John Russell, 1st Earl Russell: Leading Whig and Liberal politician who served as Prime Minister on two occasions (1792 - 1878) | Biography
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John Russell, 1st Earl Russell
Leading Whig and Liberal politician who served as Prime Minister on two occasions

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Leading Whig and Liberal politician who served as Prime Minister on two occasions
A.K.A. Lord John Russell
Was Mathematician Politician Statistician
From United Kingdom
Field Mathematics Politics
Gender male
Birth 18 August 1792, Mayfair, City of Westminster, Greater London, London
Death 28 May 1878, Pembroke Lodge, London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, Greater London, London (aged 85 years)
Politics Whigs, Liberal Party
Father: John Russell6th Duke of Bedford
Siblings: Francis Russell7th Duke of BedfordLord George RussellLord Alexander RussellLord Charles RussellLord Edward Russell
Spouse: Frances Russell
Children: Rollo RussellJohn RussellViscount Amberley
The details (from wikipedia)


John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, KG, GCMG, PC, FRS (18 August 1792 – 28 May 1878), known as Lord John Russell before 1861, was a leading Whig and Liberal politician who served as Prime Minister on two occasions during the mid-19th century. Scion of one of the most powerful aristocratic families, his great achievements, says A. J. P. Taylor, were based on his indefatigable battles in Parliament over the years on behalf of the expansion of liberty; after each loss he tried again and again, until finally his efforts were largely successful. E. L. Woodward, however, argued that he was too much the abstract theorist, so that "He was more concerned with the removal of obstacles to civil liberty than with the creation of a more reasonable and civilised society". Nevertheless Russell led his Whig Party into support for reform; he was the principal architect of the great Reform Act of 1832. As Prime Minister his luck ran out. He headed a government that failed to deal with a famine in Ireland that caused the loss of a quarter of its population. Taylor concludes that as prime minister, he was not a success. Indeed, his Government of 1846 to 1852 was the ruin of the Whig party: it never composed a Government again, and his Government of 1865 to 1866, which might be described as the first Liberal Government, was very nearly the ruin of the Liberal party also.

Background and education

Russell was born small and premature into the highest echelons of the British aristocracy. The Russell family had been one of the principal Whig dynasties in England since the 17th century, and were among the richest handful of aristocratic landowning families in the country, but as a younger son of the 6th Duke of Bedford, he was not expected to inherit the family estates. As a younger son of a duke, he bore the courtesy title "Lord John Russell," but he was not a peer in his own right. He was, therefore, able to sit in the House of Commons until he was made an earl in 1861 and transferred into the House of Lords.

After being withdrawn from Westminster School due to ill health, Russell was educated by tutors. He attended the University of Edinburgh, 1809 and 1812; he did not take a degree. Although of small stature—he grew to no more than 5 feet 4-and-three-quarter inches tall—and often in poor health, he traveled widely in Britain and on the continent, and held commission as Captain in the Bedfordshire Militia in 1810. During his continental travels, Russell had a 90-minute meeting with Napoleon in December 1814 during the former emperor's exile at Elba.

Public life

Early career

Russell entered the House of Commons as a Whig in 1813. The future reformer gained his seat by virtue of his father, the Duke of Bedford, instructing the 30 or so electors of Tavistock to return him as an MP even though at the time Russell was abroad and under age. In 1819, Russell embraced the cause of parliamentary reform, and he led the more reformist wing of the Whigs throughout the 1820s. When the Whigs came to power in 1830 in Earl Grey's government, Russell entered the government as Paymaster of the Forces, and was soon elevated to the Cabinet. He was one of the principal leaders of the fight for the Reform Act 1832, earning the nickname Finality Jack from his complacently pronouncing the Act a final measure. In 1834, when the leader of the Commons, Lord Althorp, succeeded to the peerage as Earl Spencer, Russell became the leader of the Whigs in the Commons. This appointment prompted King William IV to terminate Lord Melbourne's government, the last time in British history that a monarch dismissed a prime minister. Nevertheless Russell retained his position for the rest of the decade, until the Whigs fell from power in 1841. In this position, Russell continued to lead the more reformist wing of the Whig party, calling, in particular, for religious freedom, and, as Home Secretary in the late 1830s, played a large role in democratising the government of British cities other than London. During his career in Parliament, Lord John Russell represented the City of London.

Taylor emphasises Russell's central role in the expansion of liberty and in leading his Whig Party to a commitment to a reform agenda. In 1845, as leader of the Opposition, Russell came out in favour of repeal of the Corn Laws, forcing Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel to follow him. In December 1845, with the Conservatives split over this issue, Queen Victoria asked Russell to form a government, which he was unable to do since Lord Grey refused to serve with Lord Palmerston as Foreign Secretary. In June the following year the Corn Laws were repealed but only by virtue of Whig support. The same day Peel's Irish Coercion Bill, which the Whigs did not support, was defeated and the Prime Minister resigned. Russell became Prime Minister, this time Grey not objecting to Palmerston's appointment.

Prime Minister: June 1846 – February 1852

Russell's government introduced reforms such as the Ten Hours Act and measures to improve the training of teachers. His premiership was frustrated, however, because of party disunity and infighting, and he was unable to secure the success of many of the measures he was interested in passing. He fought with his headstrong Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, whose belligerence and support for continental revolution he found embarrassing. In 1847 Palmerston provoked a confrontation with the French government by undermining the plans of the Spanish court to marry the young Spanish Queen and her sister into the French royal family. He subsequently clashed with Russell over plans to augment the army and navy in order to defend against the perceived threat of French invasion, which subsided with the overthrow of the French king in 1848.

In 1850 further tension arose between the two over Palmerston's gunboat diplomacy in the Don Pacifico affair, in which Palmerston sought compensation from the Greek Government for the ransacking and burning of the house of David Pacifico, a Gibraltarian holder of a British passport. Russell considered the matter, "hardly worth the interposition of the British lion," and when Palmerston ignored some of his instructions, the Prime Minister wrote to Palmerston telling him he had informed the Queen that he "thought the interests of the country required that a change should take place at the Foreign Department." However, less than a month later Lord Stanley successfully led the House of Lords into passing a motion of censure of the Government over its handling of the affair and Russell realised that he needed to align with Palmerston in order to prevent a similar motion being passed by the House of Commons, which would have obliged the Government to resign. The Government prevailed, but Palmerston came out of the affair with his popularity at new heights since he was seen as the champion of defending British citizens anywhere in the world.

Palmerston was forced to resign when he recognised Napoleon III's coup of 2 December 1851 without royal approval. Russell tried to strengthen his government by recruiting leading Peelites such as Sir James Graham and the Duke of Newcastle to his administration, but they declined.

Palmerston turned the vote on a militia bill into a vote of confidence on the Government. The majority vote in favour of an amendment proposed by Palmerston caused the downfall of Russell's ministry on 21 February 1852. This was Palmerston's famous "tit for tat with Johnny Russell," a revenge for his dismissal by Russell as Foreign Minister.

The Great Irish Famine

The Russell administration's response to the deepening crisis in Ireland that had begun under his predecessor proved inadequate. Russell's Whigs were adherents to the doctrine of laissez-faire and believed that the market would provide the food needed, so he refused to intervene against food exports to England, and then halted the previous government's food and relief works, leaving many hundreds of thousands of people starving and destitute. Russell's ministry introduced a new programme of public works that by the end of December 1846 employed some half million Irish, but it proved impossible to administer. Charles Trevelyan was appointed by Russell's ministry to administer government relief but limited food aid from the public purse, reflecting the belief, common in England at the time, that "the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson". The Public Works were "strictly ordered" to be unproductive, i.e., they would create no fund to repay their own expenses. Many hundreds of thousands of feeble and starving men were kept digging holes and breaking up roads, which was doing no service.

To continue receiving relief, hundreds were instructed to travel many miles in bad weather. A large number died on the journey. In January 1847, the government abandoned this policy, realising that it had failed, and turned to a mixture of "indoor" and "outdoor" direct relief; the former was administered in workhouses through the Irish Poor Laws, the latter through soup kitchens. The costs of the Poor Law fell primarily on the local landlords, who in turn attempted to reduce their liability by evicting their tenants, a practice that was facilitated by the "Cheap Ejectment Acts" passed by Russell's government.

The "Gregory clause" of the Poor Law prohibited anyone who held at least of an acre from receiving relief. In practice, this meant that if a farmer, having sold all his produce to pay rent and taxes, should be reduced, as many thousands of them were, to applying for public outdoor relief, he would not get it until he had first delivered up all his land to the landlord. The result was several hundred thousand Irish families driven from their land.

In total, under Russell's government perhaps as many as one million Irish starved to death or died of diseases caused by malnutrition, and one million more were forced to emigrate, reducing the population of Ireland by as much as one-quarter, and sowing a legacy of deep bitterness and resentment among many Irish people towards British administration in Ireland.

In opposition: February 1852 – December 1852

The July 1852 general election saw the election of 330 Conservatives and 324 Whigs to the Parliament. Neither had an overall majority for 38 members who were technically Conservatives were actually Peelites (followers of the late Robert Peel). The Peelites had deserted the Conservatives to vote for the repeal of the Corn Laws in June 1846. The Corn Laws had imposed a tariff on all cheap imported wheat and, thus, kept the price of wheat and the bread made from wheat high. This served the interests of landed aristocracy, which was the main body of support for the Conservative Party. However, the high price of wheat and bread added greatly to the desperation of the poor and hungry in England and Ireland.

The new Parliament included 113 "Free Traders" who were more radical than the Peelites. They felt that the tariffs on all imported consumer goods should be removed, not just the tariff on wheat or "corn." There were also 63 members of the "Irish Brigade," made up of Irish members interested in the Tenant Rights legislation for the protection of the tenant farmers in Ireland. None of these minor groups were interested in forming a government with the Conservatives because of the bitterness left over from the repeal of the Corn Laws. However, John Russell of the Whigs could not attract enough of the minor party members to form a government either. Other issues handled during the recent Russell government had alienated these three minor groups from the Whigs also. Thus, Queen Victoria asked the Earl of Derby to form a minority government. It only lasted until December 1852.

Portrait of John Russell by Francis Grant, 1853

Foreign Minister in the Aberdeen Government

Russell, as the leader of the Whig Party, then brought it into a new coalition government with the Peelite Conservatives, headed by the Peelite Lord Aberdeen. Palmerston could not possibly be appointed as Foreign Minister but he had to be a part of the new Aberdeen government and became Home Secretary. Russell continued to serve as Leader of the Whig Party in the House of Commons. As the leader of the largest party in the Aberdeen coalition government, Russell was needed in the new government. Accordingly, on 28 December 1852, Russell was appointed Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

In the eyes of many, including the Queen and Aberdeen, his jockeying for position against Palmerston was one of the causes of the inability of the administration to take a firm direction. It was a contest that Palmerston won. Having entered the administration as the expected Whig heir, Russell left it having been overtaken by Palmerston.

The Crimean War

Together with Palmerston, Russell was instrumental in getting Britain to join France in thwarting the threat of Russia against the Ottoman Empire. They did so as members of the Aberdeen government and against the wishes of the cautious, Russophile Earl of Aberdeen. The Ottoman Empire was in a state of decline, and several nations in Europe sought to acquire portions of its territory. Russia sought to assert its territorial claims to the Balkans. However, just as soon as Louis Bonaparte had completed his coup against the Second Republic of France and assumed the title Napoleon III, he sent an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire with instructions to obtain from the Ottomans a guarantee that France was to be the exclusive "protector of Christian sites" in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Louis Bonaparte was the nephew of Napoleon I, Emperor of France, and many British public officials—like Aberdeen—felt that Louis Bonaparte was merely seeking foreign adventure and aggrandisement and would sooner or later involve Britain in another series of wars like those wars against France and Napoleon from 1793 to 1815. France had long been seen as an opponent of British interests, and that perception had not changed since 1815. Accordingly, much of the British public sided with Russia in what was now being called the "Eastern Question." However, as time passed, the horrific losses of British soldiers, reported in detail in the press, caused British public opinion to turn hostile. The British government was worried about the outcome of the rising tensions over the Eastern Question. Accordingly, Aberdeen sent Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, a diplomat of considerable experience, to the Ottoman Empire, to oversee British interests.

When the Ottomans gave way to Louis Bonaparte's demands, Russia strongly objected and on 7 May 1853 one of Russia's leading statesmen, Prince Alexander Sergeyevich Menshikov, arrived in Turkey to demand an agreement favourable to Russia. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, Russia had occupied the Ottoman-controlled provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia (modern Romania). Under the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca signed in 1774, Russia had given these Danubian provinces back to the Ottoman Empire in exchange for Turkish recognition of Russia's exclusive right to "protect the Christian sites in Jerusalem and the Holy Land." Menshikov, using threats, obtained his agreement with the Porte.

The British elite saw a growing Russian threat not just to the Ottomans but also to Europe and even India. The balance of power was being upset. London cooperated with Paris. France sent a French ship-of-the-line to the Black Sea, in the spring of 1852, as a show of force against the Russians. The Ottomans reversed themselves and signed a treaty acknowledging the French and the Vatican as the official protectors of the Christian sites in the Holy Land. The Russians responded by sending its 4th and 5th Army Corps into Wallachia and Moldavia. It expected Austria and Prussia would support this move, but they were opposed and Russia had no allies. The Aberdeen government resisted active pursuit of the war. Lord Russell, frustrated by the Prime Minister's delays, resigned from the government on 21 February 1853. Aberdeen replaced Russell with Lord Clarendon.

The Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia on 23 October 1853. The Russian fleet defeated the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Sinope on 30 November 1853. After Russia had ignored the Anglo-French ultimatum, both France and Britain declared war on Russia on 28 March 1854. The war was fought chiefly in the Black Sea, with the great Russian base of Sebastopol in Crimea as the main target. In September 1854, British, French and Turkish troops landed on the Crimean Peninsula and set siege to Sevastopol. After a campaign marked by gross mismanagement and very high rates of death from disease, Sevastopol finally fell, but British public opinion had turned hostile.

A motion in Parliament to investigate the mismanagement became a vote of confidence in the Aberdeen government and in the Secretary for War. Accordingly, when the Roebuck motion passed, Aberdeen treated the vote as a vote of "no confidence" in his government and resigned. Upon the resignation of the Earl of Aberdeen, Lord Palmerston was asked to form a new government. John Russell was sent to Vienna to negotiate (accepting the Colonial Office) but sacrificed himself to protect negotiation confidentiality, and temporarily retired from politics in 1855, focusing on writing.

Foreign Minister in the Palmerston Government: 1859–1865

In 1859, following another short-lived Conservative government, Palmerston and Russell made up their differences, and Russell consented to serve as Foreign Secretary in a new Palmerston cabinet, usually considered the first true Liberal Cabinet. This period was a particularly eventful one in the world outside Britain, seeing the Unification of Italy (the change of British government to one sympathetic to Italian nationalism had a marked part in this process), the American Civil War, and the 1864 war over Schleswig-Holstein between Denmark and the German states. Russell arranged the London Conference of 1864, but failed to establish peace in the war. His tenure of the Foreign Office was noteworthy for the famous dispatch in which he defended Italian independence: "Her Majesty's Government will turn their eyes rather to the gratifying prospect of a people building up the edifice of their liberties, and consolidating the work of their independence, amid the sympathies and good wishes of Europe" (27 October 1860).

The House of Lords: 1860

In 1861 Russell was elevated to the peerage as Earl Russell, of Kingston Russell in the County of Dorset, and as Viscount Amberley, of Amberley in the County of Gloucester, and of Ardsalla in the County of Meath. As a peer in his own right, he sat in the House of Lords for the remainder of his career.

Prime Minister again: 1865–1866

When Palmerston suddenly died in late 1865, Russell again became Prime Minister. His second premiership was short and frustrating, and Russell failed in his great ambition of expanding the franchise, a task that would be left to his Conservative successors, Derby and Benjamin Disraeli. In 1866, party disunity again brought down his government. Russell never again held any office. His last contribution to the House of Lords was on 3 August 1875.

Marriages and children

Adelaide Lister, Russell's first wife (d. 1838)

On 11 April 1835, Russell married Adelaide, Lady Ribblesdale, the eldest daughter of Thomas Lister Esq. and the widow of Thomas Lister, 2nd Baron Ribblesdale, who had died in 1832. Her death in 1838 cut the marriage short after three years. They had two daughters, Lady Georgiana Adelaide Russell (1836–1922), who married Archibald Peel and had a daughter, Grace (1878–1973); and Lady Victoria Russell (1838–1880), who married the Rev. Henry Montagu Villiers, and left many descendants.

On 20 July 1841 Russell married his second wife, Lady Frances Anna-Maria Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, daughter of Gilbert Elliot, 2nd Earl of Minto. Their children were John Russell, Viscount Amberley (1842–1876), George Gilbert William Russell (1848–1933); Francis Albert Rollo Russell (1849–1914) and Mary Augusta Russell (1853–1933). They lived at Pembroke Lodge, Richmond Park.

Russell and his second wife brought up the children of his eldest son Lord Amberley, orphaned by the deaths of their mother Katharine Russell, Viscountess Amberley in 1874 and their father two years later. These included philosopher Bertrand Russell, who recalled his grandfather in his later life as "a kindly old man in a wheelchair."

The 1st Earl Russell is buried at the 'Bedford Chapel' at St. Michael's Church, Chenies.


He was succeeded as Liberal leader by former Peelite William Gladstone, and was thus the last true Whig to serve as Prime Minister. Generally taken as the model for Anthony Trollope's Mr Mildmay, aspects of his character may also have suggested those of Plantagenet Palliser. An ideal statesman, said Trollope, should have "unblemished, unextinguishable, inexhaustible love of country... . But he should also be scrupulous, and, as being scrupulous, weak."

The 1832 Reform Act and extension of the franchise to British cities are partly attributed to his efforts. He also worked for emancipation, leading the attack on the Test and Corporation acts, which were repealed in 1828, as well as towards legislation limiting working hours in factories in the 1847 Factory Act, and the Public Health Act of 1848.

His government's approach to dealing with the Great Irish Famine is now widely condemned as counterproductive, ill-informed and disastrous. Russell himself was sympathetic to the plight of the Irish poor, and many of his relief proposals were blocked by his cabinet or by the British Parliament.

Queen Victoria's attitude to Russell had been coloured by his role in the Aberdeen administration. On visiting Windsor Castle to resign, Aberdeen had told the Queen: "Nothing could have been better," he said, "than the feeling of the members towards each other. Had it not been for the incessant attempts of Lord John Russell to keep up party differences, it must be acknowledged that the experiment of a coalition had succeeded admirably," which attitude she shared. The Queen continued to criticise Russell for his behaviour for the rest of his life, and on his death in 1878 her journal records that he was "a man of much talent, who leaves a name behind him, kind, & good, with a great knowledge of the constitution, who behaved very well, on many trying occasions; but he was impulsive, very selfish (as shown on many occasions, especially during Ld Aberdeen's administration) vain, & often reckless & imprudent.


In 1819 Lord John Russell published his book Life of Lord Russell about his famous ancestor, William Russell, 1st Duke of Bedford; and a year later his Essays and Sketches of Life and Character, "By a Gentleman who has left his lodgings" (1820), a series of social and cultural commentaries ostensibly found in a missing lodger's rooms.

In 1822 Russell published a historical drama Don Carlos : or, Persecution. A tragedy, in five acts.

Between 1853 and 1856, he edited the Memoirs, Journal and Correspondence of Thomas Moore, which was published by Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans over 8 volumes.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens was dedicated to Lord John Russell, "In remembrance of many public services and private kindnesses."


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