William Gladstone

The English statesman William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) led the Liberal party and served as prime minister four times. His strong religious sense was an integral part of his political and social policies.

William Gladstone was born in Liverpool on Dec. 29, 1809. His parents were of Scottish descent. His father, Sir John Gladstone, was descended from the Gledstanes of Lanarkshire; he had moved to Liverpool and become a wealthy merchant. William's mother, Anne Robertson of Stornaway, was John Gladstone's second wife, and William was the fifth child and fourth son of this marriage. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford; he took from his school days a sustained love for the classics and experience in debating. He was president of the Oxford Union and denounced the Parliamentary Reform Bill in a speech in 1831.

Gladstone graduated in December 1831, and a parliamentary career followed a brief sojourn in Italy in 1832. He, who was to become the great Liberal leader, was originally elected as a Tory from the pocket borough of Newark, and his major interest at the beginning was the Church of England, which he had seriously considered as a career. His maiden speech in June 1833 was a defense of West Indian slave owners with examples drawn from his father's plantations. His first book, The State in Its Relations with the Church (1838), was a defense of the established Church. In 1839 he married Catherine Glynne; the marriage was a happy one and gave to Gladstone important connections with the old Whig aristocracy.

Conversion to Liberalism

The 1840s saw Gladstone begin his move from right to left in politics. This meant a shift from High Tory (Conservative) to Liberal and a change in primary interest from defending High Church Anglicans to a concentration on financial reform. This change in Gladstone's outlook came in Sir Robert Peel's ministry of 1841-1846, in which Gladstone served as vice president and finally (1843) as president of the Board of Trade. The budget of 1842 was a move toward free trade with duties on hundreds of articles repealed or reduced, and Gladstone contributed much to this new tariff schedule. He resigned in 1845 on a religious issue—the increased grant to the Roman Catholic Maynooth College in Ireland—but returned to office in the same year as secretary of state for the colonies. The Corn Law repeal brought the Peel ministry down in 1846 and temporarily ended Gladstone's political career.

At the same time Gladstone severed his connections with Newark, which was controlled by the protectionist Duke of Newcastle, and in 1847 was elected member of Parliament for the University of Oxford. On the death of Peel in 1850 Gladstone moved to a new position of strength in the ranks of the Peelites (Tory liberals). His brilliant speech in 1852 attacking the budget proposed by Benjamin Disraeli brought about the fall of Lord Derby's government, and Gladstone became chancellor of the Exchequer in a coalition government headed by Lord Aberdeen. He could now apply his considerable financial talents to the economic policies of the nation, but this opportunity was curbed by the Crimean War, which Britain formally entered in 1854. The laissez-faire budget of 1853 was nevertheless a classic budget in the British commitment to economic liberalism.

Gladstone's religious views were also growing more liberal, more tolerant of Nonconformists and Roman Catholics. He voted to remove restrictions on Jews in 1847, and he opposed Lord John Russell's anti-Catholic Ecclesiastical Titles Bill in 1851. Gladstone was clearly shaken by the Oxford movement and the conversion of some of his Oxford friends (among them Henry Manning) to Roman Catholicism. This experience, however, served to broaden his understanding and respect for individual conscience. A trip to Naples (1850-1851), where he witnessed the terrible poverty in the reactionary Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, also helped turn him away from his innate Toryism, and the conversion to liberalism was complete.

Prime Minister

In the 1850s and 1860s Gladstone moved toward a position of leadership in a newly formulated Liberal party. He had served as chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Palmerston's coalition government (1859-1865), but following the death of Palmerston in 1865, a realignment of the parties took shape which saw the old Tory and Whig labels replaced by Conservative and Liberal. Thus the Peelites and the Whig Liberals came together in a new party under Gladstone's leadership. He introduced a bill in 1866 to expand the parliamentary electorate, but it failed. Disraeli then scooped the Liberals with his famous "Leap in the Dark" Reform Bill of 1867, which passed, enfranchising most of the adult males in the urban working class. But Disraeli's "Tory Democracy" did not return immediate dividends at the polls. In the election of 1868 Gladstone and the Liberals were returned with a comfortable majority.

Gladstone's first Cabinet (1868-1874) was one of the most talented and most successful of the four he headed; he considered it "one of the finest instruments of government that ever were constructed." The legislation passed was extensive, and the reforming theme was to reduce privilege and to open established institutions to all. The universities and the army were two of the targets. The removal of the religious tests for admission to Oxford and Cambridge and the abolition of the purchase of commissions in the army were liberal victories of 1871.

The Education Act of 1870, which provided for the creation of board schools at the elementary level, was the first step in the construction of a national education system. Competitive exams were introduced for most departments of the civil service in the same year. Other commitments to democracy included the realization of old Chartist dreams, such as the secret ballot in 1872. With these reforms Gladstone won some support but also antagonized powerful interests in the Church and the aristocracy. His opponents said that he was a wild demagogue and a republican; the government was defeated in the election of 1874.

Ireland and the Empire

The "Irish question," which was to dominate Gladstone's later years, received considerable attention in the first Cabinet. Responding to the Fenian violence of the 1860s, the government moved to disestablish the Irish Episcopal Church in 1869 and pass a Land Act in 1870. But the Irish problem remained, and the home-rule movement of Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell demanded a solution in the 1870s.

Gladstone emerged from a temporary retirement in 1879 in the celebrated Midlothian campaign to attack Disraeli's pro-Turkish foreign policy. The theme of his attack was that Disraeli's Near Eastern policy was morally wrong. The Turkish atrocities in the Balkans outraged Gladstone just as the prisoners of Naples had provoked his earlier attack against Bourbon injustice in Italy. Gladstone's direct appeal to the British voter in this campaign was a first in a more democratic approach to electioneering, and his eloquence was triumphant as the Liberals won the general election of 1880.

The major concern of Gladstone's second Cabinet was not foreign policy but Ireland and the empire. A Second Land Act was passed in 1881, which attempted to establish a fair rent for Irish tenants and tenure for those who paid rent. The act was not popular with the landlords or tenants, and a series of agrarian riots and general violence followed. The high point of this was the assassination of Lord Cavendish, the chief secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Burke, the undersecretary, in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1882. The Fenians, rather than the Home Rule party, were responsible for this act, but Gladstone was forced to suspend discussion of Irish reform and resort to harsh measures of suppression in a Prevention of Crimes Bill (1882).

Gladstone's commitment to Ireland was coupled with a consistent opposition to imperialism. He considered imperialism a Conservative ruse to distract the masses from the real issues. He believed that the "infamy of Disraeli's policy was equalled only by the villainy with which it had been carried out." For Britain to seize power in Africa to exploit the native population would be as unjust as the Turkish rule in the Balkans. But Gladstone's second ministry coincided with a worsening agricultural depression in which England's free trade policy seemed a liability rather than an asset. New market areas unencumbered with tariffs had an appeal, and imperialism became a popular crusade. Egypt and the Sudan were the main concerns in the 1880s following Britain's purchase of the Suez Canal (1875). A riot in Alexandria brought a British occupation in 1882, and a rebellion in the Sudan brought the death of Gen. Gordon in 1885, when Gladstone's dilatory tactics failed to rescue him in time. The popular reaction to Gordon's death was a clear indication of Gladstone's misreading of this issue.

The Irish question reached its climax in Gladstone's third and brief (February to July) Cabinet of 1886. The Home Rule Bill was the sole program. It was designed to give Ireland a separate legislature with important powers, leaving to the British Parliament control of the army, navy, trade, and navigation. Gladstone's Liberal party had the votes to carry the bill, but the party split on the issue. Joseph Chamberlain led a group known as the Liberal Unionists (loyal to the Union of 1801) to oppose Gladstone's policy; the bill failed and Gladstone resigned. He had been correct in his premise that home rule or some degree of self-government was essential to the solution of the Irish question, but he failed to face up to the problem of the other Ireland, the Ulster north that lived in fear of the Catholic majority.

Gladstone was to remain in Parliament for another decade and to introduce another Home Rule Bill in 1893, but after the defeat of 1886 he was no longer in command of his party or in touch with the public he had led and served so long. His insistence on home rule for Ireland combined with his opposition to imperialism and social reform was evidence of this. The meaningful legislation in behalf of trade unions was sponsored by the Conservatives. His opposition to the arms buildup in the 1890s was consistent with his sincere desire for peace but doomed to failure given the German military expansion of the same period. Gladstone retired in 1894 and died on May 19, 1898; he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Evaluation of His Career

Gladstone is still seen today as the epitome of the Victorian statesman. His industry (he often worked 14 hours a day), powerful sense of moral purpose, appetite for sermons, and lack of wit made him an easy target for the disciples of Lytton Strachey. But Gladstone was at the same time a major force in the shaping of British democracy. No single politician of the 19th century ever matched Gladstone's ability to mobilize the nation behind a program. Only Gladstone could make a budget sound like the announcement of a crusade. His sympathy for the oppressed people of the world—the Irish, the Italians, the Bulgarians, and the Africans—was genuine.

Gladstone lacked the tact to get along with Queen Victoria and with some of his colleagues but, like William Pitt the Elder before him, he could reach out of Parliament and arouse the public. In appearance and bearing this gaunt figure, whose speeches were marked by evangelical fire, might have belonged to the 17th century, but in parliamentary tactics he anticipated the 20th century. His achievements are impressive by any standard. The respect and affection that the British reserved for Gladstone is summed up in the nicknames they gave him; he was the "Grand Old Man" and the "People's William."

Further Reading on William Ewart Gladstone

The standard biography of Gladstone was written by a fellow Liberal, John Morley, Life of William Ewart Gladstone (1903; new ed., 1 vol., 1932). A more analytical portrait is in Sir Philip Magnus, Gladstone: A Biography (1954; repr., with corrections, 1960). Discussions of special issues in his career are Paul Knaplund, Gladstone and Britain's Imperial Policy (1927); R. W. Seton-Watson, Disraeli, Gladstone and the Eastern Question: A Study in Diplomacy and Party Politics (1935); and J. L. Hammond, Gladstone and the Irish Nation (1938). Recommended for general historical background are R. C. K. Ensor, England, 1870-1914 (1936); Herman Ausubel, The Late Victorians: A Short History (1955); H. J. Hanham, Elections and Party Management: Politics in the Time of Disraeli and Gladstone (1959); and Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians (1961).

Additional Biography Sources

Chadwick, Owen, Acton and Gladstone, London: Athlone Press, 1976.

Feuchtwanger, E. J., Gladstone, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975; London: A. Lane, 1975.

Gladstone, Penelope, Portrait of a family: the Gladstones, 1839-1889, Ormskirk, Lanc.: T. Lyster, 1989.

Matthew, H. C. G. (Henry Colin Gray), Gladstone, 1809-1874, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1986; 1988.

Ramm, Agatha, William Ewart Gladstone, Cardiff: GPC, 1989.

Shannon, Richard, Gladstone, London: Hamilton, 1982; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982, 1984.

Stansky, Peter, Gladstone, a progress in politics, Boston: Little, Brown, 1979; New York: W. W. Norton, 1979, 1981.