Russell, Lord John, 1st Earl Russell

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Russell, Lord John, 1st Earl Russell (1792–1878). Prime minister. A small, cocky man, with an abrasive and resilient personality, Russell was the third son of the duke of Bedford and was educated at Westminster and Edinburgh University. He entered Parliament in 1818, sitting for several constituencies until returned for the City of London in 1841, which he represented until his elevation to the peerage as Earl Russell. He first made his mark in taking a leading role in the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts as they affected protestant dissenters in 1828 and he supported catholic emancipation in 1829. In Grey's administration he helped to draft the Reform Bill, introduced it in the Commons, and was prominent in securing its passage through Parliament. Russell used the argument of ‘finality’ with such enthusiasm that he earned the nickname ‘Finality Jack’. Ironically his later career demonstrated that the reform carried in 1832 was not the final step but the first in taking Britain down the road to democracy. Russell was never an advocate of universal suffrage, however. In the 1860s he favoured reducing the franchise qualification but not the total abolition of a property level. In the abortive Reform Bill introduced during his second premiership in 1865–6 he sought to lower the household franchise in the boroughs from £10 to £7. During his long career Russell served in many offices of state. He was home secretary and colonial secretary under Melbourne, leader of the House under Aberdeen, foreign secretary under first Aberdeen and later Palmerston. He was twice prime minister: from 1846 to 1852 and again in 1865 to 1866. Russell never disguised his convictions. This made him a wayward colleague. In 1845 he became a convert to the repeal of the Corn Laws. Outraged by what he saw as papal aggression he denounced the revival of catholic bishoprics in England in 1850 and introduced the controversial Ecclesiastical Titles Bill in 1851. He had strong sympathies with Italian nationalism. During the American Civil War he kept Britain neutral but refused to accept responsibility for the damage inflicted on Federal commerce by the Confederate raider the Alabama, which had been built on the Mersey. He sympathized with the Poles and the Danes but could do little to help them. Though associated in the public mind with Palmerston, Russell's relationship with his famous colleague was often stormy. Russell had been happy to see Palmerston go after the approval he had given to Louis Napoleon's coup in December 1851. In turn he fell victim to Palmerston's desire for revenge when in 1852 his government was defeated on its militia proposals. Russell was almost as difficult a premier as he was a colleague. He often failed to consult colleagues and, though he was quick to identify crucial issues and to see the need to act, he was less successful in carrying his colleagues with him. In his second premiership he introduced parliamentary reform, which he believed had been thwarted by Palmerston for too long. But he could not manage shifting opinions within the Commons and had the mortification of going out of office and seeing Disraeli carry a Reform Bill which was more advanced than that which Russell had proposed. Russell did not lack intelligence but his judgement was questionable. As a Whig, standing within the Foxite tradition, he edited the correspondence of Charles James Fox for publication, but his enthusiasm for his subject outran his skills as an editor.

John W. Derry


Prest, J. , Lord John Russell (1972).