Earl of Aberdeen (George Hamilton-Gordon), 1784-1860

Lord Aberdeen was the Prime Minister who first brought together the coalition of Whigs, Peelites and Radicals which later became the Liberal Party. He is perhaps best known for being premier at the time of the Crimean War. After his death several copies of a text were found which seemed to indicate that he felt a great responsibility for that war. It quoted from 1 Chronicles 22:8: “Thou hast shed blood abundantly, and hast made great wars: thou shalt not build a house unto my name.” The text may explain why Aberdeen refused to rebuild the parish church of Methlick, which is attached to the family estate at Haddo.

George Hamilton-Gordon was born on 28 January 1784 in Edinburgh. He was the eldest son and first of seven children born to George Gordon, Lord Haddo, and Charlotte Baird. Aberdeens father died in 1791 and his mother in 1795. Scottish law allowed orphans who had reached the age of fourteen to name their own guardians; Aberdeen appointed Pitt the Younger and Henry Dundas to bring him up. In 1794 he began his formal education at Harrow; in 1800 he went up to St Johns College, Oxford. He studied there for only two sessions but still received his MA in 1804 because noblemen were able to graduate without sitting examinations.

In 1801 his grandfather died and Aberdeen succeeded to the earldom at the age of seventeen. In 1802, during the short gap in the wars with France following the Peace of Amiens, he embarked on a grand tour of Europe during which he met Napoleon and the widow of the Jacobite Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. In 1809 his cousin, Lord Byron, criticised Aberdeen and Lord Elgin for removing classical antiquities from their original sites for their private collections, the most famous of these being the Elgin marbles, now in the British Museum.

In 1805 Aberdeen married Catherine Elizabeth Hamilton, daughter of the first Marquis of Abercorn. The couple had three daughters, but Catherine died from tuberculosis in 1812. In 1818, Aberdeen obtained a royal licence to assume the surname Hamilton as a memorial to his late father-in-law. His second wife was Harriet, Dowager Viscountess Hamilton, widow of his first wife’s brother. The marriage appears to have been arranged by their father-in-law, the Marquis of Abercorn, who wanted a suitable step-father for his grandson and heir. Aberdeen thought that Harriet was one of the stupidest people he had ever met and the marriage was not a success, although they had four sons and a daughter. Harriet died in 1833.

In 1806 Pitt the Younger died. Aberdeen lost a friend, but Pitt’s death was also a blow to his own political career. Pitt had promised Aberdeen an English peerage, which would have enabled him to sit in the House of Lords as of right. Instead, he had to canvass extensively to be elected as a Scottish Representative Peer. Approached by friends among both Whigs and Tories, Aberdeen took his seat in the Lords in December 1806 on the Tory benches. In 1807 he refused the posts both of Ambassador to Russia and of Minister to Sicily in Portland’s ministry, concentrating instead on the restoration of the finances of the family estate. In 1813 he was appointed special Ambassador to Austria by Castlereagh, Lord Liverpool’s Foreign Secretary. Aberdeen was a central figure in European diplomacy at this time, helping to form the coalition that defeated Napoleon and experiencing at first hand the horrors of war. After signing the Treaty of Paris in 1814, he was created Viscount Gordon of Aberdeen (a United Kingdom peerage) and became a Privy Councillor.

In Wellington’s first ministry, Aberdeen served as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster from January to June 1828, then as Foreign Secretary until November 1830. The most urgent problem with which he had to deal was the Greek revolt. Aberdeen was sympathetic towards the Greeks and wanted to help them as much as possible within the constraints of European diplomacy. The Conference of London in 1830 appeared to have concluded this phase of the Eastern Question but the issue was not in reality resolved. Aberdeen was reluctant to involve Britain in the Portuguese succession question and made only formal protestation to Buenos Aires when the Argentine authorities appointed their own governor of the Falkland Islands. In the uproar in the Lords following Wellingtons 1830 anti-Reform speech, it was Aberdeen who told the Duke that he had just announced the fall of his ministry.

In Peel’s Hundred Day ministry (1834-35) Aberdeen was Secretary for War and the Colonies and had to deal with difficulties in Canada, South Africa and the West Indies. As Foreign Secretary in Peel’s second ministry, he successfully settled long-standing disputes inherited from Palmerston over the US-Canadian borders in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842) and the Oregon Treaty (1846).

After 1830, Aberdeen was increasingly influenced by Peel, and served in both his ministries. They differed in opinion over foreign policy, particularly in relation to France where Peel felt the need to stiffen Aberdeen, who in 1843 negotiated the first entente cordiale. Aberdeen, however, always supported Peels economic policies, including the repeal of the Corn Laws which broke up the Conservative Party. Those men who had voted against the Corn Laws in 1846 and remained convinced that Peels liberal economics were the way forward formed a separate political party. After Peel’s death in 1850, Aberdeen took over the leadership of these Peelites.

After the break-up of the Tories and even after the 1847 election no party had a majority. Lord John Russell’s minority government was brought down by his quarrel with Palmerston; he was succeeded for a few months by Lord Derby. In 1851 an attempt to form a coalition failed, but discussion continued and on 28 December 1852 Aberdeen formed a coalition ministry of Peelites, Whigs and one Radical. The new Prime Minister stated that his administration would be a Liberal, Conservative government in the sense of that of Sir Robert Peel. The Liberal Party was not formed officially until 1859, coming to office under Palmerston. As most of Palmerston’s cabinet had served with Aberdeen, he can therefore be seen as the man who held the Peelites together until they merged as a group into the Liberal Party.

Aberdeen never sat in the Commons and he had difficulty in controlling powerful ministers such as Russell (leader in the Commons), Gladstone (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Palmerston (Home Secretary), all of whom subsequently became premiers. He also needed the support of the Irish MPs, as his was still a minority government. Essentially Aberdeen was a diplomat and conciliator rather than a decisive, dynamic leader. Sir James Graham (1852) and Disraeli (1853) attacked Aberdeen’s lack of leadership abilities. The government had some successes, particularly in Gladstone’s 1853 budget, which reformed the tax system, and in the penal reforms of Palmerston. Aberdeen himself was anxious to improve the Irish education system and was ready for more electoral reform but he is best remembered for his failures in the Crimean War against Russia.

In 1853, as his ministry drifted to war with Russia over conflicts of interest in the Middle East, the Whigs took a hawkish line and the Peelites a softer dovish view; Aberdeen’s indecision hampered the peacekeeping efforts of Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary. Britain and France declared war against Russia on 28 March 1854. As Prime Minister, Aberdeen was deemed to be responsible for the catalogue of administrative disasters that hampered the military operations of the Crimean War. John Arthur Roebuck led a parliamentary campaign against him, culminating in a vote of no confidence; Aberdeen resigned on 29 January 1855.

Although he continued to sit in the Lords he did not hold office again but he rendered an important service to the Liberal Party by maintaining good relations with the Whigs and counselling doubting Peelites against rejoining the Conservatives. He died in London on 14 December 1860. There are three modern biographies of Aberdeen: L. Iremonger, Lord Aberdeen (1978); Muriel Chamberlain, Lord Aberdeen: A Political Biography (1983); and Sir A. Gordon, The Earl of Aberdeen (1983). J. B. Conacher’s The Aberdeen Coalition (1968) and The Peelites and the Party System (1972) give valuable background.