Arthur Balfour Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
0111201885-Balfour.jpg (National Archives) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: As prime minister, and in many other high government offices, Balfour provided leadership to his country and made noteworthy contributions to world peace.

Early Life

Arthur James Balfour was born July 25, 1848, in Whittinghame, East Lothian, in Scotland. His mother, Lady Blanche Balfour, was the daughter of the second Marquess of Salisbury. James Balfour, his father, was descended from an old Scottish family which had grown very wealthy from trade with India. Named Arthur, after his godfather, the Duke of Wellington, Balfour could take wealth and contacts with influential people for granted as he grew up. His father, who died in 1856 of tuberculosis, was a Member of Parliament. His mother’s brother, Robert Cecil, third Marquess of Salisbury and later prime minister, became an important figure in Balfour’s early career.

Lady Blanche had given birth to nine children when she was widowed at the age of thirty-one. She never remarried, and she provided close and rigorous supervision to her children. Arthur, the oldest son, was to win the greatest renown, although several of the other children who survived to adulthood also had distinguished careers: Gerald was a Member of Parliament for twenty years, Frank was an authority on genetics and held a chair at Cambridge University, Eleanor became the principal of Newnham College, and Eustace was a successful architect. The family was very close-knit; one sister, Alice, who like Balfour never married, devoted her later life to supervising his household. The Balfours were also devout, with a commitment to both the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

When he was ten, Balfour was sent away from home to attend a private boarding school at Hoddeston in Hertfordshire. In 1861, he went on to study at Eton, where he was an indifferent student and not robust enough to take an active part in sports. Five years later, Balfour began his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. There he developed an interest in the study of philosophy, a subject to which he considered devoting his career. He enjoyed Cambridge much more than Eton, although he was not a diligent scholar. He now began to take part in sports and games, an interest that continued to the end of his life.

In 1869, when he came of age, Balfour inherited the family estates. With wealth came responsibility, and he was often occupied with family and business affairs. His mother’s death in 1872 increased this burden. He turned to his uncle, Lord Salisbury, for guidance in these years and under his patronage began a career in politics by standing for Parliament in January, 1874. He was returned unopposed as the Conservative member for Hertford.

Life’s Work

At first, Balfour appeared no more promising in politics than he had as a student. He hesitated to speak or play an active role in the House of Commons and occupied himself with foreign travel and work on a book of philosophy. Published in 1879 as A Defence of Philosophic Doubt, the treatise was the first of several books which marked him as a shrewd but rather conventional intellectual talent.

When Salisbury became foreign secretary in 1878, he asked Balfour to become his parliamentary private secretary. This gave the young politician contacts and firsthand experience in diplomacy as he attended the Congress of Berlin. By 1880, when the Liberals under William Ewart Gladstone swept into office and forced Balfour into opposition, he was emerging as an articulate rising member of the Conservative Party. He soon became identified, along with Randolph Churchill, with an outspoken faction of Conservatives known as the “Fourth Party,” raising objections to their own party leadership as well as Gladstone’s government. When the Conservatives returned to office under Salisbury in 1885, Balfour became president of the Local Government Board. The following year he was made a member of the cabinet.

In 1887, Salisbury made his nephew Chief Secretary for Ireland, a challenging assignment in this period of unrest in Ireland. Balfour succeeded in removing some economic grievances in that troubled colony and had the good fortune to face an increasingly divided nationalist opposition. Nationalists distressed at his hard-line policies...

(The entire section is 1773 words.)