The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4

Author: George Canning  | Date: 1826


On Granting Aid to Portugal*

It is not at distant periods of history, and in bygone ages only, that the traces of the union between Great Britain and Portugal are to be found. In the last compact of modern Europe, the compact which forms the basis of its present international law—I mean the treaty of Vienna of 18152—this country, with its eyes open to thepossible inconveniences of the connection, but with a memory awake to its past benefits, solemnly renewed the previously existing obligations of alliance and amity with Portugal.

In order to appreciate the force of this stipulation-recent in point of time, recent, also, in the sanction of Parliament—the House will, perhaps, allow me to explain shortly the circumstances in reference to which it was contracted. In the year 1807, when, upon the declaration of Bonaparte that the House of Braganza had ceased to reign, the King of Portugal, by the advice of Great Britain, was induced to set sail for the Brazils; almost at the very moment of his most faithful majesty’s embarkation, a secret convention3 was signed between his majesty and the king of Portugal, stipulating that, in the event of his most faithful majesty’s establishing the seat of his government in Brazil, Great Britain would never acknowledge any other dynasty than that of the House of Braganza on the throne of Portugal. That convention, I say, was contemporaneous with the migration to the Brazils—a step of great importance at the time, as removing from the grasp of Bonaparte the sovereign family of Braganza. Afterward, in the year 1810, when the seat of the king of Portugal’s government was established at Rio de Janeiro, and when it seemed probable, in the then apparently hopeless condition of the affairsof Europe, that it was likely long to continue there, the secret convention of 1807, of which the main object was accomplished by the fact of the emigration to Brazil, was abrogated, and a new and public treaty was concluded, into which was transferred the stipulation of 1807, binding Great Britain, so long as his faithful majesty should be compelled to reside in Brazil, not to acknowledge any other sovereign of Portugal than a member of the House of Braganza. That stipulation, which had hitherto been secret, thus became patent, and part of the known law of nations.

In the year 1814, in consequence of the happy conclusion of the war, the option was afforded to the king of Portugal of returning to his European dominions, it was then felt that, as the necessity of his most faithful majesty’s absence from Portugal had ceased, the ground for the obligation originally contracted in the secret convention of 1807, and afterward transferred to the patent treaty of 1810, was removed. The treaty of 1810 was, therefore, annulled at the Congress of Vienna; and in lieu of the stipulation not to acknowledge any other sovereign of Portugal than a member of the House of Braganza, was substituted that which I have just read to the House.

Annulling the treaty of 1810, the treaty of Vienna renews and confirms (as the House will have seen) all former treaties between Great Britain and Portugal, describing them as"ancient treaties of alliance, friendship, and guarantee"; as having "long and happily subsisted between the two Crowns"; and as being allowed, by the two high contracting parties, to remain "in full force and effect."

What, then, is the force what is the effect of those ancient treaties? I am prepared to show to the House what it is. But before I do so, I must say, that if all the treaties to which this article of the treaty of Vienna refers, had perished by some convulsion of nature, or had by some extraordinary accident been consigned to total oblivion, still it would be impossible not to admit, as an incontestable inference from this article of the treaty of Vienna alone, that, in a moral point of view, there is incumbent on Great Britain a decided obligation to act as the effectual defender of Portugal. If I could not show the letter of a single antecedent stipulation, I should still contend that a solemn admission, only ten years old, of the existence at that time of "treaties of alliance, friendship, and guarantee," held Great Britain to the discharge of the obligations which that very description implies. But fortunately there is no such difficulty in specifying the nature of those obligations. All of the preceding treaties exist—all of them are of easy reference—all of them are known to this country, to Spain, to every nation of the civilized world.

This, sir, being the state, morally and politically, of our obligations toward Portugal, it isobvious that when Portugal, in apprehension of the coming storm, called on Great Britain for assistance, the only hesitation on our part could be, not whether that assistance was due, supposing the occasion for demanding it to arise, but simply whether that occasion—in other words, whether the casus foederis had arisen.

The main question, however, is this: Was it obligatory upon us to comply with that requisition? In other words, had the casus foederis arisen? In our opinion it had. Bands of Portuguese rebels, armed, equipped, and trained in Spain, had crossed the Spanish frontier, carrying terror and devastation into their own country, and proclaiming sometimes the brother of the reigning sovereign of Portugal, sometimes a Spanish princess, and sometimes even Ferdinand of Spain, as the rightful occupant of the Portuguese throne. These rebels crossed the frontier, not at one point only, but at several points; for it is remarkable that the aggression, on which the original application to Great Britain for succor was founded, is not the aggression with reference to which that application has been complied with.

If a single company of Spanish soldiers had crossed the frontier in hostile array, there could not, it is presumed, be a doubt as to the character of that invasion. Shall bodies of men, armed, clothed, and regimented by Spain, carry fire and sword into the bosom of her unoffending neighbor, and shall it be pretended that no attack, no invasion has taken place, because, forsooth, these outrages are committed against Portugal by men to whom Portugal had given birth and nurture? What petty quibbling would it be to say that an invasion of Portugal from Spain was not a Spanish invasion, because Spain did not employ her own troops, but hired mercenaries to effect her purpose? And what difference is it, except as an aggravation, that the mercenaries in this instance were natives of Portugal.

I have already stated, and now repeat, that it never has been the wish or the pretension of the British government to interfere in the internal concerns of the Portuguese nation. Questions of that kind the Portuguese nation must settle among themselves. But if we were to admit that hordes of traitorous refugees from Portugal, with Spanish arms, or arms furnished or restored to them by Spanish authorities, in their hands, might put off their country for one purpose, and put it on again for another—put it off for the purpose of attack, and put it on again for the purpose of impunity—if, I say, we were to admit this juggle, and either pretend to be deceived by it ourselves, or attempt to deceive Portugal, into a belief that there was nothing of external attack, nothing of foreign hostility, in such a system of aggression—such pretense and attempt would, perhaps, be only ridiculous and contemptible, if they did not require a much more serious character from being employed as an excuse for infidelity toancient friendship, and as a pretext for getting rid of the positive stipulations of treaties.

This, then, is the case which I lay before the House of Commons. Here is, on the one hand, an undoubted pledge of national faith—not taken in a corner, not kept secret between the parties, but publicly recorded among the annals of history, in the face of the world. Here are, on the other hand, undeniable acts of foreign aggression, perpetrated, indeed, principally through the instrumentality of domestic traitors, but supported with foreign means, instigated by foreign councils, and directed to foreign ends. Putting these facts and this pledge together, it is impossible that his majesty should refuse the call that has been made upon him; nor can Parliament, I am convinced, refuse to enable his majesty to fulfil his undoubted obligations. I am willing to rest the whole question of tonight, and to call for the vote of the House of Commons upon this simple case, divested altogether of collateral circumstances; from which I especially wish to separate it, in the minds of those who hear me, and also in the minds of others, to whom what I now say will find its way. If I were to sit down this moment, without adding another word, I have no doubt but that I should have the concurrence of the House in the address which I mean to propose.

When I state this, it will be obvious to the House that the vote for which I am about to call upon them is a vote for the defense ofPortugal, not a vote for war against Spain. I beg the House to keep these two points entirely distinct in their consideration. For the former I think I have said enough. If, in what I have now further to say, I should bear hard upon the Spanish government, I beg that it may be observed, that, unjustifiable as I shall show their conduct to have been—contrary to the law of nations, contrary to the law of good neighborhood, contrary, I might say, to the laws of God and man—with respect to Portugal, still I do not mean to preclude a locus poenitentiae, a possibility of redress and reparation. It is our duty to fly to the defense of Portugal, be the assailant who he may. And, be it remembered, that, in thus fulfilling the stipulation of ancient treaties, of the existence and obligation of which all the world are aware, we, according to the universally admitted construction of the law of nations, neither make war upon that assailant, nor give to that assailant, much less to any other power, just cause of war against ourselves.

Sir, I set out with saying that there were reasons which entirely satisfied my judgment that nothing short of a point of national faith or national honor would justify, at the present moment, any voluntary approximation to the possibility of war. Let me be understood, however, distinctly as not meaning to say that I dread war in a good cause (and in no other way may it be the lot of this country ever to engage!) from a distrust of the strength of the country tocommence it, or of her resources to maintain it I dread it, indeed—but upon far other grounds: I dread it from an apprehension of the tremendous consequences which might arise from any hostilities in which we might now be engaged.

Some years ago, in the discussion of the negotiations respecting the French war against Spain, I took the liberty of adverting to this topic. I then stated that the position of this country in the present state of the world was one of neutrality, not only between contending nations, but between conflicting principles; and that it was by neutrality alone that we could maintain that balance, the preservation of which I believed to be essential to the welfare of mankind. I then said that I feared that the next war which should be kindled in Europe would be a war not so much of armies as of opinions. Not four years have elapsed, and behold my apprehension realized! It is, to be sure, within narrow limits that this war of opinion is at present confined; but it is a war of opinion that Spain (whether as government or as nation) is now waging against Portugal; it is a war which has commenced in hatred of the new institutions of Portugal. How long is it reasonable to expect that Portugal will abstain from retaliation? If into that war this country shall be compelled to enter, we shall enter into it with a sincere and anxious desire to mitigate rather than exasperate—and to mingle only in the conflict of arms, not in the more fatal conflict of opinions.

The consequence of letting loose the passions at present chained and confined, would be to produce a scene of desolation which no man can contemplate without horror; and I should not sleep easy on my couch if I were conscious that I had contributed to precipitate it by a single moment.

This, then, is the reason—a reason very different from fear, the reverse of a consciousness of disability—why I dread the recurrence of hostilities in any part of Europe; why I would bear much, and would forbear long; why I would (as I have said) put up with almost anything that did not touch national faith and national honor, rather than let slip the furies of war, the leash of which we hold in our hands—not knowing whom they may reach, or how far their ravages may be carried. Such is the love of peace which the British government acknowledges; and such the necessity for peace which the circumstances of the world inculcate. I will push these topics no further.

I return, in conclusion, to the object of the address. Let us fly to the aid of Portugal, by whomsoever attacked, because it is our duty to do so; and let us cease our interference where that duty ends. We go to Portugal not to rule, not to dictate, not to prescribe constitutions, but to defend and to preserve the independence of an ally. We go to plant the standard of England on the well-known heights of Lisbon. Where that standard is planted, foreign dominion shall not come.

*Delivered in the House of Commons in December, 1826, after an organization of Portuguese favoring absolutism had prepared in Spain an expedition to overthrow the existing constitutional monarchy in Portugal. Abridged. Only a few years before this event, trouble in the Spanish Peninsula had led Canning as foreign minister to a line of policy which he described in famous words as "calling the new world into existence to adjust the balance of the old."

2 The treaty which arranged the affairs of Europe after Napoleon’s overthrow at Waterloo.

3The Convention of Cintra, August 30, 1808.

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Great Britain, 1780–1801

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Chicago: George Canning, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), 117–126. Original Sources, accessed May 26, 2024,

MLA: Canning, George. The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. The World#8217;s Famous Orations, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, pp. 117–126. Original Sources. 26 May. 2024.

Harvard: Canning, G, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York, pp.117–126. Original Sources, retrieved 26 May 2024, from