To what extent did Castlereagh achieve the aims of the British Government at the Congress of Vienna 1815?



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To what extent did Castlereagh achieve the aims of the British Government at the Congress of Vienna 1815?


Viscount Castlereagh spent the majority of his time on the continent between January 1814 and February 1815, attempting to secure a lasting peace with the Allied Powers as the senior representative of the British government.1 This is an evaluation of how far the Secretary of Sate for Foreign Affairs secured the aims of the Cabinet, and to what effect his actions at the negotiations had in achieving these aims.
Castlereagh departed for the continent with a clear set of instructions that included many territorial requisites outlined in a meeting of the Cabinet on 26th December 1813.2 As the negotiations progressed however, Castlereagh’s perception of British Policy in the negotiations over territorial adjustments to Poland and Saxony differed from other members of the British Government. The minister, who prior to October 1814, had aligned himself directly with the interests of the Prince Regent, Prime Minister, and Secretary of State for War, appeared to have developed his own vested interest in the fate of central Europe.3 When did this change occur? And to what extent Castlereagh’s actions were borne from a his greater perspective of how to achieve important British aims.
The focus of the topic is that of a British perspective. This will help to comprehensively support the notion that Castlereagh consistently acted within the interests of his government and, despite acting against the wishes of his government at the end of 1814, helped to secure lasting peace in Europe and allow Britain to consolidate its status as an international hegemonic power.4 The importance of the Russian, Prussian, Austrian and French ministers in the negotiation process cannot be understated and an appreciation their influence on Castlereagh’s thoughts and actions will not be absent, but will be discussed in a secondary nature.
This concentrated British focus gives this evaluation a unique nature, and better establishes that Castlereagh’s endeavours on the continent amounted to a success for the British Government. Castlereagh’s role at the negotiations was largely criticised by contemporaries, and a failed attempt to redeem his reputation by Lord Robert Cecil in 1862, meant that he was generally viewed with ignominy in the nineteenth century.5 The publication of his correspondences, Correspondence, Despatches, and other papers, of Viscount Castlereagh in 1853, by half brother Charles Stewart also failed to improve this perception, as there was ‘little historical explanation or analysis through its twelve volumes.’6 The perception of Castlereagh, and the other ministers at Vienna, was therefore of reactionaries who intended to re-establish the old order of the eighteenth century.7 Indeed Castlereagh was an easy target for contemporary and later liberals, who exaggerated the juxtaposition between Canning, the liberal, and Castlereagh, the reactionary.8
The most significant work in changing this perception of Castlereagh was C.K Webster’s The Congress of Vienna (1919). Webster, writing with close analysis of the correspondences between Lord Liverpool, Castlereagh and the Earl of Bathurst in the Foreign Office Continental Records, argued that the successful conclusion of the Polish and Saxon issues was ‘very largely due to the energy, fitness and diplomatic skill of the British minister.’9 H. Nicholson’s The Congress of Vienna: A study in Allied Unity (1946) followed Webster’s methodological approach, providing a useful narrative of the negotiations using the wide selection of sources transcribed in Webster’s British Diplomacy 1813-1815: Select documents dealing with the reconstruction of Europe (London, 1921).
Criticism of these two; Graubard – Webster emphasised Castlereagh’s influence at the congress. (My thesis looks at the agency of Castlereagh, through his correspondences, and asks whether his role has been exaggerated) ‘seem incontrovertible’ – because of his methods and source work.
Consequently the perception and reputation of Castlereagh has improved significantly throughout the twentieth century, as historians have invested greater effort into understanding the complex nature of the Congress negotiation process. Henry Kissinger, for instance, advocated the successful diplomacy of Castlereagh and Metternich in the post-Napoleonic era in A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the problems of peace 1812-22 (1954). Kissinger depicts an analogous relationship between Castlereagh and Roosevelt whose states at the time of peace, were ‘on the periphery of world politics with a tradition of isolation, were similar in marrying the concept of equilibrium to that of collective security.’10
Castlereagh’s pursuit of equilibrium is central to this evaluation. The ministers wanted to create a balance of power in Europe, but it was perhaps the postulation of an idealist and became over calculated in regard to the Polish and Saxon issues.11 Historians have often considered the importance of the notion of the balance of power in Castlereagh’s actions at Vienna. P. Schroeder has ostensibly argued that balance of power politics failed, and that ‘under the lead of the hegemonic powers’ the ministers returned to practices of political equilibrium.12 In order to establish a lasting peace, Castlereagh, as a representative of one of the two hegemonic powers, had to participate in these critical central European discussions.
Castlereagh, up until November 1814, had secured the majority of British aims since his great success at the Treaty of Chaumont, and this more delicate area of the negotiations caused a divide between him and the Cabinet. The complications of the Polish and Saxon arrangements almost led to the crisis of war, and resulted in a secret defensive alliance between France, Austria and Britain on the 3 January 1815.13 The threat of war against Russia and Prussia illustrated a clear disregard by Castlereagh of the interests of the Cabinet, Parliament and the British public.
The investigation intends, in the two opening chapters, to illustrate Castlereagh’s complete alignment with the aims of his Cabinet in the first two phases of the peace negotiations. Chapter one, ‘Departure and the Treaty of Chaumont’, illustrates Castlereagh’s immediate success on the continent as he secures military partnership amongst the Allies for an extended period. ‘Châtillon abandoned – The Peace of Parisfurther indicates that the Secretary of Sate for Foreign Affairs pursued terms that agreed with both government and public sentiments, particularly after Bathurst informs him of Wellington’s findings in Southern France. The Peace of Paris successful ended any chance of peace with Napoleon directly and forced his abdication at Fontainebleau 11 April 1814.14 Thus by the summer of 1814 the British government was quite satisfied with the state of negotiations in Europe.
The next phase of the negotiations resumed as the plenipotentiaries congregated at Vienna in September 1814. Nicholson states that ‘a whole month had been wasted by these acrimonious festivities’.15 Yet evaluating Castlereagh’s expectations of the running of the Congress and how he attempts to direct it is critical to understanding how he becomes so embroiled in the Polish problem. His regular correspondence with Wellington demonstrates how his perception of this issue changed, and the difficulties he faced in negotiating with Alexander I of Russia. This chapter, ‘Castlereagh and Poland’, identifies what Castlereagh perceived were the central problems to cementing a lasting peace on the continent. Castlereagh moved away from his position of ‘natural mediator’ and began to seek an alliance against Russia from the other Allies.16 By the end of October 1814, the British Cabinet wanted to follow a more isolationist policy.
The final chapter highlights the growing concern of the Government over the Polish issue at the negotiations. ‘Disobedience and fear of warpresents this concern through the correspondences between Castlereagh and Lord Liverpool, Prime Minister. Although the plenipotentiaries come to a settlement over Poland, the British government feared the developing tension over the Saxon territories, whilst being preoccupied with the continuing war with America.17 It is in this final, and most precarious stage of the negotiations at Vienna where Castlereagh acts against the will of the British government. At this point it is imperative to understand why he chose to threaten war against Russia and Prussia in the secret alliance with France and Austria. This final chapter will demonstrate that Castlereagh had to resort to such serious measures in order to secure some of the most important territorial aims of the British Government. Thus this final chapter of the evaluation will reject any notion that Castlereagh acted without the interests of the British Government and public in mind at this stage of the Congress, and that his greater perspective on the situation, allowed him to secure peace on the continent and the majority of the criteria outlined in the Memorandum of the Cabinet 26th December 1813.
This study, as it has already been eluded, will concentrate primarily on the correspondences between the senior officials of British Government. The communication network between the Cabinet, namely Bathurst and Liverpool, and their ministers and generals on the continent, Castlereagh and Wellington in particular, was very efficient. Liverpool and Bathurst took charge of the domestic discussions of British foreign policy while Castlereagh was on the continent, and Bathurst took on the added responsibility of administering all the dispatches from the ministers in Europe.18
The majority of primary material has been selected from collections of these regular communications. The General Correspondence before 1906: Continent Conferences (FO 139) and Continent Conferences: Delegation Archives (FO 92) are both incredibly useful collections of Foreign Office Records, which include the correspondences, memoranda and protocols between the ministers in Europe and the British government in this period. Individual dispatches will illustrate Castlereagh’s thoughts and actions from Vienna, and also indicate the response and wishes of his government over the important issues at Congress.
It is essential that dispatches from other correspondences be utilised in this evaluation, which help to further understand Castlereagh’s motives and intentions. Thus dispatches between Castlereagh and Wellington, and other officials, will increase the depth of analysis over central issue of Poland and Saxony. Letters from volumes of Correspondence, Despatches, and other papers of Viscount Castlereagh, Second Marquess of Londonderry (1853) and Supplementary Despatches, Correspondences and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington (1862) allow for a greater perspective and understanding of the regular communications over the state of Europe and the negotiation process.
These sources hold the primary significance to this evaluation, as they will best help to understand to what extent Castlereagh followed the aims of British government at Vienna. Parliamentary and public opinion is often hugely influential on the formation of Government policy and aims, and Lord Liverpool and the Prince Regent we aware of their importance. Indeed there was less privacy in Government and increasing scepticism of its policies, as publications and pamphlets such as Tory Quarterly, Whig Edinburgh, Radical Westminster and The Times became more popular and influential over the opinion of politicians and the public.19 Evidence of this nature may be used to understand why the Government formulated and insisted that Castlereagh follow certain aims more emphatically than others. It will therefore be used as supplementary evidence to illustrate that Castlereagh secured the most important aims of his Government, and shared the understanding of their importance to the domestic populace.
There is little requirement for this evaluation to focus on Parliamentary debates and discussions. First although Castlereagh held the position as Leader of the House of Commons after Spencer Perceval’s assassination in 1812, he had a weakness of speaking in parliament.20 This is one of the primary reasons for his less than favourable reputation that existed through his lifetime and in the nineteenth century. Castlereagh’s correspondences illustrate a more sophisticated articulation of his actions. Furthermore Castlereagh’s extended absences from England meant that there a few Commons debates from this period where Castlereagh is present. Liverpool’s earnestness for Castlereagh to return in early 1815 was because he required the Leader of the Commons for other upcoming issues.21 Finally, it is significant to note that the British desire for peace in December 1813 was universal, and Bew illustrates that the opposition could do little as Castlereagh departed for the continent; he cites Whig MP, Sir Robert Heron, to indicate that the opposition had consent for the discretion of the Cabinet ministers in these important negotiations.22 Corrections
In some respects this evaluation follows a similar methodological approach to the works of Webster and Nicholson, without been effected by a post World War perception of ‘balance of power’, which Graubard criticised.23 Thus whilst this evaluation endeavours to credit Castlereagh for securing the most important aims of the British government, it will recognise the reasons for the isolation policy of the Cabinet. It is additionally necessary to understand the wider context and aims of the other European powers, as Schroeder does, and that the lasting peace and equilibrium of hegemonies achieved at Vienna amounted to something revolutionary rather than reactionary.24 This study attempts to resist the heavy focus on Castlereagh’s character and personal psychology that is seen in biographical histories, and focuses on a British perspective predominantly, thus avoiding the complexities of the discourse of the works on wider European history of this period of negotiations.
The incidental consequence of this study’s British focus is that an exploration of the aims of Russia, Prussia, Austria and France at the Congress is not possible, and the evaluation can only mention the intentions of these powers in relation to British aims. An evaluation to what extent Britain achieved the abolishment of the slave trade is also absent from this study. This was a popular issue in British politics because of public opinion and the organised pressure from Wilberforce; it had become a serious aim of the government, who made agreements of abolition with Portugal, Sweden and Denmark between 1810-14.25 The reason for excluding this aim from the analysis is twofold. First, this agreement was an attached provision to the general treaty, and is therefore not seen in the The Times newspaper 15th July 1815 publication of the Treaty of Vienna.26 The most contentious provisions of the treaty were the territorial arrangements and the rights of sovereignty of states. Second the anti-slavery campaign was universally recognised in Britain as a paramount aim of foreign policy, but it generally ‘differed sharply from other objectives of British foreign policy during this period’.27 Therefore it is best to treat this complex issue separately, and not let in further complicate the evaluation of Castlereagh’s actions during our period.
The study also fails to evaluate the entire aspect of British arbitration at the Congress of Vienna, as it relates to Castlereagh specifically. Wellington replaced the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at Vienna in February 1815, but by this stage all the major issues had been resolved and Wellington and the other British ministers responsibility was ‘with the orderly arrangement of minor affairs.’28 The evaluation of the entire process at Vienna is therefore not necessary for the evaluation in question, and therefore is only a minor limitation. There is also little need to focus on the consequences of Napoleon’s march from Elba and his defeat by the Seventh Alliance at Waterloo in July 1815, as the negotiations over this issue were presided over by Wellington, whose military success at Waterloo gave him and the Prussians the advantage at the negations at the Second Peace of Paris.29 Consequently this study has chosen to use the wider context to help further understand the British aims at Vienna, and although the analysis of some of the wider issues lack development; the evaluation will succeed in a more focused analysis of Castlereagh’s actions over the 14-month period of negotiations, and demonstrate that the minister acted to achieve the aims of his government throughout.

IR theory – world of events, big players etc.



World of agency, the individual – but not against one another, more the individual agency.


1 J. W. Derry, Castlereagh, (London, 1976), p. 13

2 Memorandum of the Cabinet, 26th December 13, National Archives (Kew),


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