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William Ewart Gladstone in United Kingdom

Life and Work

From the book “Studies in Contemporary Biography”, by James Bryce:

Of no man who has lived in our times is it so hard to speak in a concise and summary fashion as of Mr. Gladstone. For fifty years he was so closely associated with the public affairs of his country that the record of his parliamentary life is virtually an outline of English political history during those years. His activity spread itself out over many fields. He was the author of several learned and thoughtful books, and of a multitude of articles upon all sorts of subjects. He showed himself as eagerly interested in matters of classical scholarship and Christian doctrine and ecclesiastical history as in questions of national finance and foreign policy. (…)

Though Mr. Gladstone’s oratory was a main source of his power, both in Parliament and over the people, the effort of detractors to represent him as a mere rhetorician will seem absurd to the historian who reviews his whole career. The rhetorician adorns and popularises 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. Mr. Gladstone was himself a source of new ideas and new policies; he evoked new sentiments or turned old sentiments into new channels. Neither was he, as some alleged, primarily a destroyer. His conservative instincts were strong; he cherished ancient custom. When it became necessary to clear away an institution he sought to put something else in its place. He was a constructive statesman not less conspicuously than were Pitt, Canning, and Peel. Whether he was a philosophic statesman, basing his action on large views obtained by thought and study, philosophic in the sense in 440 which we apply the epithet to Pericles, Machiavelli, Turgot, Burke, Jefferson, Hamilton, Stein—if one class can be made to include persons otherwise so dissimilar—may perhaps be doubted.

There are few instances in history of men who have been great thinkers and also great legislators or administrators, because the two kinds of capacity almost exclude one another. As experts declare that a man who should try to operate on the Stock Exchange in reliance upon a profound knowledge of the inner springs of European politics and the financial resources of the great States, would ruin himself before his perfectly correct calculations had time to come true, so a practical statesman, though he cannot know too much, or look too far ahead, must beware of trusting his own forecasts, must remember that he has to deal with the next few months or years, and to persuade persons who cannot be expected to share or even to understand his views of the future. The habit of meditating on underlying truths, the tendency to play the long game, are almost certain to spoil a man for dealing effectively with the present. He will not be a sufficiently vigilant observer; he will be out of sympathy with the notions of the average man; his arguments will go over the head of his audience. No English prime minister has looked at politics with the eye of a philosopher. But Mr. Gladstone, if hardly to be called a thinker, showed 441 higher constructive power than any one else has done since Peel. Were the memory of his oratorical triumphs 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.

Three groups of measures stand out as monuments of his skill and energy. The first of these three 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 he continued the work begun by Peel by reducing and simplifying the customs duties. Deficiencies in revenue were 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, a boon to the press which was resisted by the House of Lords. 442 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 a burden of debts incurred. To no minister can be ascribed so large a share in promoting the commercial and industrial prosperity of modern England, and in the reduction of her national debt to the figure at which it stood when it began to rise again in 1900.

The second group includes the 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, by Mr. Disraeli, of a more sweeping measure. Taken together, these statutes 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 443 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. In preparing a bill no man could be more painstaking. He settled and laid down the principles himself; and when he came to work them out with the draughtsman and the officials who had special knowledge of the subject, he insisted on knowing what their effect would be in every particular. Indeed, he loved work for its own sake, in this respect unlike Mr. Bright, who once said to me with a smile, when asked as to his methods of working, that he had never done any work all his life. The value of this mastery of details was seen when a bill came to be debated in Committee. It was impossible to catch Mr. Gladstone tripping on a point of fact, or unprepared with a reply to the arguments of an opponent. He seemed to revel in the toil of mastering a tangle of technical details.

It is long since England, in this respect not favoured by her parliamentary system, has produced a great foreign minister, nor has that title been claimed for Mr. Gladstone. But he showed on several occasions both his independence of tradition and his faith in broad principles as fit to be applied in international relations; and his action in that field, though felt only at intervals, has left abiding results in European history. In 1851, he being then still a Tory, his pamphlet denouncing the cruelties of 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 ministry in arranging a treaty for the neutrality of Belgium on the outbreak of the war between France and Germany, averted the risk that Belgium might be drawn into the strife. In 1871, by concluding the treaty of Washington, which provided for the settlement by arbitration of the Alabama claims, he not only set a precedent full of promise for the future, 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, his onslaught upon the Turks, after the Bulgarian massacres, roused an intense feeling in England, turning the current of opinion so decisively that Disraeli’s ministry were forced to leave the Sultan to his fate, and thus became a cause of the ultimate 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 Christians of the East. His sense 445 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 members of Lord Aberdeen’s cabinet which drifted into 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 favour of British intervention to rescue the Eastern Christians. In the following spring he followed this up by a 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 upon which it had already entered. Poignant regrets were expressed that Mr. Gladstone was no longer able to take effective action in the cause of humanity; yet it was a consolation to be assured that age and infirmity had not dulled his sympathies with that cause. (…)

His wisdom will be differently judged by those who condemn or approve the chief acts of his policy. But it deserves to be noted that all the legislation he passed, even the measures which, like the Irish Church Disestablishment Bill, exposed him to angry attacks at the time, have now been approved by the all but unanimous judgment of Englishmen.[69] The same may be said of two acts which brought much invective upon him—his settlement of the Alabama claims, one of the wisest strokes of foreign policy ever accomplished by a British minister, and his protest against a support of the Turks in and after 1876.

I pass by Irish Home Rule, because the wisdom of the course he took must be tested by results that are yet unborn, as I pass by his Egyptian policy in 1882-85, because it cannot be fairly judged till the facts have been fully made public. He may be open to blame for his participation in the Crimean War, for his mistaken view of the American Civil War, for his neglect of the Transvaal question when he took office in 1880, and for his omission during his earlier career to recognise the gravity of Irish disaffection and to study its causes. I have heard him lament that he had not twenty years earlier given the same attention to that abiding source of 450 the difficulties of England which he gave from 1866 onwards. If in these instances he erred, it must be remembered that he erred in company with nine-tenths of British statesmen in both political parties. (…)

His writings fall into three classes: political, 465 theological, and literary—the last chiefly consisting of his books and articles upon Homer and the Homeric question. All the political writings, except the books on The State in its Relations to the Church and Church Principles considered in their Results, belong to the class of occasional literature, being pamphlets or articles produced with a view to some current crisis or controversy. They are valuable chiefly as proceeding from one who bore a leading part in the affairs they relate to, and as embodying vividly the opinions and aspirations of the moment, less frequently in respect of permanent lessons of political wisdom, such as one finds in Machiavelli or Tocqueville or Edmund Burke. Like Pitt and Peel, Mr. Gladstone had a mind which, whatever its original tendencies, had come to be rather practical than meditative.

He was fond of generalisations and principles, but they were always directly related to the questions that came before him in actual politics; and the number of weighty maxims or illuminative suggestions to be found in his writings and speeches is small in proportion to the sustained vigour they display. Even Disraeli, though his views were often fanciful and his epigrams often forced, gives us more frequently a brilliant (if only half true) historical aperçu, or throws a flash of light into some corner of human character. Of the theological essays, which are 466 mainly apologetic and concerned with the authenticity and authority of Scripture, it is enough to say that they were the work of an accomplished amateur, who had been too busy to follow the progress of critical inquiry. His Homeric treatises, the most elaborate piece of work that proceeded from Mr. Gladstone’s pen, are in one sense worthless, in another sense admirable. (1)



  1. James Bryce, “Studies in Contemporary Biography” (1903), MacMillan and Co., Limited, New York

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  • Article Name: William Ewart Gladstone
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  • Description: Life and Work From the book Studies in Contemporary Biography, by James Bryce: Of no man who has lived in our times is it [...]

This entry was last updated: October 28, 2016

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