Before this, however, he had become Earl of Aberdeen on his grandfather's death in 1801, and had travelled all over Europe. On his return to England, he founded the Athenian Society. In 1805, he married Catherine Elizabeth Hamilton, daughter of Lord Abercorn. In December he took his seat as a Tory Scottish representative peer in the House of Lords. In 1808, he was created a Knight of the Thistle.
Following the death of his wife in 1812 he joined the Foreign Service. He was appointed ambassador extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary at Vienna, where he signed the Treaty of Toplitz between Britain and Austria in October 1813. He was one of the British representatives at the Congress of Chatillon in February 1814, and at the negotiations which led to the Treaty of Paris in the following May.
Returning home he was created a peer of the United Kingdom as Viscount Gordon, of Aberdeen in the County of Aberdeen (1814), and made a member of the Privy Council. In July 1815 he married Harriet, daughter of John Douglas, and widow of James, Viscount Hamilton. During the ensuing thirteen years Aberdeen took a less prominent part in public affairs.
He served as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1828) and Foreign Secretary (1829-30) under Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. He resigned with Wellington over the Reform Bill of 1832. He was Secretary for the Colonies (1834-35) and then Foreign Secretary (1841-46) under Robert Peel. It was during his second stint as Foreign Secretary that he settled two disagreements with the US - the Northeast Boundary dispute by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842), and the Oregon dispute by the Oregon Treaty of 1846. He also worked successfully to improve relationships with France. He again followed his leader and resigned with Peel over the issue of the Corn Laws.
After Peel's death in 1850 he became the recognized leader of the Peelites. His dislike of the Ecclesiastical Titles Assumption Bill, the rejection of which he failed to secure in 1851, prevented him from joining the government of Lord John Russell.
In December 1852, however, he became Prime Minister and headed a coalition ministry of Whigs and Peelites. Although united on free trade and on questions of domestic reform, his cabinet which contained Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell, was certain to differ on questions of foreign policy.
He entered the country into the Crimean War on the side of the Ottoman Empire following pressure from some of his cabinet. Palmerston, supported by Russell, favoured a more aggressive policy, and Aberdeen, unable to control Palmerston, acquiesced.
However the war proved his downfall. As reports returned detailing the mis-management of the conflict Russell resigned; and on 29 January 1855 a motion for the appointment of a select committee to enquire into the conduct of the war, was carried by a large majority. Treating this as a vote of confidence Aberdeen resigned.
Official and political career
He died in London on 14 December 1860, and was buried in the family vault at Stanmore.
By his first wife he had one son and three daughters, all of whom predeceased their father. By his second wife, who died in August 1833, he left four sons and one daughter. His eldest son, George John James, succeeded as 5th Earl; his second son was General Sir Alexander Hamilton-Gordon, K.C.B.; his third son was the Reverend Douglas Hamilton-Gordon; and his youngest son Arthur Hamilton Gordon, was created Baron Stanmore in 1893.
Aberdeen was a distinguished scholar. His private life is believed to be exemplary by the standards of the day. His manner was lofty and reserved, and as a speaker he was ponderous rather than eloquent. It is said that he lacked strength and his foreign policy was essentially one of peace and non-intervention.
On his death his title passed to his son George Hamilton-Gordon (1816-1864) whose eldest son George Hamilton-Gordon (1841-1870) became the 6th earl. When he was drowned at sea, he was succeeded by his brother John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon (1847-1934), a prominent Liberal politician, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1886, Governor-General of Canada (1893-1898), and again the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland when Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman formed his ministry at the close of 1905. He was made Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair on 4 January 1916.
In 1994 novelist, columnist and politician Ferdinand Mount used George Gordon's life as the basis for a historical novel -Umbrella.