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Arthur James Balfour

Member of Parliament
1848 to 1930

Earl Arthur James Balfour, politician and philosopher, was born on 25 July 1848 in Whittingehame House, East Lothian. Balfour was the third of eight children and eldest son of James Maitland Balfour (landowner and MP) and his wife, Lady Blanche Mary Harriet, who was the second daughter of the second marquess of Salisbury. Arthur's father died from tuberculosis when Arthur was eight and he was raised primarily by his mother.

From 1861 to 1866 Balfour attended Eton College, and then Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1866 to 1869. His tutors never thought him to be a particularly gifted student, due in part to his poor penmanship, which often resulted in terse examination answers deemed shallow by comparison to other students. Yet any concern for Balfour's intellect was quickly dismissed once he began utilising the services of an amanuensis and typist to receive his spoken work. His many dictated papers and letters revealed a clarity of thought and mastery of the English language that would later be the hallmark of his published work. Balfour's brilliance owed less to his formal education than to his personal devotion to philosophical learning and his desire to explore ideas through debate. He was a critical thinker on contemporary religious issues, and his earliest philosophical and religious writings sought to refute claims that theism lacked intellectual respectability in the face of the Darwinian challenge. Balfour believed that the epistemological foundations of science were just as open to doubt as the foundations of theology.

Apart from philosophy and religion, Balfour's most notable contribution to history was in the realm of politics. Since his time at Cambridge, he had considered pursuing political service, but his Conservative and Unionist leanings made him an unlikely parliamentary candidate in the radical Scottish politics of the day. In 1873 he was encouraged by his uncle Lord Salisbury to pursue a seat in the English Parliament. He was elected (unopposed) from the borough of Hertford in February 1874 as a Conservative MP. Balfour's political career was one of unmitigated upward mobility. From 1887 to 1891 he was the Chief Secretary to Ireland. In 1891 he was appointed the First Lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons, a position he maintained until 1902 (except for the duration of the Liberal governments of Gladstone and Lord Rosebery from 1892 to 1895).

When his uncle Lord Salisbury surrendered the seals of office to the King on 11 July 1902 (without notifying his government first) the King immediately sent for Balfour, who gladly accepted his request to form a government. Leading Balfour's political agenda were concerns for the Irish issue, education and the changing role of empire. Balfour's prime ministership ended on 1 December 1905, a month before the so-called Liberal landslide of January 1906. From 1906 to 1911 Balfour served as the Unionist leader of the opposition and a member of the shadow cabinet.

Between 1906 and the start of the First World War, Balfour stepped back from political life to revisit his initial philosophical interests. From 1907 to 1908 and again from 1912 to 1914, he served on the council of the Royal Society. In light of his life-long support for the academe, Balfour was invited to present the Glasgow Gifford Lectures in 1914 and again in 1922. This sojourn into academic life was interrupted by the outbreak of war. On 25 May 1915 he replaced Winston Churchill as the First Lord of the Admiralty, the highest ranking of the six Unionist cabinet posts. Following Lloyd George's cabinet shake-up in December 1916, Balfour was then appointed as Foreign Secretary, a post he occupied until 1919. It was in this capacity, working in coalition with the British and American governments, that he made his most significant contribution to global politics in the twentieth century. Known eponymously as the Balfour Declaration, on 2 November 1917 the British and American governments pledged their support for the creation in Palestine of an autonomous Jewish homeland, under the terms that such a state in no way adversely affect the existing non-Jewish population. Of the many initiatives of the British government during the First World War, the Balfour Agreement has had the longest lasting impact.

Balfour lived a long and healthy life. Only during his final two years did the effects of aging begin to take their toll. At the end of 1928, due to circulatory problems most of his teeth had to be removed. Later in January 1929, he was conveyed from Whittingehame to Fisher’s Hill, his brother Gerald's home near Woking, Surrey. By autumn of 1929 he was immobilised by phlebitis. On 19 March 1930 he died at the age of eighty-one. Never having married or formed a family, by special remainder his title was inherited by his brother Gerald.

Balfour's works in philosophy and religion are: A Defence of Philosophic Doubt: Being an Essay on the Foundations of Belief (1879); The Foundations of Belief: Being Notes Introductory to the Study of Theology (1896); Arthur James Balfour as Philosopher and Thinker: A Collection of the More Important and Interesting Passages in His Non-Political Writings, Speeches, and Addresses, 1879–1912 (1912); Theism and Humanism—The Gifford Lectures Delivered at Glasgow University, 1914 (1915); Theism and Thought: A Study in Familiar Beliefs, Being the Second Course of Gifford Lectures Delivered at the University of Glasgow, 1922-23 (1923); Science, Religion, and Reality (1925); and Chapters of Autobiography (1930).

For further information about Balfour's life and work, see: Blanche E. C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, First Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., F.R.S., Etc. (1936); Max Egremont, Balfour: A Life of Arthur James Balfour (1980); John Ramsden, The Age of Balfour and Baldwin, 1902-1940 (1978); and Sydney H. Zebel, Balfour: A Political Biography (1973).

  • Michael W. DeLashmutt, University of Glasgow