Canning and the Napoleonic Wars

Although Canning resigned in 1809, writes Cedric Collyer, the fruits of his foreign policy, and the confirmation of the principles on which it rested, were already apparent by 1812 in the changing face and prospects of the war.

Cedric Collyer | Published in History Today

When Castlereagh’s suicide in 1822 restored George Canning to the Foreign Office, after a long absence from the front rank of British and European politics, he looked back across the intervening years since the European settlement of 1815 to the time when he might have had the office that went to his rival: “Ten years have made a world of difference, and a very different sort of world to bustle in than that which I should have found in 1812.”

But Canning’s outlook on the post-war world, and the dominant impression he made upon its problems in the era of South American and Greek independence, have their origins well across the divide, back in the days of his youth. The qualities that Canning brought to the making and execution of policy, like the ambition that fired them, were of early maturity and had been elements in his character before they were shaped by experience. The strongest of them was ambition, allied to a range of talents as orator, poet, and statesman that made him, in Byron’s words, almost a universal genius.

After 1822, when he spoke for liberal England against the pretensions of the Holy Alliance, his ambition became identified with the cause of his country; but an earlier reputation still clung to him—that of a self-seeker and an intriguer. It is reflected both in contemporary criticisms and in the portraits drawn by later historians, and has tended to obscure not only his youthful promise but the greatness that he showed in his first Foreign Secretaryship.

One of the earliest portraits of Canning, painted when he went to Oxford in 1787, shows a strong-featured youth with long dark hair falling to his shoulders, emphasizing the almost feminine quality of his large eyes. But the overriding impression is of strength, with a suggestion of scorn in the bold look and the curve of the lip. Gainsborough’s portrait is, in essentials, the Canning of early public life.

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