A veteran member of the House of Lords, who was in Canning's time a Member of the House of Commons, had the good fortune to be present when Canning made his famous declaration. Many years ago he told a friend of the present writer that even while the memorable words were passing through Canning's lips there was a doubt among a considerable portion of the Members whether the words were to be a climax or an anti-climax. There was a disposition, at first, to think that Canning was likely to spoil, by what seemed to be a rhetorical conceit, the effect of his previous magnificent sentences. Some were already almost inclined to smile; but the eloquence and the earnestness of the orator swept all before them; and the concluding words of the passage became a climax as thrilling as the House of Commons has ever known, and their effect was recorded by a burst of applause again and again repeated. More than once it has happened with a great parliamentary orator that there is a moment of doubt whether one of his splendid passages is to be a success or a failure, whether he is to lift the House to his own level, or to find it fall away from him and beneath him and so miss his best effect. Something of the kind is told of a magnificent passage in one of John Bright's speeches against the policy of the Crimean War. There was a moment when some of his audience feared that his idea and the words that clothed it would pass over the heads of the Members and so be misprised; and an intense feeling of relief came when it soon was found that the arrow had gone straight to its mark in the intellects and the hearts of the listeners.
France had nothing more to say to the reconquest of the South American Colonies. Canning had proclaimed a new foreign policy for England. The Holy Alliance was an empty name thenceforth; and all that remained for the Congress of Vienna was that the world should see its work breaking up and disappearing fragment after fragment. Canning's policy, in fact, closed the era of Congresses like those of Vienna and Verona. No doubt we have had Congresses since that time, like the Congress of Paris and like the Congress of Berlin; but these have been Councils summoned together after a great war to make some arrangement as to the results of the war. They have sadly bungled their business sometimes, and have gone beyond the reasonable sphere of their duties, but they have not attempted to reconstruct the map of Europe, or to decide in arbitrary fashion for the population of any country what sort of government it is to accept at their hands. The policy of Canning gave a new direction and set up new limits for the whole foreign policy of England.
We are far from saying that England has never since that time deviated from the course of policy marked out by Canning. It would be hard, for instance, to contend that the policy which brought England into the Crimean War was in accordance with Canning's great principle. But, after all, the course of action in politics never can be as definite, never can carry with it so obvious and so inevitable a meaning, as an axiom in arithmetic or mathematics. Where political life is concerned there is always, or almost always, an opportunity for different observers to judge from a different point of view, and then we have to make allowance for the gusts of national passion which sometimes drive the State vessel from her moorings and force her at a sudden and untimely moment to brave the ocean and the rocks. But the policy of Canning is undoubtedly that which on the whole has governed English statesmanship from that time; and to which that statesmanship, though it may drift away now and then, is always certain to return. Canning did not set up any doctrine of absolute non-intervention, such as a few great Englishmen at a later period would have desired that their country should adopt. Canning would not have limited the policy of England, even if such limitation were possible at his day, to a concern simply with her own domestic affairs. He was a lover of peace; and his policy was always directed towards the maintenance of peace; but he never was in favour of the principle which, at a later day,' was often contemptously and often unjustly described as "peace at any price." There was a great deal to be said for the preaching of that doctrine, even when preached to its fullest extent; but it was never pushed in this country by such men as Cobden and Bright, for example, to the extent of an argument that England must submit to anything rather than draw a sword or fire a cannon.
What men like Cobden and Bright contended for was that the policy of England ought to concern itself as a rule with the welfare of our own populations, in the first instance; and that when we intervened in the affairs of foreign countries, we were almost certain to do so with an imperfect knowledge of conditions beyond our actual experience, and we were likely to bring more harm than good, in the end, even to those whose cause we had endeavoured to benefit. Canning went quite as far as Cobden or Bright could have done, in condemning wars for mere annexation of territory or for imposing on a foreign State the political systems which we had found to work successfully at home. But Canning distinctly admitted the principle that occasions might arise when it would be necessary for England to intervene, although in a quarrel which in nowise concerned the interests of her own people, in order to defend a weak ally against wanton and cruel aggression, or to prevent a movement which we ourselves had fostered for national freedom in some foreign State from being crushed by the wanton intervention of some Power as foreign to the movement as we ourselves, and intervening on the wrong side. This, except for one or two occasional and lamentable infractions of the principle, has been the policy of England since Canning's time, a policy of general, but not absolute, non-intervention in the struggles of the European Continent. A man in private life adopts a certain resolution as a guidance for his conduct: he is perhaps led away by sudden emergency or sudden alarm, to deviate from it; but when the moment of alarm or confusion is over, he returns to it, and makes it his rule of life again, and faithfully adheres to it. Of such a man it would be only fair and just to say that he made that principle the general guidance of his life. It is so with the foreign policy of England since Canning's time. The country has on the whole adhered to Canning's policy; nor is it possible for us to think of any serious reaction against that policy being encouraged or allowed by English statesmanship. We may take it for granted that every succeeding generation will strengthen the hold of Canning's policy over the intellects and the hearts of public men in these countries and of the populations without whose support public men must cease to have control or influence. Therefore it is only uttering the merest commonplace to say that the career of Canning as Foreign Minister made a new epoch in England's foreign policy.