(By Bill Moloney; San Francisco) Without endorsing Thomas Carlyle’s dictum that “All History is the Story of Great Men”, it is nonetheless possible to assert that Biography is a superb tool for organizing broader themes in the landscape of the Past. Accordingly one can gain a sweeping overview of 19th Century British History via three brilliant biographies of three extraordinary men who were Prime Ministers during the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).
The titles, dates of publication, and authors are: Melbourne (1939) by David Cecil (1902-1986), Disraeli (1929) by Andre Maurois (1885-1967) and Salisbury (1999) by Andrew Roberts (b.1963). All three have stood the test of time and are regarded as masterpieces of historical insight and literary triumphs as well.
William Lamb, Lord Melbourne (1779-1848), Victoria’s first Prime Minister provided strength and guidance to the eighteen year old girl who exited a highly sheltered upbringing to ascend the throne of the world’s greatest Empire.
Benjamin Disraeli, later Lord Beaconsfield (1804-1881) drew Victoria out of the long and painful seclusion that followed the death of her beloved consort Prince Albert, restored her popularity, and made her Empress of India in 1876.
Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord Salisbury (1830-1902) dramatically expanded the Empire until it compassed a quarter of the earth’s surface and brought British Civilization to an actual and symbolic zenith of influence on the occasion of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
A powerful unifying theme across this entire period is the evolving structure of British partisan politics in response to the surging economic and social currents that shaped and reshaped British society throughout the Industrial Revolution.
These developments have a particular interest in that they prefigure and are reflected in similar processes occurring in the United States. Just as America’s Federalist Party gave way to Democrats who jousted with Whigs and then were unhorsed by Republicans owing to the seismic dislocations of the Civil War so too did Britain’s Whigs contest for power with the Tory Party in the decades following England’s Civil War (1640-1649) and “Glorious Revolution” (1688).
As the party of Parliament that definitively ended all pretensions of Royal Supremacy the Whigs enjoyed a long “Ascendency” which endured until a Tory “Revival” occurred under the historic premiership of William Pitt (1783-1806).
Though partisan identity in Britain was less formally defined than in America and governed more by personal and factional rivalries Lord Melbourne is fairly described as the last of fifteen Whig Prime Ministers dating back to Robert Walpole (1721-1742) – the first man to hold that office.
The power of the Whig Party had rested on the great landed estates- the traditional foundation of British wealth- but these had been dramatically undermined by the rise of a new moneyed class created by the Industrial Revolution, and further weakened by a long agricultural Depression exacerbated by burgeoning competition from the rapidly growing United States.
The Whigs were also sorely divided by the bruising battles over political Reform that followed in the wake of the French Revolution. In the end the Whig Party split apart with half its adherents being magnetized by the vigor of the New Liberal Party personified by William Gladstone (1809-1898) while its’ more traditional element found a new home among their economic peers in the Tory Party.
Disraeli was the pivotal figure in transforming the Tories into the modern Conservative Party which continued to stand for gradual change and limited government but also greatly broadened its appeal by patriotic celebration of national greatness as embodied in the growing British Empire.
Like Melbourne and Disraeli before him, Lord Salisbury greatly feared that the rapid social and political changes that were transforming society were moving at a pace that risked serious damage to the traditional character and strengths of the English Nation. Like Disraeli Salisbury vigorously opposed the government activism espoused by the Liberal Party and its formidable leader Gladstone.
Just as the towering issue of National Union split the Democratic Party in America so too did that burning issue split the Liberal Party when Gladstone declared his support of Home Rule for Ireland in 1885. In consequence the large Unionist faction of the Liberal Party entered a de facto Parliamentary alliance with the Conservatives that allowed Salisbury- who also served as his own Foreign Secretary- to dominate British politics and the international stage for the remainder of the century.
In the hands of highly gifted authors who exemplify David McCullough’s maxim that “Great Histories should tell a Great Story” these books give vibrant life to three fascinating personalities who played commanding roles in what is arguably the most consequential century in the extraordinary saga of the English Speaking Peoples.
By splendidly illuminating vital antecedents of our own complex age and providing compelling reading pleasure as well at least one of these volumes should be a rewarding addition to your Summer Reading List.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.