Angus Hawkins. The Forgotten Prime Minister: The 14th Earl of Derby, vol. 1, Ascent, 1799-1851. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 448 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-920440-3; $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-957091-1.
Reviewed by Richard Floyd
Published on H-Albion (October, 2010)
Commissioned by Thomas Hajkowski (Misericordia University)
No Longer Forgotten
“Achievement and fame are fickle partners,” Angus Hawkins tells us in the opening sentence of volume 1 of his recent biography of Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley (1799-1869), and its subject matter is a case in point (p. 1). Stanley’s political career spanned nearly a half century, he led the Conservative Party for more than twenty years (a record unmatched by the leader of any major party), and he served three times as prime minister. In the words of Benjamin Disraeli, Stanley’s sometimes-colleague (more often his rival) in the Conservative Party, “he abolished slavery, he educated Ireland, he reformed parliament.” It is startling that a man with such a vita should have waited almost 150 years before being treated in a critical and scholarly biography. In the capable hands of Hawkins, Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby, has finally gotten his due.
The Forgotten Prime Minister is political biography of a high caliber. Chiefly through the lens of a single player, the author provides a close, often blow-by-blow--and occasionally day-by-day or even dispatch-by-dispatch--account of a pivotal period of nineteenth-century British political history. In the process, readers are reminded of (or perhaps introduced for the first time to) the details surrounding such measures as the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, parliamentary reform, the abolition of colonial slavery, debates over protectionism, and many controversies surrounding Ireland. Details also are added to our understanding of other prominent figures of the age (e.g., the 3rd Earl Grey, Daniel O’Connell, Lord Anglesey, Sir Robert Peel, and Disraeli), who--amicably, constructively, or otherwise--were involved with him. In a similar manner, Hawkins’s biography sheds light on those particular concerns, such as Ireland and colonial affairs, for which Stanley had portfolios as a member of successive ministries over several decades.
Stanley’s career was launched in an age in which the two great factions of the second half of the nineteenth century, the Liberal and Conservative parties, were still being defined, and party alignment was not always obvious. Like William Gladstone, but in the opposite direction, Stanley first made his mark among the Whigs but ended up a Conservative. In defense against charges of fickleness or shifting political principles, however, it could be argued that Stanley (to paraphrase Ronald Reagan) never left the Whigs; rather the Whigs left him. More precisely, most men associated with the Whigs in the 1820s and early 1830s, and who continued in political prominence in the later 1830s and 1840s (and beyond), subsequently found their political homes among the ranks of the emerging Liberal Party. Stanley’s principles led him in a different direction. These were the principles of “Grand Whiggery” inculcated by his paternal grandfather, the 12th Earl of Derby, and his mother (Stanley’s father was less of an influence). From his grandfather, and also from his mentor, the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, Stanley acquired a faith in ancient institutions and the sacrosanctity of property rights. From his mother, Stanley inherited the abiding evangelical streak he bore with him throughout life, and which always influenced his decision making. This double formula repeatedly guided his views on so many of the thorny religious issues enshrined in Ireland, and hence resolved what might appear to uncritical scrutiny the contradiction of, for example, supporting Catholic emancipation in 1829 but opposing lay appropriation of the surplus funds of the Church of Ireland in 1834. Indeed, on the matter of the proposed reorganization of the (Protestant) Church of Ireland, Stanley found himself, on grounds of unflinching principle, forced to resign office under a Whig (and increasingly Liberal) ministry.
Stanley did not intend to stand idly by and surrender old Whig principles to the legacy of the new Liberal Party. Thus in December 1834, he announced the “Knowsley creed,” in which he strived to redefine the political playing field, claiming for himself and for “Grand Whiggery” a moderate position, to the center of the Liberal Party of Viscount Melbourne and Lord John Russell. Stanley failed in this attempt, however, for he had been beaten to the chase by Peel who, in an effort to redefine the new Conservative Party as a body of moderate principles, to the center of the old Tories, had preempted the Knowsley creed by a matter of days with his Tamworth Manifesto. The latter seized the lion’s share of attention (by contemporaries and posterity alike), thus leaving Stanley with the dubious “Derby Dilly” as an unsatisfactory consolation prize in this contest to acquire the moderate ground.
Hawkins treads this ground very thoroughly. This does not always make for light reading, but, of course, it is hardly a biographer’s first task to amuse or divert the reader--so much less so when the territory traversed has hitherto been largely unexplored by previous scholarship. The study’s first chapter, which covers the longest stretch of chronology, when Stanley was being “groomed for greatness,” is the only one to break that mold of blow-by-blow, day-by-day political accountancy (p. 1). And it is in this chapter, too, that the aforementioned influence of his mother and grandfather--which recurs throughout the study--is developed most fully. Subsequently there are only occasional references to a weekend spent hunting (generally in the company of political players and often in a political context or with a political agenda), or to the turf, or to personal concerns such as a bout with gout or family concerns such as the death of a child. This reader would occasionally have preferred a more detailed personal portrait.
This is not to say the writing is dry. Indeed, in some respects the author seems to channel his subject matter. We learn, for instance, that Stanley loved poetry and prose and “enjoyed lacing his speeches with suitable Latin quotations” (p. 32). His biographer, in turn, enjoys lacing his chapters with suitable epigrams drawn from Stanley’s own published translation of Homer’s Iliad. We learn also that “the particular charm of Stanley’s oratory lay in ... the precision of his diction” (p. 31). The same may be said of volume 1 of The Forgotten Prime Minister.
. William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earl Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 451.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Richard Floyd. Review of Hawkins, Angus, The Forgotten Prime Minister: The 14th Earl of Derby, vol. 1, Ascent, 1799-1851.
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