George Canning 

5 mins read

By Colin Campbell

“Canning… That is a name never to be mentioned, I am sure, in the House of Commons without emotion.” 

GEORGE CANNING was born on the 11th of April 1770 in London. His father, a failed businessman and his mother an actress, Canning was taken under the wing of wealthy relatives who funded his education at Eton and Oxford. Canning would later enter politics and in 1793 he won a seat in Parliament. Canning quickly gained a political following, becoming well known for being a competent public speaker and orator, but also gained a reputation of being controversial and abrasive. Throughout his career in politics Canning would hold various positions in government, being most known for serving twice as Foreign Secretary and as Prime Minister for 5 months until his death in 1827. 

“Europe’s domain extends to the shores of the Atlantic, England’s begins there.” 

After the Napoleonic wars Europe found itself in an uneasy state of peace. After 25 years of war the great powers of Europe, those being France, Prussia, Austria, Russia, and the UK, came to an amicable agreement for a postwar settlement at the Congress of Vienna. The treaty signed by the five Great Powers sought to define clear spheres of influence so that the balance of power would be maintained and war between the Great Powers avoided. If any Great Power was out of line it was in the interest of everyone to unite against them as they had done during the Napoleonic Wars, this is commonly referred to as ‘’The Concert of Europe’’. What this meant in reality was that the major powers would police Europe and interfere in the internal affairs of other nations to put down revolutions. 

Emerging from the war with France, the United Kingdom found itself as the only industrialised economy, the only naval power and virtually the only colonial power in the world. Detached from continental Europe and with the strongest navy of any nation Britain’s military influence extended to all the world’s oceans. This secure environment allowed the British economy to flourish making British citizens on average 50% wealthier than the people living on continental Europe. 

Two years before Canning’s second term as Foreign Secretary Europe’s new system of international order faced its first major test. The King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, who had been reestablished after the Congress of Vienna rejected the liberal Spanish Constitution and sought to give himself absolute power. This started a rapidly growing rebellion in January of 1820 that would see the king forced to make concessions in the beginning of March the same year, approving the Constitution of 1812 and returning power to the Spanish Legislature. This would shortly turn out to be a lie as Ferdinand VII went on to veto every decision made by the legislature and later call on the aid of the other European monarchies.

If that were to happen Spain could likely turn into the stage of which the next war in Europe would play out. 

After the sudden suicide of the previous Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, George Canning was the successor to the position of Foreign Secretary. Castlereagh and Canning were not on good terms and had even exchanged gunfire during a duel in the past. One could imagine everybody bracing themselves for a rash and emotional stance on the situation in Spain and British foreign policy as a whole. But Canning quickly proved himself a pragmatic statesman being able to separate his personal rivalry from his duty as Foreign Secretary, he would follow Castlereagh’s lead and advocate for non-interventionism throughout Europe. This stance would be put to the test almost immediately after he took office when the reinstated French monarchy, fearing a new wave of liberal revolutions throughout Europe, intervened in Spain and once again restored Ferdinand VII to power on the condition that he would come to a compromise with the Spanish people. In the midst of the tyrannical king, unwilling to compromise, being reinstated George Canning spoke out in favour of the Liberal, Republican and Revolutionary movement. This unprecedented support for a revolutionary movement from the United Kingdom came as a shock to continental Europe, and within only a few years France would choose to end their imprudent occupation of Spain. Canning’s actions proved very effective, and for this he received praise from both sides in the house of commons. 

“I called the New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old.” 

Following the deteriorating legitimacy of Spain’s government, virtually all of the colonies in South America declared independence from the Iberian powers of Spain and Portugal. Canning saw this as a great opportunity to halt any hidden agendas the French might have in seizing Spain’s colonies for the purpose of stability and at the same time develop Britain’s relationship with the fledgling nations of South America. Canning therefore sought for Britain to recognize the sovereignty of the former Spanish colonies and assisted many of them in the process of gaining international recognition. In this effort Canning was successful insofar as allowing the colonies to trade openly, he even managed to help persuade Portugal to recognize the independence of Brazil a mere 3 years after Brazil declared itself a sovereign nation. As for the supposed French ambitions to recolonize the Spanish colonies, Canning sent a message to the French warning that such an act would be interpreted as an act of war by Britain. Whether or not France had any plans to do so Cannings message thwarted these ideas. It is not to be understated how effective this diplomatic manoeuvre was. At a later international meeting when the subject of recolonizing the former Spanish colonies was brought up the issue was immediately shut down when France told the other Great Powers about Britain’s hardline stance on the matter. The Independence of North and South America was consolidated in the form of a United States foreign policy position called the “Monroe Doctrine” that by some accounts Canning had a minor role in making come to fruition. The Monroe Doctrine declared that American continents are not to be considered as subjects for future colonisation by any European power and that such an act could mean war with the United States. At the time this was an empty threat and Britain enforced this in

place of the United States but it was still seen as a considerable win for British foreign policy as it meant that any attempts at reconquering the American continents would be met with resistance from both Britain and the United States. In Europe he would also diplomatically support the Greek struggle against the Ottoman Empire and the creation of an independent Greek state. 

“You must know how great was the influence of his name on the Continent—I take it to have been very great indeed. Not on the Continent alone, but in newly independent States across the Atlantic.” 

During a time when European powers had an obsession with colonialism Canning only saw the value in colonies as long as they facilitated trade. He was a conservative and at the same time a staunch supporter of the slave abolitionist movement, a movement that found most of its supporters in the liberal parties of Europe. A supporter of independence and liberalist movements during a time when the rest of Europe was seemingly terrified by them. The fruits of George Cannings labour are more tangible than his legacy and the memory of him. He was a minor character in many happenings during his time, but his actions would prove decisive nonetheless.

By: Colin Campbell

Cover: Norbert Zabel / GetArchive / PICRYL

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