Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Meredith Veldman


"Palmerston, Parliament and Peking" is a revisionist work designed to challenge the prevailing economic interpretations of the first Opium War, 1839-1842. Orthodox historiography considers early nineteenth-century Britain as a modern, industrial society and argues that its Government needed to respond violently to the Chinese authorities' suppression of the opium trade in order to protect and expand a lucrative endeavor. Indian opium sales generated revenue for the British-run government in Bengal and paid for Chinese tea, a highly prized commodity in Great Britain. British industrialists demanded war to end the Chinese Government's restrictions on trade, known as the Canton system, thus opening China's market to goods produced by Britain's expanding industrial economy. During the mid-1970s a new interpretation of British society began to emerge which challenges the centrality of modernization to the experience of life in early nineteenth-century Britain. Viewing Britain in the 1830s as a predominantly traditional society, these historians argue that the landed aristocracy remained the dominant order economically, socially and politically. Although Northern industrialists launched their challenge to this aristocratic order in this period, the limited scope of industrial growth inhibited their ability to win approval for middle-class initiatives at the highest levels of government. By revising the interpretation of the British Cabinet's decision to wage war on China, this dissertation supports these new interpretations of early nineteenth-century British society. Lord Melbourne's Whig Ministry (1835-1841) did not respond immediately to calls for a violent response to events in China. Several Ministers doubted the wisdom of confronting such a populous empire as China, and economic considerations shared center stage with the Government's domestic political interests. A political crisis in the Fall of 1839 created the opportunity for middle-class Radicals, whose constituent eagerly awaited the "opening" of China, to sway a cautious aristocratic government.