George Hamilton Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen (1784-1860). John Partridge. c. 1847. Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 750. Click on image to enlarge it
George Hamilton Gordon, fourth Earl of Aberdeen, who served as Prime Minister from 19 December 1852 to 30 January 1855. was born on 28 January 1784 in Edinburgh. He was the eldest son and first of seven children born to George Gordon, Lord Haddo and his wife Charlotte Baird. Aberdeen was educated at preparatory schools in Barnet and Parsons Green, London. In 1795 he went to Harrow and in 1800 was admitted to St. John's College, Cambridge where he studied for only two sessions. Noblemen were able to obtain a Degree without sitting and examination and he was awarded his MA in 1804. In 1791 Aberdeen's father died after falling from his horse; his mother died in 1795. In Scottish law, at the age of 14 orphans were allowed to name their guardians: Aberdeen appointed Pitt the Younger and Henry Dundas as his guardians. In 1801 Aberdeen's grandfather died and the young man succeeded to the Earldom at the age of 17. He was never wealthy: although his Scottish estates were extensive, they were on poor land.
Between 1801 and 1804 he toured Europe, spending much time in Greece; he met Napoleon in Paris in 1802; the following year he excavated the amphitheatre on the Pnyx in Athens. The reliefs he found were shipped to Britain along with the Elgin Marbles in 1806. On his return to Britain, Aberdeen founded the Athenian Society and later wrote about Troy for the Whig periodical, the Edinburgh Review. Lord Byron, Aberdeen's cousin, criticised the Earl and also the Earl of Elgin form removing classical antiquities from Athens: in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers of 1809 Byron wrote about 'the travelled Thane, Athenian Aberdeen' and commented
Let Aberdeen and Elgin still pursue
The Shade of fame through regions of virtu;
Waste useless thousands on their Phidean freaks;
Misshapen monuments and maim'd antiques;
And make their grant saloons a general mart
For all the mutilated blocks of art
In 1805 the young Earl visited his Scottish estates for the first time since his childhood; he was appalled at the poverty in which his tenants lived. Aberdeen became interested in the 'new' agriculture because of the need to improve his estates and devoted a great deal of time and effort on improvement in terms of clearing and draining the soil: his income did increase but not enough to put him into the ranks of the really rich particularly since he spent much of his life paying off the debts of his grandfather and father. He experimented with livestock, particularly shorthorn cattle and South Downs sheep but that involved removing the people from his lands in the process. Later in 1805 he married Lady Catherine Hamilton; they had four children but she died of tuberculosis in 1812 and Aberdeen mourned her for the remainder of his life.
Pitt died in January 1806: he had been Aberdeen's guardian but also his friend and mentor. Pitt had also promised to give Aberdeen an English peerage which would have given him an automatic seat in the House of Lords. Scottish peers did not have the right to a seat in the Lords but elected sixteen of their number to represent them. Aberdeen was elected by them in December 1806, June 1807 and November 1812. In 1814 he was given his English peerage and took his seat in the House of Lords, by which time he had been offered several government posts. He made his maiden speech in April 1807 during the parliamentary debate on the change of ministry from Grenville to Portland; later that year he was created a Knight of the Thistle and a member of the Royal Society. He was twice offered the post of Ambassador to Russia but declined on both occasions.
In August 1813 Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary in Liverpool's ministry, sent Aberdeen on a special mission to Austria where he was instructed to reopen relations with Francis I and ensure that there was a British presence in the post-war meetings of the European heads of state. On his arrival he was appointed as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Vienna, signing the Treaty of Alliance at Topplitz. It was while he was in Austria that Aberdeen saw the aftermath of the Battle of Leipzig in October. The following year he represented Britain at the Chatillon Conference and attended the signing of the various treaties at the end of this phase of the French Wars. In return for his diplomatic work, he was given his English peerage and became a member of the Privy Council.
Haddo House, home of the Earls of Aberdeen
In 1815 he married his sister-in-law who at times treated his daughters badly, from jealousy. The unsuccessful marriage was engineered by their mutual father-in-law, the Marquis of Abercorn. Aberdeen said that Harriet was 'certainly one of the most stupid persons I ever met with': hardly the basis for a stable relationship. Nevertheless, the couple had five children. Furthermore, she hated Haddo and refused to go there. From 1819 they spent increasing amounts of time apart. She died in 1833, by which time all of Aberdeen's daughters had died.
In January 1828 the Earl of Aberdeen accepted the post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in Wellington's first ministry and agreed to help the Earl of Dudley at the Foreign Office. Six months later he became Foreign Minister when the Canningites left the ministry. He inherited the Eastern Question from Dudley and had to deal with the issue of Greek Independence. Aberdeen sympathised with the Greeks and wanted to help them; the Conference of London in February 1830 appeared to have settled the matter by granting autonomy to the Greeks; unfortunately, the Greeks wanted independence and were not satisfied with the settlement. The government had a number of problems with which to deal and Aberdeen was not a forceful man. His periods in office as Foreign Secretary were markedly different from those of Palmerston who was much more confrontational in his dealings with other nations.
Aberdeen's dislike of becoming involved in the internal affairs of other states was further demonstrated during the Portuguese succession crisis. In September 1828 the supporters of the new queen, Donna Maria asked the British for help in overthrowing the illegal regime of her uncle Dom Miguel. Aberdeen chose to follow a policy of neutrality. Similarly, when the Argentine proclaimed Louis Vernet as Governor of the Falkland Islands in 1829, Aberdeen merely protested about the breach of British sovereignty. By the end of 1830 he had left office with the collapse of Wellington's ministry although he did take up the post of Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in Peel's first ministry (1834) and had to deal with problems in Canada, South Africa and the West Indies.
In 1841 he was appointed as Foreign Secretary in Peel's second ministry and was responsible for the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842) and the Oregon Treaty (1846) that settled the Canadian-US border disputes for the time being. The settlement was attacked by Palmerston as a capitulation to the Americans but social and economic problems in Britain were more pressing than national borders half way round the world. Aberdeen also struck up a friendship with the French PM, Guizot and allowed the French more freedom than Palmerston may have done. Anglo-French relations deteriorated over the Tahiti affair in 1844: France had discovered, settled and traded regularly with Tahiti and so had the strongest claim to sovereignty. Britain's claim rested on the work of the missionary, Pritchard, who had also developed the island socially and economically. Aberdeen said that if Pritchard was given £1,000 in compensation, France could have the protectorate over Tahiti. For Britain, this was not the traditional policy of developing Britain's interests, although it was a fair settlement at a time when Aberdeen was determined to avoid a war. He was deemed to have 'given in' to the French and public opinion turned against him. He did offer to resign but Peel refused to accept; they agreed to disagree over foreign policy.
When Peel died in 1850, Aberdeen took over leadership of the Peelites, a group that refused to be absorbed by any other parliamentary grouping. Eventually, in 1859, the Peelites and others that have attached themselves to that group become the Liberal Party. In 1852, the Queen asked Aberdeen to form a ministry; he did so saying 'the new government should not be a revival of the old Whig Cabinet with the addition of some Peelites, but should be a Liberal Conservative government in the sense of that of Sir Robert Peel'. He was determined to form a coalition but found that the only way in which he could secure a majority in the Commons was to seek the help of the Irish. He appointed Lord John Russell as his Foreign Secretary and Palmerston was Home Secretary: soon Russell was replaced by Clarendon because Russell could not combine that job with being Leader of the House of Commons.
Aberdeen's ministry was responsible for legislation in 1853 that established open competitive examinations for the Indian Civil Service. However, it did mean that fewer Indians were appointed to administrative posts in their own country since they could not enter the civil service without hindrance like having to go to London to sit the examination in subjects not familiar to Indians, although the principles did not deny them from doing so. At the same time, the Eastern Question was re-opened and relations between Russia and Turkey degenerated into war in 1853. Aberdeen ordered the British fleet into the Black Sea despite the 1841 Straits Convention. In 1853 Disraeli wrote of Aberdeen:
His mind, his education, his prejudices are all of the Kremlin school. How that he is placed in a prominent position, and forced to lead English gentlemen, instead of glozing and intriguing with foreign diplomatists, not a night passes that his language or his demeanour does not shock and jar upon the frank and genial spirit of out British Parliament. His manner, arrogant and yet timid -his words, insolent and yet obscure-offend even his political supporters. His hesitating speech, his contracted sympathies, his sneer, icy as Siberia, his sarcasms, drear and barren as the Steppes, are all characteristic of the bureau and the chancery, and not of popular and aristocratic assemblies animated by the spirit of honour and the pride of gentlemen. If war breaks out-and the present prospect is that war will break out-this dread calamity must be placed to the account of this man, and of this man alone. [Benjamin Disraeli, Press 4 June 1853]
By March 1854 Britain was involved in the Crimean War. Aberdeen proved to be inept in handling the conduct of the war and in January 1855 John Arthur Roebuck, MP for Sheffield proposed a Committee of Inquiry to investigate the conduct of the war. Russell resigned rather than have to try to defend the ministry; Roebuck's proposal was carried by 157 votes and Aberdeen resigned the following day. Palmerston became PM and saw the Crimean War to a 'satisfactory' conclusion for Britain.
Aberdeen died at Argyll House in London on 14 December 1860. He was 76 years old.
Chamberlain, M. E. Lord Aberdeen: A Political Piography. London, 1983.
Gordon, Sir A. The Earl of Aberdeen. London, 1983.
Last modified 13 March 2002