Among the rising names of statesmen in the early part of the century the greatest name was undoubtedly that of George Canning. The men who have hitherto been mentioned in these pages were, for the most part, men who had won their fame before the century began, such men as Pitt and Fox and Burke. But the career of Canning belongs almost altogether to the story of the nineteenth century. Canning was the son of a literary man who was supposed to have gifts, or at all events promises, as a writer; but the highly respectable family to which he belonged regarded literature as a decidedly ungentlemanly, if not disreputable, sort of occupation; and the elder Canning was therefore edged out of the circle with a very stinted income to maintain him, and had to supplement the income by various experiments which nearly all proved to be unsuccessful. He tried to be an author, and did not succeed; he was called to the bar and endeavoured to get on as an advocate, but without success; he even tried, it is certain, to be a wine merchant, but the public did not show any anxiety to consume his wines, and he died early, a disappointed and broken-spirited man. His widow, a very beautiful woman, was encouraged to believe that she had some talent for acting, and she accordingly, driven by the necessity of having to make a living for herself and her son, took to the stage. She played in London, but without marked success, and after a while had to be content with theatrical tours in the provinces, until at last she married an actor, and dropped out of history. Her career on the stage is chiefly to be remembered because of the obloquy it brought upon her illustrious son George Canning. While Canning was slowly rising into great reputation as an orator and a statesman, and even when he had reached the very zenith of his fame, his enemies had no worse accusation to make against him than to remind the world that he was the son of an actress. The father of Mrs. Siddons insisted at one time that his daughter must not marry an actor. Like Prospero's daughter, she broke his hest. She married Mr. Siddons, who was on the stage, and when her father remonstrated with her she smilingly excused herself on the ground that no one could regard Mr. Siddons as an actor. In the same spirit Canning might, if he had thought it fitting to notice such a taunt in any way, have contended that his mother was not an actress, either by profession or by vocation. Had Mrs. Canning been really a great actress, her son would no doubt have felt proud of her genius; but much of the sting in the taunt levelled against him was contained in the statement constantly made, that his mother was only a member of a travelling stock company. Manners have so much altered since that time that it seems hard now to understand how the enemies of a great public man could stoop to make it a charge against him, that his mother had tried to earn a living when widowed and penniless by acting on the stage. It is certain, however, that some of the most distinguished and proudly placed of Canning's political enemies did degrade themselves by constantly talking of him as the son of an actress. It is certain, too, that in his heart he bitterly resented such whispered insults. Canning, as it has been well said, was a man far too sensitive for his own happiness, and his enemies knew of his sensitiveness and practised upon it accordingly.
Right Hon. George Canning, M.P.(1770-1827).
George Canning was born in England, and his education was undertaken by his father's brother, a rich merchant, who no doubt was anxious to repair in some measure to the son for the unkindness shown to the father, and he was sent to Eton and to Oxford. He studied for the bar; but his political gifts and his power of speech soon drew on him the attention of all who came in his way. Sheridan, who was a relative of Canning's mother, introduced him to Fox and Burke and Charles Grey. Canning cultivated assiduously, meanwhile, the art of public speaking, and he obtained a seat in Parliament in 1793. He had a singularly handsome and graceful person, fine features, and a noble forehead, and a voice which lent itself to high oratorical effort. It became a sort of fashion of speech at one time, to compliment rising young men, by declaring that their appearance was like that of Mr. Canning. Most, even of his own close associates, assumed that when Canning went into Parliament, he. would at once take the position of a Whig, and rank himself with the opponents of the Tories. But Canning was at this time and for long after strongly under the influence of Pitt, to whom, indeed, he owed in great measure his first chance of obtaining a seat in the House of Commons; and also under the influence of Lord Liverpool, by whom it is said that he was first introduced to Pitt, and who had been a close friend of his at Oxford. Canning made himself conspicuous for a long time, principally as a dashing and daring assailant of the Opposition. He even stood up to Fox himself, with a courage that perhaps only youth can satisfactorily explain. If Canning had any deliberate personal purpose in the course he took, it was possibly the result of a conviction that a man cannot begin too early in striving to make an impression by any means on the House of Commons. Without genuine ability to back it, this sort of policy is sure to be a failure; but it may turn out to be a success if it is employed as a means of challenging attention to a capacity for public utterance, which might otherwise remain unnoticed, until some great opportunity came. The sensitiveness of Canning's nature might make it seem unlikely that such a man could adopt such a policy for the mere sake of making himself conspicuous in Parliament, and yet we all know that very sensitive natures do often exist with a daring ambition and an undismayed courage. Canning was probably pursuing in the House of Commons the training to which he had subjected himself for long before in the political clubs and debating societies.