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The Statesman: A Solitary Path of Courage by Daria Fedotova

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The Statesman: A Solitary Path of Courage

Lord Castlereagh (1769–1822), 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (after Thomas Lawrence), as depicted in an oil painting by Edmond Brock (1882–1952).

Photo: Courtesy of the Government Art Collection in London.

Paris, November 1791. A heated debate is taking place in the National Assembly. Each speaker tries to impress his colleagues with his eloquence and wits; like a skilled swordsman, he dances around his opponents, offering cutting remarks and quick responses. This is a new France, one of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Her representatives are romantics, who have suddenly found themselves at the helm, and their speeches breathe with forceful impatience. For now, they are hopeful; the worst is yet to come.

A young Irish aristocrat, recently elected to the Parliament of his home country, is watching them from the gallery. Not a good orator himself, he applauds their command of the language, but their lack of practicality concerns him. He needs to see the revolution with his own eyes. He will fight it for the rest of his life and be instrumental in its offspring’s final defeat.

Paris, November 1815. A Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Leader of the House of Commons, and one of the most powerful men in the world is about to sign the treaty that will end twenty-three years of warfare. He has come a long way since his first visit to the French capital. Old ways have returned, the map of Europe has been redrawn, disputes have been settled, and, finally, lasting peace has been established—all due to his influence. His pen touches the paper and leaves behind the signature: Castlereagh.

Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, was a minister and a diplomat, a tyrant, an apostate—and always a gentleman. He was hated by the people, but respected by his peers, and is remembered as an architect of the system that upheld the old dynasties’ rule. Cold and aloof, he was gifted with a brilliant mind and unshakable courage, once compared to “a splendid summit of bright and polished frost which, like the travellers in Switzerland, we all admire, but no one can hope, and few would wish, to reach.” 

Ironically, Castlereagh had almost become a rebel himself. He grew up in a very liberal environment: his family was prominent among the Ulster Whigs, and Irish radicals were frequent guests in Mount Stewart, the great house on the shore of Strangford Lough. He was well-versed in their arguments and shared some of their views; nevertheless, he entered the Irish Parliament as an independent member, voting with them, but not yet ready to commit to their cause. It was a great surprise to many when the young politician decided to cross the floor, offering his expertise to the Tory government.

Castlereagh’s talents and connections soon brought him to the top of the Irish administration. By the age of twenty-nine, he was an Acting Chief Secretary for Ireland, responsible for a restive country already seduced by the promises of France and America. Castlereagh was sympathetic to his people’s grievances, especially those of Catholics, unnecessary excluded from public life. He also knew how corrupt and inefficient the Irish government was; but in his opinion, the best way to change it was from within. A revolution would bring nothing but chaos and destruction. Not everyone agreed with him, though: the Society of United Irishmen was planning an insurrection.

The Rebellion of 1798 was Castlereagh’s first serious test, personal as well as political. He arrested his former friends, suppressed the movements he once participated in, and took the heat for every government decision—something he would grow used to in his later years. Still, he remained firm and true to his views.

After the Rebellion was crushed, it was time to introduce decisive—and unpopular—reforms that Castlereagh believed to be beneficial for Ireland in the long run: the Acts of Union (1800) that created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This was another test of fortitude and ingenuity. After two years of debates, arguments, flattery, bribery, and intimidation, the measure was agreed upon; the very success of his means convinced him that the end was justified. From 1 January 1801, the united Parliament included Irish representatives, and Castlereagh moved to England to continue his career.

Upon his arrival, he joined a small circle of Prime Minister William Pitt’s (‘the Younger’) most loyal supporters. With Pitt as his mentor, Castlereagh became acquainted with the treacherous world of London politics and gained a deeper understanding of international affairs. His star was rising fast. So did his number of his enemies: some followed him from Ireland, some belonged to the opposition, attacking him along with the rest of the government, and some, like George Canning, disliked him for personal reasons.

In 1805, as Napoleon’s armies marched across Europe, Castlereagh was appointed a War Secretary. He immediately began reforming the army; perhaps even more importantly, he had an eye for talent, choosing to put his trust in Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington. But trouble was never far behind. Things worsened after Pitt’s death (1806), and a period of domestic political turbulence began. It took some time for the Tories to form a stable government, and in the meantime Castlereagh divided his attention between the war with France and battles in Parliament.

He was never a fine public speaker, preferring to settle the matters behind the scenes or appeal to his opponent’s reason. It was said that his speech was tedious, and his metaphors often “strangely perplexed and confused,” except on a few occasions when he was most hard-pressed and suddenly displayed “a powerful, impressive and eloquent style [that] would have done honour to any man.” It was not unusual for him to spend hours on the floor, explaining every detail of his argument, citing numbers, and otherwise boring his audience to death. Yet in personal conversations, he was charming and persuasive.

Castlereagh was also known for never turning away from his friends and allies, regardless of consequences. He was prepared to risk his position protecting Wellington in Parliament during the Peninsular War, did the same for Lord Melville, defending him from the corruption charges, and had drawn the ire of King George III by his relentless advocating for Catholics. As John Bew, his biographer, puts it, “[w]hile such loyalty and stoicism in the face of criticism endeared him to his colleagues, it cost him dear in terms of reputation.” These were the traits of a man who cared little about popularity and would never allow the fear of reproval to cloud his judgement.

Following his duel with Canning, caused by the latter’s harmful interference with one of the military projects and subsequent political manipulations, Castlereagh resigned (as did Canning.) However, his party could not afford to lose him. In 1812, he did not just return, but assumed two key positions: as a Foreign Secretary, he was responsible for Britain’s policies and standing in the international arena, while as a Leader of the House of Commons, he effectively spoke for the government at home. With power in his hands and a supportive cabinet behind him, Castlereagh was prepared to act. Britain had a war to win, and she needed allies.

Wellington continued his Peninsular campaign, siphoning away French resources through the ‘Spanish ulcer’, and proving that Napoleon’s armies were not invincible. At the same time, the Continental System—enacted from later 1806 onwards–harmed the Russian and Prussian economies enough for them to seek a way out from being under its dictates. Castlereagh sent his envoys to establish a connection, starting a long and arduous process of forging a coalition. During the negotiations, he contacted Klemens von Metternich, an exceptionally talented yet cautious Austrian minister. Distrustful of each other at first, they soon discovered that they had a lot in common. Both understood the importance of the balance of power—France had to be defeated, but not destroyed, while Russia had to be held at bay; both had a first-hand experience of uprisings and knew the danger of revolutionary movements; and both valued a realistic approach to politics. 

After two years of careful manoeuvring, they managed to bring emperors and kings of Europe together in the Treaty of Chaumont (1814) in an effort to overthrow Napoleon. But keeping them from fighting each other proved an equally tricky task; at the crucial moment, when the coalition (‘the Sixth Coalition’) was on the verge of collapse, Castlereagh travelled to the Continent. He wrote countless letters, met with every central figure and convinced them to carry on with their efforts. “We are indebted to Castlereagh for everything, I verily believe that no man in England, but Castlereagh could have done what he has,” said the Lord High Chancellor upon hearing of his success.

He continued his work at the Congress of Vienna, settling disputes and restoring the European order. The Congress System was his solution for the problem of international security. The five great powers were to meet regularly and discuss the state of things, which they did until 1822. His influence upon European monarchs and diplomats was unprecedented. Metternich later said that Castlereagh alone in his country had experience in foreign affairs, and, 150 years later, Henry Kissinger called him “the most European of British statesmen.” Still, the interests of Britain always came first, and she gained something more important than land or resources: the status of a universally respected arbiter.

Castlereagh was convinced that, although the powers should cooperate, such cooperation must not go too far. Thus, he opposed the idea of the Holy Alliance proposed by the Russian Emperor. This coalition was born of Christian faith mixed with an unstoppable urge for a collective intervention into other countries’ internal affairs. Castlereagh called it “a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense” in which his government could never participate. It was not the potential expansion that bothered him—after all, he had participated in the division of small states and secured a couple of new colonies for the British Empire—but rather religious zeal, a lack of pragmatism, and a disregard for the principle of sovereignty. 

Castlereagh returned home triumphant, but the people’s favour did not last. He attended several more European congresses, defending their decisions from the increasingly hostile opposition, and became widely viewed as a reactionary. Angry mobs occasionally followed him around and broke the windows of his London home. Poets named him a tyrant and oppressor, and the Whigs followed suit. It was Castlereagh who defended the magistrates’ actions in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre (1819); it was he who introduced the Parliamentary Bill to prevent meetings and training of radicals. During the debates, his opponent customarily assumed that he was acting out of malicious motives. “I feel no wrath against the people,” the Secretary calmly replied, “I am only doing my duty.”

He worked tirelessly under constant pressure, being severely overworked with his dual responsibilities of leading the government in the House of Commons and managing foreign affairs, refusing to slow down even after his health began to deteriorate. Always on the front lines, he endured sickness and fatigue for as long as he could. In August 1822, his friends noticed that he was mentally unstable, and a few days later, he committed suicide.

It is customary for a politician to chase popular opinions, putting partisan interests first and shying away from confrontation. However, Castlereagh was not a politician, but a statesman: an undaunted leader who took a stand when it mattered, carried the burden of power with pride and confidence, sacrificed everything for his country, and established Britain’s role for decades to come. “Icy and reserved, Castlereagh walked his solitary path, as humanly unapproachable as his policy came to be incomprehensible to the majority of his countrymen,” Kissinger wrote. “It was not until his tragic death that the world was to learn the price of solitude.”

Could we expect the same of our leaders today? Moral courage is undoubtedly what we need, just as any generation before or after us, but it is hardly fair to demand such strength of character from the politicians who were trained to give in to public opinion. Those are the qualities of a different breed, conscious of its unique fitness to hold power and its ultimate responsibility for the country’s success. A true statesman is pragmatic enough to recognise the consequences of his policies. He or she is also brave enough to act anyway.

Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.


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