Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh

Born 1769 — Died 1822.

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 2, edited by Charles A. Read

Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, afterwards Marquis of Londonderry, was the second son of the first marquis, and was born in county Down in the year 1769. The earlier part of his education was received at Armagh, from whence he proceeded to Cambridge in 1786. On leaving college he made the tour of Europe, and on his return in 1790 was elected member for his native county in the Irish parliament. He joined, perhaps without much consideration, the popular party, and made a highly successful debut in advocating the right of Ireland to trade with India. For some years he continued to support the popular cause; but as the mutterings of the rebellion drew near he shrank from taking a part with the wild spirits likely soon to rise into power. While some more timid politicians in these circumstances merely held aloof, Lord Castlereagh adopted a decided course: he became a supporter of the government, and in 1798 accepted the office of secretary to Lord Camden. During the rebellion that followed he was most active and untiring in his endeavours to suppress the unfortunate outbreak; but we are constrained to say that none of the cruelties which characterized the government proceedings can be fairly charged to him.

The rebellion was scarcely suppressed when the government determined upon bringing about the union of the two countries, Pitt having already decided on this measure even when he had been giving fair promises to Grattan. In the address from the throne at the opening of the Irish parliament in January, 1799, the union was proposed, "for the purpose of consolidating as far as possible into one firm and lasting fabric the strength, the power, and the resources of the British Empire." Lord Castlereagh made a speech in the lower house in favour of the measure, which, were it not that he was in the presence of Grattan and Plunket, might have been looked upon as of a high class. Plunket answered him in a powerful speech, and at the end of the debate the government managed to snatch a victory by a majority of one. In a second debate on accepting the address, however, government were defeated by six. To this mortification Castlereagh had to add the listening to the terrible onslaught made on him by Plunket, under which he was for the first and only time observed to quail. We need not here enter into details of the corrupt means adopted by Castlereagh and his colleagues to carry the obnoxious measure. On the 5th of February, 1800, he brought it forward in a lengthy speech, when the government obtained a majority of forty-three, and the patriotic party saw themselves utterly defeated. Finally leave was obtained for the introduction of the actual Act of Union by a majority of sixty, and from that time forward the opposition fought a gallant, but as they well knew a hopeless battle.

After the union Castlereagh remained for a time at his post, though now regarded as the most unpopular man in Ireland—where even to this day his memory is disliked. In 1805 his English career practically commenced by his being appointed secretary at war and for the colonies. In 1809 a long-continued jealousy between him and Mr. Canning, the secretary for foreign affairs, culminated in a duel, in which the latter was wounded, and both secretaries resigned their office. In 1812 Castlereagh succeeded the Marquis of Wellesley as foreign secretary, in which post he continued until 1822. In 1813 he proceeded to the Continent as plenipotentiary of the British government to assist the allied powers in promoting a general peace. His services as a member of the Congress of Vienna in 1814, in the general pacification and arrangements which have been usually designated by the phrase the settlement of Europe, received the public thanks of parliament, and he was rewarded with the order of the Garter. While acting as plenipotentiary it is said he was sometimes rather overreached; but his conduct acquired the respect of all, and he entered a dignified, though fruitless protest against some of the more unjust acts of the Congress.

On the death of his father in April, 1821, he succeeded him in the marquisate of Londonderry, but still retained his seat in the British House of Commons, where he acted as leader. After the arduous session of 1822, in which his labour was unremitting, he was observed to be suffering from great nervous excitement. Unhappily he was allowed in this condition to leave London for his seat at North Cray in Kent, where, on the morning of the 12th of August, 1822, he terminated his life by inflicting a wound in the neck with a penknife, of which he died almost instantly. During the lifetime of this unfortunate nobleman his speeches on various important national questions were published; and in 1848-53 his Memoirs and Correspondence appeared in twelve volumes, edited by his brother. Of this work Sir Archibald Alison says, "I cannot adequately express the gratification and interest these papers have afforded me. I consider them as invaluable materials for history."