The British Prime Minister of the late 19th century, John Russell was a leading Victorian politician who influenced much of Britain’s political life through his work. He was well-educated and came from an illustrious family, which put him in good stead for leading the country. However, he is best remembered for his government’s unsuccessful response to the Irish Famine and has been left in history labelled as leader of the government that “ruined” the Whig party.
Let’s have a look at 10 interesting facts about John Russell!
John Russell Facts
1. Russell was a true aristocrat
John Russell was born in 1792 in the very heart of high-class British society, as the son of the 6th Duke of Bedford. His mother was the daughter of George Byng, 4th Viscount Torrington. This aristocratic family had been one of the main Whig dynasties in England since the 17th century, they were extremely rich and well-known.
In 1861, Russell was made an earl and would join the House of Lords, but he had already sat in the House of Commons because he had a courtesy title of “Lord John Russell” by birth.
2. He met Napoleon
Given his financial means, Russell was able to travel widely at a young age and especially across Europe. An interesting fact about John Russell is that during his travels, he met Napoleon and had a 90-minute meeting with him on the island of Elba in 1814, during Napoleon’s exile there.
3. Russell came into politics through privilege
John Russell’s debut in politics wasn’t exactly as you would expect from a successful politician. He was underage and still travelling abroad at the time of elections in 1813. However, his father instructed the electors in Tavistock to choose him as an MP, and this is how John Russell was first elected.
4. He dedicated himself to parliamentary reform early on
From 1819, Russell became interested in the reform of parliament, and became leader of the reformist wing of the Whig party, an interesting John Russell fact. He continued in this position throughout the 1820s and made parliamentary reform his personal cause as well as the party’s cause.
As such, he was one of the main leaders of the fight for the Reform Act of 1832 and was nicknamed “Finality Jack” because he called this Act a “final measure.” Even though the working classes perceived him as opposed to any further reform, in reality Russell continued to work to reform the Whig party and move it toward the new Liberal party under his immediate successor, William Gladstone.
5. Russell and Palmerston didn’t see eye to eye
Another notable Whig party politician at this time was Lord Palmerston, by far the most controversial figure in Russell’s cabinet during the latter’s first tenure as Prime Minister (1846-1852). Palmerston was Foreign Secretary and supported the continental revolutions, which Russell disagreed with. In fact, Palmerston provoked confrontations such as with France, by undermining the plans of the Spanish court to marry the young Spanish queen and her sister into French royalty.
Russell dismissed Palmerston in December 1851 because he had conveyed to the French ambassador Russell’s approval of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat.
Palmerston then retaliated by leading the opposition to defend the government’s Militia Bill. This led to Russell’s resignation in 1852. This became known as Palmerston’s “tit for tat with Johnny Russell.”
6. Russell and Palmerston directed the course of British foreign policy
Through their rivalry, the two men became the reason that the Aberdeen government failed to take a firm foreign policy direction after 1852.
Palmerston became Home Secretary under the government of Lord Aberdeen, and since he was the leader of the largest party of the coalition supporting this government, Russell was appointed Foreign Secretary.
Russell and Palmerston joined forces to influence British involvement in the Crimean War, however. Against the wishes of more cautious members of government, the two decided to back France.
7. He continued to work for Palmerston
Russell’s luck ran out and it was Lord Palmerston who managed to form the next government, while sending Russell to Vienna to negotiate unsuccessfully. Russell temporarily retired from politics at this point.
By 1859, however, the two reconciled and Russell was appointed Foreign Secretary in a new Palmerston cabinet, often referred to as the first Liberal cabinet. He held the title during a period of many developments in Europe, such as the Unification of Italy which was supported by the British government.
8. Queen Victoria was critical of him
When Russell died, Queen Victoria publicly voiced her admiration towards him. However, she also criticized how impulsive and selfish he appeared, as well as “vain, & often reckless & imprudent,” an interesting John Russell fact.
9. Charles Dickens admired John Russell
The writer Charles Dickens dedicated his novel A Tale of Two Cities to John Russell, “in remembrance of many public services and private kindnesses.” He also mentioned his great respect for Russell in a public speech, praising him for his public work as well as “in his private capacity,” which suggests they were close friends.
10. Russell became a prolific author
Aside from his work in politics, John Russell dedicated his time to writing. He had already published Life of Lord Russell – about his famous ancestor, William Russell, 1st Duke of Bedford – as early as 1819. Therefore, Russell got a taste for writing and also published Essays and Sketches of Life and Character.
Later on, he turned his pen to historical drama and wrote Don Carlos: or, Persecution. A Tragedy, in five acts in 1822.
Finally, he worked as an editor for 8 volumes called Memoirs, Journal and Correspondence of Thomas Moore.
John Russell was the last true Whig to serve as Prime Minister, a true reformer, but one with mixed reputation because of his cabinets’ failings, most notably in relation to the Irish Famine. Nowadays considered “disastrous,” his government’s actions during that crisis are condemned, in spite of him being sympathetic of the Irish and actually trying some relief proposals which were simply blocked.
And here you have top 10 interesting facts about John Russell! If you are interested, you should visit the Historical People Facts Page!