Born 1827 Died 1908
Lionel Sackville-West was one of the leading diplomats of his generation who is now best remembered for his unintended intervention in the 1888 US Presidential election.
He was born Lionel Sackville West at Bourn Hall in Cambridgeshire, on the 19th July 1827, being the fifth son of George John Sackville-West, 5th Earl De La Warr and his wife, Elizabeth, the daughter of John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset. With the death of the 5th Duke of Dorset on the 29th July 1843, Elizabeth became one of the coheirs to the Sackville fortune, and the 5th Earl De La Warr subsequently adopted the surname of Sackville-West by royal licence of the 6th November 1843 in celebration of this good fortune. Hence Lionel, already named Sackville in honour of his mother's family, found yet another Sackville tacked on to his name.
The British Diplomat
Of course as a fifth son was required to earn his own living, and after being educated at home by a succession of private tutors, in 1845 he went to work for the Earl of Aberdeen (who was Foreign Secretary at the time) as an assistant précis writer. Further work at the Foreign Office followed until July 1847 when he was appointed as attaché to the British legation at Lisbon. After a succession of similar postings to Naples (1848), Stuttgart (1852), Berlin (1853) he was promoted to the status of secretary and sent to Turin in 1858, before being transferred to Madrid in 1864 and then onwards to Berlin in 1867. He was eventually posted to Paris in June 1868 where he assisted the ambassador the Lord Lyons throughout the excitments of the Franco-Prussian War.
In September 1872 he was promoted to the status of ambassador to the Argentine Republic, although it wasn't until September of the following year that he finally arrived at Buenos Aires. Just over three years later he was transferred to Madrid in January 1878 where he spent another three years before being appointed in June 1881 to succeed Edward Thornton as the British ambassador to the United States.
Now based at the British embassy in Washington he spent much of his time dealing with the various disputes that had arisen between the Canadian and US governments regarding fishing rights in their respective territorial waters. Eventually the British government decided to send out Joseph Chamberlain on a special mission, and he together with Lionel and Charles Tupper, the Canadian high commissioner in Britain, succeeded in negotiating a treaty to resolve the whole question of fishery rights. However despite concluding the treaty on the 15th February 1888, it was never ratified by the United States senate and thus never came into effect. (The British had to settle for the Americans agreeing to pay a licence fee in return for being allowed to fish in Canadian waters.)
Lionel also found himself as ambassador during a time when relations between the United Kingdom and the United States became strained as a result of the Irish question. There was a large Irish community in the United States which was sympathetic to the cause of Irish nationalism, or Fenianism as it was known at the time, which inspired the Phoenix Park murders of 1882 and the inevitable crackdown from the British authrorities. Then as now certain American politicans felt obliged to be critical of British policy on Ireland purely in order to satisfy their own desire to be elected.
In September 1888 Lionel received a letter from a former British subject who had settled in California and acquired US citizenship. Its author was concerned about the apparently hostile attitude that President Cleveland had shown towards both Britain and Canada. He expressed doubts as to whether he should vote for the re-election of the president in the up-coming election and asked for the ambassador's advice. Lionel wrote a reply which suggested that whatever Grover Cleveland might say in public in order to curry favour with his Irish constituents, in private he was far more sympathetic to British interests, and that it was therefore quite safe to back the Democratic candidate in this instance.
Unfortunately for Lionel the letter in question was a mere ruse designed to elicit just such a response. It was duly published in the New York Tribune on the 22nd October; which being a Republican paper sought to discredit the Democratic president in the eyes of the Irish community. It was, of course, a serious breach of dilplomatic protocol to be seen to be interfering in the internal politics of the host nation, but Lionel then made matters worse by giving interviews in which he appeared to be denying that he had said what he undoubtedly had said in the published letter. In the circumstances the United States government very politely asked him to leave and his status as ambassador was abruptly terminated on the 30th October 1888.
The embarrassment that this caused at home effectively ended his diplomatic career, although the Prime Minister Salisbury tried to make the best of things by claiming that Lionel's dismissal was only motivated by the US President's hope that it would increase his chances of re-election.
In any event Lionel was pensioned off on the 2nd April 1889, and subsequently awarded a compensatory GCMG in September 1890 (having already been made KCMG in June 1885.) The Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison later won the election, becoming the twenty-third President of the United States, although to what extent he had Lionel to thank for this is impossible to say.
The Baron Sackville of Knole
Lionel's elder brother Mortimer had earlier been created the Baron Sackville in 1876, and in anticipation of his failure to produce any sons, had ensured that the title featured a special remainder which named both his younger brothers as residual heirs. Therefore with Mortimer's death on the 16th October 1888, Lionel succeeded his brother as the 2nd Baron Sackville and also inherited his brother's property at Knole Park near Sevenoaks in Kent. It might therefore have been some consolation to him on his departure from the United States that he was therefore able to retire to Knole where he idled away the rest of his life "reading right through Gibbon every other year and whittling paper-knives from the lids of cigar-boxes" until his death on the 3rd September 1908.
Lionel never married and therefore on his own death the title and estates passed to his nephew Lionel Edward, the eldest son of his brother Lieutenant-Colonel William Edward Sackville-West. However whilst Lionel might have lacked legitimate issue, he was not exactly childless. Whilst visiting Paris in 1852 he had met a dancer named 'Pepita', otherwise known as Josefa Durán y Ortega, the daughter of a Spanish barber named Pedro Durán and his Gypsy wife, Catalina Ortega. Although she readily abandoned her stage career to set up home with Lionel, since she was both a Catholic and already married to one Juan Antonio de la Oliva, there was no question of a divorce. She nevertheless bore Lionel two sons and three daughters before her death in 1871 at the age of forty.
His three daughters were later all introduced in 'Society' without much in the way of disapproval being expressed, one of whom, Victoria Josefa Dolores Catalina Sackville-West even being installed as his hostess at the British Embassy at Washington, and on her return to England duly married her cousin Lionel and heir to her father's title and fortune. Of his two sons, the younger, Ernest Henri Jean Baptiste Sackville-West stepped forward to claim that his parents had indeed been married sometime between the years 1863 and 1867, and that he was therefore the legitimate heir to both the peerage and estates. (His elder brother Maximiliano was unable to do as he had been officially recognised as the son of his mother's legal husband, Juan Antonio de la Oliva.) Although Ernest's claim caused some consternation to his sister and her husband for a time, but it was eventually dismissed by the Probate Division of the High Court in February 1910.
- T. H. Sanderson, ‘West, Lionel Sackville Sackville-, second Baron Sackville (1827–1908)’, rev. H. C. G. Matthew, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for
MORTIMER SACKVILLE-WEST SACKVILLE, 1ST BARON
- George Edward Cokayne, Vicary Gibbs, et al, The Complete Peerage (St Catherine's Press, 1910-1959)
- The entry for SACKVILLE OF KNOLE from Burke's Peerage and Baronetage 107th Edition
- PEPITA — V. Sackville-West — Doubleday, Doran ($3).