PP/GC/PO/117 Letter from Lord Ponsonby to Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, concerning the Belgian reaction to the demands of the London Conference, and the election of Prince Leopold as King of the Belgians, 31 May 1831
Letter from John Ponsonby, second Baron Ponsonby, [British Joint Commissioner of the London Conference to the provisional government of Belgium], Brussels, to Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston: General Belliard delivered Palmerston's letters of 29 [May] half an hour previously. Ponsonby has consulted with Belliard, and they have agreed to take it upon themselves to disobey orders and to remain in Brussels for ten more days, unless Palmerston repeats his commands. They are on the spot and know the state of affairs, and are confident that obeying Palmerston's orders would mean instant war. If Palmerston wants war, it will not be difficult to bring it about, but they believe that Palmerston wishes to avoid it. He forwards a copy of his letter to Lebeau [not present]. He has not got time to enter in detail into the reasons which induced him to write as he had: it was intended as a preliminary letter and he did not want to enter into polemics, although he has done so in private conversation and has no cause to fear his adversaries. Palmerston will find that he spoke out in the letter, and he knows it has produced a very great effect. General Belliard approved much of it. With time, there is still a good chance of achieving results without violence. Everything will be lost by sudden haste. The Congress, after two days' debate, has decided by a majority of one hundred and thirty seven to forty eight to proceed the following day at 11 o'clock to the election of Prince Leopold. The discussion will last a day or two. It is expected that eighteen or nineteen of that day's minority will vote for the Prince. The orders of the Post Office prevent Ponsonby keeping the messenger a moment longer. Gen[era]l Belliard writes in entire conformity with Ponsonby's sentiments. They act as one man. 31 May 1831 The letter is marked: "Private". It is noted on the docket that the letter was received on 2 June 1831. Enclosed are: (i) a copy of a letter from John Ponsonby, second Baron Ponsonby, [British Joint Commissioner of the London Conference to the provisional government of Belgium], Brussels, to Jean Louis Joseph Lebeau, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs: [Transcript] [f.3r] "I arrived here last night and I will not, for the sake of a better execution of what I have to do, delay giving you some account of the state of your affairs so far as the Conference in London is concerned in them, and I must trust to your indulgence to excuse the imperfection of a letter written in great haste. The Conference finds the limits of Holland fixed by treaties, and treaties constitute in respect to limits the law of nations. The Conference cannot viciate that law, and cannot therefore consent that Belgium should assume herself the right to fix the bounds of another state. But the Conference has no indisposition to remedy as far as it may have the power to do so, without violating the fundamental principles of European policy, whatever may be contrary to particular interests of Belgium and, at the same time, not prejudicial to her neighbours. With these objects in view, the Conference wishes to see Belgium place herself within the pale of European states, acknowledging the [f.3v] common obligation of treaties, partaking in the duties and the benefits of received international polity, and constituting herself in such a manner as may authoritatively claim the recognition and fellowship of all other states. If Belgium will consent to place herself in that situation, the Conference will aid, by its powerful mediation, in obtaining for Belgium, the Duchy of Luxembourg by treaty, and for an equitable compensation and will prevent by sure means the military attack of the Germanic Diet during the negotiation. It is to be observed that, by this proceeding, Belgium will obtain peaceably that territory for ever, which it is at least doubtful if she can hold by force of arms, and the people of the Duchy will be spared the miseries which must fall upon those whose country is the theatre of hostilities. The Conference is animated by sentiments of good will towards Belgium, its object is present peace, and future peace founded on the security of the independence of that country, and the final adjustment of all her interests. The Conference would therefore see with pleasure the election by the Congress of any sovereign who should not be personally injurious to the rights of other states, and it will recognize with [f.4r] peculiar satisfaction that Prince toward whom the Belgians seem to have particularly turned their eyes, provided the Congress will permit him to place himself within the common circle of governments. Upon what principle of reason can Belgium wish to place herself in a position different from that in which all other nations exist ? Why should she demand the exclusive privilege of dictating the law to other powers in questions of disputed territory, or to withdraw herself from the observance of the universal rule, negotiation and treaty, and rush at once to violence and war to assert her assumed rights. Is Belgium so powerful, that she can compel the five great military nations of Europe to bend to her commands ? Or is it imagined that the people of Europe can be excited to resistance against their respective governments to enable Belgium to destroy the sanctity of treaties ? The only principle by which nations are preserved from perpetual war ! There can be no greater or more dangerous error than such an opinion. The great powers are too well acquainted with their own present interests to fall into [f.4v] dispute upon this question of Belgium, that is the sacredness of treaties; on the contrary they will act with unanimity and they will carry with them the concurrence and applause of their people. Belgium is urged to rush to arms, for what ? To preserve Luxembourg. She may possess it in peace and in security for the thousendth part of the price it will cost her to attempt to retain it by war. Is it not the hight of imprudence to hesitate about the choice ? Belgium is to conquer Maestricht, the left bank of the Scheldt, to wrest from Holland other parts of her ancient possessions. Who can doubt at this time that the true state of European policy has been manifested, even to the weakest judgements, that Belgium will be unable to obtain any one of those objects by force, until after she shall have subdued the armies of France, Prussia, Austria, Russia and England ? Not one inch of Dutch territory shall be left to Belgium unless she shall have conquered Europe. What she may lose of her own territory if she herself should happen to be defeated in such a contest is another question. It is for statesmen who govern the destinies [f.5r] of the nation to weigh the chances of success or failure; and it will be for them to shew their fellow countrymen whether it be better to seek the attainment of their ends by such means, under such circumstances, or to try the simple and innocuous and more effectual way of negotiation under a sovereign the friend of every government in Europe, and whose power and security it will be the interest of them all to consolidate. The hesitation shewn by H.R.H. the Prince Leopold in his replies to those gentlemen who sounded his opinions respecting the sovereignty of Belgium sufficiently establish[es] the disinterested nature of H.R.H. principles, and proves that he would not accept a crown, if it were offered to him, that he could not wear with honor to Belgium and to himself. The Prince, however, is now satisfied that he has sufficient ground for confiding in the execution, with equity and promptitude, of those measures by which the Conference will aid in the satisfactory arrangement of the affair of Luxembourg, and the Prince is willing to take upon himself, as sovereign, its completion. Can there be any better proof than is afforded by this of the change that has been lately worked in the opinion and resolves of the Conference ? A week ago [f.5v] the Conference \ [in pencil] declared / the preservation of the Duchy for the House of Nassau, if not necessary, at least highly desirable, and now it is willing to mediate with the avowed intention of endeavouring to obtain that Duchy for the sovereign of Belgium. The honor of the Belgians consists in obtaining Luxembourg, not in fighting for it, and causing its ruin in the struggle. The Conference does not pretend to interfere with the rights or independence of Belgium, nor its internal organization, but the Conference will maintain the rights of other states aginst all aggressions under whatever pretexts they may be made. There shall be no new code of conquest established by any single power. The Conference stands the defender of law and liberty against would-be conquerors, and those who deny all law but their own will and pleasure. The Belgians cannot assert the right of force as supreme and absolute without exposing themselves to see that doctrine turned against them at last. What is asked of Belgium in order that she may enjoy a situation of tranquil security ? All that is required of her is to condescend to be subject to the same political duties as those which are submitted to by the great monarchies; [f.6r] what France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia and England think right and honorable for themselves to submit to. Can that be discreditable to Belgium ? I will trust to the wisdom of the Belgic gov[ernmen]t and country to consider calmly and to decide wisely the great questions now coming before them, and to refuse to rush headlong into difficulties needlessly created, which may bring about even the extinction of the Belgian name. As to the debt; I can repeat the assurance that the Conference has only made propositions." 27 May 1831: contemporary copy The letter is marked: "Private". (ii) Newspaper cutting from L'INDEPENDANT, in French, with a translation of the above letter from John Ponsonby, second Baron Ponsonby, to Jean Louis Joseph Lebeau 27 May 1831
Four papers, two tied together with green ribbon
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John Ponsonby, second Baron Ponsonby, later first Viscount Ponsonby, British Joint Commissioner of the London Conference to the provisional government of Belgium
Belgium: revolt; revolution; independence
General Auguste Daniel, Comte Belliard, French Joint Commissioner of the London Conference to the government of Belgium, later French ambassador at Brussels
Jean Louis Joseph Lebeau, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs
Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, later Leopold I, King of the Belgians
London Conference on Belgian independence
Maastricht, alias Maestricht, Netherlands
House of Nassau, Dutch Royal Family
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