The leading Liberal politician from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s, Russell was twice Prime Minister; he was associated particularly with the issues of parliamentary, educational and Irish reform. He was a Foxite Whig who updated Fox’s attitudes to make them more relevant to the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and added to them a strong sense of Christian responsibility.
Lord John Russell was born in London into one of the leading Whig families; his father became 6th Duke of Bedford in 1802. Born prematurely, he remained puny throughout his life, and ill-health as a child meant that he was educated mostly by private tutors, including Edmund Cartwright, inventor of the power-loom. He studied at Edinburgh University from 1809 to 1812, and attended lectures by Dugald Stewart and other Enlightenment intellects. He travelled to Spain three times during the national and liberal struggle against Napoleon, which fired his imagination. After the war ended in 1815, he also visited France and Italy frequently, developing a strong interest in European culture.
In 1835 he married Lady Adelaide Ribblesdale, a widow, who died in 1838. In 1841 Russell married the twenty-five year old Lady Frances Anna Maria Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, daughter of the second Earl of Minto. From his two marriages Russell had three daughters and three sons.
He became an MP in 1813, initially for the family borough of Tavistock. In Parliament, his mentor was Lord Holland, Fox’s nephew and political heir, and Russell quickly became a prominent member of the Foxite wing of the opposition. The Whigs remained in opposition for the next seventeen years, and authorship was his main activity in this period. He wrote a biography of his ancestor Lord William Russell, a novel, a play, an essay on the English constitution and a number of historical surveys. All these breathed the spirit of Foxite Whiggism; Russell kept a statue of Charles James Fox by his writing desk.
Russell’s key ideas were the reform of the English constitution so as to maintain the country’s libertarian and representative traditions, state support for a broad moral and religious education for spiritual and social reasons, religious integration in Britain and Ireland through constitutional pluralism and avoidance of dogmatic narrowness, a strong British presence in the world on behalf of liberty and a great emphasis on the responsibility of politicians to promote all these key ideas.
On the constitution, Russell was an unwavering admirer of the men of the seventeenth century, including his ancestors, who had fought successfully to secure civil liberties from the potential oppression of an over-mighty crown. On the one hand, therefore, he continued to believe that there was a greater threat to liberty from the abuse of power than from mass uprisings, since he tended to think that if men of property remained active, visible and public-spirited political leaders they would generally command popular loyalty. His main fear was of executive misgovernment and of decadent, selfish, irresponsible aristocrats whom he blamed for the French Revolution. Like all Whigs, he was suspicious of George III and Pitt’s apparent revival of royal power in the late eighteenth century. On the other hand, he was a great patriot, confident that since 1688 the British political system had been much purer and more libertarian than that of the continental powers and that relatively minor changes to the constitution would be enough to maintain the legitimacy of the regime.
His most important cause during these years was that of parliamentary reform, and when the Whigs came to power in 1830 he was selected as a member of the Committee of Four to prepare their Reform Bill, and introduced it. He was promoted to cabinet during the Reform Bill struggles in 1831. Like many Whigs of his generation, Russell saw the need for a bold and systematic social policy to tackle the problems of population growth and urbanisation, and argued that one great merit of parliamentary reform would be to bolster public confidence in government’s legitimate authority. He believed that the 1832 Reform Act would force ministers and local leaders to be more active and accountable, and would facilitate a more legislative style of party politics, in tune with his strand of Whiggism.
Russell’s initiative of 1834 in favour of the principle of state appropriation of the surplus revenues of the Anglican Church of Ireland was one of the factors precipitating the political crisis of 1834-35. This saw the Whigs briefly thrown out of office, only to return in 1835 with Lord Melbourne as Prime Minister and Lord John as Leader of the House of Commons. He held this post for the next six years, with great distinction, and became the leading figure in the party. As Home Secretary he supervised key reforms of local government (the Municipal Corporations Act 1835), the criminal law, policing and prisons, and was responsible for the educational legislation of 1839. Then as Colonial Secretary between 1839 and 1841 he helped to settle Canada after the 1837 rebellion.
When the Whigs returned to power after the Corn Law crisis of 1846, Russell was the obvious choice as Prime Minister. His government extended state support for education and passed important public health and factory reform measures. But it soon became politically beleaguered, because of its lack of a majority, the fragmentation of the two – party system, and the severe tensions thrown up by the Irish Famine and then by the economic and social turbulence of 1847-49 at home and abroad. After 1848, Russell always struggled to assert his authority, and was damaged particularly by his alienation of Irish MPs following his criticism of the Pope in 1850, and by his unpopular dismissal of the buccaneering Palmerston from the Foreign Office in late 1851.
Russell’s long-term commitment to education legislation was the best example of his active approach to social issues. His anxiety that the state should promote, subsidise and regulate schooling in order to attack vice and sensuality, which bore fruit in the legislation of 1839 and 1847 and further initiatives in the 1850s and 1860s, was originally encouraged by his anxiety about Chartism and his hostility to the attempt by High Church Anglicans to dominate education through the National Society. As the last point suggests, one of Russell’s strongest antagonisms was to narrow clericalism. He had a simple faith himself, based on the precepts of full-hearted love of God and the human race. He distrusted religious dogmas, which he saw as man-made inventions which created division and conflict for the benefit of sectarian institutions and power-hungry egos.
After his government fell in 1852, Russell had to play second fiddle, first to Aberdeen, whom he served as Leader in the Commons in the 1852-55 coalition, and then to Palmerston until the latter’s death in 1865. In Palmerston’s 1859-65 government he served as Foreign Secretary and was associated, like Palmerston, with an assertively liberal foreign policy (over the Eastern and then the Italian questions) and, unlike him, with the cause of parliamentary reform. Russell’s pride in British liberal constitutional traditions and his ancestral Whiggism convinced him that political leaders had a duty to promote Britain’s liberal values abroad. This, he felt, was the way to uphold national and personal honour, which were both important concepts for him.
His main reason for advocating further reform in the 1850s and 1860s was to revitalise a sluggish House of Commons, particularly on Irish and educational questions, and to revive party spirit on the Liberal benches again to the benefit of politicians like himself, rather than his rival Palmerston.
On Palmerston’s death he returned to the premiership and his first major act as Prime Minister was to propose a substantial Reform Bill in 1866, but this was defeated by Liberal dissidents, and Russell resigned, never to hold office again. He never formally retired but at the end of 1867 he indicated his intention to Gladstone and a public letter early in 1868 was taken as the opportunity by Gladstone to direct the party towards a new policy on the Irish Church. Russell continued to speak in the Lords on a range of issues including education and concurrent endowment, his own alternative solution to the Irish Church.
Having sat for the City of London since 1841, he accepted a peerage as Earl Russell in 1861. He died on 28 May 1878.
Key works of Lord John Russell include Essay on the History of the English Government and Constitution (1821), Selections from Speeches, 1817-1841 (2 vols, 1870), Essays on the Rise and Progress of the Christian Religion (1873) and Recollections and Suggestions, 1813-1873 (1875). The Public Record Office holds Russell’s papers. In 1969, Spencer Walpole’s 1889 two-volume The Life of Lord John Russell was reprinted, and in 1972 John Prest’s Lord John Russell was published.
Tony Little, adapted from material by Marjie Bloy and Jonathan Parry