Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

William Ewart Gladstone
Chapter 5 - Originality and Independence

Though Mr. Gladstone's oratory was a main source of his power, both in Parliament and over the people, the effort of his enemies to represent him as a mere rhetorician will seem absurd to the historian who reviews his whole career. The mere rhetorician adorns and popularizes the ideas which have originated with others, he advocates policies which others have devised; he follows and expresses the sentiments which already prevail in his party. He may help to destroy; he does not construct. Mr. Gladstone was himself a source of new ideas and new policies; he evoked new sentiments or turned sentiments into new channels. He was a constructive statesman not less conspicuously than Pitt, Canning, and Peel. If the memory of his oratorical triumphs were to pass completely away, he would deserve to be remembered in respect of the mark he left upon the British statute-book and of the changes he wrought both in the constitution of his country and in her European policy. To describe the acts he carried would almost be to write the history of recent British legislation; to pass a judgment upon their merits would be foreign to the scope of this sketch: it is only to three remarkable groups of measures that reference can here be made.

The first of these three groups includes the financial reforms embodied in a series of fourteen budgets between the years 1853 and 1882, the most famous of which were the budgets of 1853 and 1860. In the former Mr. Gladstone continued the work begun by Peel by reducing and simplifying the customs duties. The deficiency in revenue thus caused was supplied by the enactment of less oppressive imposts, and particularly by resettling the income tax, and by the introduction of a succession duty on real estate. The preparation and passing of this very technical and intricate Succession Duty Act was a most laborious enterprise, of which Mr. Gladstone used to speak as the severest mental strain he had ever undergone.

The budget of 1860, among other changes, abolished the paper duty, an immense service to the press, which excited the hostility of the House of Lords. They threw out the measure, but in the following year Mr. Gladstone forced them to submit. His achievements in the field of finance equal, if they do not surpass, those of Peel, and are not tarnished, as in the case of Pitt, by the recollection of burdensome wars. To no minister can so large a share in promoting the commercial and industrial prosperity of modern England, and in the reduction of her national debt, be ascribed.

The second group includes the two great parliamentary reform bills of 1866 and 1884 and the Redistribution Bill of 1885. The first of these was defeated in the House of Commons, but it led to the passing next year of an even more comprehensive bill--a bill which, though passed by Mr. Disraeli, was to some extent dictated by Mr. Gladstone, as leader of the opposition. Of these three statutes taken together, it may be said that they have turned Britain into a democratic country, changing the character of her government almost as profoundly as did the Reform Act of 1832.

The third group consists of a series of Irish measures, beginning with the Church Disestablishment Act of 1869, and including the Land Act of 1870, the University Education Bill of 1873 (defeated in the House of Commons), the Land Act of 1881, and the home-rule bills of 1886 and 1893. All these were in a special manner Mr. Gladstone's handiwork, prepared as well as brought in and advocated by him. All were highly complicated, and of one--the Land Act of 1881, which it took three months to carry through the House of Commons--it was said that so great was its intricacy that only three men understood it-- Mr. Gladstone himself, his Attorney-General for Ireland, and Mr. T. M. Healy. So far from shrinking from, he seemed to revel in, the toil of mastering an infinitude of technical details. Yet neither did he want boldness and largeness of conception. The Home-Rule Bill of 1886 was nothing less than a new constitution for Ireland, and in all but one of its most essential features had been practically worked out by himself more than four months before it was presented to Parliament.

Of the other important measures passed while he was prime minister, two deserve special mention, the Education Act of 1870 and the Local-Government Act of 1894. Neither of these, however, was directly his work, though he took a leading part in piloting the former through the House of Commons.

His action in the field of foreign policy, though it was felt only at intervals, was on several occasions momentous, and has left abiding results in European history. In 1851, he being then still a Tory, his powerful pamphlet against the Bourbon government of Naples, and the sympathy he subsequently avowed with the national movement in Italy, gave that movement a new standing in Europe by powerfully recommending it to English opinion. In 1870 the prompt action of his government, in concluding a treaty for the neutrality of Belgium on the outbreak of the war between France and Germany, saved Belgium from being drawn into the strife. In 1871, by concluding the treaty of Washington, which provided for the settlement of the Alabama claims, he not only asserted a principle of the utmost value, but delivered England from what would have been, in case of her being at war with any European power, a danger fatal to her ocean commerce. And, in 1876, the vigorous attack he made on the Turks after the Bulgarian massacre roused an intense feeling in England, so turned the current of opinion that Disraeli's ministry were forced to leave the Sultan to his fate, and thus became the cause of the deliverance of Bulgaria, Eastern Rumelia, Bosnia, and Thessaly from Mussulman tyranny. Few English statesmen have equally earned the gratitude of the oppressed.

Nothing lay nearer to his heart than the protection of the Eastern Christians. His sense of personal duty to them was partly due to the feeling that the Crimean War had prolonged the rule of the Turk, and had thus imposed a special responsibility on Britain, and on the statesmen who formed the cabinet which undertook that war. Twenty years after the agitation of 1876, and when he had finally retired from Parliament and political life, the massacres perpetrated by the Sultan on his Armenian subjects brought him once more into the field, and his last speech in public (delivered at Liverpool in the autumn of 1896) was a powerful argument in favor of British intervention to rescue the Eastern Christians. In the following spring he followed this up by a spirited pamphlet on behalf of the freedom of Crete. In neither of these two cases did success crown his efforts, for the government, commanding a large majority in Parliament, pursued the course it had already entered on. Many poignant regrets were expressed in England that Mr. Gladstone was no longer able to take practical action in the cause of humanity; yet it was a consolation to have the assurance that his sympathies with that cause had been nowise dulled by age and physical infirmity.

That he was right in the view he took of the Turks and British policy in 1876-78 has been now virtually admitted even by his opponents. That he was also right in 1896 and 1897, when urging action to protect the Eastern Christians, will probably be admitted ten years hence, when partizan passion has cooled. In both cases it was not merely religious sympathy, but also a far-sighted view of policy that governed his judgment. The only charge that can fairly be brought against his conduct in foreign, and especially in Eastern, affairs is, that he did not keep a sufficiently watchful eye upon them at all times, but frequently allowed himself to be so engrossed by British domestic questions as to lose the opportunity which his tenure of power from time to time gave him of averting approaching dangers. Those who know how tremendous is the strain which the headship of a cabinet and the leadership of the House of Commons impose will understand, though they will not cease to regret, this omission.

Such a record is the best proof of the capacity for initiative which belonged to him and in which men of high oratorical gifts have often been wanting. In the Neapolitan case, in the Alabama case, in the Bulgarian case, no less than in the adoption of the policy of a separate legislature and executive for Ireland, he acted from his own convictions, with no suggestion of encouragement from his party; and in the last instances--those of Ireland and of Bulgaria--he took a course which seemed to the English political world so novel and even startling that no ordinary statesman would have ventured on it.

His courage was indeed one of the most striking parts of his character. It was not the rashness of an impetuous nature, for, impetuous as he was when stirred by some sudden excitement, he was wary and cautious whenever he took a deliberate survey of the conditions that surrounded him. It was the proud self-confidence of a strong character, which was willing to risk fame and fortune in pursuing a course it had once resolved upon; a character which had faith in its own conclusions, and in the success of a cause consecrated by principle; a character which obstacles did not affright or deter, but rather roused to a higher combative energy. Few English statesmen have done anything so bold as was Mr. Gladstone's declaration for Irish home rule in 1886. He took not only his political power but the fame and credit of his whole past life in his hand when he set out on this new journey at seventy-seven years of age; for it was quite possible that the great bulk of his party might refuse to follow him, and he be left exposed to derision as the chief of an insignificant group. It turned out that the great bulk of the party did follow him, though many of the most influential and socially important refused to do so. But neither Mr. Gladstone nor any one else could have foretold this when his intentions were first announced.

Two faults natural to a strong man and an excitable man were commonly charged on him--an overbearing disposition and an irritable temper. Neither charge was well founded. Masterful he certainly was, both in speech and in action. His ardent manner, the intensity of his look, the dialectical vigor with which he pressed an argument, were apt to awe people who knew him but slightly, and make them abandon resistance even when they were unconvinced. A gifted though somewhat erratic politician used to tell how he once fared when he had risen in the House of Commons to censure some act of the ministry. "I had not gone on three minutes when Gladstone turned round and gazed at me so that I had to sit down in the middle of a sentence. I could not help it. There was no standing his eye." But he neither meant nor wished to beat down his opponents by mere authority. One of the ablest of his private secretaries, who knew him as few people did, once observed: "When you are arguing with Mr. Gladstone, you must never let him think he has convinced you unless you are really convinced. Persist in repeating your view, and if you are unable to cope with him in skill of fence, say bluntly that for all his ingenuity and authority you think he is wrong, and you retain your own opinion. If he respects you as a man who knows something of the subject, he will be impressed by your opinion, and it will afterward have due weight with him." In his own cabinet he was willing to listen patiently to everybody's views, and, indeed, in the judgment of some of his colleagues, was not, at least in his later years, sufficiently strenuous in asserting and holding to his own. It is no secret that some of the most important decisions of the ministry of 1880-85 were taken against his judgment, though when they had been adopted he, of course, defended them in Parliament as if they had received his individual approval. Nor, although he was extremely resolute and tenacious, did he bear malice against those who foiled his plans. He would exert his full force to get his own way, but if he could not get it, he accepted the position with dignity and good temper. He was too proud to be vindictive, too completely master of himself to be betrayed, even when excited, into angry words. Whether he was unforgiving and overmindful of injuries, it was less easy to determine, but those who had watched him most closely held that mere opposition or even insult did not leave a permanent sting, and that the only thing he could not forget or forgive was faithlessness or disloyalty. Like his favorite poet, he put the traditori in the lowest pit, although, like all practical statesmen, he often found himself obliged to work with those whom he distrusted. His attitude toward his two chief opponents well illustrates this feature of his character. He heartily despised Disraeli, not because Disraeli had been in the habit of attacking him, as one could easily perceive from the way he talked of those attacks, but because he thought Disraeli habitually untruthful, and considered him to have behaved with incomparable meanness to Peel. Yet he never attacked Disraeli personally, as Disraeli often attacked him. There was another of his opponents of whom he entertained an especially bad opinion, but no one could have told from his speeches what that opinion was. For Lord Salisbury he seemed to have no dislike at all, though Lord Salisbury had more than once insulted him. On one occasion (in 1890) he remarked to a colleague who had said something about the prime minister's offensive language: "I have never felt angry at what Salisbury has said about me. His mother was very kind to me when I was quite a young man, and I remember Salisbury as a little fellow in a red frock rolling about on the ottoman." His leniency toward another violent tongue which frequently assailed him, that of Lord Randolph Churchill, was not less noteworthy.

That his temper was naturally hot, no one who looked at him could doubt. But he had it in such tight control, and it was so free from anything acrid or malignant, that it had become a good temper, worthy of a large and strong nature. With whatever vehemence he might express himself, there was nothing wounding or humiliating to others in this vehemence, the proof of which might be found in the fact that those younger men who had to deal with him were never afraid of a sharp answer or an impatient repulse. A distinguished man (the late Lord Chief Justice Coleridge), some ten years his junior, used to say that he had never feared but two persons, Mr. Gladstone and Cardinal Newman; but it was awe of their character that inspired this fear, for no one could cite an instance in which either of them had forgotten his dignity or been betrayed into a discourteous word. Of Mr. Gladstone especially it might be said that he was cast in too large a mold to have the pettiness of ruffled vanity or to abuse his predominance by treating any one else as an inferior. His manners were the manners of the old time, easy but stately. Like his oratory, they were in what Matthew Arnold used to call the grand style; and the contrast in this respect between him and most of those who crossed swords with him in literary or theological controversy was apparent. His intellectual generosity was a part of the same largeness of nature. He always cordially acknowledged his indebtedness to those who helped him in any piece of work; received their suggestions candidly, even when opposed to his own preconceived notions; did not hesitate to own a mistake if he had made one. Those who have abundant mental resources, and have conquered fame, can doubtless afford to be generous. Julius Caesar was, and George Washington, and so, in a different sphere, were Newton and Darwin. But the instances to the contrary are so numerous that one may say of magnanimity that it is among the rarest as well as the finest ornaments of character.

The essential dignity of his nature was never better seen than during the last few years of his life, after he had retired (in 1894) from Parliament and public life. He indulged in no vain regrets, nor was there any foundation for the rumors, so often circulated, that he thought of reentering the arena of strife. He spoke with no bitterness of those who had opposed, and sometimes foiled, him in the past. He gave vent to no disparaging criticisms on those who from time to time filled the place that had been his in the government of the country or the leadership of his party. Although his opinion on current questions was frequently solicited, he scarcely ever allowed it to be known, and never himself addressed the nation, except (as already mentioned) on behalf of what he deemed a sacred cause, altogether above party--the discharge by Britain of her duty to the victims of the Turk. As soon as an operation for cataract had enabled him to read or write for seven hours a day, he devoted himself with his old ardor to the preparation of an edition of Bishop Butler's works, resumed his multifarious reading, and filled up the interstices of his working-time with studies on Homer which he had been previously unable to complete. No trace of the moroseness of old age appeared in his manners or his conversation, nor did he, though profoundly grieved at some of the events which he witnessed, and owning himself disappointed at the slow advance made by some causes dear to him, appear less hopeful than in earlier days of the general progress of the world, or less confident in the beneficent power of freedom to promote the happiness of his country. The stately simplicity which had been the note of his private life seemed more beautiful than ever in this quiet evening of a long and sultry day. His intellectual powers were unimpaired, his thirst for knowledge undiminished. But a placid stillness had fallen upon him and his household; and in seeing the tide of his life begin slowly to ebb, one thought of the lines of his illustrious contemporary and friend:

Such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound or foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Return to Book Index page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus