RUSSELL, Lord John II (1792-1878).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



4 May 1813 - Mar. 1817
1818 - 1820
1820 - 1826
19 Dec. 1826 - 1830
27 Nov. 1830 - 1831
1831 - 1832
1832 - Apr. 1835
19 May 1835 - 1841
1841 - July 1861

Family and Education

b. 18 Aug. 1792, 3rd s. of John Russell II*, 6th Duke of Bedford, by 1st w., and bro. of Francis Russell, Mq. of Tavistock*, and Lord George William Russell*. educ. by Dr Moore, Sunbury 1800-1; Westminster 1803-4; privately by Dr Edmund Cartwright 1804-5; by Rev. John Smith at Woodnesborough, nr. Sandwich 1805-8; Edinburgh Univ. 1809-12. m. (1) 11 Apr. 1835, Adelaide (d. 1 Nov. 1838), da. of Thomas Lister of Armitage Park, Staffs., wid. of her 2nd cos. Thomas Lister, 2nd Baron Ribblesdale, 2da.; (2) 20 July 1841, Lady Frances Anna Maria Elliot Murray Kynynmound, da. of Gilbert Elliot Murray Kynynmound*, 2nd Earl of Minto, 3s. 1da. cr. Earl Russell 30 July 1861, KG 21 May 1862; GCMG 25 Mar. 1869.

Offices Held

PC 22 Nov. 1830; paymaster-gen. Dec. 1830-Dec. 1834; sec. of state for Home affairs Apr. 1835-Sept. 1839; ecclesiastical commr. 1836; sec. of state for War and Colonies Sept. 1839-Sept. 1841; first ld. of Treasury July 1846-Feb. 1852, Nov. 1865-July 1866; sec. of state for Foreign affairs Dec. 1852-Feb. 1853, June 1859-Nov. 1865; in cabinet without office Feb. 1853-June 1854; ld. pres. of Council June 1854-Feb. 1855; 4th charity commr. 1854-6; special mission to Vienna Feb.-Apr. 1855; sec. of state for Colonies May-July 1855.

Rector, Glasgow Univ. 1846-7, Aberdeen Univ. 1863-6.

Capt. Beds. militia 1810.


Russell, a Whig from the cradle, was a puny child, the favourite of his mother, who died when he was nine. Standing 5 feet 4¾ inches and weighing about eight stone when fully grown, he was dubbed ‘the widow’s mite’ after his first marriage. He was never dangerously ill, but a delicate constitution and recurrent minor ailments disrupted his schooling, which was slipshod and academically deficient, and seriously interfered with the early stages of his parliamentary career. As a lively-minded 14-year-old, addicted to the theatre and showing ‘a pretty turn for poetry’, he twice visited Dublin during his father’s viceroyalty. In 1807 he toured Scotland with Bedford and his step-mother and in the autumn of 1808 accompanied Lord and Lady Holland to Spain. Bedford surmised that the experience would strengthen his ‘great fancy for the diplomatic line’, in which he had ‘a sufficient share of ambition’ to distinguish himself. Russell shared the Hollands’ enthusiasm for the Spanish revolt against Buonaparte, became a passionate Peninsularian and returned home in 1809, as he told his father, ‘not a little inclined to be democratical’, having seen the popular cause ‘mismanaged by high and respectable generals and statesmen’.1

After an initial demur, he submitted to Bedford’s decision to send him to Edinburgh, where he would be able to ‘study without being ashamed of it’, rather than to Cambridge. An active member of the Speculative Society, he was happy there, though he thought moral philosophy, ‘the great science of Scotland’, no more than ‘a very pretty amusement’ and preferred mathematics. Professor Playfair praised his ‘great application and desire of knowledge’, combined as it was with ‘perfectly good temper and entire command over himself’ (qualities which he seems to have outgrown, to judge from his later life).2 As befitted a Russell, his Whiggism was progressive, if doctrinaire, and the basic tenets of his political philosophy were fixed in his mind by the time he was 18 when, writing critically to Holland of Lord Grey’s ‘Whiggy-Toryish’ pronouncements on the questions of peace and parliamentary reform, he argued:

a long war is of all things the most favourable to arbitrary power, and to it I chiefly attribute the great increase of the influence of the crown ... with so hardened a King and so large an expenditure I think a Whig would be very cautious how he gave his vote for the continuance of the state of things which puts ... a tenth of the people in the immediate power of the crown ... I must still believe ... that Ld. Grey is cold about parliamentary reform ... [and] do not quite understand your opinion that, excepting an accession of influence over the people, a reformed House of Commons could not be wiser or better or more independent than the present one.

In 1811 he advocated, in an unpublished article, ‘regular and constant’ instalments of parliamentary reform, specifying triennial parliaments, a copy-holder vote in the counties and the transfer of the franchise from corrupt boroughs to the unrepresented centres of industrial growth.3

Russell visited his brother William on active service in the Peninsula in 1810 and would probably have returned to the war zone in 1811, had not his father prudently arranged for him to tour the manufacturing districts of England with Playfair. When the Whigs anticipated a return to office early in 1811 Robert Adair offered to take Russell with him on his expected foreign mission, but Bedford ‘told him that I thought a few months (or, indeed, a year or two) more with Mr Playfair was very requisite, before you commenced your diplomatic career’. On leaving Edinburgh in the summer of 1812 he embarked with his kinsmen George Bridgeman and Robert Henry Clive* on an intended tour of the Mediterranean, but they diverted to the Peninsula, where they were caught up in the retreat from Villatoro. In April 1813 Russell, ‘my strange cousin’ and ‘your mad nephew’, as Bridgeman wrote to his mother, made a hazardous solo journey to visit his brother with the army and was delayed on his way thence to Madrid by illness. Bedford had planned to return him for his pocket borough of Tavistock when he came of age, but the death of his locum in April 1813 forced him to do so over two months prematurely. On hearing the news Russell left his companions at Minorca and travelled home via army headquarters in northern Spain.4

He voted against the renewal of the framework knitters bill, 29 Nov. 1813, was elected to Brooks’s on 24 Mar. 1814, voted in censure of Speaker Abbot’s anti-Catholic prorogation speech, 22 Apr., and made his maiden speech against the enforced union of Norway with Sweden, 12 May, a debut evidently deemed ‘promising’ by Holland but barely noticed by the parliamentary reporters. He spoke and voted against the aliens bill, 14 and 15 July 1814. At the end of October he was in Lisbon, preparing to sail to Italy, convinced that ‘my health is hardly good enough yet to attend zealously to the H. of Commons’, and contemplating a year or more of foreign travel, although, as he told Francis Horner, he was willing to come home ‘if you think there will be anything of importance in the H. of Commons this year, or that I ought to lose no time in devoting myself to the study of business there’.5 He had an interview with Buonaparte on Elba on 24 Dec. 1814, went to join his parents in Rome, then travelled through western Europe before returning to England in time to pair in favour of inquiry into the Regent’s expenditure, 31 May, condemn the renewal of a war of proscription against Buonaparte, 5 June, and vote against the Duke of Cumberland’s establishment bill, 30 June and 3 July 1815.

Russell began the 1816 session evidently determined to make his mark in the House, but he was thwarted by his continued inability to bear its late sittings and fetid atmosphere. He seconded the amendment to the address, 1 Feb., voted against government in divisions on the peace settlement, 9, 15 and 20 Feb., and led the attack on the army estimates, 26 Feb., when he deplored the size of the standing army and the military occupation of France and Ireland, and called for economies to reduce the financial burdens imposed by the war and to curb the concomitant extension of the scope of governmental power. He voted against renewal of the property tax, 18 Mar., and paired in favour of Admiralty economies, 20 Mar., but shortly afterwards went to Spa to repair his health. According to Bedford, Russell’s own inclination was to vacate his seat at the end of the session, but on his father’s advice he postponed his decision until his return from Spa in September, which found him much improved but still unequal, in the opinion of his doctor, to parliamentary life. Accordingly he resolved to vacate his seat, temporarily at least, and on 5 Oct. 1816 so informed Grey, who, having earlier looked forward to having him fit for combat in the next session, lamented the ‘loss ... of these years in training him as a debater’. Lady Holland, who suspected that there was more behind his withdrawal than poor health, found him early in 1817 ‘full of fidget about going out of Parliament—as he foresaw, when the time came, he wants to make a speech, or a motion, or something’; and Russell, having decided to ‘attend two or three nights before I leave’, but being unable to do so in January because of a cold, voted for receipt of the Lymington reform petition, 11 Feb., and against the continuance of Croker’s wartime salary at the Admiralty, 17 Feb. He broke his intended silence to condemn the suspension of habeas corpus, 26 Feb., but at the same time announced his determination to retire. The week before he took the Chiltern Hundreds in March his father wrote to Lady Holland:

I earnestly hope no one will attempt to persuade him to remain in Parliament, for in my opinion it would be just the same as to take a pistol and shoot him through the head ... You are mistaken in supposing that anyone had advised him to quit Parliament contrary to his own inclination. The act was entirely his own ... No one can accuse John of any Russell obstinacy—unfortunately for himself his disposition is perpetually wavering, his pursuits and his inclinations are desultory and he is too frequently from the opinions of others persuaded to do that which his own mind disapproves.6

Russell, increasingly attracted by the idea of a literary life, had begun to write a life of his ‘martyred’ ancestor William, Lord Russell (published in 1819); and during the following year, which he spent in foreign travel, including a winter’s detention ‘in silken fetters at Florence by the charms of Madame Durazzo’, conflicting reports were heard of his attitude towards a resumption of his political career. In February 1818, however, he told Holland that ‘my health and general strength are very much improved, and I hope to enter Parliament next year, like a dwarf refreshed’.7 There was serious talk of his being put forward for Huntingdonshire at the approaching general election, but the scheme foundered and it was for Tavistock that he was again returned. He came to England for his election, signed the requisition calling on Tierney to assume the Whig leadership in the Commons and was later said to be ‘in great health and spirits and as full of faction as Tierney can wish’.8

In November 1818 he was the choice of some of the more combative Whigs to stand for the Westminster seat vacated by the death of Romilly, though Lambton thought the notion ridiculous, as he told Grey, 21 Nov.:

He has neither strength of mind or of body sufficient to enable him to go through a Westminster election. His manners are not popular, and a large party of the electors would I fear consider it as merely the nomination of a great family. He certainly has talents, but they are not of that conspicuous and active description, that could enable his friends [to] rest his pretensions on that foundation, or that would call forth that enthusiasm of exertion which gave Romilly his election in so triumphant a way.

Bedford had reservations, but was at least sure that if he did stand he ought to ‘declare himself friendly to parliamentary reform on general principles’, and was willing to spend £3,000 in a contest. How keen was Russell, who may have been the puppet of some Whig chicanery, is not clear, but he eventually agreed to be nominated at the public meeting of 17 Nov., on the understanding that he would be withdrawn if John Cam Hobhouse, his eldest brother’s friend and the choice of the Westminster committee, obtained an overwhelming show of support. Hobhouse did, and Russell, fortunately it was generally thought for the sake of his health, was able to make a dignified retreat, though there were those who deplored his action in allowing himself, as ‘a respectable member of a great Whig family’, to be vetted and vetoed by ‘a special meeting of the friends of Sir F. Burdett’.9

In the 1819 session Russell voted against government in most of the important divisions, advocated economies at the Admiralty, 18 Mar., spoke in support of Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May, condemned the surrender of Parga to the Turks, 15 June, and attacked the excise duties, 18 June. On 1 June his father wrote to him:

Tierney ... has a very high opinion of your debating powers, and says if you will stick to one branch of politics, and not range over too desultory a field, you may become eminently useful and conspicuous in the House of Commons ... The line I should recommend for your selection could be that of foreign politics, and all home politics bearing on civil or religious liberty—a pretty wide range.10

He attacked British involvement and acquiescence in the policies of the Holy Alliance in a published Letter to Lord Holland, but it was by taking up moderate, piecemeal parliamentary reform that he made his first significant mark in the House. Attracted by the notion, becoming popular with Whig theorists, of a gradual redistribution of the franchise through the disqualification of corrupt boroughs, as a means both of achieving positive improvements in the electoral system and of giving the Whigs a clear and thoroughly respectable reforming line, which might wrest back the initiative from the radicals, he seized on the notorious case of Grampound, where the misdeeds of Sir Manasseh Masseh Lopes had ended in his conviction and imprisonment for bribery in March 1819. He moved for papers, 11 May, and examined witnesses when the bribery indictments were considered in the House, 27 May. In contrast to both his brothers, Russell opposed Burdett’s motion for inquiry into the state of the representation, 1 July, when he denounced the ‘wild and visionary’ theories of universal suffrage and annual parliaments, but declared his support for the disfranchisement of corrupt boroughs and for triennial parliaments. On 5 July he pledged the House to deal next session with the corruption prevalent at Grampound, indicating that he favoured the transfer of its seats to one of the unrepresented manufacturing towns.

In September Russell went to France and Italy with his friend Thomas Moore who found him, in the wake of the Peterloo incident, ‘much more moderate in his opposition than the duke and Lord Tavistock’. Within a few weeks he was urged by Sir James Mackintosh and John Allen to come home in order to make his reform motion, ‘as the creed of all Whig reformers’, in the emergency session of Parliament. He complied, though to Moore he described Mackintosh’s as ‘an oily letter, to which I have answered a vinegar one’, voted for the amendment to the address, 24 Nov., and gave notice of a motion for the disfranchisement of Grampound two days later. He voted against the seditious meetings bill, 2 Dec., the seizure of arms bill, 15 Dec., the newspaper stamp duties bill, 20 Dec., and the blasphemous libels bill, 21 Dec. 1819, and later reflected that ‘not so much harm has been done in the late session as might have been expected’, but he was not one of the die-hard opponents of the government’s repressive legislation. He made his reform motion on 14 Dec., having written to Moore beforehand that ‘the violent will not care for it and the other side will throw it out, and so my public attendance will cease for the present’.11 Presenting his scheme as a practical step towards the eradication of a fundamental defect in the electoral system, whereby decayed and corrupt boroughs provided a phalanx of Members who tended to support repressive, expensive and intolerant government, he moved a proposal to disfranchise Grampound and general resolutions to the effect that proven corrupt boroughs should have their seats transferred to towns of over 15,000 inhabitants or to the largest counties, and that the House should consider further (unspecified) means of detecting and preventing corrupt electoral practices. At the same time he set his face against ‘wholesale plans of reform’, for ‘small as the remaining treasure of the constitution is, I cannot consent to throw it into the wheel for the chance of obtaining a prize in the lottery of constitutions’. To everyone’s surprise, Castlereagh offered government support for a Grampound disfranchisement bill if Russell would withdraw his general resolutions, which he accordingly did. Sir Robert Heron thought ‘it does little, but it promises much’, and Brougham considered the ministerial concession ‘valuable’, though he reckoned Russell’s speech to have been ‘most injudicious ... one half radical, t’other Canning and the motion moderate’.12 When the King’s death necessitated a general election Russell introduced, 18 Feb., and secured the passage of, 21 Feb., a bill to suspend the issue of writs to Grampound, Penryn, Camelford and Barnstaple, but it was blocked in the Lords on a technicality, 25 Feb. 1820.

By 1820 Russell had staked his claim to be the Whig spokesman for moderate parliamentary reform, but he remained no more than a promising tyro in politics. Another decade of poor health lay before him and for a time he seemed as likely to devote himself to literature, producing a number of essays and histories, as well as a novel and a blank verse play, in the early 1820s. It was not until 1830, when he and his Whig colleagues came to power, that his career blossomed, but for over 30 years thereafter he played a central and often stormy role in British political life, twice holding the highest office. He died 28 May 1878.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


See S. Walpole, Life of Lord John Russell, 2 vols. (1889); and J. Prest, Lord John Russell (1972).

  • 1. Add. 51661, Bedford to Holland, 7, 9 Oct. 1808; Walpole, i. 41.
  • 2. Add. 51661, Bedford to Holland, 3, 28 Sept. [1809]; 52193, Russell to Allen, 13 Feb. [1810]; Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss, Russell to Clare, 14 Oct. 1809; Horner mss 4, f. 202.
  • 3. Add. 51677, Russell to Holland, 7, 21 Aug. 1810; Early Corresp. Lord John Russell, i. 131-9; Walpole, i. 48.
  • 4. Early Corresp. i. 164; G. A. F. H. Bridgeman, Letters from Portugal, 96.
  • 5. Add. 51662, Bedford to Holland, 30 May [1814]; Early Corresp. i. 180-1.
  • 6. Grey mss, Grey to Lady Holland, 29 Sept.,; 14 Oct., Russell to Grey, 5 Oct.; Horner mss 6, ff. 131, 141, 192, 225; Add. 51644, Lady Holland to Horner [Oct. 1816], 20 Jan.; 51666, Bedford to Lady Holland [3 Mar.]; 51677, Russell to Holland [28 Jan. 1817].
  • 7. Add. 51549, Lady Holland to Grey [14 Apr. 1818]; 51644, Lady Holland to Horner, 2 Jan; 51662, Bedford to Holland, 24 Dec. [1817]; 51666, Bedford to Lady Holland [Jan.]; 51677, Russell to Holland, 23 Feb. 1818.
  • 8. Add. 51662, Bedford to Holland [28 Oct. 1818].
  • 9. Grey mss; Add. 51534, Grenville to Holland, 30 Nov; 51662, Bedford to same [15 Nov.], [Dec.]; 51677, Russell to same [16 Nov.] 1818.
  • 10. Add. 38080, f. 1.
  • 11. Moore Mems. ed. Russell, iii. 5; Walpole, i. 116-18; Early Corresp. i. 205, 208-9.
  • 12. Heron, Notes (1851), 110; Brougham mss 66.