A Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal ri­valry that turned tragic for both sides in the af­fair

The Washington Times Weekly - - World -

Ri­valry may be the meat and drink of pol­i­tics, but it typ­i­cally op­er­ates within bounds. Com­ing to blows is to­day just a metaphor, and even more ro­bust dis­putes in the past dis­tin­guished ad­ver­saries from al­lies. The fa­mous duel be­tween Alexan­der Hamil­ton and Aaron Burr, along with Henry Clay’s less noted en­counter with John Ran­dolph a gen­er­a­tion later, fol­lows the ob­vi­ous pat­tern. Hamil­ton’s Bri­tish con­tem­po­raries William Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox both fought du­els with po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, al­beit with less fa­tal re­sults. Chal­leng­ing a close col­league, how­ever, struck even con­tem­po­raries as an ex­tra­or­di­nary step. Giles Hunt takes the 1809 duel be­tween Ge­orge Can­ning and Lord Castlereagh — two of Pitt’s pro­teges who served in the same gov­ern­ment — as a start­ing point to ex­am­ine an amaz­ing ri­valry and its con­se­quences.

Can­ning and Castlereagh stand out as lead­ing Bri­tish states­men who brought their coun­try through the up­heaval of war with Napoleonic France and its af­ter­math. In dif­fer­ent ways, they each drew to­gether in­flu­ences from both Ed­mund Burke and their men­tor Pitt the Younger that grafted onto an older Tory out­look to es­tab­lish the foun­da­tion of the Con­ser­va­tive party.

While diplo­matic his­to­ri­ans take the ri­valry be­tween Can­ning and Castlereagh as point mark­ing a shift in Bri­tain’s for­eign pol­icy, that approach masks deeper con­ti­nu­ities in their out­look. Rather than a clash be­tween the lib­eral Can­ning and a re­ac­tionary Castlereagh, a close look re­veals more com­mon ground than the stereo­type al­lows. Jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion and dif­fer­ences in tem­per­a­ment set them apart, and fac­tors that might have been soft­ened in­stead brought them into a con­fronta­tion that de­fined their ca­reers.

Mr. Hunt set out Can­ning and Castlereagh’s re­la­tion­ship in an en­gag­ing pop­u­lar his­tory along the lines of Plutarch’s par­al­lel lives. While the fa­mous duel lies at the cen­ter of their story, Mr. Hunt looks be­yond it to ex­plain why Can­ning and Castlereagh faced one an­other over pis­tols on the morn­ing of Sept. 21, 1809. The two men shared an Ir­ish back­ground — Can­ning, though born and raised in Eng­land oc­ca­sion­ally spoke of “we Ir­ish” — and the early loss of a par­ent. Af­ter her hus­band’s death, Can­ning’s mother sup­ported her chil­dren on the stage and made a se­ries of un­for­tu­nate mar­riages that cast a shadow over his later ca­reer. Can­ning’s un­cle later gave him an ed­u­ca­tion at Eton and Christ Church, Ox­ford that launched his ca­reer. But Mr. Hunt ar­gues that the lack of firm sup­port threw Can­ning back on his wits, forc­ing him to use guile in a way that earned a rep­u­ta­tion for de­vi­ous­ness.

Castlereagh lost his mother at age one and grew up on his fa­ther’s Lon­don­derry es­tate. His fam­ily were Ul­ster gen­try with com­mer­cial ties, and their for­tunes had risen in re­cent gen­er­a­tions. A brief stint at Cam­bridge Univer­sity and elec­tion to the Ir­ish par­lia­ment in Dublin brought him into pol­i­tics. In­ter­est­ingly, Castlereagh be­gan his ca­reer as a Whig. Only later did Ir­ish neigh­bors com­plain of his be­com­ing “Pit­tized” as a sup­porter of the gov­ern­ment in Lon­don. Shep­herd­ing the Act of Union in 1800 that merged Ire­land’s leg­is­la­ture with the Bri­tish par­lia­ment at West­min­ster made Castlereagh’s name as a ris­ing politi­cian, but it also branded him a rene­gade who em­braced re­ac­tion to ad­vance his ca­reer.

Pitt had brought both men into Bri­tish pol­i­tics dur­ing the 1790s, and Can­ning staked a claim to be­come his men­tor’s po­lit­i­cal heir. When Pitt re­signed in 1801 over a dis­pute with Ge­orge III, he urged his friends to back Henry Ad­ding­ton. Castlereagh backed the new gov­ern­ment, but Can­ning re­signed of­fice and sniped at Ad­ding­ton with the hope of bring­ing back Pitt. Even those amused by his quip that Pitt is to Ad­ding­ton as Lon­don is to Padding­ton saw Can­ning as a trou­ble­maker. By Pitt’s death in 1806 Can­ning had earned the po­lit­i­cal world’s re­spect with­out gain­ing its trust while Castlereagh stood out as a re­li­able man.

Can­ning and Castlereagh joined with Pitt’s other friends in 1808 to form a gov­ern­ment un­der the Duke of Port­land, and col­lab­o­rated ef­fec­tively as for­eign sec­re­tary and war sec­re­tary, they col­lab­o­rated closely. Port­land, an el­derly no­ble­man who served largely as a fig­ure­head, failed to co­or­di­nate ef­forts. Castlereagh bore re­spon­si­bil­ity for fail­ures be­yond his con­trol, and set­backs in the war against Napoleon made the gov­ern­ment as a whole seem in­ept. With­out per­sonal mal­ice to­ward his col­league, Can­ning de­ter­mined that solv­ing the prob­lem­woul­drequirethor­ough­lyre­or­ga­niz­ing the cabi­net and mov­ing Castlereagh to a dif­fer­ent post.

Port­land con­fused post­pon­ing prob­lems with solv­ing them, and he put Can­ning off while swear­ing him to se­crecy. When Castlereagh fi­nally learned of the af­fair on Can­ning’s res­ig­na­tion, he was dumb­struck. Sev­eral day’s re­flec­tion led him to is­sue a chal­lenge that left Can­ning no room for jus­ti­fi­ca­tion or apol­ogy. Ob­servers saw it as an act of cold mal­ice since Castlereagh was an ex­pert shot and Can­ning had never fought a duel. Hu­mil­i­a­tion and anger drove the peer to seek re­venge. The two men ex­changed shots twice, end­ing only af­ter Can­ning had been shot through the thigh. Even then, he asked Castlereagh whether he was sure they were done. While con­tem­po­raries un­der­stood the feel­ings of honor be­hind Castlereagh’s ac­tion, they still thought it went be­yond con­ven­tion.

The duel shaped pol­i­tics for the next 14 years, keep­ing Can­ning out of power and sub­or­di­nat­ing him to a re­ha­bil­i­tated Castlereagh. Even af­ter ri­vals for­gave him, Can­ning oc­cu­pied an un­easy po­si­tion. Castlereagh’s ac­tions ex­posed an er­ratic streak few un­der­stood. The calm, self-pos­sessed gen­tle­man had a dark side that ended with his sui­cide in 1822. Mr. Hunt sug­gests that syphilis con­tracted in his youth im­paired Castlereagh’s rea­son at key points, prompt­ing both the duel in 1809 and his sub­se­quent death. That ar­gu­ment of­fers an in­ter­est­ing twist to a po­lit­i­cal ri­valry turned tragic.

William An­thony Hay, a his­to­rian at Mis­sis­sippi State Univer­sity and se­nior fel­low with the For­eign Pol­icy Re­search In­sti­tute, is au­thor of “The Whig Re­vival, 1808-1830.”

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