Home  »  Great Britain: II (1780–1861)  »  On Affairs in Greece

The World’s Famous Orations.
Great Britain: II. (1780–1861). 1906.

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston

On Affairs in Greece

ANXIOUS as many members are to deliver their sentiments upon this most important question, yet I am sure they will feel that it is due to myself, that it is due to this House, that it is due to the country, that I should not permit the second night of this debate to close without having stated to the House my views upon the matters in question and my explanation of that part of my conduct for which I have been called to account.

When I say that this is an important question I say it in the fullest expression of the term. It is a matter which concerns not merely the tenure of office by one individual, or even by a government; it is a question that involves principles of national policy and the deepest interests as well as the honor and dignity of England. I can not think that the course which has been pursued, and by which this question has assumed its present shape, is becoming those by whose act it has been brought under the discussion of Parliament, or such as fitting the gravity and the importance of the matters which they have thus led this House and the other House of Parliament to discuss.

The country is told that British subjects in foreign lands are entitled—for that is the meaning of the resolution—to nothing but the protection of the laws and the tribunals of the land in which they happen to reside. The country is told that British subjects abroad must not look to their own country for protection, but must trust to that indifferent justice which they may happen to receive at the hands of the government and tribunals of the country in which they may be.

I say, then, that our doctrine is that in the first instance redress should be sought from the law courts of the country; but that in cases where redress can not be so had—and those cases are many—to confine a British subject to that remedy only would be to deprive him of the protection which he is entitled to receive.

Then the question arises, how does this rule apply to the demands we have made upon Greece? And here I must shortly remind the House of the origin of our relations with Greece, and of the condition of Greece; because those circumstances are elements that must enter into the consideration of the course we have pursued.

It is well known that Greece revolted from Turkey in 1820. In 1827, England, France, and Russia determined upon interposing, and ultimately, in 1828, they resolved to employ forcible means in order to bring Turkey to acknowledge the independence of Greece. Greece, by protocol in 1830, and by treaty in 1832, was erected into a separate and independent State. And whereas nearly from the year 1820 up to the time of that treaty of 1832, when its independence was finally acknowledged, Greece had been under a republican form of government, with an assembly and a president, the three powers determined that Greece should thenceforth be a monarchy.

But while England assented to that arrangement, and considered that it was better that Greece should assume a monarchical form of government, yet we attached to that assent an indispensable condition that Greece should be a constitutional monarchy. The British government could not consent to place the people of Greece, in their independent political existence, under as arbitrary a government as that from which they had revolted.

Consequently, when the three powers, in the exercise of that function which had been devolved upon them by the authority of the General Assembly of Greece, chose a sovereign for Greece (for that choice was made in consequence of and by virtue of the authority given to them by the General Assembly of Greece), and when Prince Otho of Bavaria, then a minor, was chosen, the three powers, on announcing the choice they had made, at the same time declared that King Otho would, in concert with his people, give to Greece constitutional institutions.

The choice and that announcement were ratified by the king of Bavaria in the name and on behalf of his son. It was, however, understood that during the minority of King Otho the establishment of the constitution should be suspended; but that when he came of age he should enter into communication with his people and together with them arrange the form of constitution to be adopted. King Otho came of age, but no constitution was given. There was a disinclination on the part of his advisers to counsel him to fulfil that engagement.

The government of England expressed an opinion, through various channels, that that engagement ought to be fulfilled. But opinions of a different kind reached the royal ear from other quarters. Other governments naturally—I say it without implying any imputation—are attached to their own forms. Each government thinks its own form and nature the best, and wishes to see that form, if possible, extended elsewhere. Therefore I do not mention this with any intention of casting the least reproach upon Russia, or Prussia, or Austria. Those three governments at that time were despotic. Their advice was given and their influence was exerted to prevent the king of Greece from granting a constitution to his people. We thought, however, that in France we might find sympathy with our political opinions and support in the advice which we wished to give.

But we were unfortunate. The then government of France, not at all undervaluing constitutional institutions, thought that the time was not yet come when Greece could be ripe for representative government. The king of Bavaria leaned also to the same side. Therefore, from the time when the king came of age, and for several years afterward, the English government stood in this position in Greece with regard to its government—that we alone were anxious for the fulfilment of the engagement of the king, while all the other powers who were represented at Athens were averse to its being made good, or at least were not equally desirous of urging it upon the king of Greece.

This necessarily placed us in a situation, to say the least of it, of disfavor on the part of the agents of those powers and on the part of the government of Greece. I was sorry for it; at the same time I do not think the people of this country will be of opinion that we ought, for the sake of obtaining the mere good will of the Greek government, to have departed from the principle which we had laid down from the beginning. But it was so; and when people talk of the antagonistic influences which were in conflict at the Greek court; and when people say, as I have heard it said, that our ministers and the ministers of foreign governments were disputing about the appointment of mirarchs and monarchs, and God knows what petty officers of State, I say that, as far as our minister was concerned, that is a statement entirely at variance with the fact.

Our minister, Sir Edmund Lyons, had never, during the whole time he was in Greece, asked any favor of any sort or kind for himself or for any friend. No conduct of that mean, and low, and petty description was carried on by any person connected with the English government. It was known that we wished the Greek nation should have representative institutions, while, on the other hand, other influences were exerted the other way; and that, and that only, was the ground of the differences which existed.

One of the evils of the absence of constitutional institutions was that the whole system of government grew to be full of every kind of abuse. Justice could not be expected where the judges of the tribunals were at the mercy of the advisers of the Crown. The finances could not be in any order where there was no public responsibility on the part of those who were to collect or to spend the revenue. Every sort of abuse was practised.

In all times in Greece, as is well known, there has prevailed, from the daring habits of the people, a system of compulsory appropriation—forcible appropriation by one man of that which belonged to another; which, of course, is very disagreeable to those who are the victims of the system, and exceedingly injurious to the social condition, improvement, and prosperity of the country. In short, what foreigners call brigandage, which prevailed under the Turkish rule, has not, I am sorry to say, diminished under the Greek sovereignty.

Well, this being the state of things in Greece, there have always been in every town in Greece a great number of persons whom we are bound to protect—Maltese, Ionians, and a certain number of British subjects. It became the practise of this Greek police to make no distinction between the Maltese and Ionians and their own fellow subjects.

It is a true saying, and has often been repeated, that a very moderate share of human wisdom is sufficient for the guidance of human affairs. But there is another truth, equally in. disputable, which is that a man who aspires to govern mankind ought to bring to the task generous sentiments, compassionate sympathies, and noble and elevated thoughts.

I do not complain of the conduct of those who have made these matters the means of attack upon her majesty’s ministers. The government of a great country like this is undoubtedly an object of fair and legitimate ambition to men of all shades of opinion. It is a noble thing to be allowed to guide the policy and to influence the destinies of such a country; and, if ever it was an object of honorable ambition, more than ever must it be so at the moment at which I am speaking. For while we have seen, as stated by the right honorable baronet the member for Ripon [Sir James Graham], the political earthquake rocking Europe from side to side; while we have seen thrones shaken, shattered, leveled; institutions overthrown, and destroyed; while in almost every country of Europe the conflict of civil war has deluged the land with blood from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean,—this country has presented a spectacle honorable to the people of England and worthy of the admiration of mankind.

We have shown that liberty is compatible with order; that individual freedom is reconcilable with obedience to the law. We have shown the example of a nation in which every class of society accepts with cheerfulness the lot which providence has assigned to it; while at the same time every individual of each class is constantly striving to raise himself in the social scale—not by injustice and wrong, not by violence and illegality, but by persevering good conduct and by the steady and energetic exertion of the moral and intellectual faculties with which his Creator has endowed him. To govern such a people as this is indeed an object worthy of the ambition of the noblest man who lives in the land; and therefore I find no fault with those who may think any opportunity a fair one for endeavoring to place themselves in so distinguished and honorable a position. But I contend that we have not in our foreign policy done anything to forfeit the confidence of the country. We may not, perhaps, in this matter or in that, have acted precisely up to the opinions of one person or of another—and hard indeed it is, as we all know by our individual and private experience, to find any number of men agreeing entirely in any matter, on which they may not be equally possessed of the details of the facts, and circumstances, and reasons, and conditions which led them to action.

But, making allowance for those differences of opinion which may fairly and honorably arise among those who concur in general views, I maintain that the principles which can be traced through all our foreign transactions, as the guiding rule and directing spirit of our proceedings, are such as deserve approbation. I therefore fearlessly challenge the verdict which this House, as representing a political, a commercial, a constitutional country, is to give on the question now brought before it; whether the principles on which the foreign policy of her majesty’s government has been conducted, and the sense of duty which has led us to think ourselves bound to afford protection to our fellow subjects abroad, are proper and fitting guides for those who are charged with the government of England; and whether as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity when he could say Civis Romanus sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong.