Born 1784 Died 1860
George Hamilton-Gordon was the eldest son of George Gordon, Lord Haddo, by his wife Charlotte, daughter of William Baird of Newbyth, Haddingtonshire, and grandson of George, 3rd Earl of Aberdeen. Born in Edinburgh on the 28th of January 1784, he lost his father in 1791 and his mother in 1795; and as his grandfather regarded him with indifference, he went to reside with Henry Dundas, afterwards Viscount Melville. At the age of fourteen he was permitted by Scotch law to name his own curators, or guardians, and selecting William Pitt and Dundas for this office he spent much of his time at their houses, thus meeting many of the leading politicians of the day.
He was educated at Harrow, and St. John's College, Cambridge, where he graduated as a nobleman in 1804. Before this time, however, he had become Earl of Aberdeen on his grandfather's death in 1801, and had travelled over a large part of the continent of Europe, meeting on his journeys Napoleon Bonaparte and other persons of distinction. He also spent some time in Greece, and on his return to England founded the Athenian Society, membership of which was confined to those who had travelled in that country. Moreover, he wrote an article in the Edinburgh Review of July 1805 criticizing Sir William Gill's Topography of Troy, and these circumstances led Lord Byron to refer to him in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers as "the travell'd thane, Athenian Aberdeen."
Having attained his majority in 1805, he married on the 28th of July Catherine Elisabeth Hamilton, daughter of John James, 1st Marquess of Abercorn. In December 1806 he was elected a representative peer for Scotland, and took his seat as a Tory in the House of Lords, but for some years he took only a slight part in public business. However, by his birth, his abilities and his connections alike he was marked out for a high position, and after the death of his wife in February 1812 he was appointed ambassador extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary at Vienna, where he signed the treaty of Toplitz between Great Britain and Austria in October 1813; and accompanying the emperor Francis I through the subsequent campaign against France, he was present at the battle of Leipzig. He was one of the British representatives at the congress of Chatillon in February 1814, and in the same capacity was present during the negotiations which led to the treaty of Paris in the following May. Returning home he was created a peer of the United Kingdom as Viscount Gordon of Aberdeen (1814), and made a member of the privy council. On the 15th of July 1815 he married Harriet, daughter of the Hon. John Douglas, and widow of James, Viscount Hamilton], and thus became doubly connected with the family of the Marquess of Abercorn.
During the ensuing thirteen years Aberdeen took a less prominent part in public affairs, although he succeeded in passing the Entail (Scotland) Act of 1825. He kept in touch, however, with foreign politics, and having refused to join the ministry of George Canning in 1827, became a member of the cabinet of the Duke of Wellington as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in January 1828. In the following June he was transferred to the office of secretary of state for foreign affairs, and having acquitted himself with credit with regard to the war between Russia and Turkey, and to affairs in Greece, Portugal and France, he resigned with Wellington in November 1830, and shared his leader's attitude towards the Reform Bill of 1832. As a Scotsman, Aberdeen was interested in the ecclesiastical controversy which culminated in the disruption of 1843. In 1840 he introduced a bill to settle the vexed question of patronage; but disliked by a majority in the general assembly of the Scotch church, and unsupported by the government, it failed to become law, and some opprobrium was cast upon its author. In 1843 he brought forward a similar measure "to remove doubts respecting the admission of ministers to benefices." This Admission to Benefices Act, as it was called, passed into law, but did not reconcile the opposing parties.
During the short administration of Sir Robert Peel in 1834 and 1835, Aberdeen had filled the office of secretary for the colonies, and in September 1841 he took office again under Peel, on this occasion as foreign secretary; the five years during which he held this position were the most fruitful and successful of his public life. He owed his success to the confidence placed in him by Queen Victoria, to his wide knowledge of European politics, to his intimate friendship with Guizot, and not least to his own conciliatory disposition. Largely owing to his efforts, causes of quarrel between Great Britain and France in Tahiti, over the marriage of Isabella II of Spain, and in other directions, were removed. More important still were his service's in settling the question of the boundary between the United States and British North America at a time when a single injudicious word would probably have provoked a war.
In 1845 he supported Peel when in a divided cabinet he proposed to suspend the duty on foreign corn, and left office with that minister in July 1846. After Peel's death in 1850 he became the recognized leader of the Peelites, although since his resignation his share in public business had been confined to a few speeches on foreign affairs. His dislike of the Ecclesiastical Titles Assumption Bill, the rejection of which he failed to secure in 1851, prevented him from joining the government of Lord John Russell, or from forming an administration himself in this year.
In December 1852, however, be became first lord of the treasury and head of a coalition ministry of Whigs and Peelites. Although united on free trade and in general on questions of domestic reform, a cabinet which contained Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell, in addition to Aberdeen, was certain to differ on questions of foreign policy. The strong and masterful character of these and other colleagues made the task of the prime minister one of unusual difficulty, a fact which was recognized by contemporaries. Charles Greville in his Memoirs says, "In the present cabinet are five or six first-rate men of equal, or nearly equal, pretensions, none of them likely to acknowledge the superiority or defer to the opinions of any other, and every one of these five or six considering himself abler and more important than their premier"; and Sir James Graham wrote, "It is a powerful team, but it will require good driving." The first year of office passed off successfully, and it was owing to the steady support of the prime minister that Gladstone's great budget of 1853 was accepted by the cabinet. This was followed by the outbreak of the dispute between France and Turkey over the guardianship of the holy places at Jerusalem, which, after the original cause of quarrel had been forgotten, developed into the Crimean war.
The tortuous negotiations which preceded the struggle need not be discussed here, but in defence of Aberdeen it may be said that he hoped and strove for peace to the last. Rightly or wrongly, however, he held that Russell was indispensable to the cabinet, and that a resignation would precipitate war. His outlook, usually so clear, was blurred by these, considerations, and he lacked the strength to force the suggestions which he made in the autumn of 1853 upon his imperious colleagues. Palmerston, supported by Russell and well served by Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, British ambassador at Constantinople, favoured a more aggressive policy, and Aberdeen, unable to control Palmerston, and unwilling to let Russell go, cannot be exonerated from blame. When the war began he wished to prosecute it vigorously; but the stories of misery and mismanagement from the seat of war deprived the ministry of public favour. Russell resigned; and on the 29th of January 1855 a motion by J. A. Roebuck, for the appointment of a select committee to enquire into the conduct of the war was carried in the House of Commons by a large majority. Treating this as a vote of want of confidence Aberdeen at once resigned office, and the queen bestowed upon him the order of the Garter. He smoothed the way for Palmerston to succeed him, and while the Earl of Clarendon remained at the foreign office he aided him with advice and was consulted on matters of moment.
He died in London on the 14th of December 1860, and was buried in the family vault at Stanmore. By his first wife he had one son and three daughters, all of whom predeceased their father. By his second wife, who died in August 1833, he left four sons and one daughter. His eldest son, George John James, succeeded as 5th earl; his second son was General Sir Alexander Hamilton-Gordon, K.C.B.; his third son was the Reverend Douglas Hamilton-Gordon; and his youngest son Arthur Hamilton, after holding various high offices under the crown, was created Baron Stanmore in 1893. Among the public offices held by the earl were those of lord-lieutenant of Aberdeenshire, president of the Society of Antiquaries from 1812 to 1846 and fellow of the Royal Society.
Aberdeen was a distinguished scholar with a retentive memory and a wide knowledge of literature and art. His private life was exemplary, and he impressed his contemporaries with the loftiness of his character. His manner was reserved, and as a speaker he was weighty rather than eloquent. In public life he was remarkable for his generosity to his political opponents, and for his sense of justice and honesty. He did not, however, possess the qualities which impress the populace, and he lacked the strength which is one of the essential gifts of a statesman. His character is perhaps best described by a writer who says "his strength was not equal to his goodness." His foreign policy was essentially one of peace and non-intervention, and in pursuing it he was accused of favouring the despotisms of Europe. Aberdeen was a model landlord. By draining the land, by planting millions of trees and by erecting numerous buildings, he greatly improved the condition of his Aberdeenshire estates, and studied continually the welfare of his dependants. A bust of him by Matthew Noble is in Westminster Abbey, and his portrait was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence. He wrote An Inquiry into the Principles of Beauty in Grecian Architecture (London, 1822), and the Correspondence of the Earl of Aberdeen has been printed privately under the direction of his son, Lord Stanmore.
The 6th earl, George (1841-1870), son of the 5th earl, was drowned at sea, and was succeeded by his brother John Campbell Gordon, 7th earl of Aberdeen (b. 1847), a prominent Liberal politician, who was lord-lieutenant of Ireland in 1886, governor-general of Canada 1893-1898, and again the lord-lieutenant of Ireland when Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman formed his ministry at the close of 1905.
See Lord Stanmore, The Earl of Aberdeen (London, 1893); C. C. F. Greville, Memoirs, edited by H. Reeve (London, 1888); Spencer Walpole, History of England (London, 1878-1886), and Life of Lord John Russell (London, 1889); A. W. Kinglake, Invasion of the Crimea (London, 1877-1888); Sir T. Martin, Life of the Prince Consort (London, 1875-1880); J. Morley, Life of Gladstone (London, 1903)- (A.W-H.)
Being the entry for ABERDEEN, GEORGE HAMILTON GORDON, 4TH EARL OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.