Austrian emperor, Franz I, and also struck up the friendship with Metternich, cemented by the shared hardships of campaigning, which endured for the lifetime of both. Aberdeen had been dismayed by the waggons ‘full of wounded, dead and dying’ he had seen on the road from Prague to Teplitz. The aftermath of the battle of Leipzig, although an allied victory, shocked him still more. He wrote to Maria,
For three or four miles the ground is covered with bodies of men and horses, many not dead. Wretches wounded unable to crawl, crying for water amidst heaps of putrefying bodies. Their screams are heard at an immense distance, and still ring in my ears. … Our victory is most complete. It must be owned that a victory is a fine thing, but one should be at a distance. (Aberdeen to M. Hamilton, 4 Sept 1813, 22 Oct 1813, BL, Add. MS 43225)
Meanwhile the diplomatic negotiations to try to cement a final coalition against Napoleon went on. Aberdeen was irritated by the extent to which he was subordinated to Cathcart and rightly saw this as, in part, a reflection of the British view that Russia was a reliable ally while Austria was still to some extent suspect. Aberdeen argued that this was not so. The Russians were tempted to make peace now the French had been expelled from Russian soil; the Austrians had burnt their boats and would suffer disasters even greater than those of 1809 if Napoleon was not thoroughly defeated this time.

Early in November the allies entered Frankfurt am Main and Aberdeen became involved in the ‘Frankfort proposals’. Baron St Aignan, the brother-in-law of the French foreign minister, Armand Caulaincourt, was to be used as a secret emissary to propose terms to Napoleon. These included an offer of France's ‘natural frontiers’ of the Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees. Aberdeen was aware that Metternich did not expect Napoleon to accept, but was preparing the ground to appeal to his generals, citing their commander's unreasonableness. St Aignan prepared an aide-mémoire of the discussions, which included the ambiguous phrase, ‘Que l'Angleterre était prête … à reconnaître la liberté du commerce, et de la navigation à laquelle la France a droit de prétendre’ (‘England is ready … to recognize the freedom of commerce and navigation which France has the right to claim’). Aberdeen was in an awkward position. The aide-mémoire had no status as an agreed document, and if he insisted on rewording it, it might acquire such status. Moreover, he was not officially present at the discussions at all. If he had refused to play along he might have been excluded, as Cathcart and Stewart were at Reichenbach. He made no formal protest and was upheld on this by Castlereagh, but this did not save him from the later charge that he had been prepared to give away Britain's cherished ‘maritime rights’.

It was becoming notorious that relations between Aberdeen, Cathcart, and Stewart were bad, and Castlereagh determined to go to the continent and take charge himself. Nevertheless he still used Aberdeen as his right-hand man, leaving him to conduct the negotiations at Châtillon in February–March 1814. The Châtillon conference was overtaken by the final military breakthrough against Napoleon. Aberdeen accompanied Castlereagh to Paris and assisted him in concluding the first treaty of Paris with France in May 1814. According to his son's account he actually brought the treaty with him in his carriage to London.

Aberdeen was duly rewarded with a United Kingdom peerage as Viscount Gordon of Aberdeen (1 June 1814). Castlereagh wanted Aberdeen to accompany him to the congress of Vienna to assist him in negotiating the final settlement of Europe, but Aberdeen declined. He wished to return to private life. He did put Metternich and a large entourage up at his London home, Argyll House, when the tsar, the king of Prussia, and other European leaders went to London to celebrate the peace. He had acquired Argyll House, off Oxford Street, the former home of the dukes of Argyll, in 1808, and carried out major alterations with the assistance of the architect William Wilkins.

It was a sad homecoming. Both Maria and James, Lord Hamilton, Lord Abercorn's eldest son and heir, had recently died. Aberdeen wished to remarry and was attracted to both Anne Cavendish, the daughter of Lord George Cavendish, and Susan Ryder, the daughter of Lord Harrowby, but he was persuaded, perhaps over-persuaded, by Lord Abercorn, to marry, on 8 July 1815, Lord Hamilton's widow, the former Harriet Douglas (1792–1833), and become the guardian of Abercorn's infant grandson. (After Abercorn's death in 1818 Aberdeen added Hamilton to his own surname to mark the close intertwining of the families.) Harriet Douglas was a beauty but Aberdeen had once described her to his brother as ‘one of the most stupid persons I have ever met with’ (Aberdeen to A. Gordon, 17 Nov 1810, BL, Add. MS 43223). The marriage produced four sons and a daughter but it was stormy, not least because Harriet became jealous of Catherine's three talented daughters. Private tragedies continued. Caroline died in 1818, Jane in 1824, Alice in 1829, and Frances, the daughter of the second marriage, in 1834. Harriet herself died in 1833. Almost certainly all died of tuberculosis. Aberdeen made desperate attempts to save them, especially Alice, whom he took to the south of France in 1824–6.

Distracted by family problems, the care of his Scottish estates, his guardianship of his stepson, Lord Hamilton, and (after Abercorn's death) responsibility for both Bentley Priory and Baronscourt (the Abercorn estate in Ireland), Aberdeen did not hold office between 1814 and 1828, although he spoke occasionally in the Lords and sat on the 1819 inquiry into the currency question.

Foreign and colonial secretary, 1828–1835

Aberdeen joined the duke of Wellington's administration in January 1828 as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, with the specific brief of assisting the ineffectual Lord Dudley at the Foreign Office. When Dudley resigned with the other Canningites in May, Aberdeen succeeded him as foreign secretary. The great issues of the day were the civil war in Portugal (and the fear of French intervention in the Iberian peninsula) and the Greek War of Independence. On Portugal, Aberdeen deferred to Wellington's specialist knowledge of the area, but on Greece they diverged. Wellington, with his Indian experience, was principally concerned to prevent Russia from increasing her influence at Turkey's expense. Aberdeen sympathized with Greek nationalism. The result was unfortunate. Aberdeen undoubtedly encouraged Stratford Canning, the British ambassador in Constantinople, by private letter, to try to secure Athens for the Greeks, but later, under pressure from Wellington, had to rebuke him for so doing. The incident helps to explain the uneasy relationship between the two men in the 1850s, when Canning was again ambassador in Constantinople.

Wellington's government was still in office when the 1830 revolution occurred in France. Both men agreed that the recognition of the July monarchy under Louis Philippe was the only solution. They were less sympathetic to Belgium's demand for independence from Holland, but the London conference which later, under Palmerston's guidance, accepted Belgian independence, was first convened by Wellington and Aberdeen.

Aberdeen returned to office as colonial secretary in Sir Robert Peel's short-lived administration of December 1834–April 1835. The office was then combined with the War Office, and Aberdeen's complaints about troublesome issues of patronage seem to refer mainly to the latter. He showed percipience as colonial secretary, anticipating the resentment the Boers would feel at the abolition of slavery in 1833 and urging that they be assisted to claim the statutory compensation. (Unlike the West Indian planters, who normally had agents in London, the Boers had little idea how to claim.) He also wished to deal with Canadian problems, foreshadowing in many particulars Lord Durham's mission after the Canadian uprisings of 1837.

Foreign secretary, 1841–1846

Aberdeen joined Sir Robert Peel's second administration as foreign secretary on 3 September 1841. He and Peel were now close personal and political friends. Peel respected Aberdeen's expertise and generally accepted his judgement, only occasionally intervening to ‘stiffen’ Aberdeen in his dealings with France in particular. Aberdeen in return kept Britain's international relations on an even keel while Peel dealt with the economic problems of the ‘hungry forties’, which contemporaries saw as potentially revolutionary.

Aberdeen inherited a dire situation from Lord Palmerston, his predecessor at the Foreign Office. Britain had quarrelled with France over the Eastern crisis of 1840. She was near to war with the United States about border and other disputes. She was actually at war with China and Afghanistan. Aberdeen moved first to restore relations with the United States. Lord Ashburton was sent on a special mission to Washington. The treaty he signed in 1842 did not settle all the disputes and he was accused of giving too much away on the north-east boundary between the States and Canada, although later research suggests that he got a good bargain. The 1846 treaty, which settled the north-west, or Oregon, boundary, is more questionable and more clearly influenced by a desire for any settlement.

Co-operation with France was more often a whig than a tory policy, but Aberdeen created, in 1843, the first entente cordiale—the phrase was actually coined at Haddo House (Chamberlain, Lord Aberdeen, 357–8). It enabled him to settle, with Peel's support, the dangerous Moroccan and Tahiti crises of 1844, which brought Britain and France to the verge of war. But by 1845 both Peel and Wellington feared that too many concessions were being made to France, in particular to keep the government of François Guizot, Aberdeen's principal collaborator in the entente, in power. Aberdeen offered his resignation but Peel refused it, and he remained in office until the fall of Peel's ministry in June 1846. Aberdeen continued to dispute the truth of the old maxim, ‘If you wish for peace, prepare for war’, but Peel and Wellington turned their attention to defence matters.

Aberdeen supported Peel over the repeal of the corn laws and remained a member of the small but highly talented and experienced group of Peelites, despite attempts by Lord Derby to win him over to the protectionists. Palmerston had condemned Aberdeen's policy as foreign secretary from 1841 to 1846 as fatally weak, but few believed him. Aberdeen was regarded as a safe pair of hands, Palmerston as a maverick who allowed the French entente to collapse in the fiasco of the Spanish marriage question in 1846. Palmerston's handling of the great revolutionary crises of 1848 was regarded as dangerously opportunistic by British, as well as European, conservatives. Aberdeen joined Derby to launch an attack upon him in the famous Don Pacifico debate of 1850, which was actually about much wider issues. A few days later Peel died and Aberdeen became, in effect, the Peelite leader.

Prime minister

The Peelites potentially held the balance of power in parliament and an attempt at a coalition with the whigs was made in 1851. It foundered on Lord John Russell's Ecclesiastical Titles Bill. Aberdeen, always in favour of religious tolerance, particularly feared stirring up religious excitement, more especially because of its possible consequences in Ireland.

Extremely interesting discussions took place, mainly by letter, in the summer of 1852 in which Aberdeen and the duke of Newcastle took a prominent part, together with Lord John Russell, Sir James Graham, and William Gladstone. What they envisaged was nothing less than the creation of a completely new political party by a fusion of the whig and Peelite traditions. It was his belief in the reality of the fusion which lay behind Aberdeen's construction of his coalition cabinet in December 1852, Aberdeen formally taking office as prime minister on 19 December. Despite their great disparity in strength in the Commons (the whigs had over two hundred MPs, the Peelites only about thirty), cabinet posts were almost equally divided between the two groups.

Walter Bagehot called the Aberdeen cabinet ‘the ablest we have had’ since the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 (Bagehot, 29). It was genuinely a ‘ministry of all the talents’. The whig leader, Lord John Russell, passed the Foreign Office to Lord Clarendon after a few weeks but remained leader of the Commons. Lord Palmerston took the unaccustomed position of home secretary. William Gladstone became chancellor of the exchequer. All members testified that its diverse elements worked together with remarkable harmony on most domestic issues. The 1853 session was largely taken up with Gladstone's budget, intended to overhaul the whole fiscal system. Aberdeen supported him against powerful opposition. Palmerston got through some important legislation on penal and other matters. The government meant to reform the whole educational system from primary schools to the two ancient universities. Education was a particular interest of Aberdeen, who had sat on the royal commission which inquired into the Scottish universities in 1826–30, and always maintained that the problems of Ireland would be solved only when it had as good an educational system as Scotland. But education, along with other projected reforms, became a casualty of the worsening international situation.

The most serious casualty was parliamentary reform. Aberdeen's attitude had been somewhat ambiguous in 1831–2. He had not voted in some divisions, but his sympathies probably lay with Lord Harrowby and the so-called ‘waverers’, who had wanted a compromise solution. Since then he had become convinced, with other thoughtful men, that corruption had actually increased since 1832 and that further reform was necessary. Here the cabinet was more divided, and Palmerston's temporary resignation in December 1853 was almost certainly due to the parliamentary reform issue and not, as popularly supposed, to the Eastern crisis. Aberdeen would have persisted with the measure in spite of the outbreak of the Crimean War. It was Russell who lost his nerve and insisted on postponing it.

On the Eastern crisis the whigs were generally hawks, the Peelites doves. The crisis had begun in 1851 when Louis Napoleon, with his eyes on his domestic voters, chose to assert himself as the champion of the Latin church within the Ottoman empire. The tsar of Russia responded, perhaps over-forcibly, as the champion of the Orthodox Christians. Aberdeen never believed that the tsar wished to partition the Ottoman empire, still less to seize Constantinople—despite some rather alarming contingency planning which the tsar had discussed with the British ambassador, Hamilton Seymour, and which had become public knowledge. But the tsar was hated by the British public, as much for his role in suppressing the 1848 revolutions in Europe as for any threat he might pose to British India. Ironically, when the coalition was formed, Aberdeen and Palmerston were agreed that the greatest threat to European peace came from Napoleon III. They did prepare for war, but the wrong war.

Palmerston adapted much more quickly than Aberdeen to the idea that they should ally with France to check Russia. Aberdeen lamented later that he had not shown more ‘firmness’ in restraining the belligerent tendencies of his own cabinet, but his own faith in Russian sincerity was shaken at crucial moments, notably by the ‘massacre’ of Sinope of 30 November 1853. Almost certainly Sinope, like Navarino a generation earlier, was an accidental clash of fleets at a time when Russia and Turkey were already at war, but it was interpreted in London and Paris as a deliberate Russian attack on the Turkish coast, which the tsar had promised not to make while international negotiations to restore peace continued. Aberdeen agreed to the entry of the British fleet into the Black Sea and a demand that the Russian fleet should return to its base at Sevastopol.

When war finally broke out on 27 March 1854 Aberdeen would have been well advised to resign. He did not do so because Queen Victoria (for whom he had the most protective feelings) begged him in tears not to leave her to Palmerston and the war party, and he honestly believed that he had the best track record in successful negotiations at a time when it still seemed matters might be settled by diplomacy without much actual fighting.

The war was a series of military disasters for Britain. It showed up all the neglect of the army since 1815, though it also had its share of bad luck. The original intention had been to assist the Turks in expelling the Russians from the Danubian principalities, Ottoman territory which they had occupied in July 1853, but the Russians thwarted this by handing the principalities over to neutral Austria. The decision to make a land attack on Sevastopol instead was a collective cabinet decision in which Palmerston (who wisely removed the relevant cabinet memoranda, so that they did not come to light for nearly a century among his private papers) (Chamberlain, Lord Palmerston, 95, 129) played a leading role. Aberdeen would have preferred a naval bombardment.

Resignation and death

Public opinion notoriously played a major part in the Crimean War. There was no censorship until the very end, and the combination of the telegraph and the new profession of war correspondent brought the reality of war home to the public. By the beginning of 1855 the position of the Aberdeen coalition was untenable. Its downfall (Aberdeen resigned on 30 January after a Commons vote of no confidence on 29 January) was precipitated by the defection of Lord John Russell, who had always believed that Aberdeen would merely form the coalition and then hand the premiership to him, and was correspondingly resentful that Aberdeen's recollection of the bargain was different.

Aberdeen never held office after February 1855, although he assisted Palmerston in forming the next administration by asking his fellow Peelites to stay on. His sense of guilt about the Crimean War can be exaggerated. His refusal to rebuild a church on his Scottish estates and his apparent citing of the text from Chronicles in which King David declined to rebuild the Temple because he had ‘shed blood abundantly’ (Selections, 302–3) seems to date from the last months of his life when his mind had become clouded. After the war he continued to advise Clarendon on the conduct of foreign affairs, co-operated with Sidney Herbert in persuading Gladstone (whom he was convinced must one day lead the Liberal Party) not to rejoin the Conservatives, and even contemplated resuming office himself in the crisis of 1858—hardly the actions of a man racked by intolerable guilt. Victoria continued to show her support for him by bestowing the Order of the Garter on him on 7 February 1855 (while allowing him, unusually, to retain the Order of the Thistle, which he had held since 1808) and visiting him at Haddo.

Aberdeen died at Argyll House, Argyll Street, London, on 14 December 1860 and was buried in the old church at Stanmore on 21 December, between Catherine and Harriet, in the Abercorn family vault. Sir James Graham, the duke of Newcastle, Lord Clarendon, William Gladstone, Edward Cardwell, and the earl of Dalkeith acted as pallbearers. The queen sent her carriage as a mark of respect.

Reputation and assessment

Aberdeen's reputation was damned by the Crimean War and his earlier career read backwards in the light of it. He was remembered as weak and ineffectual. That such a man should have been the trusted friend and colleague of Castlereagh, Wellington, Peel, and Gladstone (none of them bad judges of men) is inherently improbable. Aberdeen was a shy man, not good at projecting himself to the public, however highly he was regarded by family and friends. The sobriety of his appearance and manner later in life, on which some commented, is not surprising in view of the repeated tragedies he had endured. (He was high-spirited and even a dandy as a young man.) Perhaps he would have been happier if he had remained a scholar and reforming landlord. His judicial temperament and natural inclination to see all sides of a question were not best suited to adversarial politics or to the role of defender of his country right or wrong.

But Aberdeen's career before 1854 contained far more success than failure. As Castlereagh's reputation has risen, so should Aberdeen's. Victorian historians tended not to appreciate the enormous difficulties in maintaining British influence in Europe in 1813–14, or the extent to which Aberdeen assisted Castlereagh in overcoming them. Lord Ellenborough, who had wanted the Foreign Office in 1828, and Palmerston, who resented his loss of it in 1841, provided deeply prejudiced accounts of Aberdeen's stewardship, which were readily believed after the Crimean War. Interestingly, when he was prime minister, the smear campaign against him, led by Benjamin Disraeli, began in 1853 before the Eastern question became acute. It can be explained only by Disraeli's appreciation of Aberdeen's vital role as the keystone (as Gladstone called him) of the whig–Peelite alliance, which might keep the protectionists out of office indefinitely.

Aberdeen, who had been a historian before he became a politician, was convinced that posterity would redress the balance. He meticulously preserved all his papers and left his youngest son, , the task of publishing them (he eventually printed them on the government printing press during his governorship of Ceylon). Unfortunately, Aberdeen also gave Sir James Graham and William Gladstone final powers of veto to avoid indiscretions. Aberdeen was dead but Gladstone was still an active politician. He sabotaged the entire publication to suppress the revelation that he had opposed parliamentary reform in 1853.

Muriel E. Chamberlain


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BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 43039–43358, 49224, 49273–49285, 51043, 63178 · BM, department of Greek and Roman antiquities, diaries · Haddo House, Aberdeenshire, Haddo House MSS · NA Scot., estate plans, etc. · U. Aberdeen L., special libraries and archives, letters; letters to his son |  All Souls Oxf., letters to Sir Charles Richard Vaughan · Archives Nationales, Paris, Guizot MSS · BL, Bathurst MSS · BL, dispatches from J. D. Bligh, Add. MSS 41268, 41275–41276 · BL, corresp. with J. W. Croker, Add. MS 73166 · BL, corresp. with Sir Henry Ellis, Add. MS 41312 · BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44088–44089 · BL, corresp. with Lord Heytesbury, Add. MSS 41557–41560 · BL, corresp. with third Baron Holland, Add. MS 51728 · BL, corresp. with fourth Baron Holland, Add. MS 52006 · BL, corresp. with Prince Lieven and Princess Lieven, Add. MSS 47263, 47366 · BL, corresp. and dispatches with Lord Melbourne, Add. MSS 60448, 60453 · BL, letters to Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40312, 40453–40455 · BL, corresp. with Lord Stanmore, his son, Add. MS 48224 · BL, corresp. with Lord Strathnairn, Add. MS 42797 · BL, Robert Wilson MSS · Bodl. Oxf., letters to fourth earl of Clarendon · CBS, letters to Sir William Fremantle and Lord Cottesloe · CKS, letters to Lord Stanhope · Cumbria AS, Carlisle, corresp. with Sir James Graham · Durham RO, letters to Lord Londonderry · Leeds Central Library, Harewood MSS · LPL, letters to William Howley · Lpool RO, letters to fourteenth earl of Derby · NA Scot., Leven MSS, corresp. with Sir John McNeill · NA Scot., Mar and Kellie MSS, corresp. with first and second lords Melville · NL Scot., letters to Edward Ellice; Melville MSS; letters to Lord Stuart de Rothesay; Scott MSS · Norfolk RO, corresp. with Sir Henry Bulwer; letters to Hudson Gurney · North East Lincolnshire Archives, Grimsby, letters to Douglas Gordon, his son · Northumbd RO, Newcastle upon Tyne, letters to Lady Jane Hope · NRA, letters to Baron Neumann · Port Eliot, Saltash, St Germans, letters to third earl of St Germans · priv. coll., dispatches and letters to Lord Ashburton · PRONI, corresp. as guardian to second marquess of Abercorn; corresp. with Lord Castlereagh · RA, corresp. with Thomas Lawrence · Royal Arch. · Sandon Hall, Staffordshire, Harrowby Manuscript Trust, corresp. with Lord Harrowby · Staffs. RO, letters to Lord Hatherton · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Stratford Canning, FO 352 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Cardwell, PRO 30/48 · TNA: PRO, Colonial Office records · TNA: PRO, corresp. and dispatches with Lord Cowley, FO 519 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Ellenborough, PRO 30/12 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Granville, PRO 30/29 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord John Russell, PRO 30/22 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with William IV and duke of Brunswick, FO 14 · U. Aberdeen L., sederunt book of the third earl of Aberdeen's trust · U. Durham L., archives and special collections, dispatches and letters to Viscount Ponsonby · U. Edin., New Coll. L., letters to Thomas Chalmers · U. Nott. L., letters to Lord William Bentinck, etc. · U. Nott. L., corresp. with Lord Castlereagh; letters to J. E. Denison; corresp. with fifth duke of Newcastle · U. Southampton L., corresp. with Lord Palmerston; letters to duke of Wellington · W. Sussex RO, letters to duke of Richmond · W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, corresp. with Lord Canning; papers relating to Hanson family · Wilts. & Swindon HC, corresp. with Sidney Herbert · Woburn Abbey, letters to Lord George William Russell


T. Lawrence, oils, exh. RA 1808, Haddo House, Aberdeenshire · C. Turner, mezzotints, pubd 1809–28 (after T. Lawrence), BM, NPG · Nollekens, bust, 1813 · P. C. Wonder, group portrait, pencil and oils, c.1826, NPG · T. Lawrence, oils, 1829–30, priv. coll. [see illus.] · S. Cousins, mezzotint, pubd 1831 (after T. Lawrence), BM, NPG · Skelton & Hopwood, stipple and line engraving, 1831, BM, NPG · M. A. Shee, oils, c.1839, Scot. NPG · G. Hayter, group portrait, oils, 1842 (Christening of the prince of Wales), Royal Collection · E. Desmaisons, lithograph, pubd 1843, BM, NPG · F. X. Winterhalter, group portrait, oils, 1844 (Queen Victoria receiving Louis Philippe at Windsor), Palais de Versailles, Paris; version, Royal Collection · J. Partridge, oils, 1846, NPG · J. Giles, oils, 1850–59, Haddo House, Aberdeenshire · E. Burton, mezzotint, pubd 1853 (after J. Watson-Gordon), BM · J. Gilbert, group portrait, oils, 1854 (The Aberdeen cabinet deciding on the expedition to the Crimea), NPG · Mayall, photograph, 1855, Haddo House, Aberdeenshire; copies Haddo House, Aberdeenshire · E. M. Ward, group portrait, oils, 1855 (Queen Victoria investing Napoleon III with the order of the Garter), Royal Collection · W. Theed junior, plaster bust, 1865 (after Nollekens, c.1814), Royal Military College, Sandhurst · M. Noble, marble bust, 1871, Westminster Abbey · J. Boehm, effigy, Great Stanmore church, Middlesex · G. Hayter, group portrait, oils (The House of Commons, 1833), NPG · M. Healy, oils (after T. Lawrence, 1808), Musée de Versailles, France · J. Partridge, group portrait (The Fine Arts Commission, 1846), NPG · D. Wilkie, group portrait, oils (Queen Victoria presiding over her first council, 1837), Royal Collection · T. Woolnoth, print (after A. Wivell), BM; repro. in W. Jerdan, National portrait gallery of illustrious and eminent personages (1831), 2 · eight cartoons, repro. in Punch (8 Oct 1853–2 Dec 1854) · oils (as lord lieutenant of Aberdeenshire), Haddo House, Aberdeenshire

Wealth at death  

£90,212 2s. 8d.: Scottish confirmation sealed in London, 22 June 1861, CGPLA Eng. & Wales