Study Guide

George Canning in Monroe Doctrine

By James Monroe

George Canning

It's easy to get swept up in the glitz and glamour of James Monroe and his cabinet members—and no one would blame you, those guys are shiny—but since the Monroe Doctrine is all about interacting with foreign nations, let's not forget the British guy who set off the dominoes leading to the speech.

George Canning didn't live long enough to really appreciate the fact that he had unintentionally changed the course of American foreign policy. He had a long, rather tumultuous career in the British government, though, which includes a gun duel and a short stint as ambassador to Portugal.

Yeah, we know. We had you at "gun duel."

He's Just a Poor Boy, Don't Need No Sympathy

Canning's life began very differently than most politicians of his day, and it sounds like something out of a Dickens novel. His father was disinherited by his landowning family for marrying his mother, a lovely but penniless girl, and then died when little George was only a year old. His mother became an actress and had several known affairs without remarrying. Remember, this is the late 1700s, so all of this was scan-da-lous. George was taken in by his wealthy uncle, Stratford Canning, and raised with his cousins instead.

See? Dickens novel.

Canning and Pitt: BFFs

After graduating from Oxford, Canning befriended William Pitt (the Younger), which set him on his political path. Pitt helped him become a Member of Parliament, and later, in 1796, helped him get a prominent position in the foreign affairs department. (Fancy!) From then until 1801, Canning held several positions in the British government, before following his friend Pitt when he left office. (Source)

Unsurprisingly, Canning returned to the government in 1804 when—you guessed it—Pitt also returned to office. These guys were attached at the hip. When Pitt died in 1806, Canning left again, until the king called him and his fellow Pitt-izens back. Canning finally made the royal cabinet as foreign secretary in 1807.

It was a particularly eventful time to become foreign secretary, because Britain was in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, where Canning had several prominent victories, especially the seizure of the Danish fleet in Holland (this was actually an apparently brilliant move). (Source)

These events would also lead Canning to develop a hatred for one of his coworkers that seriously impacted the next decade of his life.

'Til Death Do Us Part, the Sooner the Better

The Viscount Castlereagh (real name Robert Stewart, which is way less exciting) was War Secretary when Canning became Foreign Secretary. Canning insisted on Castlereagh's dismissal in 1809, blaming him for certain disastrous battles during the Peninsular War. The blood between them got so bad that on October 21st of that year, they fought a duel, during which Canning was wounded in the thigh. Apparently Canning had never fired a gun, so it won't shock anyone that he missed Castlereagh entirely. (Source)

And these men did not understand that Band-Aids don't fix bullet holes, and Canning resigned from office out of anger. He even refused to come back when offered a job in 1812, because Castlereagh ran the House of Commons. Canning hated Castlereagh so much, he gave up the chance to be Foreign Secretary during the peace process at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. (Source)

Now that's holding a grudge.

Dream Come True?

Canning returned to the cabinet as the head of the Board of Control from 1816 to 1820, after his short gig as ambassador to Portugal, but resigned yet again after his controversial support of Queen Caroline, the wife of George IV, who was almost stripped of her title because of illicit behavior. (Caroline's story is better than most soap operas—you might want to check it out.)

Anyway, Canning was about to accept a position in India and just quit Britain altogether, when his arch-nemesis Castlereagh (now called Londonderry, if his name wasn't British enough) committed suicide in 1822. Finally, Canning could be Foreign Secretary and lead the House of Commons, which King George IV reluctantly granted him, mostly to keep him from stirring up trouble in Parliament. (Source)

Now, just so everyone's clear, generally speaking you don't want to get your dream job through one person's death and another person's irritation. Just because it worked for George does not mean it will work for everyone.

Canning vs. the Empire(s)

Finally, in the role he had wanted for so long, Canning was able to work on his goal of reducing absolutist power. He didn't want England to become a republic—let's not get carried away—but he wanted to create a better balance of power among the European nations. That meant supporting newly independent colonies, and preventing Britain from getting too close to what was known as the Holy Alliance (Russia, Prussia and Austria). (Source)

He also sent military support to Portugal when they were attacked by Spain, and supported the Greek uprising against their Turkish rulers.

When Canning approached Monroe and Adams about an anti-colonial alliance, it was part of this grand design. Although he failed to get them the join with Britain, Canning did succeed in negotiating a similar agreement with France, known as the Polignac Memorandum, which said France wouldn't help Spain if they felt like re-taking their colonies.

Not-So-Prime Minister

Canning's appointment as prime minister in 1827 was not without its own set of controversy. It seems like nothing is, when it comes to George Canning…

Canning had long supported Catholic Emancipation, which refers to granting Catholics the same rights as Protestants, particularly the right to serve as members of Parliament. Catholics had been stripped of many of their rights centuries earlier, but by the end of the 18th century were slowly but steadily winning them back. After Ireland was brought into the United Kingdom in 1823, it became a much more urgent issue, and Canning supported granting Catholics the right to serve in government. (Source)

Canning's sympathies with the Catholics earned him the hatred of a lot of people in his party, the Tory party, and when he was appointed prime minister he had to agree not to push a pro-Catholic bill through Parliament. Even after he agreed, forty Tory members of Parliament resigned immediately.

After all that struggle and controversy, Canning ended up dying of pneumonia in August of 1827, only five months after taking office, giving him the record for the shortest term in office of any prime minister. It's almost like he had been under a lot of stress for many years, or something.

Vulgar Narcissist, or Witty Political Genius?

British history seems to remember George Canning in different ways. He was apparently a big personality, very witty and a good public speaker, but also sometimes described as arrogant and vulgar, which really rubbed some of his colleagues the wrong way. (Source)

The fact that he came from much humbler beginnings than most, and appointed people in his own staff based on merit rather than family rank, also ruffled some feathers. He was the first "commoner" to be Foreign Secretary, and his background made others in Parliament doubt and sometimes straight-up hate him throughout his career, though the middle classes loved him. He could never really shake the distrust that his background and supposedly arrogant personality earned him, either in Britain or abroad.

A boy from scandalous parentage, rising through the ranks to become prime minister, hated by his peers in Parliament for not fitting into their vision of what MPs should be…how is there not a Netflix series about this guy?

Canning's efforts to break up the huge, absolutist, interventionist powers of Europe led him to approach the U.S., which was the final inspirational push Monroe and Adams needed to write and proclaim their own, independent statement on foreign policy. Despite America's efforts to earn respect across the pond, affairs in Europe were still affecting it. Monroe and Adams weren't the only ones taking a stand, though.

George Canning's life may read like one of those historical fiction novels—you know, the ones with a cover showing a male model dressed in pantaloons gazing into the distance—but it eventually clashed with major events happening in America, and the British minister's policies helped drive the Monroe Doctrine into existence.

Canning may not have known how to fire a gun, but he did know how to fire up anti-imperialist sentiment. And for that, he, along with the Alamo, should not be forgotten.

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