He accompanied his uncle Sultan Abd-ul-Aziz on his visit to England and France in 1867. At his accession spectators were struck by the fearless manner in which he rode, practically unattended, on his way to be girt with the sword of Eyub. He was supposed to be of liberal principles, and the more conservative of his subjects were for some years after his accession inclined to regard him with suspicion as a too-ardent reformer. But the circumstances of the country at his accession were ill adapted for liberal developments. Default in the public funds and an empty treasury, the insurrection in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the war with Serbia and Montenegro, the feeling aroused throughout Europe by the methods adopted in stamping out the Bulgarian rebellion, all combined to prove to the new sultan that he could expect little aid from the European powers. But, still clinging to the belief, for which British statesmen had afforded Turkey no recent justification, that the United Kingdom at all events would support him, he obstinately refused instigate the reforms for which the European powers had been pressing. The international Conference which met at Istanbul towards the end of 1876 was, indeed, startled by the salvo of guns heralding the promulgation of a constitution, but the demands of the Conference were rejected, in spite of the solemn warnings addressed to the sultan by the Powers, Midhat Pasha, the author of the constitution, was exiled and soon afterwards his work was suspended. Early in 1877 a disastrous war with Russia followed. The hard terms, embodied in the treaty of San Stefano, to which Abd-ul-Hamid was forced to consent, were to some extent amended at Berlin, thanks in the main to British diplomacy, but by this time the sultan had lost all confidence in England.
With this, he thought that he discerned in Germany, whose supremacy was evidenced in his eyes by her capital being selected as the meeting-place of the Congress, the future friend of his empire. He employed Germans for the reorganization of his finances and his army, and set to work in the determination to maintain his empire, to resist the encroachments of foreigners, and to take gradually the reins of absolute power into his own hands (for he rightfully distrusted his mimisters). Financial embarrassments forced him to consent to a foreign control over the national debt, and the decree of December 1881, whereby many of the revenues of the empire were handed over to the Public Debt Administration for the benefit of the bondholders, was a sacrifice of principle to which he could only have consented with the greatest reluctance. Trouble in Egypt, where a discredited khedive had to be deposed, trouble on the Greek frontier and in Montenegro, where the European powers were determined that the decisions of the Berlin Congress should be carried into effect, were more or less satisfactorily handled. In his attitude towards Arabi, the would-be saviour of Egypt, Abd-ul-Hamid showed less than his usual astuteness, and the resulting consolidation of England's hold over the country contributed still further to his estrangement from Turkey's old ally. The union in 1885 of Bulgaria with Eastern Rumelia, the severance of which had been the great triumph of the Berlin Congress, was another blow. Few people south of the Balkans dreamed that Bulgaria could be anything but a Russian province, and apprehension was entertained of the results of the union until it was seen that Russia really and entirely disapproved of it. Then the best was made of it, and for some years the sultan preserved towards Bulgaria an attitude skilfully calculated so as to avoid running counter either to Russian or to German wishes. Germany's friendship was not entirely disinterested, and had to be fostered with a railway or loan concession from time to time, until in 1899 the great object aimed at, the Baghdad railway, was conceded.
Meanwhile, the sultan had succeeded in reducing his ministers to the position of secretaries, and in concentrating the whole administration of the country into his own hands at Yildiz. But internal dissension was not thereby lessened. Crete was constantly in turmoil, the Greeks were dissatisfied, and from about 1890 the Armenians began a violent agitation with a view to obtaining the reforms promised them at Berlin. Minor troubles had occurred in 1892 and 1893 at Marsovan and Tokat. In 1894 a more serious rebellion in the mountainous region of Sassun was ruthlessly stamped out; the Powers insistently demanded reforms, the eventual grant of which in the autumn of 1895 was the signal for a series of massacres, brought on in part by the injudicious and threatening acts of the victims, and extending over many months and throughout Asia Minor, as well as in the capital itself. The reforms became more or less a dead letter. Crete indeed profited by the grant of extended privileges, but these did not satisfy its turbulent population, and early in 1897 a Greek expedition sailed to unite the island to Greece. War followed, in which the Ottoman Empire was easily successful and gained a small rectification of frontier; then a few months later Crete was taken over en depot by the Four Powers---Germany and Austria not participating---and Prince George of Greece was appointed their mandatory. In the next year the sultan received the visit of the German emperor and empress.
Abd-ul-Hamid had always resisted the pressure of the European powers to the last moment, in order to seem to yield only to overwhelming force, while posing as the champion of Islam against aggressive Christendom. The Panislamic propaganda was encouraged; the privileges of foreigners in the Ottoman Empire -- often an obstacle to government -- were curtailed; the new railway to the holy places of Mecca and Medina was pressed on, and emissaries were sent to distant countries preaching Islam and the caliph's supremacy. This appeal to Muslim sentiment was, however, powerless against the disaffection due to perennial misgovernment. In Mesopotamia and Yemen disturbance was endemic; nearer home, a semblance of loyalty was maintained in the army and among the Muslim population by a system of delation and espionage, and by wholesale arrests; while, obsessed by terror of assassination, the sultan withdrew himself into fortified seclusion in the palace of Yildiz.
The national humiliation of the situation in Macedonia, together with the resentment in the army against the palace spies and informers, at last brought matters to a crisis. The Young Turk revolution broke out and Abd-ul-Hamid, on learning of the threat of the Salonica troops to march on Constantinople (July 23), at once capitulated. On the 24th an irade announced the restoration of the suspended constitution of 1875; next day, further irades abolished espionage and the censorship, and ordered the release of political prisoners. On the 10th of December the sultan opened the Turkish parliament with a speech from the throne in which he said that the first parliament had been "temporarily dissolved until the education of the people had been brought to a sufficiently high level by the extension of instruction throughout the empire."
The correct attitude of the sultan did not save him from the suspicion of intriguing with the powerful reactionary elements in the state, a suspicion confirmed by his attitude towards the counter-revolution of April 13, when an insurrection of the soldiers and the Moslem populace of the capital overthrew the committee and the ministry. The committee, restored by the Salonica troops, now decided on Abd-ul-Hamid's deposition, and on April 27 his brother Reshid Effendi was proclaimed sultan as Mahommed V. The ex-sultan was conveyed into dignified captivity at Salonica.