James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmesbury


James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmesbury

James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmesbury GCB (April 21, 1746 – November 21, 1820) was an English diplomatist, the son of James Harris, the author of "Hermes".

Born at Salisbury, he was educated at Winchester, Oxford and Leiden, young Harris became secretary in 1768 to the British embassy at Madrid, and was left as "chargé d'affaires" at that court on the departure of Sir James Grey until the arrival of George Pitt, afterwards Lord Rivers. This interval gave him his opportunity; he discovered the intention of Spain to attack the Falkland Islands, and was instrumental in thwarting it by putting on a bold countenance. As a reward he was appointed minister "ad interim" at Madrid, and in January 1772 minister plenipotentiary to the court of Prussia.

His success was marked, and in 1777 he was transferred to the court of Russia. At St Petersburg he made his reputation, for he managed to get on with Catherine in spite of her predilections for France, and steered adroitly through the accumulated difficulties of the first Armed Neutrality. He was made a knight of the Bath at the end of 1778, but in 1782 he returned home owing to ill-health, and was appointed by his friend Fox to be minister at the Hague, an appointment confirmed after some delay by Pitt (1784).

He did very great service in furthering Pitt's policy of maintaining England's influence on the Continent by the arms of her allies, and held the threads of the diplomacy which ended in the king of Prussia's overthrowing the republican party in the Netherlands, which was inclined to France, and re-establishing the prince of Orange. In recognition of his services he was created Baron Malmesbury of Malmesbury (Sept. 1788), and permitted by the king of Prussia to bear the Prussian eagle on his arms, and by the prince of Orange to use his motto "Je maintiendrai".

He returned to England, and took an anxious interest in politics, which ended in his seceding from the Whig party with the duke of Portland in 1793; and in that year he was sent by Pitt, but in vain, to try to keep Prussia true to the first coalition against France. In 1794 he was sent to Brunswick to solicit the hand of the unfortunate Princess Caroline for the prince of Wales, to marry her as proxy, and conduct her to her husband in England.

In 1796 and 1797 he was in Paris vainly negotiating with the French Directory, and then in Lille in summer 1797 for equally fruitless negotiations with the Directory's plenipotentiaries Hugues-Bernard Maret, duc de Bassano, Georges René Le Peley de Pléville and Etienne Louis François Honoré Letourner. After 1797 he became partially deaf, and quit diplomacy altogether; but for his long and eminent services he was in 1800 created earl of Malmesbury, and Viscount Fitzharris, of Heron Court in the county of Hants.

He now became a sort of political Nestor, consulted on foreign policy by successive foreign ministers, trusted by men of the most different ideas in political crises, and above all the confidant, and for a short time after Pitt's death almost the political director, of Canning. Younger men were also wont to go to him for advice, and Lord Palmerston particularly, who was his ward, was tenderly attached to him, and owed many of his ideas on foreign policy directly to his teaching. His later years were free from politics, and till his death on November 21, 1820 he lived very quietly and almost forgotten.

As a statesman, Malmesbury had an influence among his contemporaries which is scarcely to be understood from his writings, but which must have owed much to personal charm of manner and persuasiveness of tongue; as a diplomatist, he seems to have deserved his reputation, and shares with Macartney, Auckland and Whitworth the credit of raising diplomacy from a profession in which only great nobles won the prizes to a career opening the path of honour to ability.

Malmesbury did not publish anything himself, except an account of the Dutch revolution, and an edition of his father's works, but his important "Diaries" (1844) and "Letters" (1870) were edited by his grandson.

References

*1911


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