20 April sees the publication of Lord Liverpool: A Political Life, by William Anthony Hay (Associate Professor of history at Mississippi State University). If you are wondering who he was, Dr Hay’s book will explain all and leave you asking why on earth he’s not better known, for Lord Liverpool (1770-1828) was a political giant of his day: between 1793 and 1827 he was out of government office for only a little over one year. His tenure in office oversaw a series of seismic events including the War of 1812 with the United States, the endgame of the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna, the Corn Laws, the Peterloo Massacre, and escalating tensions over the issue of Catholic Emancipation. We are grateful to Dr Hay for this post which we hope will whet the appetites of readers of political and nineteenth-century history
While opening mail over breakfast on a Saturday morning in February 1827, Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, suffered a crippling stroke. A servant found him on the floor with a letter crumpled in his hand. The stroke left Liverpool, according to The Times, “politically, if not literally, dead.” He had 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. 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. E. P. Thompson famously argued that a slightly longer period between 1790 and 1830 saw the making of an English working class. More recent historians of the nineteenth-century including Richard Brent and Jonathan Parry have acknowledged the post-Waterloo years’ importance for understanding the decades that followed. 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 under Sir Robert Peel.
Given his role at formative time, why did Liverpool fade into relative obscurity?
Liverpool seemed out of step as 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. Their opinions set a lasting narrative that guided historians as their subject developed into an academic discipline and shaped how Liverpool’s era was seen 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 and Peel drew sympathy as a reformer easily cast as a forerunner of Gladstonian Liberalism. Benjamin Disraeli famously dismissed Liverpool as “the Arch Mediocrity who presided rather than ruled over this Cabinet of Mediocrities.”
An approach historians describe as Liberal Toryism guided Liverpool’s efforts. It sought to promote economic growth and raise living standards while separating particular, targeted reforms from restructuring the political system as a whole. Showing that ministers could address specific grievances within the existing constitution bolstered their standing while denying critics leverage against them. A closer look shows Liverpool an effective manager who took earlier programs for commercial and administrative reform much further than Pitt had imagined. Until a crippling stroke took him from the scene, he contained pressures for change and directed them to minimize their larger impact.
Those accomplishments merit a fresh look. Lord Liverpool: A Political Life reads the story of its subject’s career forward from the eighteenth-century world that formed him to bring his accomplishments to the forefront. Besides recovering a personality and outlook later generations neglected, the book uses Liverpool to explore the crucial transition from Georgian to Victorian Britain in a new light.