John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, was born prematurely on 18 August 1792 and was the third son of John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, and Georgiana Byng. The Russell family were one of the most prominent Whig families in Britain and were wealthy landowners, however Russell wasn’t expected to inherit any lands as a younger son.
Due to his premature birth Russell suffered from poor health and was smaller in stature than his peers so he was educated at home by tutors, although he later attended the University of Edinburgh from 1809 to 1812. Russell didn’t let his poor health get in the way though and he travelled abroad frequently, as well as holding a commission as Captain in the Bedfordshire Militia.
Since he had no peerage of his own, Russell entered the House of Commons in 1813 thanks to his father’s efforts to have his son elected as MP for Tavistock despite Russell being underage. Within six years, Russell was leading a more reformed branch of the Whigs who embraced parliamentary reform and he was appointed Paymaster of the Forces when the Whigs came into power under Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. Russell was one of the principal leaders for the Reform Act 1832 and he became leader of the Whigs in the Commons in 1834.
Russell married Adelaide Lister on 11 April 1835 and they had two daughters, Georgiana, born in 1836, and Victoria, born in 1838. Sadly, Adelaide died after giving birth to their youngest daughter. Russell then went on to marry Lady Frances Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound in July 1841 and they had four children.
Russell maintained his position as leader until the Whigs fell from power in 1841, however he continued to lead the reformist branch afterwards where he was in favour of religious freedom. In 1845, Russell, as leader of the opposition party, came out in favour of repealing the Corn Laws which formed Prime Minister Robert Peel to support him. The Conservatives were so split by the issue, Russell was asked to form a government by Queen Victoria, however he was unable to do so since Lord Grey refused to work with Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston. The following year, the Corn Laws, Peel managed to repeal the Corn Laws with the help of the Whigs but it cost him his position and Russell became prime minister.
During his first tenure as prime minister, Russell implemented many social reforms, such as teacher training and passage of the Factory Act of 1847, which restricted the working hours of women and teenagers in textile mills to 10 hours per day. Russell had many more reforms in mind but his plans were thwarted by infighting amongst his party members and he often clashed with his headstrong Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, who was belligerent and openly supported revolutionary ideas abroad.
Matters between the two men came to a head in 1850 when Palmerston got involved with a compensation claim for the ransacking and burning of the house of David Pacifico, a Portuguese Jewish merchant and diplomat, who held a British passport courtesy of his birth in Gibraltar. Pacifico was living in Greece in 1847 when his home was ransacked and burnt by an anti-Semitic mob in retaliation for interference in their customs. The Greek government was hosting a visit from the Jewish banker, James Mayer de Rothschild, from whom they were hoping to secure a substantial loan. Thinking the Greek Orthodox Easter ritual of hanging an effigy of Judas Iscariot would offend Rothschild, the practice was banned by the Greek government which infuriated the people. A mob, that included the sons of a government minister, targeted Pacifico’s house and caused signifiant damage.
When the Greeks continued to refuse to compensate Pacifico and other British citizens, Palmerston ordered Greek vessels to be detained which resulted in diplomatic tensions as Greece was under the joint protection of Britain, France, and Russia. Russell was incensed by Palmerston’s interference and advised the Queen it was time to receive Palmerston of his position. However, Palmerston’s actions had endeared him to the public who appreciated the lengths he was willing to go to in order to protect the interests of British citizens. Russell was also forced to align with Palmerston to prevent a motion of censure being passed by the House of Commons which would have obliged the Government to resign.
Palmerston was eventually forced to resign when he supported Napoleon III’s coup in 1851, however he retaliated by introducing a vote of no confidence and Russell’s government fell on 21 February 1852. The following election left neither the Conservatives nor the Whigs with an overall majority, however the Queen was forced to ask Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, the Conservative leader, to form a minority government which only lasted until December of that year.
Russell formed a coalition government with the Peelite Conservatives, a breakaway faction of the Conservative Party who had supported the repeal of the Corn Laws against main party policy, headed by George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen. Palmerston was appointed Home Secretary while Russell, still leader of the biggest party, was appointed Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. The coalition government ended when it was accused of mismanagement during the Crimean War and Russell left politics for a while while Palmerston formed a government.
In 1859, Russell and Palmerston resolved their differences and Russell consented to serve as Foreign Secretary in what proved to be an eventful period in history with the fight for Italian independence from the Holy Roman Empire, and the war over Schleswig-Holstein between Denmark and the German states. In 1861, Russell was elevated to the peerage as Earl Russell, of Kingston Russell in Dorset; Viscount Amberley, of Amberley in Gloucester, and of Ardsalla in the County of Meath.
Russell became prime minister again in 1865 after Palmerston’s sudden death but he failed to achieve anything due to party instability and was eventually succeeded by Benjamin Disraeli. Russell resumed his seat in the House of Lords until 3 August 1875 after which he retired to raise his two orphaned grandchildren. Russell died on 28 May 1878 and was buried at St. Michael’s Church, Chenies.