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George Canning's Address on the King's Message Respecting Portugal

Hansard, XVI [N.S.], 390-98

In this speech, George Canning echoed the sentiments of the King's message (12 December 1826) which expressed determination to leave "no effort unexhausted to awaken the Spanish Government to the dangerous consequences" of aggression against England's ally, Portugal. He explained that national honor would permit no compromise on certain obligations such as were involved in the alliance with Portugal, an alliance renewed in the Treaty of Vienna of 1815 but resting on the Treaty of 1661 which gave Charles II a wife and dowry and a task of defending Portugal by land and sea, even as England itself, and also on a treaty of alliance of 1703, contemporaneous with the Methuen Treaty which regulated the commercial relations of the two countries. Furthermore he felt that an obligation now existed to render assistance to Portugal - in other words, that the casus foederis had arisen. Bands of Portuguese rebels, armed and trained in Spain, had carried terror to their own country. He called, therefore, for a vote for the defense of Portugal. But he met with some opposing arguments from members of the House and with an amendment, moved by Mr. Hume, "that the House be called over this day week." Canning's reply, which contains his celebrated reference to the New World, is given in the following extract.

I rise, Sir, for the purpose of making a few observations, not so much in answer to any general arguments, as in reply to two or three particular objections which have been urged against the Address which I have had the honour to propose to the House.

In the first place, I frankly admit to my honourable friend [Mr. Bankes] the member for Dorsetshire, that I have understated the case against Spain - I have done so designed - I warned the House that I would do so - because I wished no further to impeach the conduct of Spain, than was necessary for establishing the casus foederis on behalf of Portugal. To have gone further - to have made a full statement of the case against Spain - would have been to preclude the very object which I have in view; that of enabling Spain to preserve peace without dishonour.

The honourable gentleman (Mr. Bright) who spoke last, indeed, in his extreme love for peace, proposes expedients which, as it appears to me, would render war inevitable. He would avoid interference at this moment, when Spain may be yet hesitating as to the course which she shall adopt; and the language which he would hold to Spain is, in effect, this - "You have not yet done enough to implicate British faith, and to provoke British honour. You have not done enough, in merely enabling Portuguese rebels to invade Portugal, and to carry destruction into her cities; you have not done enough in combing knots of traitors, whom, after the most solemn engagements to disarm and to disperse them, you carefully reassembled, and equipped and sent back with Spanish arms, to be plunged into kindred Portuguese bosoms. I will not stir for all these things. Pledged though I am by the most solemn obligations of treaty to resent attack upon Portugal as injurious to England, I love too dearly the peace of Europe to be goaded into activity by such trifles as these. No. But give us a good declaration of war, and then I'll come and fight you with all my heart." - This is the honourable gentleman's contrivance for keeping peace. The more clumsy contrivance of His Majesty's Government is this: - "We have seen enough to show to the world that Spain authorized, if she did not instigate, the invasion of Portugal"; and we say to Spain, "Beware, we will avenge the cause of our ally, if you break out into declared war; but, in the mean time, we will take effectual care to frustrate your concealed hostilities." I appeal to my honourable friend the member for Dorsetshire, whether he does not prefer this course of His Majesty's Government, the object of which is to nip growing hostilities in the ear, to that of the gallant and chivalrous member for Bristol, who would let aggressions ripen into full maturity, in order that they may then be mowed down with the scythe of a magnificent war.

My honourable friend [Mr. Bankes] will now see why it is that no papers have been laid before the House. The facts which call for our interference in behalf of Portugal, are notorious as the noonday sun. That interference is our whole present object. To prove more than is sufficient for that object, by papers laid upon the table of this House, would have been to preclude Spain from that locus penitentiae which we are above all things desirous to preserve to her. It is difficult, perhaps, with the full knowledge which the Government must in such cases possess, to judge what exact portion of that knowledge should be meted out for our present purpose, without hazarding an exposure which might carry us too far. I know not how far I have succeeded in this respect; but I can assure the House that if the time should unfortunately arrive when a further exposition shall become necessary, it will be found, that it was not for want of evidence that my statement of this day has been defective.

An amendment has been proposed, purporting a delay of a week, but in effect, intended to produce a total abandonment of the object of the Address; and that amendment has been justified by a reference to the conduct of the Government, and to the language used by me in this House, between three or four years ago. It is stated, and truly, that I did not then deny that cause for war had been given by France in the invasion of Spain, if we had then thought fit to enter into war on that account. [1] But it seems to be forgotten that there is one main difference between that case and the present - which difference, however, is essential and all sufficient. We were then free to go to war, if we pleased, on grounds of political expediency. But we were not then bound to interfere, on behalf of Spain, as we now are bound to interfere on behalf of Portugal, by the obligations of treaty. War might then have been our free choice, if we had, deemed it politic: interference on behalf of Portugal is now our duty, unless we are prepared to abandon the principles of national faith and national honour.

It is a singular confusion of intellect which confounds two cases so precisely dissimilar. far from objecting to the reference 1823, I refer to that same occasion to show the consistency of the conduct of myself and my colleagues. We were then accused of truckling to France, from a pusillanimous dread of war. We pleaded guilty to the charge of wishing to avoid war. We described its inexpediency, its inconveniences, and its dangers - (dangers, especially of the same sort with those which I have hinted at to-day: ) but we declared, that, although we could not overlook those dangers, those inconveniences and that inexpediency, in a case in which remote interest and doubtful policy were alone assigned as motives for war, we would cheerfully affront them all, in a case - if it should arrive - where national faith or national honour were concerned. Well, then, a case has now arisen, of which the essence is faith - of which the character is honour. And when we call upon the Parliament, not for offensive war - which was proposed to us in 1823 - but for defensive armament, we are referred to our abstinence in 1823, as disqualifying us for exertion at the present moment: and are told, that because we did not attack France on that occasion, we must not defend Portugal on this. I, Sir, like the proposers of the amendment, place the two cases of 1823 and 1826, side by side, and deduce from them, when taken together, the exposition and justification our general policy. I appeal from the warlike preparations of to-day, to the forbearance of 1823, in proof of the pacific character of our counsels; I appeal from the imputed tameness of 1823, to the Message of to-night, in illustration of the nature of those motives, by which a Government, generally pacific, may nevertheless be justly roused into action.

Having thus disposed of the objections to the Address, I come next to the suggestions of some who profess themselves friendly to the purpose of it, but who would carry that purpose into effect by means which I certainly cannot approve. It has been suggested, Sir, that we should at once ship off the Spanish refugees now in this country, for Spain; and that we should, by the repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, let loose into the contest all the ardent and irregular spirits of this country. Sir, this is the very suggestion which I have anticipated with apprehension, in any war in which this country might be engaged, in the present unquiet state of the minds of men in Europe. These are the expedients, the tremendous character of which I ventured to adumbrate rather than to describe, in the speech with which I prefaced the present motion. Such expedients I disclaim. I dread and deprecate the employment of them. So far, indeed, as Spain herself is concerned, the employment of such means would be strictly, I might say, epigrammatically just. The Foreign Enlistment Act was passed in the year 1819, if not at the direct request, for the especial benefit of Spain. What right, then, would Spain have to complain if we should repeal it now, for the especial benefit of Portugal?

The Spanish refugees have been harboured in this country, it is true; but on condition of abstaining from hostile expeditions against Spain; and more than once, when such expeditions have been planned, the British Government has interfered to suppress them. How is this tenderness for Spain rewarded? Spain not only harbours, and fosters, and sustains, but arms, equips, and marshals the traitorous refugees of Portugal, and pours them by thousands into the bosom of Great Britain's nearest ally. So far, then, as Spain is concerned, the advice of those who would send forth against Spain such dreadful elements of strife and destruction, is, as I have admitted, not unjust. But I repeat, again and again, that I disclaim all such expedients; and that I dread especially a war with Spain, because it is the war of all others in which, by the example and practice of Spain herself, such expedients are most likely to be adopted. Let us avoid that war if we can - that is, if Spain will permit us to do so. But in any case, let us endeavour to strip any war - if war we must have - of that formidable and disastrous character which the honourable and learned gentleman [Mr. Brougham] has so eloquently described; and which I was happy to hear him concur with me in deprecating, as the most fatal evil by which the world could be afflicted.

Sir, there is another suggestion with which I cannot agree, although brought forward by two honourable members [Sir R. Wilson and Mr. Baring] who have, in the most handsome manner, stated their reasons for approving of the line of conduct now pursued by His Majesty's Government. Those honourable members insist that the French army in Spain has been, if not the cause, the encouragement of the late attack by Spain against Portugal; that His Majesty's Government were highly culpable in allowing that army to enter Spain; that its stay there is highly injurious to British interests and honour; and that we ought instantly to call upon France to withdraw it.

There are, Sir, so many considerations connected with these propositions, that were I to enter into them all, they would carry me far beyond what is either necessary or expedient to be stated on the present occasion. Enough, perhaps, it is for me to say, that I do not see how the withdrawing of the French troops from Spain, could effect our present purpose. I believe, Sir, that the French army in Spain is now a protection to that very party which it was originally called in to put down. Were the French army suddenly removed at this precise moment, I verily believe that the immediate effect of that removal would be, to give full scope to the unbridled rage of a fanatical faction, before which, in the whirlwind of intestine strife, the party least in numbers would be swept away.

So much for the immediate effect of the demand which it is proposed to us to make, if that demand were instantly successful. But when, with reference to the larger question of a military occupation of Spain by France, it is averred, that by that occupation the relative situation of Great Britain and France is altered; that France is thereby exalted and Great Britain lowered, in the eyes of Europe; - I must beg leave to say, that I dissent from that averment. The House knows - the country knows - that when the French army was on the point of entering Spain, His Majesty's Government did all in their power to prevent it; that we resisted it by all means, short of war. I have just now stated some of the reasons why we did not think the entry of that army into Spain, a sufficient ground for war; but there was in addition to those which I have stated, this peculiar reason, - that whatever effect a war, commenced upon the mere ground of the entry of a French army into Spain, might have, it probably would not have had the effect of getting that army out of Spain. In a war against France at that time, as at any other, you might, perhaps, have acquired military glory; you might, perhaps, have extended your colonial possessions; you might even have achieved, at a great cost of blood and treasure, an honourable peace; but as to getting the French out of Spain, that would have been the one object which you, almost certainly, would not have accomplished. How seldom, in the whole history of the wars of Europe, has any war between two great Powers ended, in the obtaining of the exact, the identical object, for which the war was begun.

Besides, Sir, I confess I think, that the effects of the French occupation of Spain have been infinitely exaggerated.

I do not blame those exaggerations; because I am aware that they are to be attributed to the recollections of some of the best times of our history; that they are the echoes of sentiments, which in the days of William and of Anne, animated the debates and dictated the votes of the British Parliament. No peace was in those days thought safe for this country while the crown of Spain continued on the head of a Bourbon. But were not the apprehensions of those days greatly overstated? - Has the power of Spain swallowed up the power of maritime England? - Or does England still remain, after the lapse of more than a century, during which the crown of Spain has been worn by a Bourbon, - niched in a nook of that same Spain - Gibraltar; an occupation which was contemporaneous with the apprehensions that I have described, and which has happily survived them?

Again, Sir - is the Spain of the present day the Spain of which the statesmen of the times of William and Anne were so much afraid? Is it indeed the nation whose puissance was expected to shake England from her sphere? No, Sir, it was quite another Spain - it was the Spain, within the limits of whose empire the sun never setit was the Spain "with the Indies" that excited the jealousies and alarmed the imaginations of our ancestors.

But then, Sir, the balance of power! - The entry of the French army into Spain disturbed that balance, and we ought to have gone to war to restore it! I have already said, that when the French army entered Spain, we might, if we chose, have resisted or resented that measure by war. But were there no other means than war for restoring the balance of power? - Is the balance of power a fixed and unalterable standard? Or is it not a standard perpetually varying, as civilization advances, and as new nations spring up, and take their place among established political communities? The balance of power a century and a half ago was to be adjusted between France and Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, and England. Some years afterwards, Russia assumed her high station in European politics. Some years after that again, Prussia became not only a substantive, but a preponderating monarchy. - Thus, while the balance of power continued in principle the same, the means of adjusting it became more varied and enlarged. They became enlarged, in proportion to the increased number of considerable states - in proportion, I may say, to the number of weights which might be shifted into the one or other scale. To look to the policy of Europe, in the times of William and Anne, for the purpose of regulating the balance of power in Europe at the present day, is to disregard the progress of events, and to confuse dates and facts which throw a reciprocal light upon each other.

It would be disingenuous, indeed, not to admit that the entry the French army into Spain was in a certain sense, a.disparagement - an affront to the pride - a blow to the feelings of England: - and it can hardly be supposed that the Government did not sympathize, on that occasion, with the feelings of the people. But I deny that, questionable or censurable as the act might be, it was one which necessarily called for our direct and hostile opposition. Was nothing then to be done? - Was there no other mode of resistance, than by a direct attack upon France - or by a war to be undertaken on the soil of Spain? What, if the possession of Spain might be rendered harmless in rival hands - harmless as regarded us - and valueless to the possessors? Might not compensation for disparagement be obtained, and the policy of our ancestors vindicated, by means better adapted to the present time? If France occupied Spain, is it necessary, in order to avoid the consequences of that occupation - that we should blockade Cadiz? No. I looked another way - ought materials of compensation in another hemisphere. Contemplating Spain, such as our ancestors had known her, I resolved that France had Spain, it should not be Spain "with the Indies." I called the New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old.

It is thus, Sir, that I answer the accusation brought against His Majesty's Government, of having allowed the French army to usurp and to retain the occupation of Spain. That occupation, I am quite confident, is an unpaid and unredeemed burden to France. It is a burden of which, I verily believe, France would be glad to rid herself. But they know little of the feelings of the French Government, and of the spirit of the French nation, who do not know, that, worths or burdensome as that occupation may be, the way to rivet her it would be, by angry or intemperate representations, to make the continuance of that occupation a point of honour.

I believe, Sir, there is no other subject upon which I need enter into defence or explanation. The support which the address has received, from all parties in the House, has been such as would make it both unseemly and ungrateful in me to trespass unnecessarily upon their patience. In conclusion, Sir, I shall only once more declare, that the object of the Address, which I propose to you, is not war: - its object is to take the last chance of peace. If you do not go forth, on this occasion, to the aid of Portugal, Portugal will be trampled down, to your irretrievable disgrace: - and then will come war in the train of national degradation. If, under the circumstances like these, you wait till Spain has matured her secret machinations into open hostility, you will in a little while have the sort of war required by the pacificators: - and who shall say where that war shall end?


[1] A Spanish situation troubled European statesmen from 1820 on Spanish revolutionists had forced reforms which caused French reactionaries to wish for intervention. Moreover, this French group feared the effect of the Portuguese King's action in granting a liberal constitution upon his return from at fourteen-year sojourn in Brazil. The Congress of Verona (1822) permitted French intervention of Spain, but Canning, who had opposed such procedure, finally decided on the policy which he herein mentions. He did help to thwart any attempt to conquer the Spanish colonies. [back]

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