by Dr E.J. Feuchtwanger. University of Southampton

new perspective Volume 2. Number 1. September 1996

Summary: Gladstone’s long political career seems full of contradictions. He began as a Tory and became a Liberal leader. His respect for tradition and rank never ceased, but his governments introduced great reforms for equality of opportunity and he came to be revered as ‘the People’s William’. In religion he combined High Anglicanism with evangelical fervour. He played a leading role in introducing free trade and lowering taxation and received much credit for making Britain prosperous. Abroad, he became a champion of liberty and self-determination, whether in Italy, the British colonies, the Balkans or in Ireland. His final years were devoted to a vain attempt to introduce Irish Home Rule, thereby splitting the Liberal party.

GLADSTONE WAS A Member of Parliament for over 60 years. He held ministerial office for a quarter of a century and for half that time he was Prime Minister. He was a man of prodigious energy and even his activities apart from politics, for instance his output as a writer, would do credit to a lesser man. There is scarcely anything in the Victorian age with which he was not in some way connected. Gladstone was a man of great emotional intensity, but he was also very disciplined and systematic. As is evident from his diary, which he kept from his sixteenth year until near his death at 88, he used every hour of the day to good purpose and regarded any waste of time, as he was later to regard the waste of public money, as a moral offence. One of his secretaries in later life, Lord Kilbracken, said that if an ordinary man was measured for ‘internal force’ in ‘units of horsepower’ as 100, ‘an exceptionally energetic man to be 200’, then ‘Mr Gladstone’s horsepower was at least 1000’.

Dominant Passions: Politics and Religion

What makes it particularly difficult to impose a common denominator on so long and varied a career is the fact that Gladstone, in the two areas that dominated his life, politics and religion, embraced positions that are generally regarded as opposed. In politics he started as a Tory and retained attitudes throughout his life which can only be called conservative. Yet he became the leader of the Liberal party, probably the most powerful leader the Left has ever had in Britain. There was much about his attitudes and his impact which can only be called radical. In religion he combined evangelical preoccupation with personal piety and good works with High Anglican belief in the essential role of the Church. There was, nevertheless, a great consistency about him as a man and without it he would not have had the exceptional charisma that made him so potent a figure. His mind was also very practical and attuned to solving concrete problems. He was well aware that in politics, as in religion, the best could be the enemy of the good.

1832-46: the Rising Tory Politician

Gladstone’s father was a Liverpool merchant of Scottish origin who amassed great wealth from West Indian sugar plantations. The fact that these were worked by slaves was to cause his son considerable crises of conscience as well as political difficulties. By sending him to Eton and Oxford John Gladstone made it possible for his son to realise the political ambitions which he, the father, with his commercial background, had been unable to achieve in an aristocratic age. The young Gladstone was strongly drawn to a career   the Church, but was persuaded that with his gifts he might serve God’s will better if he went into politics. This view of politics, that it was subject to a divine purpose, remained characteristic of him. His early religious life was much influenced by the evangelical movement, but he gradually changed direction, especially when during a Grand Tour of Italy in 1832 he was confronted with the power and grandeur of the Catholic Church. He was never tempted to convert to Roman Catholicism, but henceforth he was a High Churchman, regarding the Anglican Church as the truly catholic church for England. Fervent concern for the Church of England and its mission as the spiritual guide of the English nation dominated his early political life. He was also fervently opposed to parliamentary reform, seeing in the pressure for change a challenge to the divinely ordained constitutional order. A speech he made against the reform bill while still at Oxford led the Duke of Newcastle to offer him the nomination for one of his pocket boroughs, Newark. He won the seat in the first election fought on the reformed franchise. When the Conservatives were in office in 1834/35 Gladstone was briefly Under Secretary for War and the Colonies, speaking for his department in the Commons. The position of the Church continued to preoccupy him and in 1838 he published The State in its Relations with the Church. It was an uncompromising statement of his view that the Church was the spiritual, as the State was the temporal, embodiment of the nation. This implied that only Anglicans could be citizens in the fullest sense. Macaulay wrote a review of the book in the Whig Edinburgh Review, devastating in its ironical criticism. He used the phrase ‘the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories’, a label which stuck to Gladstone ever since.

Gladstone and Commercial Realities

In spite of Gladstone’s inconvenient Church-State views, which put him in the company of ultra-Tories, Peel, when he returned as Prime Minister in 1841, appointed him Vice-President of the Board of Trade. In 1843 he became President, with a seat in the Cabinet. He was now on a fast learning curve. From his vantage point as a very able high-level administrator he experienced the commercial realities which were propelling Peel towards free trade and economic liberalism. To Gladstone fell much of the detailed work of reducing tariffs, negotiating with interest groups and regulating the fast developing railways. He came to know that Britain’s uniquely modern economy had to be based on the free market, but he also believed in the ability and duty of the State to be active in setting the framework for the market.

In January 1845 he resigned from the Government over the Maynooth grant. Peel had increased the grant to this Irish Priests’ Seminary as a gesture to Irish Catholics. Gladstone supported the move, but felt that, with his views on the Anglican basis of the State so well known, his support as a member of the Government might be misinterpreted as springing from a desire to cling to office. Such tenderness of conscience, evident on a number of subsequent occasions, might well have ended the career of a lesser man. His religious, as his political views, were beginning to change. In the eternal tug-of-war between authority and liberty he acquired a greater respect for the latter and therefore, in religion, of the need for liberty of conscience and toleration. He began to see that his ideal of a unity of Church and State was not realistic in a society in which at least half the population did not belong to the Established Church. Gladstone returned to Peel’s Cabinet, now committed to the repeal of the Corn Laws, in December 1845 as Colonial Secretary. He could not seek re-election at Newark, as the Duke of Newcastle was a Protectionist, and was without a seat in the Commons until August 1847, when he was returned for Oxford University.

1846-68: Becoming a National Figure

In this middle period of his life Gladstone experienced two long periods out of ministerial office, 1846 to 1852, and 1855 to 1859. It is an indication of his growing stature as a parliamentary and public figure that he always returned strengthened and largely on his own terms. Up to his death in 1850 Peel refused to organise his followers into a party and this kept Gladstone out of office. With Peel gone it was a question of deciding which side to support, a question resolved with the formation of the Aberdeen Coalition, in which Gladstone became Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the meantime the liberal elements in his political and religious outlook developed further. His dealings with the colonial empire had convinced him that eventual self-government should be the destiny of Britain’s colonies, particularly those inhabited by settlers of British origin, but in the longer run he came to hold this view also of other dependencies, especially the most important, India. As for Europe, Gladstone believed that its Christian civilisation represented a unity which should place limits on the exercise of national egotism. He also saw each nationality, formed in conjunction with its own national church or branch of Christianity, as entitled to self-determination, though not necessarily fully-fledged political sovereignty. In 1851 in his Letter to Lord Aberdeen, he applied these principles to Italy, a country always close to his heart, where he had just seen the brutal repression imposed by the Bourbon regime in Naples. Up to then most Conservatives, such as Gladstone still was, had given priority to the maintenance of the status quo on the Continent, particularly after the revolutions of 1848.

During this first long exile from political power Gladstone experienced much distress in his private life. He had married Catherine Glynne in 1839 and through her was related to leading families in the Whig aristocracy. The estate of Catherine’s brother in Cheshire, Hawarden Castle, in which the Gladstone family had an interest, faced bankruptcy and Gladstone embarked upon a long and ultimately successful struggle to rescue it. In 1850 his four-year-old daughter Jessy died from meningitis. Around this time some of his close friends, including the later Cardinal Manning, converted to Roman Catholicism. Gladstone’s diary shows that the stress he suffered spilt over into his rescue work with prostitutes. He experienced a strong emotional involvement with some of the women he tried to reform, though it is highly unlikely that there was ever a physical relationship. He knew himself to be playing with fire, felt remorse and his mental state was often in turmoil.

Treasury and Civil Service Reform

When, in December 1852, he returned to office as Chancellor of the Exchequer his volcanic energies once more found a constructive outlet. He established a new balance between direct taxation, mainly the income tax, and indirect taxes. It amounted to a new social contract between the classes in mid-Victorian society, for indirect taxes fell mainly upon the working, income tax upon the middle classes. There was to be a steady reduction of government expenditure as well as a progressive abolition of barriers to free trade. In order to achieve his purpose he made the Treasury into the central government department with the task of ontrolling the expenditure estimates of all other departments. He also took the first steps towards the recruitment of the civil service on merit by public examination, as recommended by the Trevelyan-Northcote Report which he had commissioned. The Crimean War interrupted Gladstone’s financial schemes, particularly his proposals for a progressive abolition on the income tax. Although he supported the war, the fall of the Aberdeen Coalition and the emergence of Palmerston as Prime Minister forced him once more to relinquish office. For the next four years both parties tried to secure his allegiance. His return to the Treasury in Palmerston’s second ministry was overtly due to his agreement with the policy of supporting the Italian movement for unification, but the desire to resume his constructive work as an executive minister must also have influenced him.

Prosperity, Popularity and the Liberal Movement

Gladstone now had increasing rapport with many sections of the broad Liberal movement in the country. His financial policies, and the national prosperity attributed to them, had made him widely popular. He found his growing number of public speeches well received by the politically conscious sections of the working class. Radicals like John Bright and Richard Cobden placed great hopes in him. With Cobden’s help he negotiated the commercial treaty with France in 1860, which formed a high point in the move towards international free trade. Gladstone’s High Anglicanism proved no barrier to links with the leaders of non-conformity. They and their followers admired his zealous moral commitment. Much had therefore fallen into place to mark him out for the succession to the Liberal leadership after the death of Palmerston and the retirement of Russell. Before this could happen Gladstone found himself once more out of office after the Liberal split over the reform bill of 1866. Having been for a long time luke-warm about a further extension of the franchise, he became an advocate of it, partly because he saw a wider electorate as a guarantee of economy in public spending. Much of public opinion attributed the eventual passage of a reform bill in 1867 less to Disraeli than to pressure from Gladstone. By reuniting the Liberal party around the policy of disestablishing the Anglican Church of Ireland, Gladstone regained the initiative in 1868 and emerged as victor and Prime Minister from the election of that year.

1868-94 Liberal Leader and Prime Minister

Gladstone’s pivotal position as Liberal leader was based on the fact that while all sections of the Liberal movement had reason to be loyal to him, he stood above them all. Many of his Cabinet colleagues, at least in his first two administrations, came from the Whig aristocracy that had traditionally supplied the parliamentary leadership of the Liberals and with whom Gladstone had many ties of family and personal friendship. As Prime Minister Gladstone believed in collective responsibility and allowed individual ministers much latitude. When necessary he came to their aid with his unrivalled parliamentary skill and authority. His first ministry is regarded as one of the great reforming governments of the century. A backlog of legislation had accumulated during the later years of Palmerston’s rule. The growing complexities of an industrialising and urbanising society caused further pressure for new laws. The overarching theme of this first phase of Gladstonian Liberalism was the establishment of greater equality of opportunity in an increasingly meritocratic society. Restraints on freedom were removed, but the State could also be active, as in the establishment of a national system of elementary education. Naturally, many vested interests were offended and in any case a growing conservative mood was taking hold of the middle classes, still the key to electoral success. His defeat in the 1874 election hit Gladstone hard and he resigned the Liberal leadership, though not his seat in Parliament.

Disraeli’s support for the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans crisis of the mid-1870s brought Gladstone back into the political arena, with his campaign over the atrocities committed by the Turks in Bulgaria. Although he was not able to deflect the Disraeli Government from its course, he returned to the charge in his Midlothian campaign in 1879. This general assault on ‘Beaconsfieldism’, Disraeli having become Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876, was at the time thought to have been mainly responsible for the Liberal election victory of 1880. In spite of the fact that she had become very opposed to Gladstone and his policies, the Queen had no alternative but to recall him as Prime Minister.

The Latter Years: Empire and Ireland

He was now 70 and considered himself ‘on a short lease’, only remaining until he could reverse some of the ‘forward’ foreign and imperial policies of Beaconsfield. In practice he found this difficult and it was during this Premiership that Britain’s direct involvement in Egypt began. There were always ‘specialities’ that retained Gladstone in public life. The most intractable of these was Ireland. Already in forming his first Government he had spoken of his ‘mission to pacify Ireland’. Besides disestablishing the Irish Church he had passed an Irish Land Act and had attempted to set up an Irish University open to Catholics. In 1880 the state of Ireland was much more disturbed than 10 years earlier and a radical Irish Nationalist party, led by Charles Stewart Parnell, had appeared at Westminster. Gladstone’s second Irish Land Act of 1881 alleviated the agrarian grievances, but could not stop the demand for self-government or even independence. Gladstone’s liberal views on nationality made it quite consistent for him to take up the cause of Irish Home Rule, when the time was ripe. He judged it to be ripe when in the election of 1885 Parnell’s party swept all Irish seats outside Ulster and held the balance at Westminster. Lord Randolph Churchill accused him of being ‘an old man in a hurry’. Gladstone formed a third Government in January 1886 and introduced a Home Rule Bill, but it was defeated. The split in the Liberal party proved permanent and most Liberal Unionists eventually coalesced with the Conservatives. For nearly 20 years the Conservative party remained electorally in the ascendant. Gladstone felt the achievement of Home Rule to be so vital that he remained in politics. He returned a fourth time as Prime Minister in 1892, but his majority rested on the support of the Irish Nationalists. When a second attempt to pass a Home Rule Bill foundered in the Lords, the end of his political career was in sight. Commentators have questioned whether the undue prolongation of Gladstone’s political life was beneficial to either the Liberal party or his reputation. He could still achieve great things, as his decisive role in the passage of the third reform bill in 1884 showed. His hold on the Liberal movement remained unrivalled, as Joseph Chamberlain found in opposing Irish Home Rule. Gladstone retained the support of many Radicals. In his later political life he increasingly felt that the opposition to him came from the privileged ‘classes’, corrupted by their material self-interest; while the masses who venerated him as ‘the People’s William’ were capable of ‘a virtuous passion’, regardless of self-interest, as over the Bulgarian atrocities. On the other hand he was out of sympathy with much of the legislative tinkering demanded by Radicals, which he dismissed as ‘constructionism’. He had no time for the rising demands for socialism or collectivism, which made him fear that even the working classes were being corrupted by materialism. He believed politics was nothing if not a moral crusade. To the end it remains impossible to categorise Gladstone as either right or left wing; difficult to decide where in his career his great moral stature was diminished by self-deception or personal ambition.

Words and concepts to note

evangelicalism: divine grace and salvation achieved through personal piety and good works.

high anglicanism: the Church of England and its clergy are essential to transmission of faith.

home rule: self-government, possibly leading to independence.

protectionism: belief in customs barriers to protect home agriculture and industry. Opposite of free trade.

Nonconformists: members of religious sects such as Baptists, Congregationalists or Unitarians. Also called dissenters.

socialists and collectivists: those who wanted the ownership of industry and business by the public as a whole or by the people who worked in each business.

prodigious: enormous, huge.

Questions to consider

w How can Gladstone’s journey from High Toryism to the Liberal leadership be explained?

w How can Gladstone’s belief in restriction of State activity and expenditure be reconciled with his attempts to resolve social problems by legislation and State action?

w Why did Gladstone become so preoccupied with the problems of Ireland?

w In which ways were Gladstone’s religious and political beliefs connected?

w Which were the greater achievements: Gladstone’s work as President of the Board of Trade and Chancellor of the Exchequer or as Prime Minister?


Further Reading: Michael Barker, Gladstone and Radicalism: The Reconstruction of Liberal Policy in Britain, 1885-1894, Brighton, 1975; E.F. Biagini, Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform. Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880, Cambridge, 1992; S.G. Checkland, The Gladstones. A Family Biography, Cambridge, 1971; A.B. Cooke and John Vincent, The Governing Passion: Cabinet Government and Party Politics in Britain, 1885-86, Brighton, 1974; E.J. Feuchtwanger, Gladstone, 2nd edn., London/Basingstoke, 1989; D.A. Hamer, Liberal Politics in the Age of Gladstone and Rosebery, Oxford, 1972; Roy Jenkins, Gladstone, London/Basingstoke, 1995; T.A. Jenkins, Gladstone, Whiggery and the Liberal Party, 1874-1886, Oxford; T.A. Jenkins, The Liberal Ascendancy, 1830-1886, London/Basingstoke, 1994; H.C.G. Matthew, Gladstone, vol. I: 1809-1874; vol. II: 1875-1898, Oxford, 1991 and 1995; J.P. Parry, Democracy and Religion. Gladstone and the Liberal Party 1867-1875, Cambridge, 1986; Agatha Ramm, William Ewart Gladstone, Cardiff, 1989; Richard Shannon, Gladstone, vol I: 1809-1865, London, 1982; Richard Shannon, Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation 1876, 2nd edn., Brighton, 1975; John Vincent, The Formation of the Liberal Party, 1857-1868, 2nd edn., Brighton, 1976; Michael Winstanley, Gladstone and the Liberal Party, London, 1990.

Gladstone by E.J. Feuchtwanger. new perspective 1996

Dr Edgar Feuchtwanger, University of Southampton, is the author of books on modern German and nineteenth-century British History including Democracy and Empire, Edward Arnold, 1985, and Gladstone, Macmillan, second edition 1989.

Home ] Articles - New Perspective ] Topic Guides ] Index Vol. 1-4 ] Internet Sites 1 ]