In the past two decades Lord John Russell has suffered a decline in reputation which is undeserved. This has been especially true in regard to his role as foreign secretary in the second Palmerston government. The decline has not resulted from significant new evidence or from a new insight into existing evidence, so much as from a series of apparently accidental circumstances. The most important of these have been the fact that the only recent biography of Russell, by John Prest, placed little stress either on foreign affairs or on his post-1852 career, expressing the belief that he “should have retired” at the end of his first administration.
Prest's influence has been intensified by several major studies of foreign policy, which have given a negative interpretation of Russell's role under Palmerston. Since each of these is the most important work on the topic concerned, their view of Lord John carries considerable weight. Yet, even more than was the case with Prest's biography, their comments about Russell appear on a very few pages, and suggest that the authors viewed the issue of Lord John's relationship with Palmerston as tangential to their research or analysis. The evidence they cite often falls into two categories: 1) statements of biased observers, who had grudges against Russell, or 2) material that is open to other interpretation or is an inadequate and misleading sample of the evidence available.