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