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Mr. Canning’s Flirtation

ISSUE:  Winter 1928

Henry adams says that George Canning left “a sharp impression on the memory of America,” yet the centenary of the death of this great statesman has passed in this country with very scant notice.

There is a picture of Canning in the National Gallery in London by Sir Thomas Lawrence. It represents him at a high moment of his life on the evening of the 12th December, 1826. He is standing before the Treasury Bench of the House of Commons replying to the bitter attacks that had been made on him because he had not prevented France from invading Spain. One arm is raised aloft driving home his argument, and he faces the Opposition proudly.

“I resolved,” he said, “that if France had Spain it should not be Spain with the Indies,” and then, alluding to his recognition of the independence of the revolted South American colonies of Spain, he ended with the magnificent assertion, “I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old.” “For a moment the daring of this utterance imposed a profound silence.” Then the House broke into a storm of applause; “cheer after cheer re-echoed to the rafters, and in one delirious moment Canning reaped the reward of years of labor.”

Of all the great things he accomplished, Canning took most pride in his achievement in recognizing the South American States. It had taken patience, skill, and courage to bring it about. The European allies of England were one and all opposed to recognition of the rebellious colonies; the majority of the British Cabinet disapproved the policy, and George IV was bitterly averse to it.

Canning looked about him. Across the Atlantic was the United States. That government had already recognized some of the South American States. Canning had no love for democracies and no love of Yankees; but perhaps that young and growing nation could be induced to lend a hand, or, at least, it might be made a point d’appui. The official relations of Great Britain and the LTnited States were on a basis of friendship, but there was no cordial feeling between the two countries; a good deal of contempt on the one side and resentment on the other. However, something might be done. Canning, “who could not take his tea without a strategem,” had always a bagful of turns and devices.

This was in 1823, Mr. Richard Rush, a pleasant, cultivated gentleman from Philadelphia, was American Minister at the Court of St. James. Mr. Canning decided to sound him, and to this end began a diplomatic flirtation.

At the British Foreign Office in those days was a faithful and painstaking Permanent Under-secretary, Mr. Joseph Planta, a kindly, humorous man, just beginning to get a little gray and a little fat from his long service in Downing Street. Mr. Planta was moved to give a party and invited Mr. Rush. Among the guests were the Russian Ambassador, the Sardinian Envoy, Mr. Canning, Mr. Robinson, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Granville, Lord George Bentinck, Lord Francis Conyngham (son of Lady Conyng-ham, the friend of the King), and Lord Howard de Wal-den—wits, men of fashion, diplomats, high government officials; no ladies. There was much small-talk at the table, some of it very sprightly; Parliament having risen, Mr. Canning and his two colleagues of the Cabinet seemed like birds let out of a cage. They lingered at table over the wine, and about ten o’clock Mr. Canning proposed a game. There was much gaming in the days of the Regency and also when George IV was king. Stakes were frequently high and men ruined themselves in a night.

The game proposed was a new one, entirely unknown to the serious and precise gentleman from the Quaker City as it was to the other members of the diplomatic corps. The American Minister was asked to take a leading part, pitted against the English Foreign Secretary. Mr. Rush accepted amiably the place allotted him; the rules of “the game he did not understand” were.explained and, with Lord Granville seated next him to assist him, he undertook to play against Mr. Canning and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The stage seems set for an exciting scene in a romance depicting high life of the time, but as it happens the new game into which the American Minister had been inveigled was > nothing dangerous, but only the very innocent diversion of i “Twenty Questions.” This game, then so new, and now so old that some of us do not know it, consists of a contest between two parties, the one side trying to guess what the other is thinking of by means of a score of cleverly-put questions.

The battle raged long and hard. There were anxious conferences between the chiefs and their seconds; difficult points had to be settled by the umpires. The interest increased as the game advanced; questions were put slowly after much deliberation. The field of defense was gradually narrowed. The company followed the pastime intently, enlivening it with humorous and witty remarks. The wine ceased to go round. There was dead silence as the players came to the last question. It was neck and neck. “Mr. Canning was under concern lest he should be foiled, as by the law of the game he would have been, if he had not now solved the enigma. He sat silent for a minute or two; then, rolling his rich eye about and with a countenance a little anxious, and in an accent by no means over-confident, he exclaimed, T think it must be the wand of the Lord High-Steward !’ And so it was—even so.—On Mr. Canning’s success, for it was touch-and-go with him, there was a burst of approbation, we of the diplomatic corps saying that we must be very careful not to let him ask us too many questions at the Foreign Office, lest he should find out all our secrets.” It was twelve o’clock when they rose from the table and went up to the drawing room for coffee, after which Mr. Rush went home having had a delightful, exciting evening with the brilliant Mr. Canning and his friends. Mr. Canning knew how to charm wisely. The intimate party, the trial of wit, the good-fellowship, all made a pretty beginning for a gentle diplomatic wooing. The American Minister had been at many imposing state dinners and levees, but this was something different and far more engaging— “they, charmed him with jam and judicious advice, and set him conundrums to guess.”

About three weeks after this pleasant entertainment Mr. Rush called on Mr. Canning at the Foreign Office. Several matters came up in casual discussion, among others Spanish affairs. Mr. Rush remarked that if France were successful in Spain there was at least the consolation left that Great Britain would not allow her to go on farther nor permit her to stop the progress of emancipation of the colonies. “On my intimating this sentiment, Mr. Canning asked what I thought my Government would say to going hand-in-hand with England in such a policy.” This suggestion was thrown out in an informal manner but Mr. Canning went on to elaborate it and support it by a long and detailed argument. Mr. Rush was, of course, much interested but was careful to express no opinion and confined himself to saying that he would report it to his Government. A few days later he received a note from Mr. Canning asking whether the moment had not arrived “when our two Governments might understand each other as to the Spanish-American colonies,” and could Mr. Rush sign a convention on the subject? The American Minister could not, and prudently answered that he would submit the matter to the President. On August 26th he received another note containing additional reasons for a convention between the two nations.

In the midst of this amiable fencing with Rush, Mr. Canning, on the 25th of August, attended a dinner at Liverpool at which was also present Mr. Christopher Hughes, a rather jolly and witty American known to his European friends as “Uncle Sam,” Mr. Hughes was secretary to the American Legation at Stockholm, and was on his way to Sweden. Canning, in proposing his health, paid the usual compliments to the American diplomat, and then, alluding to the good feeling existing between England and the United States, went on to say: “the force of blood again prevails, and the daughter and the mother stand together against the world”—a remark which seems commonplace to-day but which at that time sounded like the first note of spring in the bleak winter of our mutual discontent. Mr. Hughes was delighted and even the hard-headed Secretary of State, Mr. John Quincy Adams, was grimly pleased. This genial testimony of friendship was, of course, extremely agreeable to Mr. Rush and he enjoyed the little flutter that it caused among his diplomatic colleagues.

Some months later Canning referred to this speech in a letter to his friend, Sir Charles Bagot, Ambassador to Russia. Canning was instructing him to make himself agreeable to a certain American diplomatist,

“Be kind and courteous to that gentleman, Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes, Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,

as i did Mr. Hughes at Liverpool,” wrote the Secretary for Foreign Affairs in his lively style.

Then back again to Mr. Rush after the delightful “daughter and mother” speech had had time to soften the heart of that coy object of Mr. Canning’s attentions. A third note even more urgent was dispatched, and again, on September 18th, the subject was resumed. Mr. Canning would not yet give up hope that Mr. Rush could see his “way towards a substantial acquiescence in my proposals.” The Englishman was very urgent and very clever, but the American was a cautious man and no amount of “apricocks and dewberries” could tempt him one step beyond his instructions.

About a week later Canning brought the matter up once more with new arguments. The obdurate Mr. Rush could not be won over. “Our flirtation therefore (Canning wrote) went off; but it left a tenderness behind it.” It left something more; Canning had gained the conviction that, even if the United States would not go hand-in-hand with him, they would at any rate support his policy.

Time was pressing. The British Foreign Minister decided to go ahead without the United States, and took his own measures to curb France.

The “flirtation” was over, but Mr. Rush’s letters made very interesting reading to the President and his Cabinet. Meditating upon these things and considering also other recent events, Mr, Monroe and Mr. Adams decided that the time was appropriate for an announcement of general policy. The United States preferred playing a lone hand, and in his Message to Congress, in December of the same year, the President laid down those principles which have since been known as “the Monroe Doctrine.”

Part of the Monroe Doctrine was not at all pleasing to Mr. Canning but the immediate effect of the Message was all in his favour. “Our Yankee co-operators gave me just the balance I wanted.” How much his flirtation with the coy Mr, Rush had hastened and made timely that co-operation only Mr, Monroe and Mr, Adams could have said.

It was three years later when Canning who, as Mr. Adams said, was “so fond of creating worlds,” made his famous declaration in the House of Commons on that night in December, 1826. It was a proud moment, but his greatest triumph came in April, 1827, when the King made him Prime Minister. He was to enjoy it for but a brief space. He had “his Hundred Days,” as Prince Metternich called it, and then Death struck him down.


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