In June, 1859, a short-lived Conservative Government under the leadership of Lord Derby had been replaced by a "coalition" Liberal Government, at the head of which stood Palmerston, but so constituted that almost equal influence was attributed to the Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell. Both men had previously held the Premiership, and, as they represented different wings of the Whig-Liberal party, it was prophesied by political wiseacres that personal friction would soon lead to a new disruption. Nor were the possible elements of discord confined to these two. Gladstone, formerly a Peelite Tory, and for a time uncertain whether to return to the Tory fold or to join the Liberals, had yielded to Palmerston's promise of a free hand in financial matters, and had joined the Ministry as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Opposed to him in a certain sense, as the rival claimant for political leadership among the younger group, was Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Home Secretary until July, 1861, thereafter until his death in April, 1863, Secretary for War. Acting in some degree as intermediary and conciliator between these divergent interests stood Lord Granville, President of Council, then a "Conservative-Liberal," especially valuable to the Cabinet for the confidence reposed in him by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

In 1861 Palmerston was seventy-seven years old. Long before this he had built his popularity upon a vigorous British "patriotism," assertive of England's honour and jealous for British advantage. Now, however, as head of a Government requiring the most delicate handling to maintain itself, he devoted his energies to details of political management in which he had great skill. His ambition was, primarily, to retain office, and in this purpose he was fortunate because, unknown to his ministerial colleagues, he had received an indirect pledge from Lord Derby, the Opposition leader, that there would be, for a time at least, no determined effort to unseat him so long as his Ministry brought forward no Bill for a further expansion of the franchise. In the unwillingness to make any further adventure toward an expanded democracy Palmerston was wholly at one with Derby. Of like opinion, though less strongly so, was Russell, whose popular nickname, "Finality John," gained by his assertion that the Reform Bill of 1832 was England's last step toward democracy, sufficiently indicates his stand on the franchise question. In fact every member of the Cabinet belonged to the "Conservative-Liberal" group, though with shades of political faith, and none were really Liberals - far less Radicals. The outspoken Radicals in Parliament, like John Bright, and his friend Cobden, who had refused to take office under Palmerston, gave a lukewarm support to the Ministry, but would not pledge themselves to steadfast adherence. They had hopes of Gladstone, believed that he would ultimately come into their group, but meanwhile watched with anxiety his delighted immersion, as indeed Palmerston desired it, in the details of financial management to the exclusion of other questions.

The matter of ministerial and general British attitude toward democracy as affecting British policy during the American Civil War will be considered in a later chapter. In the spring of 1861 it had not become a clear-cut British opinion and did not, so far as historical evidence can determine, affect early governmental policy toward America. The outstanding feature of the British Government in 1861 is that it was made up of various so-called "Liberal" elements, the representatives of each of which carried on the business of his own department much as he pleased. Palmerston's was, of course, the deciding opinion, whenever he cared to express it, but this he did but rarely. His great concern was to keep his all-star associates running smoothly together and thus to give no occasion for parliamentary criticism and attack. It followed that Russell, eight years the junior of Palmerston, was in foreign affairs more powerful and independent than is customary. Indeed the Government was at times spoken of as the "Palmerston-Russell Ministry." These two were the leaders of the team; next came Gladstone and Cornewall Lewis, rivals of the younger generation, and each eager to lead when their elders should retire from harness. Gladstone's great ability was already recognized, but his personal political faith was not yet clear. Lewis, lacking his rival's magnetic and emotional qualities, cold, scholarly, and accurate in performance, was regarded as a statesman of high promise[127]. Other Cabinet members, as is the custom of coalitions, were more free in opinion and action than in a strict party ministry where one dominating personality imposes his will upon his colleagues.