British Prime Minister: 1852-1855

Party: Tory/Peelite/Coalition

"I think it is clear that all government in these times must be a government of progress; conservative progress, if you please; but we can no more be stationary than reactionary"

George Hamilton-Gordon: 4th Earl of Aberdeen, diplomat, nobleman, archaeologist and Prime Minister of Great Britain. He was a major figure in the Crimean War, the development of the Liberal Party, the Napolean situation and a fine scholar. Yet history remembers one of his predecessors so much more vividly, a much less skilled politician called Arthur Wellesley.

Early years

He was born in Edinburgh on the 28th January 1784 to George Gordon (Lord Haddo) and Charlotte Baird. His father fell off a horse and died in 1791, so the boy took his father's title to become Lord Haddo. Tragically, he was orphaned just four years later at the tender age of eleven. Since his grandfather was largely indifferent to the young boy, he went to stay with the 1st Viscount Melville, Henry Dundas (who was so powerful he was nicknamed Henry IX).

Once he reached the age of fourteen, a strange Scottish law allowed him to choose his own guardians. His choice? Why William Pitt the Younger and Henry Dundas. It has to be said, he chose wisely, choosing two of the most powerful and influential men of the time. Whilst these unsettling events unfolded, the young lord was getting his education at Harrow. After Harrow, he went to St. John's College, Cambridge; though he didn't actually sit a final exam he was awarded an MA. Such are the perks of being a nobleman.


Once he was out of university he went on a European tour for a few years, meeting Napolean on his travels but spending most of his time in Greece. Aberdeen conducted an excavation on the Pnyx in Athens, inscriptions on plaques on the site revealed that it was The Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos. His finds were shipped to Britain in 1806 along with the Elgin Marbles. Aberdeen's cousin, Lord Byron, had some rather scathing words to say on the subject:

Let Aberdeen and Elgin still pursue
The Shade of fame through regions of virtu;
Waste useless thousands on their Phidean freaks;
Misshapen monuments and maim'd antiques;
And make their grant saloons a general mart
For all the mutilated blocks of art

Upon returning to Britain he founded the Athenian Society, a society whose membership composed soley of visitors to the city. He also wrote a peice for the Edinburgh Review, criticizing Sir William Gill's Topography of Troy. Things weren't all roses for his return though. In 1805 he saw his home lands with an adult's eyes and was shocked by the poverty of his tenants. He subsequently went about improving agriculture in an attempt to combat this and had some success, he even managed to better his financial position. However, the debts of his father and grandfather kept him from ever being rich.


Aberdeen married twice. The first time was in 1805 to Catherine Elizabeth Hamilton, daughter of Lord Abercorn, with whom he was very much in love. With her he had four children (one son and three daughters), but she died of Tuberculosis seven years later. Aberdeen was beside himself and never really stopped mourning her.

He married his second wife, Harriet (widow of Viscount Hamilton and thus his sister-in-law), in 1815; it was not a particularly happy marriage. Harriet was described as being 'certainly one of the most stupid persons I ever met with' by the late Viscount's father. Still, they managed to have 5 children (four sons and one daughter) before she died in 1833.

Titles and Positions

Aberdeen was bestowed with many titles and honours throughout his life:


In 1813 he was sent to Vienna by Lord Liverpool's foriegn secretary to represent the UK at post war talks and to reopen communication with Emperor Francis I. He was assigned Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Vienna and subsequently signed the Treaty of Toplitz. The Treaty allowed Sweden, Russia, Austria and Prussia to join forces against Napolean at the Battle of Leipzig a battle for which Aberdeen was present, the battle that effectively ruined Napolean. As well as attending this crucial battle (also known as the Battle of Nations due its scale), he represented Britain at the subsequent Congress of Chatillon and for the negotiations of the Treaty of Paris

His work in Europe was reward with another title, Viscount Gordon, in 1814. This was special because it was an English peerage, previously promised by the late Pitt. He could now enter the House of Lords (Scottish peers weren't assured a seat). In addition to this great prize he was made a member of the Privy Council, 1814

Foreign Secretary

Aberdeen had the privilege of being British Foreign Secretary under the Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley) from 1828-30: they both resigned over a Reform Bill.

Whilst under the Iron Duke he had to deal with a Portuguese plea...'please overthrow the illegal regime and help us put the true monarch onto the throne'. (Donna Maria rather than Dom Miguel). Upon hearing this plea Aberdeen jumped into neutrality. Likewise, when Argentina started laying claims on the Falkland islands, Aberdeen protested about it, but didn't really do much else.

This makes him out to be an ineffectual Foreign Secretary, which in some ways he was. However, he got a second chance at the position under Sir Robert Peel from 1841 through 1846. This time his career was more fruitful

Canada didn't really exist yet, it was still referred to as British North America and the exact nature of where it's borders should be was contested. Lord Aberdeen helped settle some of these border disputes. Specifically in 1842 (Webster-Ashburton Treaty) and in 1846 (Oregon dispute).

Then came the Tahiti episode. Two countries, France and England both had claims to it. France's claim was stronger, so to smooth relations Aberdeen agreed to drop Britain's claim for £1,000. My maths might be a little off, but I calculate that to be something in the region of £72,000 equivalent today. This smoothed relations with France but at political cost, he was seen to have given in to France, and he offered to resign. Peel would have none of it.

One of Aberdeen's characteristics was his love of free trade. He worked with Peel to repeal the infamous Corn Laws in 1846. There was famine in Ireland so the repeal was long overdue. Unfortunately, opinions were divided and the following Conservative split led to the resignation of both Peel and Aberdeen

The buildup to power

Aberdeen became the leader of the Peelites after the death of Peel in 1850. The Peelites were a political party that would evolve into the Liberal Party, which would evolve into the modern day Liberal Democrats.

He would have been in Lord John Russell's government but for his opposition of the essentially anti-Catholic Ecclesiastical Titles Assumption Bill of 1851. The bill was passed and Aberdeen's political career suffered a set back.

Still, its not what you oppose but who you support: after the Earl of Derby resigned in 1852, an old friend (Queen Victoria) asked Aberdeen to form a ministry. Who could refuse?

Prime Minister

'the new government should not be a revival of the old Whig Cabinet with the addition of some Peelites, but should be a Liberal Conservative government in the sense of that of Sir Robert Peel'.

He was effectively a Prime Minister in a coalition government. Lord John Russell was Foreign Secretary and Lord Palmerston was Home Secretary. He was popular until war started brewing between Russia, France and the Ottoman Empire...

"...not a night passes that his language or his demeanour does not
shock and jar upon the frank and genial spirit of out British Parliament.
His manner, arrogant and yet timid -- his words, insolent and yet obscure
-- offend even his political supporters. His hesitating speech, his
contracted sympathies, his sneer, icy as Siberia, his sarcasms,
drear and barren as the Steppes... If war breaks out -- and the present prospect
is that war will break out -- this dread calamity must be placed to the account
of this man, and of this man alone."
Benjamin Disraeli, 4 June 1853

"As we are drifting fast towards war, I should think the Cabinet ought to see where they are going"

Despite his attempts to broker peace he entered into the Crimean War on the Ottoman's side in 1854 on the urging of John Russell and Palmerston. Russell later resigned due to criticisms over the handling of the war, and after a select committee was formed to investigate war conduct, Aberdeen also resigned. He was awarded with membership into the Order of the Garter

The end

Aberdeen died on December 14, 1860 and was buried at Stanmore. The Prop of Ythsie (a granite tower) was placed overlooking Parish of Tarves (where he was landlord).

"I do not know how I shall bear being out of office. I have many resources and and many objects of interest; but after being occupied with great affairs, it is not easy to subside to the level of common occupations"

LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia

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