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George Canning (1770-1827)

George Canning was born into an Anglo-Irish family on 11 April 1770, the first son and second and only child of his father's three children. His father was a barrister who wrote articles, pamphlets and poetry; briefly he set up as a wine merchant but the business failed. George Canning (senior) was disinherited so his son was born into poverty. When a wealthy uncle took charge of young Canning's education, a small Irish estate, Kibrahan in County Kilkenny, was settled on him, giving him a very small, fluctuating income throughout his life, amounting to about £200 p.a. on average. He struggled financially until he was given a government post in 1796, which brought a salary. This may help to explain why Canning was so eager for ministerial office.

Canning's mother was a 'great beauty'. When she was left destitute by the death of her husband she went on the stage first in London then touring the country. She lived with an actor, Samuel Reddish to whom she had five children. Later she married Richard Hunn and had a further five children. Canning was educated at Hyde Abbey School near Winchester until he was 12 years old. He then went to Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. He was awarded his first Degree in 1791 and a Masters Degree in 1794. He could not afford a Grand Tour so he went on a short tour of the Netherlands and Brussels in the summer of 1791.

He entered Lincoln's Inn in September 1791 but was never called to the Bar. Canning met Pitt the Younger in 1792; Pitt promptly became Canning's hero and he changed his alliance from the Whigs to the Tory party. He wrote to Pitt asking for an interview and subsequently, Pitt promised to find a parliamentary seat for Canning. He gave up the law shortly after entering parliament on 28 June 1793 as the MP for Newtown, Isle of Wight.

Between 20 November 1797 and 9 July 1798, Canning was the editor of the Anti-Jacobin - or - Weekly Examiner. This was a satirical, pro-government, anti-republican, anti-reform publication that included poems and articles written by Canning. By this time, he was financially more stable, having been given a sinecure as Receiver-General of the Alienation Office that carried an annual salary of £700. In July 1800 he married Joan Scott, an heiress worth £100,000. The marriage was a happy one and they had three sons and one daughter. Canning spent the majority of his wife's fortune on property (which included a Lincolnshire farm that lost money), election costs (he fought 16 elections in all), paying off debts incurred before his marriage, paying off his son's gambling debts and general expenses.

Canning became MP for Tralee in 1802 but returned to his original seat at Newport, Isle of Wight, in 1806. In 1808 he became Foreign Secretary in Portland's ministry: Portland was his brother-in-law. In April 1809, Canning wrote to Portland threatening to resign from the Foreign Office unless Castlereagh was removed from the War Office. Portland agreed but chose not to inform Castlereagh of the imminent change. However, Castlereagh discovered that Canning was trying to have him removed from the War Office and challenged Canning to a duel. Canning was wounded in the thigh during the exchange. Canning resigned as Foreign Secretary shortly afterwards when his offer to become PM was rejected by George III, on the death of Portland..

In October 1812, Canning became MP for Liverpool, a seat he represented until 1823. However, in 1814 he was appointed as Ambassador to Lisbon, returning in the autumn of 1815. He was opposed to parliamentary reform, which he thought was the first step towards revolution. In parliament in 1819, he said

To that reform indeed he should always be a decided opponent, whatever disguise it assumed, or in whatever form it was presented; whether it exhibited itself in the coarse, broad, gross, disgusting, tyrannical and insulting shape in which of late it had appeared in other places, or in the more plausible and less offensive, but not less dangerous character in which it was occasionally laid before that House. [Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 40, col 196 (1819)]

In March 1820, Canning's eldest son died; in December he resigned as President of the Board of Trade, having refused to take part in the proceedings against Queen Caroline who was a personal friend of Canning.

In April 1822, Canning accepted the post of Governor-General of India in an attempt to escape from his poverty. The post carried an annual salary of £25,000. However, Castlereagh's suicide left open the post of Foreign Secretary, to which Canning was appointed, serving in this capacity until he became PM in April 1827 following the resignation of Lord Liverpool. Canning was a supporter of the abolition of slavery and, throughout his time at the Foreign Office, fought to uphold Britain's best interests.

When he became PM on 12 April 1827, seven members of the Cabinet resigned: Wellington, Westmorland, Peel, Bexley, Melville, Eldon and Bathurst. Canning had to open negotiations with Lord Lansdown, the leader of the Whigs, in an effort to form a coalition government; he was successful in bringing in Lansdown and the Duke of Devonshire.

In January 1827, Canning had been at the funeral of the Duke of York, where Canning caught a severe cold. He never recovered and on 8 August 1827 he died.

William Cobbett, in his Political Register of 12 October 1822, wrote an assessment of Canning just after he had been appointed as Foreign Secretary following Castlereagh's death.

If the reader has paid public attention to the public efforts of Mr. Canning, he will find, that those efforts have had but one principal object in view: namely, to prevent any change in the system, by which the country has been governed for many years past. This is all, which he, as a statesman, appears to have thought worthy of his serious attention. . .. Castlereagh, fool as he was, almost downright idiot as he was, was much fitter for the present state of things than the really accomplished Mr Canning... After all his hostility towards me, I am ready to acknowledge the greatness of his talents; I do not impute to him base selfishness or wicked intentions of any sort. I impute to him dangerous and destructive error, and from the effect of that error I wish to see the country delivered.

The Annual Register published the following opinion of Canning, just after his death:

Europe lost in him the ablest statesman, and the Commons of England the finest orator of his day... As a practical statesman, his views were always clear and manly. He was the most unyielding opponent of all the schemes which, for more than thirty years, had thrown the world into confusion under the name of reform: and he had done his country much good service in maintaining the integrity of her existing institutions... The later acts of his public life, before he became Prime Minister, had, in an equal manner, strengthened his hold on the admiration and favour of his country.
On the other hand, it is true that there were circumstances which prevented a large and influential portion of the people from giving him as much of their confidence as they willingly gave him of their admiration. There were parts of his public life in which his steadiness of purpose and consistency of conduct might be questioned; there were others in which it might be doubted whether perfect good faith to his fellow-labourers had not been sacrificed to ambition, and the last act of his life, that coalition, by which he chose to be first, through the support of former opponents, rather than to remain second in name among former friends, was more than questionable. [Annual Register, vol. 69 1827 pp.190-191]

Charles Greville describes here the events leading up to the formation of Canning's ministry, the events of that ministry and the following months, ending in Canning's death. Anecdotes following Canning's death may be found here .

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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