The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 72. Canning

Unlike lord Castlereagh, the extraordinary faultiness of whose style, in both speech and writing, seems to reflect shortcomings which have been allowed to weigh too heavily against such merits as should be conceded to his foreign policy, George Canning, whose star shone forth in full splendour as that of Castlereagh sank below the horizon, had long been famed for the force of his political oratory as well as for the irresistible wit of his political writing. He gained a place among the foremost orators of the day by his great speech in December, 1798, against the resumption of negotiations with France; among the tributes paid to the mighty spirit of Pitt after his death in 1806, Canning’s soared into the loftiest sphere of eulogy. In 1808, he vindicated the seizure of the Danish fleet—for which, as foreign secretary, he was primarily responsible—in a speech of extraordinary power. But his great popularity began with his addresses to the constituency of Liverpool; and it was, in the first instance, the fire of his oratory which prepared the triumph of his statesmanship. After he had begun to rise to the height of his parliamentary position, and had delivered the great speech (28 April, 1825) upholding the principle of pacific non-intervention in the case of Spain, he returned to the subject in a memorable address at Plymouth, which strikes a note of far-sighted grandeur such as no other political orator has reached in England since the days of Burke. When the recognition of the Spanish-American colonies was an accomplished fact, Canning, in the famous defence of his policy, 12 December, 1826, spoke of himself as having “called in the new world to redress the balance of the old.” When he became prime minister of Great Britian, without even then commanding the firm support of either king or parliament, his strength still lay in the popularity which, in a free community—be it Athens or England—always sustains the statesman who has mounted to the foremost place among its leaders; and this Periclean supremacy was the direct offspring of his oratory as well as of his statesmanship. The duke of Wellington—at least a candid critic—pronounced Canning the finest speaker he had ever heard; and this admiration extended to his state papers. Although, in his published speeches, it is not often, except in the greatest of them, that we can catch a notion of his completeness in matter united to perfection in manner—of the “rich, gay, aspiring eloquence” ascribed to him by lord Morley—there is a family likeness in them all. Imaginative power and wit, often inimitably apt, are sustained by a scholarship which abhors an unpolished corner in the structure; and, through all, there is visible a large-mindedness beyond the common range of public oratory, and a large-heartedness inviting that kind of popularity which Canning was not ashamed to allow he loved. Of vagueness or of violence, there is nothing in his speeches; and, when defending himself against misrepresentation, he could grandly say: “If you have not heard me in vain, it is well; if you have, I have troubled you too long, but it has been for the last time.”