Karl Marx in New York Daily Tribune
Articles On China, 1853-1860

Defeat of the Palmerston Ministry

Written: March 25, 1857;
Transcribed by: Harold Newson;
HTML Mark-up: Andy Blunden;

March 25, 1857

After having raged for four nights, the Chinese debates subsided at last in a vote of censure passed by the House of Commons on the Palmerston Ministry. Palmerston retorts to the censure by a "penal dissolution." He punishes the Commons by sending them home.

The immense excitement prevailing on the last night of the debates, within the walls of the House as well as among the masses who had gathered in the adjoining streets, was due not only to the greatness of the interests at stake, but still more to the character of the party on trial. Palmerston's administration was not that of an ordinary Cabinet. It was a dictatorship. Since the commencement of the war with Russia, Parliament had almost abdicated its constitutional functions; nor had it, after the conclusion of peace, ever dared to reassert them. By a gradual and almost imperceptible declension, it had reached the position of a Corps Legislatif, distinguished from the genuine, Bonapartish article by false pretences and high-sounding pretensions only. The mere formation of the Coalition Cabinet denoted the fact that the old parties, on the friction of which the movement of the Parliamentary machine depends, had become extinct. This impotence of parties, first expressed by the Coalition Cabinet, the war helped to incarnate in the omnipotence of a single individual, who, during half a century of political life, had never belonged to any party, but always used all parties. If the war with Russia had not intervened, the very exhaustion of the old official parties would have led to transformation. New life would have been poured into the Parliamentary body by the infusion of new blood, by the admission to political rights of at least some fractions of the masses of the people who are still deprived of votes and representatives. The war cut short this natural process. Preventing the neutralization of old Parliamentary antagonisms from turning to the benefit of the masses, the war turned it to the exclusive profit of a single man. Instead of the political emancipation of the British people, we have had the dictatorship of Palmerston. War was the powerful engine by which this result was brought about, and war was the only means of insuring it. War had therefore become the vital condition of Palmerston's dictatorship. The Russian war was more popular with the British people than the Paris peace. Why, then, did the British Achilles, under whose auspices the Redan disgrace and the Kars surrender had occurred, not improve this opportunity? Evidently because the alternative lay beyond his control. Hence his Paris treaty, backed by his misunderstandings with the United States, his expedition to Naples, his ostensible squabbles with Bonaparte, his Persian invasion, and his Chinese massacres.

In passing a vote of censure upon the latter, the House of Commons cut off the means of his usurped power. Its vote was, therefore, not a simple Parliamentary vote, but a rebellion, a forcible attempt at the resumption of the constitutional attributes of Parliament. This was the feeling which pervaded the House, and whatever may have been the peculiar motives actuating the several fractions of the heterogeneous majority — composed of Derbyites, Peelites, Manchester men, Russellites, and so-called Independents — all of them were sincere in asserting that it was no vulgar anti-Ministerial conspiracy which united them in the same lobby. Such, however, was the gist of Palmerston's defence. He covered the weakness of his case by an argumenturn ad misericordiam, by presenting himself as the victim of an unprincipled conspiracy. Nothing could be more happy than Mr. Disraeli's rebuke of this plea, so common to Old Bailey prisoners.

"The First Minister," he said, "is of all men the man who cannot bear a coalition. Why, sir, he is the arch-type of political coalitions without avowed principles. See how his Government is formed. It was only last year that every member of his Cabinet in this House supported a bill introduced, I think, by a late colleague. It was opposed in the other House by a member of the Government who, to excuse his apparent inconsistency, boldly declared that when he took office the First Minister required no pledge from him on any subject whatever (Laughter). Yet the noble Lord is alarmed and shocked at this unprincipled combination! The noble Lord cannot bear coalitions! The noble Lord has acted only with those among whom he was born and bred in politics (Cheers and laughter). That infant Hercules ... (pointing at Lord Palmerston) was taken out of the Whig cradle, and how consistent has been his political life! (Renewed laughter). Looking back upon the last half century, during which he has professed almost every principle, and connected himself with almost every party, the noble Lord has raised a warning voice to-night against coalitions, because he fears that a majority of the House of Commons, ranking in its numbers some of the most eminent members of the House-men who have been colleagues of the noble Lord-may not approve a policy with respect to China which has begun in outrage, and which, if pursued, will end in ruin. (Loud cheers). That, sir, is the position of the noble Lord. And what defence of that policy have we had from the noble Lord? Has he laid down a single principle on which our relations with China ought to depend? Has he enumerated a solitary political maxim which should guide us in this moment of peril and perplexity? On the contrary, he has covered a weak and shambling case by saying — what? — that he is the victim of a conspiracy. (Cheers and laughter). He did not enter into any manly or statesmanlike defence of his conduct. He reproduced petty observations made in the course of the debate which I thought really had become exhausted and obsolete, and then he turned round and said that the whole was a conspiracy! Accustomed to majorities which have been obtained without the assertion of a single principle, which have, indeed, been the consequence of an occasional position, and which have, in fact, originated in the noble Lord's sitting on that bench without the necessity of expressing an opinion upon any subject, foreign or domestic, that can interest the heart of the country or influence the opinion of the nation, the noble Lord will at last find that the time has come when, if he be a statesman, he must have a policy (cheers); and that it will not do, the instant that the blundering of his Cabinet is detected, and every man accustomed to influence the opinion of the House unites in condemning it, to complain to the country that he is the victim of a conspiracy." (Cheers).

It would, however, be quite a mistake to presume that the debates were interesting because such passionate interests hinged upon them. There was one night's debate after another night's debate, and still no division. During the greater part of the battle the voices of the gladiators were drowned in the hum and hubbub of private conversation. Night after night the placemen spoke against time to win another twenty-four hours for intrigue and underground action. The first night Mr. Cobden made a clever speech. So did Bulwer and Lord John Russell; but the Attorney-General was certainly right in telling them that "he could not for one moment compare their deliberations or their arguments on such a subject as this with the arguments that had been delivered in another place." The second night was encumbered by the heavy special pleadings of the attorneys on both sides, the Lord-Advocate, Mr. Whiteside and the Attorney-General. Sir James Graham, indeed, made an attempt to raise the debate, but he failed. When this man, the virtual murderer of the Bandiera, sanctimoniously exclaimed that "he would wash his hands of the innocent blood which had been shed," a half-suppressed ironical laugh re-echoed his pathos. The third night was still duller. There was Sir F. Thesiger, the Attorney-General in spe, answering the Attorney-General in re, and Sergeant Shee endeavouring to answer Sir F. Thesiger. There was the agricultural eloquence of Sir John Pakington. There was General Williams of Kars, listened to with silence only for a few minutes, but after those few minutes spontaneously dropped by the House and fully understood not to be the man they had taken him for. There was, lastly, Sir Sidney Herbert. This elegant scion of Peelite statesmanship made a speech which was, indeed, terse, pointed, antithetical, but girding at the arguments of the placemen rather than producing new arguments of his own. But the last night the debate rose to a height compatible with the natural measure of the Commons. Roebuck, Gladstone, Palmerston and Disraeli were great, each in his own way.

The difficult point was to get rid of the stalking-horse of the debate, Sir J. Bowring, and to bring home the question to Lord Palmerston himself, by making him personally responsible for the "massacre of the innocents." This was at last done. As the impending general election in England will in the main revolve upon this point, it may not be amiss to condense, in as short a compass as possible, the results of the discussion. The day after the defeat of the Ministry, and the day before the ministerial announcement of the dissolution of the House of Commons, the London Times ventured upon the following assertions:

"the nation ... will be rather at a loss to know the precise question to be answered ... Has Lord Palmerston's Cabinet forfeited the confidence of the People on account of a series of acts committed on the other side of the world six weeks before they were here even heard of, and by public servants appointed under a former administration?"

(It was at Christmas when Ministers heard of the matter, and they were at that time as ignorant as everybody else).

"In fact, had the scene of the narrative been the moon, or had it been a chapter from the Arabian Nights, the present Cabinet could not have less to do with it ... Is Lord Palmerston's administration to be condemned and displaced for what it never did and could not do, for what it only heard of when everybody else heard of it, for what was done by men whom it did not appoint and with whom it has not, as yet, been able to hold any communication?"

To this impudent rodomontade of a FaFer which has all along vindicated the Canton massacre as a supreme stroke of Palmerstonian diplomacy, we can oppose a few facts painfully elicited during a protracted debate, and not once controverted by Palmerston or his subordinates. In 1847, when at the head of the Foreign Office, Lord Palmerston's first dispatch on the admission of the British Hong-Kong authorities into Canton was couched in menacing terms. However, his ardours were damped by Earl Grey, his colleague, the then Secretary for the Colonies, who sent out a most peremptory prohibition to the officers commanding the naval forces, not only at Hong Kong, but at Ceylon, ordering them, under no circumstances, to allow any offensive movement against the Chinese without express authority from England. On the 18th August, 1849, however, shortly before his dismissal from the Russell Cabinet, Lord Palmerston wrote the following dispatch to the British Plenipotentiary at Hong Kong:

"Let not the great officers of Canton nor the Government of Pekin deceive themselves ... The forbearance which the British Government has hitherto displayed, arises not from a sense of weakness, but from consciousness of superior strength. The British Government well knows that if occasion required it, British military force would be able to destroy the town of Canton, not leaving one single house standing, and could thus inflict the most signal chastisement upon the people of that city."

Thus the bombardment of Canton occurring in 1856, under Lord Palmerston as Premier, was foreshadowed in 1849 by the last missive sent to Hong-Kong by Lord Palmerston, as Foreign Secretary of the Russell Cabinet. All the intervening Governments have refused to allow any relaxation of the prohibition put upon the British representatives at Hong-Kong against pressing their admission into Canton. This was the case with the Earl of Granville under the Russell Ministry, the Earl of Malmesbury under the Derby Ministry, and the Duke of Newcastle under the Aberdeen Ministry. At last, in 1852, Dr. Bowring, till then Consul at Canton, was appointed Plenipotentiary. His appointment, as Mr. Gladstone states, was made by Lord Clarendon, Palmerston's tool, without the knowledge or consent of the Aberdeen Cabinet. When Bowring first mooted the question now at issue, Clarendon, in a dispatch dated July 5, 1854, told him that he was right, but that he should wait till there were naval forces available for his purpose. England was then at war with Russia. When the question of the Arrow arose, Bowring had just heard that peace had been established, and in fact naval forces were being sent out to him. Then the quarrel with Yeh was picked. On the 10th of January, after having received an account of all that had passed, Clarendon informed Bowring that "Her Majesty's Government entirely approved the course which has been adopted by Sir M. Seymour and yourself." This approbation, couched in these few words, was not accompanied by any further instructions. On the contrary, Mr. Hammond, writing to the Secretary of the Admiralty, was directed by Lord Clarendon to express to Admiral Seymour the Government's admiration of "the moderation with which he had acted, and the respect which he had shown for the lives and properties of the Chinese."

There can, then, exist no doubt that the Chinese massacre was planned by Lord Palmerston himself. Under what colours he now hopes to rally the electors of the United Kingdom is a question which I hope you will allow me to answer in another letter, as this has already exceeded the proper limits.