William Ewart Gladstone : The Enfranchisement of the People – Beacon Lights of History, Volume X : European Leaders by John Lord
William IV : English Reforms
Sir Robert Peel : Political Economy
Cavour : United Italy
Czar Nicholas : The Crimean War
Louis Napoleon : The Second Empire
Prince Bismarck : The German Empire
William Ewart Gladstone : The Enfranchisement of the People
Beacon Lights of History, Volume X : European Leaders
Precocity of Gladstone.
Life at Oxford.
Under-Secretary for the Colonies.
His eloquence as member of Parliament.
Essay on Church and State.
Letter on the Government of Naples.
Gladstone Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Opposes the Crimean War.
Great abilities as finance minister.
Conversion to Free Trade.
“Studies on Homer”.
His mistake about the American War.
Defeat at Oxford.
Rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli.
Gladstone, Prime Minister.
His great popularity.
Disestablishment of Irish Church.
Irish Land Bill.
Radical army changes.
Settlement of the Alabama claims.
Irish University Bill.
Fall of Gladstone’s Ministry.
Influence of Gladstone in retirement.
Disraeli as Prime Minister.
Return of Gladstone to power.
His second administration.
Parliamentary defeat of Gladstone.
The Irish Question.
William Ewart Gladstone : The Enfranchisement of the People
It may seem presumptuous for me at the present time to write on Gladstone, whose public life presents so many sides, concerning which there is anything but unanimity of opinion,–a man still in full life, and likely to remain so for years to come; a giant, so strong intellectually and physically as to exercise, without office, a prodigious influence in national affairs by the sole force of genius and character combined. But how can I present the statesmen of the nineteenth century without including him,–the Nestor among political personages, who for forty years has taken an important part in the government of England?
This remarkable man, like Canning, Peel, and Macaulay, was precocious in his attainments at school and college,–especially at Oxford, which has produced more than her share of the great men who have controlled thought and action in England during the period since 1820. But precocity is not always the presage of future greatness. There are more remarkable boys than remarkable men. In England, college honors may have more influence in advancing the fortunes of a young man than in this country; but I seldom have known valedictorians who have come up to popular expectations; and most of them, though always respectable, have remained in comparative obscurity.
Like the statesmen to whom I have alluded, Gladstone sprang from the middle ranks, although his father, a princely Liverpool merchant, of Scotch descent, became a baronet by force of his wealth, character, and influence. Seeing the extraordinary talents of his third son,–William Ewart,–Sir John Gladstone spared neither pains nor money on his education, sending him to Eton in 1821, at the age of twelve, where he remained till 1827, learning chiefly Latin and Greek. Here he was the companion and friend of many men who afterward became powerful forces in English life,–political, literary, and ecclesiastical. At the age of seventeen we find him writing letters to Arthur Hallam on politics and literature: and his old schoolfellows testify to his great influence among them for purity, humanity, and nobility of character, while he was noted for his aptness in letters and skill in debate. In 1827 the boy was intrusted to the care of Dr. Turner,–afterward bishop of Calcutta,–under whom he learned something besides Latin and Greek, perhaps indirectly, in the way of ethics and theology, and other things which go to the formation of character. At the age of twenty he entered Christ Church at Oxford–the most aristocratic of colleges–with more attainments than most scholars reach at thirty, and was graduated in 1831 “double-first class,” distinguished not only for his scholarship but for his power of debate in the Union Society; throwing in his lot with Tories and High Churchmen, who, as he afterward confesses, “did not set a due value on the imperishable and inestimable principles of human liberty.” With strong religious tendencies and convictions, he contemplated taking orders in the Church; but his father saw things differently,–and thus, with academic prejudices which most graduates have to unlearn, he went abroad in 1832 to complete the education of an English gentleman, spending most of his time in Italy and Sicily, those eternally interesting countries to the scholar and the artist, whose wonders can scarcely be exaggerated,–affording a perpetual charm and study if one can ignore popular degradation, superstition, unthrift, and indifference to material and moral progress. He who enjoys Italy must live in the past, or in the realm of art, or in the sanctuaries where priests hide themselves from the light of what is most valuable in civilization and most ennobling in human consciousness.
Mr. Gladstone returned to England in the most interesting and exciting period of her political history since the days of Cromwell,–soon after the great Reform Bill had been passed, which changed the principle of representation in Parliament, and opened the way for other necessary reforms. His personal éclat and his powerful friends gave him an almost immediate entrance into the House of Commons as member for Newark. The electors knew but little about him; they only knew that he was supported by the Duke of Newcastle and preponderating Tory interests, and were carried away by his youthful eloquence–those silvery tones which nature gave–and that strange fascination which comes from magnetic powers. The ancients said that the poet is born and the orator is made. It appears to me that a man stands but little chance of oratorical triumphs who is not gifted by nature with a musical voice and a sympathetic electrical force which no effort can acquire.
On the 29th of January, 1833, at the age of twenty-four, Gladstone entered upon his memorable parliamentary career, during the ministry of Lord Grey; and his maiden speech–fluent, modest, and earnest–was in the course of the debate on the proposed abolition of slavery in the British colonies. It was in reply to an attack made upon the management of his father’s estates in the treatment of slaves in Demerara. He deprecated cruelty and slavery alike, but maintained that emancipation should be gradual and after due preparation; and, insisting also that slaves were private property, he demanded that the interests of planters should be duly regarded if emancipation should take place. This was in accordance with justice as viewed by enlightened Englishmen generally. Negro emancipation was soon after decreed. All negroes born after August 1,1834, as well as those then six years of age were to be free; and the remainder were, after a kind of apprenticeship of six years, to be set at liberty. The sum of £20,000,000 was provided by law as a compensation to the slave-owners,–one of the noblest acts which Parliament ever passed, and one of which the English nation has never ceased to boast.
Among other measures to which the reform Parliament gave its attention in 1833 was that relating to the temporalities of the Irish Church, by which the number of bishops was reduced from twenty-two to twelve, with a corresponding reduction of their salaries. An annual tax was also imposed on all livings above £300, to be appropriated to the augmentation of small benefices. Mr. Gladstone was too conservative to approve of this measure, and he made a speech against it.
In 1834 the reform ministry went out of power, having failed to carry everything before them as they had anticipated, and not having produced that general prosperity which they had promised. The people were still discontented, trade still languished, and pauperism increased rather than diminished.
Under the new Tory ministry, headed by Sir Robert Peel, Mr. Gladstone became a junior lord of the Treasury. His great abilities were already recognized, and the premier wanted his services, as Pitt wanted those of Canning before he was known to fame. Shortly after Parliament assembled, in February, 1835, Mr. Gladstone was made under-secretary for the Colonies,–a very young man for such an office. But the Tory ministry was short-lived, and the Whigs soon returned to power under Lord Melbourne. During this administration, until the death of William IV. in 1837, there was no display of power or eloquence in Parliament by the member for Newark of sufficient importance to be here noted, except perhaps his opposition to a bill for the re-arrangement of church-rates. As a Conservative and a High Churchman, Gladstone stood aloof from those who would lay unhallowed hands on the sacred ark of ecclesiasticism. And here, at least, he has always been consistent with himself. From first to last he has been the zealous defender and admirer of the English Church and one of its devoutest members, taking the deepest interest in everything which concerns its doctrines, its ritual, and its connection with the State,–at times apparently forgetting politics to come to its support, in essays which show a marvellous knowledge of both theology and ecclesiastical history. We cannot help thinking that he would have reached the highest dignities as a clergyman, and perhaps have been even more famous as a bishop than as a statesman.
In the Parliament which assembled after Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, in 1837, the voice of Gladstone was heard in nearly every important discussion; but the speech which most prominently brought him into public notice and gave him high rank as a parliamentary orator was that in 1838, in reference to West India emancipation. The evils of the negro apprenticeship system, which was to expire in 1840, had been laid before the House of Lords by the ex-chancellor, Brougham, with his usual fierceness and probable exaggeration; and when the subject came up for discussion in the House of Commons Gladstone opposed immediate abolition, which Lord Brougham had advocated, showing by a great array of facts that the relation between masters and negroes was generally much better than it had been represented. But he was on the unpopular side of the question, and his speech excited admiration without producing conviction,–successful only as a vigorous argument and a brilliant oratorical display. The apprenticeship was cut short, and immediate abolition of slavery decreed.
At that time, Gladstone’s “appearance and manners were much in his favor. His countenance was mild and pleasant; his eyes were clear and quick; his eyebrows were dark and prominent; his gestures varied but not violent; his jet black hair was parted from his crown to his brow;” his voice was peculiarly musical, and his diction was elegant and easy, without giving the appearance of previous elaboration. How far his language and thoughts were premeditated I will not undertake to say. Daniel Webster once declared that there was no such thing as ex tempore speaking,–a saying not altogether correct, but in the main confirmed by many great orators who confess to laborious preparation for their speech-making, and by the fact that many of our famous after-dinner speakers have been known to send their speeches to the Press before they were delivered. The case of Demosthenes would seem to indicate the necessity of the most careful study and preparation in order to make a truly great speech, however gifted an orator may be; and those who, like the late Henry Ward Beecher, have astonished their hearers by their ready utterances have generally mastered certain lines of fact and principles of knowledge which they have at command, and which, with native power and art of expression, they present in fresh forms and new combinations. They do not so much add new stores of fact to the kaleidoscope of oratory,–they place the familiar ones in new positions, and produce new pictures ad infinitum. Sometimes a genius, urged by a great impulse, may dash out in an untried course of thought; but this is not always a safe venture,–the next effort of the kind may prove a failure. No man can be sure of himself or his ground without previous and patient labor, except in reply to an antagonist and when familiar with his subject. That was the power of Fox and Pitt. What gave charm to the speeches of Peel and Gladstone in their prime was the new matter they introduced before debate began; and this was the result of laborious study. To attack such matter with wit and sarcasm is one thing; to originate it is quite another. Anybody can criticise the most beautiful picture or the grandest structure, but to paint the one or erect the other,–hic labor, hoc opus est. One of the grandest speeches ever made, for freshness and force, was Daniel Webster’s reply to Hayne; but the peroration was written and committed to memory, while the substance of it had been in his thoughts for half a winter, and his mind was familiar with the general subject. The great orator is necessarily an artist as much as Pascal was in his Pensées; and his fame will rest perhaps more on his art than on his matter,–since the art is inimitable and peculiar, while the matter is subject to the conditions of future, unknown, progressive knowledge. Probably the most effective speech of modern times was the short address of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg; but this was simply the expression of the gathered forces of his whole political life.
In the month of July, 1837, Mr. Gladstone was married to Miss Catherine Glyn, daughter of Sir Stephen Richard Glyn, of Hawarden Castle, in Flintshire, Wales,–a marriage which proved eminently happy. Eight children have been the result of this union, of whom but one has died; all the others have “turned out well,” as the saying is, though no one has reached distinguished eminence. It would seem that Mr. Gladstone, occupying for forty years so superb a social and public station, has not been ambitious for the worldly advancement of his children, nor has he been stained by nepotism in pushing on their fortunes. The eldest son was a member of Parliament; the second became a clergyman; and the eldest daughter married a clergyman in a prominent position as headmaster of Wellington College.
It would be difficult to say when the welfare of the Church and the triumph of theological truth have not received a great share of Mr. Gladstone’s thoughts and labors. At an early period of his parliamentary career he wrote an elaborate treatise on the “State in its relation to the Church.” It is said that Sir Robert. Peel threw the book down on the floor, exclaiming that it was a pity so able a man should jeopardize his political future by writing such trash; but it was of sufficient importance to furnish Macaulay a subject for one of his most careful essays, in which however, though respectful in tone,–patronizing rather than eulogistic,–he showed but little sympathy with the author. He pointed out many defects which the critical and religious world has sustained. In the admirable article which Mr. Gladstone wrote on Lord Macaulay himself for one of the principal Reviews not many years ago, he paid back in courteous language, and even under the conventional form of panegyric, in which one great man naturally speaks of another, a still more searching and trenchant criticism on the writings of the eminent historian. Gladstone shows, and shows clearly and conclusively, the utter inability of Macaulay to grasp subjects of a spiritual and subjective character, especially exhibited in his notice of the philosophy of Bacon. He shows that this historian excels only in painting external events and the outward acts and peculiarities of the great characters of history,–and even then only with strong prejudices and considerable exaggerations, however careful he is in sustaining his position by recorded facts, in which he never makes an error. To the subjective mind of Gladstone, with his interest in theological subjects, Macaulay was neither profound nor accurate in his treatment of philosophical and psychological questions, for which indeed he had but little taste. Such men as Pascal, Leibnitz, Calvin, Locke, he lets alone to discuss the great actors in political history, like Warren Hastings, Pitt, Harley; but in his painting of such characters he stands pre-eminent over all modern writers. Gladstone does justice to Macaulay’s vast learning, his transcendent memory, and his matchless rhetoric,–making the heaviest subjects glow with life and power, effecting compositions which will live for style alone, for which in some respects he is unapproachable.
Indeed, I cannot conceive of two great contemporary statesmen more unlike in their mental structure and more antagonistic in their general views than Gladstone and Macaulay, and unlike also in their style. The treatise on State and Church, on which Gladstone exhibits so much learning, to me is heavy, vague, hazy, and hard to read. The subject, however, has but little interest to an American, and is doubtless much more highly appreciated by English students, especially those of the great universities, whom it more directly concerns. It is the argument of a young Oxford scholar for the maintenance of a Church establishment; is full of ecclesiastical lore, assuming that one of the chief ends of government is the propagation of religious truth,–a ground utterly untenable according to the universal opinion of people in this country, whether churchmen or laymen, Catholic or Protestant, Conservative or liberal.
On the fall of the Whig government in 1841, succeeded by that of Sir Robert Peel, Mr. Gladstone was appointed vice-president of the Board of Trade and master of the Mint, and naturally became more prominent as a parliamentary debater,–not yet a parliamentary leader. But he was one of the most efficient of the premier’s lieutenants, a tried and faithful follower, a disciple, indeed,–as was Peel himself of Canning, and Canning of Pitt. He addressed the House in all the important debates,–on railways, on agricultural interests, on the abolition of the corn laws, on the Dissenters’ Chapel Bills, on sugar duties,–a conservative of conservatives, yet showing his devotion to the cause of justice in everything except justice to the Catholics in Ireland. He was opposed to the grant to Maynooth College, and in consequence resigned his office when the decision of the government was made known,–a rare act of that conscientiousness for which from first to last he has been pre-eminently distinguished in all political as well as religious matters. His resignation of office left him free to express his views; and he disclaimed, in the name of law, the constitution, and the history of the country, the voting of money to restore and strengthen the Roman Catholic Church of Ireland. In deference to Sir Robert Peel and the general cause of education his opposition was not bitter or persistent; and the progressive views which have always marked his career led him to support the premier in his repeal of the corn laws, he having been, like his chief, converted to the free-trade doctrines of Cobden. But the retirement of such prominent men as the Duke of Buccleuch and Lord Stanley (of Alderley) from his ministry, as protectionists, led to its breaking up in 1846 and an attempt to form a new one under Lord John Russell, which failed; and Sir Robert Peel resumed direction of a government pledged to repeal the corn laws of 1815. As the Duke of Newcastle was a zealous protectionist, under whose influence Mr. Gladstone had been elected member of Parliament, the latter now resigned his seat as member for Newark, and consequently remained without a seat in that memorable session of 1846 which repealed the corn laws.
The ministry of Sir Robert Peel, though successful in passing the most important bill since that of Parliamentary reform in 1832, was doomed; as we have already noted in the Lecture on that great leader, it fell on the Irish question, and Lord John Russell became the head of the government. In the meantime, Mr. Gladstone was chosen to represent the University of Oxford in Parliament,–one of the most distinguished honors which he ever received, and which he duly prized. As the champion of the English Church represented by the University, and as one of its greatest scholars, he richly deserved the coveted prize.
On the accidental death of Sir Robert Peel in 1850 the conservative party became disintegrated, and Mr. Gladstone held himself aloof both from Whigs and Tories, learning wisdom from Sir James Graham (one of the best educated and most accomplished statesman of the day), and devoting himself to the study of parliamentary tactics, and of all great political questions. It was then that in the interval of public business he again visited Italy, in the winter of 1850-51; this time not for mere amusement and recreation, but for the health of a beloved daughter. While in Naples he was led to examine its prisons (with philanthropic aim), and to study the general policy and condition of the Neapolitan government. The result was his famous letters to Lord Aberdeen on the awful despotism under which the kingdom of the Two Sicilies groaned, where over twenty thousand political prisoners were incarcerated, and one-half of the Deputies were driven into exile in defiance of all law; where the prisons were dens of filth and horror, and all sorts of unjust charges were fabricated in order to get rid of inconvenient persons. I have read nothing from the pen of Mr. Gladstone superior in the way of style to these letters,–earnest and straightforward, almost fierce in their invective, reminding one in many respects of Brougham’s defence of Queen Caroline, but with a greater array of facts, so clearly and forcibly put as not only to produce conviction but to kindle wrath. The government of Naples had sworn to maintain a free constitution, but had disgracefully and without compunction violated every one of its conditions, and perpetrated cruelties and injustices which would have appalled the judges of imperial Rome, and defended them by a casuistry which surpassed in its insult to the human understanding that of the priests of the Spanish Inquisition.
The indignation created by Gladstone’s letters extended beyond England to France and Germany, and probably had no slight influence in the final overthrow of the King of Naples, whose government was the most unjust, tyrannical, and cruel in Europe, and perhaps on the face of the globe. Its chief evil was not in chaining suspected politicians of character and rank to the vilest felons, and immuring them in underground cells too filthy and horrible to be approached even by physicians, for months and years before their mock-trials began, but in the utter perversion of justice in the courts by judges who dared not go counter to the dictation or even wishes of the executive government with its deadly and unconquerable hatred of everything which looked like political liberty. All these things and others Mr. Gladstone exposed with an eloquence glowing and burning with righteous and fearless indignation.
The Neapolitan government attempted to make a denial of the terrible charges; but the defence was feeble and inconclusive, and the statesman who made the accusation was not convicted even of exaggeration, although the heartless tyrant may have felt that he was no more guilty than other monarchs bent on sustaining absolutism at any cost and under any plea in the midst of atheists, assassins, and anarchists. It is said that Warren Hastings, under the terrible invectives of Burke, felt himself to be the greatest criminal in the world, even when he was conscious of having rendered invaluable services to Great Britain, which the country in the main acknowledged. In one sense, therefore, a statement may be rhetorically exaggerated, even when the facts which support it are incontrovertible, as the remorseless logic of Calvin leads to deductions which no one fully believes,–the decretum quidem horribile, as Calvin himself confessed. But is it easy to convict Mr. Gladstone of other exaggeration than that naturally produced by uncommon ability to array facts so as to produce conviction, which indeed is the talent of the advocate rather than that of the judge?
The year 1848 was a period of agitation and revolution in every country in Europe; and most governments, being unpopular, were compelled to suppress riots and insurrections, and to maintain order under exceeding difficulties. England was no exception; and public discontents had some justification in the great deficiency in the national treasury, the distress of Ireland, and the friction which new laws, however beneficent, have to pass through.
About this time Mr. Disraeli was making himself prominent as an orator, and as a foe to the administration. He was clever in nicknames and witty expressions,–as when he dubbed the Blue Book of the Import Duties Committee “the greatest work of imagination that the nineteenth century had produced.” Mr. Gladstone was no match for this great parliamentary fencer in irony, in wit, in sarcasm, and in bold attacks; but even in a House so fond of jokes as that of the Commons he commanded equal if not greater attention by his luminous statements of fact and the earnest solemnity of his manner. Benjamin Disraeli entered Parliament in 1837, as a sort of democratic Tory, when the death of King William IV. necessitated a general election. His maiden speech as member for Maidstone was a failure; not because he could not speak well, but because a certain set determined to crush him, and made such a noise that he was obliged to sit down, declaring in a loud voice that the time would come when they should hear him. He was already famous for his novels, and for a remarkable command of language; the pet of aristocratic women, and admired generally for his wit and brilliant conversation, although he provoked criticism for the vulgar finery of his dress and the affectation of his manners. Already he was intimate with Lord Lyndhurst, a lion in the highest aristocratic circles, and universally conceded to be a man of genius. Why should not such a man, at the age of thirty-three, aspire to a seat in Parliament? His future rival, Gladstone, though five years his junior, had already been in Parliament three years, and was distinguished as an orator before Disraeli had a chance to enter the House of Commons as a supporter of Sir Robert Peel; but his extraordinary power was not felt until he attacked his master on the repeal of the corn laws, nor was he the rival of Mr. Gladstone until the Tory party was disintegrated and broken into sections. In 1847, however, he became the acknowledged leader of the most conservative section,–the party of protection,–while Gladstone headed the followers of Peel.
On the disruption of the Whig administration in 1851 under Lord John Russell, who was not strong enough for such unsettled times, Lord Derby became premier, and Disraeli took office under him as chancellor of the exchequer,–a post which he held for only a short time, the “coalition cabinet” under Lord Aberdeen having succeeded that of Lord Derby, keeping office during the Crimean war, and leaving the Tories out in the cold until 1858.
Of this famous coalition ministry Mr. Gladstone naturally became chancellor of the exchequer, having exhibited remarkable financial ability in demolishing the arguments of Disraeli when he introduced his budget as chancellor in 1851; but although the rivalry between the two great men began about this time, neither of them had reached the lofty position which they were destined to attain. They both held subordinate posts. The prime minister was the Earl of Aberdeen; but Lord Palmerston was the commanding genius of the cabinet, controlling as foreign minister the diplomacy of the country in stormy times. He was experienced, versatile, liberal, popular, and ready in debate. His foreign policy was vigorous and aggressive, raising England in the estimation of foreigners, and making her the most formidable Power in Europe. His diplomatic and administrative talents were equally remarkable, so that he held office of some kind in every successive administration but one for fifty years. He was secretary-at-war as far back as the contest with Napoleon, and foreign secretary in 1830 during the administration of Lord Grey. His official life may almost be said to have been passed in the Foreign Office; he was acquainted with all its details, and as indefatigable in business as he was witty in society, to the pleasures of which he was unusually devoted. He checked the ambition of France in 1840 on the Eastern question, and brought about the cordial alliance between France and England in the Crimean war.
Mr. Gladstone did not agree with Lord Palmerston in reference to the Crimean war. Like Lord Aberdeen, his policy was pacific, avoiding war except in cases of urgent necessity; but in this matter he was not only in the minority in the cabinet but not on the popular side,–the Press and the people and the Commons being clamorous for war. As already shown, it was one of the most unsatisfactory wars in English history,–conducted to a successful close, indeed, but with an immense expenditure of blood and money, and with such an amount of blundering in management as to bring disgrace rather than glory on the government and the country. But it was not for Mr. Gladstone to take a conspicuous part in the management of that unfortunate war. His business was with the finances,–to raise money for the public exigencies; and in this business he never had a superior. He not only selected with admirable wisdom the articles to be taxed, but in his budgets he made the minutest details interesting. He infused eloquence into figures; his audiences would listen to his financial statements for five continuous hours without wearying. But his greatest triumph as finance minister was in making the country accept without grumbling an enormous income tax because he made plain its necessity.
The mistakes of the coalition ministry in the management of the war led to its dissolution, and Lord Palmerston became prime minister, Lord Clarendon foreign minister, while Mr. Gladstone retained his post as chancellor of the exchequer, yet only for a short time. On the appointment of a committee to examine into the conduct of the war he resigned his post, and was succeeded by Sir G.C. Lewis. At this crisis the Emperor Nicholas of Russia died, and the cabinet, with a large preponderance of Whigs, having everything their own way, determined to prosecute the war to the bitter end.
Yet the great services and abilities of Gladstone as finance minister were everywhere conceded, not only for his skill in figures but for his wisdom in selecting and imposing duties that were acceptable to the country and did not press heavily upon the poor, thus following out the policy which Sir Robert Peel bequeathed. Ever since, this has been the aim as well as the duty of a chancellor of the exchequer whatever party has been in the ascendent.
From this time onward Mr. Gladstone was a pronounced free-trader of the Manchester school. His conscientious studies into the mutual relations of taxation, production, and commerce had convinced him that national prosperity lay along the line of freedom of endeavor. He had taken a great departure from the principles he had originally advocated, which of course provoked a bitter opposition from his former friends and allies. He was no longer the standard-bearer of the conservative party, but swung more and more by degrees from his old policy as light dawned upon his mind and experience taught him wisdom. Perhaps the most remarkable characteristics of this man,–opinionated and strong-headed as he undoubtedly is,–are to be found in the receptive quality of his mind, by which he is open to new ideas, and in the steady courage with which he affirms and stands by his convictions when once he has by reasoning arrived at them. It took thirteen years of parliamentary strife before the Peelites, whom he led, were finally incorporated with the Liberal party.
Mr. Gladstone, now without office, became what is called an independent member of the House, yet active in watching public interests, giving his vote and influence to measures which he considered would be most beneficial to the country irrespective of party. Meantime, the continued mistakes of the war and the financial burdens incident to a conflict of such magnitude had gradually produced disaffection with the government of which Lord Palmerston was the head. The ministry, defeated on an unimportant matter, but one which showed the animus of the country, was compelled to resign, and the Conservatives–no longer known by the opprobrious nickname of Tories–came into power (1858) under the premiership of Lord Derby, Disraeli becoming chancellor of the exchequer and leader of his own party in the House of Commons. But this administration also was short-lived, lasting only about a year; and in June, 1859, a new coalition ministry was again formed under Lord Palmerston, which continued seven years, Mr. Gladstone returning to his old post as chancellor of the exchequer.
Mr. Gladstone was at this time fifty years of age. His political career thus far, however useful and honorable, had not been extraordinary. Mr. Pitt was prime minister at the age of twenty-eight. Fox, Canning, and Castlereagh at forty were more famous than Gladstone. His political promotion had not been as rapid as that of Lord John Russell or Lord Palmerston or Sir Robert Peel. He was chiefly distinguished for the eloquence of his speeches, the lucidity of his financial statements, and the moral purity of his character; but he was not then pre-eminently great, either for initiative genius or commanding influence. Aside from politics, he was conceded to be an accomplished scholar and a learned theologian,–distinguished for ecclesiastical lore rather than as an original thinker. He had written no great book likely to be a standard authority. As a writer he was inferior to Macaulay and Newman, nor had he the judicial powers of Hallam. He could not be said to have occupied more than one sphere, that of politics,–here unlike Thiers, Guizot, and even Lyndhurst and Brougham.
In 1858, however, Gladstone appeared in a new light, and commanded immediate attention by the publication of his “Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age,”–a remarkable work in three large octavo volumes, which called into the controversial field of Greek history a host of critics, like Mr. Freeman, who yet conceded to Mr. Gladstone wonderful classical learning, and the more wonderful as he was preoccupied with affairs of State, and without the supposed leisure for erudite studies. This learned work entitled him to a high position in another sphere than that of politics. Guizot wrote learned histories of modern political movements, but he could not have written so able a treatise as Gladstone’s on the Homeric age. Some advanced German critics took exceptions to the author’s statements about early Greek history; yet it cannot be questioned that he has thrown a bright if not a new light on the actors of the siege of Troy and the age when they were supposed to live. The illustrious author is no agnostic. It is not for want of knowledge that in some things he is not up to the times, but for a conservative bent of mind which leads him to distrust destructive criticism. Gladstone has been content to present the ancient world as revealed in the Homeric poems, whether Homer lived less than a hundred years from the heroic deeds described with such inimitable charm, or whether he did not live at all. He wrote the book not merely to amuse his leisure hours, but to incite students to a closer study of the works attributed to him who alone is enrolled with the two other men now regarded as the greatest of immortal poets. Gladstone’s admiration for Homer is as unbounded as that of German scholars for Dante and Shakspeare. It is hardly to be supposed that this work on the heroic age was written during the author’s retirement from office; it was probably the result of his life-studies on Grecian literature, which he pursued with unusual and genuine enthusiasm. Who among American statesmen or even scholars are competent to such an undertaking?
Two years after this, in 1860, Mr. Gladstone was elected Lord Rector of the University of Edinburgh in recognition of his scholarly attainments, and delivered a notable inaugural address on the work of universities.
The chief duty of Mr. Gladstone during his seven years connection with the new coalition party, headed by Lord Palmerston, was to prepare his annual budget, or financial statement, with a proposed scheme of taxation, as chancellor of the exchequer. During these years his fame as a finance minister was confirmed. As such no minister ever equalled him, except perhaps Sir Robert Peel. My limits will not permit me to go into a minute detail of the taxes he increased and those he reduced. The end he proposed in general was to remove such as were oppressive on the middle and lower classes, and to develop the industrial resources of the nation,–to make it richer and more prosperous, while it felt the burden of supplying needful moneys for the government less onerous. Nor would it be interesting to Americans to go into those statistics. I wonder even why they were so interesting to the English people. One would naturally think that it was of little consequence whether duties on some one commodity were reduced, or those on another were increased, so long as the deficit in the national income had to be raised somehow, whether by direct or indirect taxation; but the interest generally felt in these matters was intense, both inside and outside Parliament. I can understand why the paper-makers should object when it was proposed to remove the last protective duty, and why the publicans should wax indignant if an additional tax were imposed on hops; but I cannot understand why every member of the House of Commons should be present when the opening speech on the budget was to be made by the chancellor, why the intensest excitement should prevail, why members should sit for five hours enraptured to hear financial details presented, why every seat in the galleries should be taken by distinguished visitors, and all the journals the next day should be filled with panegyrics or detractions as to the minister’s ability or wisdom.
It would seem that no questions concerning war or peace, or the extension of the suffrage, or the removal of great moral evils, or promised boons in education, or Church disestablishment, or threatened dangers to the State,–questions touching the very life of the nation,–received so much attention or excited so great interest as those which affected the small burdens which the people had to bear; not the burden of taxation itself, but how that should be distributed. I will not say that the English are “a nation of shopkeepers;” but I do say that comparatively small matters occupy the thoughts of men in every country outside the routine of ordinary duties, and form the staple of ordinary conversation,–among pedants, the difference between ac and et; among aristocrats, the investigation of pedigrees; in society, the comparative merits of horses, the movements of well-known persons, the speed of ocean steamers, boat-races, the dresses of ladies of fashion, football contests, the last novel, weddings, receptions, the trials of housekeepers, the claims of rival singers, the gestures and declamation of favorite play-actors, the platitudes of popular preachers, the rise and fall of stocks, murders in bar-rooms, robberies in stores, accidental fires in distant localities,–these and other innumerable forms of gossip, collected by newspapers and retailed in drawing-rooms, which have no important bearing on human life or national welfare or immortal destiny. It is not that the elaborate presentations of financial details for which Mr. Gladstone was so justly famous were without importance. I only wonder why they should have had such overwhelming interest to English legislators and the English public; and why his statistics should have given him claims to transcendent oratory and the profoundest statesmanship,–for it is undeniable that his financial speeches brought him more fame and importance in the House of Commons than all the others he made during those seven years of parliamentary gladiatorship. One of these triumphantly carried through Parliament a commercial reciprocity treaty with France, arranged by Mr. Cobden; and another, scarcely less notable, repealed the duty on paper,–a measure of great importance for the facilitation of making books and cheapening newspapers, but both of which were desperately opposed by the monopolists and manufacturers.
Some of Mr. Gladstone’s other speeches stand on higher ground and are of permanent value; they will live for the lofty sentiments and the comprehensive knowledge which marked them,–appealing to the highest intellect as well as to the hearts of those common people of whom all nations are chiefly composed. Among these might be mentioned those which related to Italian affairs, sympathizing with the struggle which the Italians were making to secure constitutional liberty and the unity of their nation,–severe on the despotism of that miserable king of Naples, Francis II., whom Garibaldi had overthrown with a handful of men. Mr. Gladstone, ever since his last visit to Naples, had abominated the outrages which its government had perpetrated on a gallant and aspiring people, and warmly supported them by his eloquence. In the same friendly spirit, in 1858, he advocated in Parliament a free constitution for the Ionian islands, then under British rule; and when sent thither as British commissioner he addressed the Senate of those islands, at Corfu, in the Italian language. The islands were by their own desire finally ceded to Greece, whose prosperity as an independent and united nation Mr. Gladstone ever had at heart. The land of Homer to him was hallowed ground.
On one subject Mr. Gladstone made a great mistake, which he afterward squarely acknowledged,–and this was in reference to the American civil war. In 1862, while chancellor of the exchequer, he made a speech at Newcastle in which he expressed his conviction that Jefferson Davis had “already succeeded in making the Southern States of America [which were in revolt] an independent nation.” This opinion caused a great sensation in both England and the United States, and alienated many friends,–especially as Earl Russell, the minister of foreign affairs, had refused to recognize the Confederate States. It was the indiscretion of the chancellor of the exchequer which disturbed some of his warmest supporters in England; but in America the pain arose from the fact that so great a man had expressed such an opinion,–a man, moreover, for whom America had then and still has the greatest admiration and reverence. It was feared that his sympathies, like those of a great majority of the upper classes in England at the time, were with the South rather than the North, and chiefly because the English manufacturers had to pay twenty shillings instead of eight-pence a pound for cotton. It was natural for a manufacturing country to feel this injury to its interests; but it was not magnanimous in view of the tremendous issues which were at stake, and it was inconsistent with the sacrifices which England had nobly made in the emancipation of her own slaves in the West Indies. For England to give her moral support to the revolted Southern States, founding their Confederacy upon the baneful principle of human slavery, was a matter of grave lamentation with patriots at the North, to say nothing of the apparent English indifference to the superior civilization of the free States and the great cause to which they were devoted in a struggle of life and death. It even seemed to some that the English aristocracy were hypocritical in their professions, and at heart were hostile to the progress of liberty; that the nation as a whole cared more for money than justice,–as seemingly illustrated by the war with China to enforce the opium trade against the protest of the Chinese government, pagan as it was.
Mr. Gladstone had now swung away from the Conservative party. In 1864 he had vigorously supported a bill for enlarging the parliamentary franchise by reducing the limit of required rental from £10 to £6, declaring that the burden of proof rested on those who would exclude forty-nine-fiftieths of the working-classes from the franchise. He also, as chancellor of the exchequer, caused great excitement by admitting the unsatisfactory condition of the Irish Church,–that is, the Church of England among the Irish people; sustained by their taxes, but ministering to only one-eighth or one-ninth of the population. These and other similar evidences of his liberal tendencies alienated his Oxford constituency, the last people in the realm to adopt liberal measures; and on the proroguement of Parliament in 1865, and the new election which followed, he was defeated as member for the University, although he was a High Churchman and the pride of the University, devoted to its interests heart and soul. It is a proof of the exceeding bitterness of political parties that such ingratitude should have been shown to one of the greatest scholars that Oxford has produced for a century. It was in this year also that on completing his term as Rector of the University of Edinburgh he retired with a notable address on the “Place of Ancient Greece in the Providential Order;” thus anew emphasizing his scholarly equipment as a son of Oxford.
The Liberal party, however, were generally glad of Gladstone’s defeat, since it would detach him from the University. He now belonged more emphatically to the country, and was more free and unshackled to pursue his great career, as Sir Robert Peel had been before him in similar circumstances. Instead of representing a narrow-minded and bigoted set of clergymen and scholars, he was chosen at once to represent quite a different body,–even the liberal voters of South Lancashire, a manufacturing district.
The death of Lord Palmerston at the age of eighty, October 17, 1865, made Earl Russell prime minister, while Gladstone resumed under the new government his post as chancellor of the exchequer, and now became formally the leader of the Liberals in the House of Commons.
Irish questions in 1866 came prominently to the front, for the condition of Ireland at that time was as alarming as it was deplorable, with combined Fenianism and poverty and disaffection in every quarter. So grave was the state of this unhappy country that the government felt obliged to bring in a bill suspending the habeas corpus act, which the chancellor of the exchequer eloquently supported. His conversion to Liberal views was during this session seen in bringing in a measure for the abolition of compulsory church-rates, in aid of Dissenters; but before it could be carried through its various stages a change of ministry had taken place on another issue, and the Conservatives again came into power, with Lord Derby for prime minister and Disraeli for chancellor of the exchequer and leader of his party in the House of Commons.
This fall of the Liberal ministry was brought about by the Reform Bill, which Lord Russell had prepared, and which was introduced by the chancellor of the exchequer amid unparalleled excitement. Finance measures lost their interest in the fierceness of the political combat. It was not so important a measure as that of the reform of 1832 in its political consequences, but it was of importance enough to enlist absorbing interest throughout the kingdom; it would have added four hundred thousand new voters. While it satisfied the Liberals, it was regarded by the Conservatives as a dangerous concession, opening the doors too widely to the people. Its most brilliant and effective opponent was Mr. Lowe, whose oratory raised him at once to fame and influence. Seldom has such eloquence been heard in the House of Commons, and from all the leading debaters on both sides. Mr. Gladstone outdid himself, but perhaps was a little too profuse with his Latin quotations. The debate was continued for eight successive nights. The final division was the largest ever known: the government found itself in a minority of eleven, and consequently resigned. Lord Derby, as has been said, was again prime minister.
The memorable rivalry between Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli was now continued in deeper earnest, and never ceased so long as the latter statesman was a member of the House of Commons, They were recognized to be the heads of their respective parties,–two giants in debate; two great parliamentary gladiators, on whom the eyes of the nation rested. Mr. Gladstone was the more earnest, the more learned, and the more solid in his blows. Mr. Disraeli was the more adroit, the more witty, and the more brilliant in his thrusts. Both were equally experienced. The one appealed to justice and truth; the other to the prejudices of the House and the pride of a nation of classes. One was armed with a heavy dragoon sword; the other with a light rapier, which he used with extraordinary skill. Mr. G.W.E. Russell, in his recent “Life of Gladstone,” quotes the following passage from a letter of Lord Houghton, May, 1867:–
“I met Gladstone at breakfast. He seems quite awed with the diabolical cleverness of Dizzy, ‘who,’ he says, ‘is gradually driving all ideas of political honor out of the House, and accustoming it to the most revolting cynicism,’ There is no doubt that a sense of humor has always been conspicuously absent from Mr. Gladstone’s character.”
Sometimes one of these rival leaders was on the verge of victory and sometimes the other, and both equally gained the applause of the spectators. Two such combatants had not been seen since the days of Pitt and Fox,–one, the champion of the people; the other, of the aristocracy. What each said was read the next day by every family in the land. Both were probably greatest in opposition, since more unconstrained. Of the two, Disraeli was superior in the control of his temper and in geniality of disposition, making members roar with laughter by his off-hand vituperation and ingenuity in inventing nicknames. Gladstone was superior in sustained reasoning, in lofty sentiments, and in the music of his voice, accompanied by that solemnity of manner which usually passes for profundity and the index of deep convictions. As for rhetorical power, it would be difficult to say which was the superior,–though the sentences of both were too long. It would also be difficult to tell which of the two was the more ambitious and more tenacious of office. Both, it is said, bade for popularity in the measures they proposed. Both were politicians. There is, indeed, a great difference between politicians and statesmen; but a man may be politic without ceasing to be a lover of his country, like Lord Palmerston himself; and a man may advocate large and comprehensive views of statesmanship which are neither popular nor appreciated.
The new Conservative ministry was a short one. Coming into power on the defeat of the Liberal reform bill introduced by Mr. Gladstone, the Tory government recognized the popular demand on which that bill had been based; and though Mr. Disraeli coolly introduced a reform bill of their own which was really more radical than the Liberal bill had been, and although at the hands of the opposition it was so modified that the Duke of Buccleuch declared that the only word unaltered was the initial “whereas,” its passage was claimed as a great Conservative victory. Shortly after this, the Earl of Derby retired on account of ill-health, and was succeeded by Mr. Disraeli as premier; but the current of Liberalism set in so strongly in the ensuing elections that he was forced to resign in 1868, and Mr. Gladstone now for the first time became prime minister.
This was the golden period of Gladstone’s public services. During Disraeli’s short lease of power, Gladstone had carried the abolition of compulsory church-rates, and had moved, with great eloquence, the disestablishment of the English Church in Ireland. On the latter question Parliament was dissolved, and an appeal made to the country; and the triumphant success of the Liberals brought Mr. Gladstone into power with the brightest prospects for the cause to which he was now committed. He was fifty-nine years old before he reached the supreme object of his ambition,–to rule England; but in accordance with law, and in the interest of truth and justice. In England the strongest man can usually, by persevering energy, reach the highest position to which a subject may aspire. In the United States, political ambition is defeated by rivalries and animosities. Practically the President reigns, like absolute kings, “by the grace of God,”–as it would seem when so many ordinary men, and even obscure, are elevated to the highest place, and when these comparatively unknown men often develop when elected the virtues and abilities of a Saul or a David, as in the cases of Lincoln and Garfield.
So great was the popularity of Mr. Gladstone at this time, so profound was the respect he inspired for his lofty character, his abilities, his vast and varied learning, his unimpeachable integrity and conscientious discharge of his duties, that for five years he was virtually dictator, wielding more power than any premier since Pitt, if we except Sir Robert Peel in his glory. He was not a dictator in the sense that Metternich or Bismarck was,–not a grand vizier, the vicegerent of an absolute monarch, controlling the foreign policy, the army, the police, and the national expenditures. He could not send men to prison without a trial, or interfere with the peaceful pursuits of obnoxious citizens; but he could carry out any public measure he proposed affecting the general interests, for Parliament was supreme, and his influence ruled the Parliament. He was liable to disagreeable attacks from members of the opposition, and could not silence them; he might fall before their attacks; but while he had a great majority of members to back him, ready to do his bidding, he stood on a proud pedestal and undoubtedly enjoyed the sweets of power. He would not have been human if he had not.
Yet Mr. Gladstone carried his honors with dignity and discretion. He was accessible to all who had claims upon his time; he was never rude or insolent; he was gracious and polite to delegations; he was too kind-hearted to snub anybody. No cares of office could keep him from attending public worship; no popular amusements diverted him from his duties; he was feared only as a father is feared. I can conceive that he was sometimes intolerant of human infirmities; that no one dared to obtrude familiarities or make unseemly jokes in his presence; that few felt quite at ease in his company,–oppressed by his bearing, and awed by his prodigious respectability and grave solemnity. Not that he was arrogant and haughty, like a Roman cardinal or an Oxford Don; he was simply dignified and undemonstrative, like a man absorbed with weighty responsibilities. I doubt if he could unbend at the dinner-table like Disraeli and Palmerston, or tell stories like Sydney Smith, or drink too much wine with jolly companions, or forget for a moment the proper and the conventional. I can see him sporting with children, or taking long walks, or cutting down trees for exercise, or given to deep draughts of old October when thirsty; but to see him with a long pipe, or dallying with ladies, or giving vent to unseemly expletives, or retailing scandals,–these and other disreputable follies are utterly inconceivable of Mr. Gladstone. A very serious man may be an object of veneration; but he is a constant rebuke to the weaknesses of our common humanity,–a wet blanket upon frivolous festivities.
Let us now briefly glance at the work done by Gladstone during the five years when in his first premiership he directed the public affairs of England,–impatient of opposition, and sensitive to unjust aspersions, yet too powerful to be resisted in the supreme confidence of his party.
The first thing of note he did was to complete the disestablishment of the Irish Church,–an arduous task to any one lacking Mr. Gladstone’s extraordinary influence. Here he was at war with his former friends, and with a large section of the Conservative party,–especially with ecclesiastical dignitaries, who saw in this measure hostility to the Church as well as a national sin. It was a dissolution of the union between the Churches of England and Ireland; a divestment of the temporalities which the Irish clergy had enjoyed; the abolition of all ecclesiastical corporations and laws and courts in Ireland,–in short, the sweeping away of the annuities which the beneficed clergy had hitherto received out of the property of the Established Church, which annuities were of the nature of freeholds. It was not proposed to deprive the clergy of their income, so long as they discharged their clerical duties; but that the title to their tithes should be vested in commissioners, so that these church freeholds could not be bought and sold by non-residents, and churches in decadence should be taken from incumbents. The peerage rights of Irish bishops were also taken away. It was not proposed to touch private endowments; and glebe-houses which had become generally dilapidated were handed over to incumbents by their paying a fair valuation. Not only did the measure sweep away the abuses of the Establishment which had existed for centuries,–such as endowments held by those who performed no duties, which they could dispose of like other property,–but the regium donum given to Presbyterian ministers and the Maynooth Catholic College grant, which together amounted to £70,000, were also withdrawn, although compensated on the same principles as those which granted a settled stipend to the actual incumbents of the disestablished churches.
By this measure, the withdrawal of tithes and land rents and other properties amounted to sixteen millions; and after paying ministers and actual incumbents their stipends of between seven or eight millions, there would remain a surplus of seven or eight millions, with which Mr. Gladstone proposed to endow lunatic and idiot asylums, schools for the deaf, dumb, and blind, institutions for the training of nurses, for infirmaries, and hospitals for the needy people of Ireland.
There can be no rational doubt that this reform was beneficent, and it met the approval of the Liberal party, being supported with a grand eloquence by John Bright, who had under this ministry for the first time taken office,–as President of the Board of Trade; but it gave umbrage to the Irish clergy as a matter of course, to the Presbyterians of Ulster, to the Catholics as affecting Maynooth, and to the conservatives of Oxford and Cambridge on general principles. It was a reform not unlike that of Thomas Cromwell in the time of Henry VIII., when he dissolved the monasteries, though not quite so violent as the secularization of church property in France in the time of the Revolution. It was a spoliation, in one sense, as well as a needed reform,–a daring and bold measure, which such statesmen as Lords Liverpool, Aberdeen, and Palmerston would have been slow to make, and the weak points of which Disraeli was not slow to assail. To the radical Dissenters, as led by Mr. Miall, it was a grateful measure, which would open the door for future discussions on the disestablishment of the English Church itself,–a logical contingency which the premier did not seem to appreciate; for if the State had a right to take away the temporalities of the Irish Church when they were abused, the State would have an equal right to take away those of the English Church should they hereafter turn out to be unnecessary, or become a scandal in the eyes of the nation.
One would think that this disestablishment of the Irish Church would have been the last reform which a strict churchman like Gladstone would have made; certainly it was the last for a politic statesman to make, for it brought forth fruit in the next general election. It is true that the Irish Establishment had failed in every way, as Mr. Bright showed in one of his eloquent speeches, and to remove it was patriotic. If Mr. Gladstone had his eyes open, however, to its natural results as affecting his own popularity, he deserves the credit of being the most unselfish and lofty statesman that ever adorned British annals.
Having thus in 1869 removed one important grievance in the affairs of Ireland, Mr. Gladstone soon proceeded to another, and in February, 1870, brought forward, in a crowded House, his Irish Land Bill. The evil which he had in view to cure was the insecurity of tenure, which resulted in discouraging and paralyzing the industry of tenants, especially in the matter of evictions for non-payment of rent, and the raising of rents on land which had been improved by them. As they were liable at any time to be turned out of their miserable huts, the rents had only doubled in value in ninety years; whereas in England and Scotland, where there was more security of tenure, rents had quadrupled. This insecurity and uncertainty had resulted in a great increase of pauperism in Ireland, and prevented any rise in wages, although there was increased expense of living. The remedy proposed to alleviate in some respect the condition of the Irish tenants was the extension of their leases to thirty-three years, and the granting national assistance to such as desired to purchase the lands they had previously cultivated, according to a scale of prices to be determined by commissioners,–thus making improvements the property of the tenants who had made them rather than of the landlord, and encouraging the tenants by longer leases to make such improvements. Mr. Gladstone’s bill also extended to twelve months the time for notices to quit, bearing a stamp duty of half-a-crown. This measure on the part of the government was certainly a relief, as far as it went, to the poor people of Ireland. It became law on August 1, 1870.
The next important measure of Mr. Gladstone was to abolish the custom of buying and selling commissions in the army, which provoked bitter opposition from the aristocracy. It was maintained by the government that the whole system of purchase was unjust, and tended to destroy the efficiency of the army by preventing the advancement of officers according to merit. In no other country was such a mistake committed. It is true that the Prussian and Austrian armies were commanded by officers from the nobility; but these officers had not the unfair privilege of jumping over one another’s heads by buying promotion. The bill, though it passed the Commons, was thrown out by the Lords, who wished to keep up the aristocratic quality of army officers, among whom their younger sons were enrolled. Mr. Gladstone cut the knot by advising her Majesty to take the decisive step of cancelling the royal warrant under which–and not by law–purchase had existed. This calling on the Queen to do by virtue of her royal prerogative what could not be done by ordinary legislation, though not unconstitutional, was unusual. True, a privilege which royalty had granted, royalty could revoke; but in removing this evil Mr. Gladstone still further alienated the army and the aristocracy.
Among other measures which the premier carried for the public good, but against bitter opposition, were the secret ballot, and the removal of University Tests, by which all lay students of whatever religious creed were admitted to the universities on equal terms. The establishment of national and compulsory elementary education, although not emanating from Mr. Gladstone, was also accomplished during his government.
It now began to be apparent that the policy of the prime minister was reform wherever reform was needed. There was no telling what he would do next. Had he been the prime minister of an absolute monarch he would have been unfettered, and could have carried out any reform which his royal master approved. But the English are conservative and slow to change, no matter what party they belong to. It seemed to many that the premier was iconoclastic, and was bent on demolishing anything and everything which he disliked. Consequently a reaction set in, and Mr. Gladstone’s popularity, by which he had ruled almost as dictator, began to wane.
The settlement of the Alabama Claims did not add to his popularity. Everybody knows what these were, and I shall merely allude to them. During our Civil War, injuries had been inflicted on the commerce of the United States by cruisers built, armed, and manned in Great Britain, not only destroying seventy of our vessels, but by reason of the fear of shippers, resulting in a transfer of trade from American to British ships. It having been admitted by commissioners sent by Mr. Gladstone to Washington, that Great Britain was to blame for these and other injuries of like character, the amount of damages for which she was justly liable was submitted to arbitration; and the International Court at Geneva decided that England was bound to pay to the United States more than fifteen million dollars in gold. The English government promptly paid the money, although regarding the award as excessive; but while the judicious rejoiced to see an arbitrament of reason instead of a resort to war, the pugnacious British populace was discontented, and again Gladstone lost popularity.
And here it may be said that the foreign policy of Mr. Gladstone was pacific from first to last. He opposed the Crimean war; he kept clear of entangling alliances; he maintained a strict neutrality in Eastern complications, and in the Franco-German embroilment; he never stimulated the passion of military glory; he ever maintained that–
“There is a higher than the warrior’s excellence.”
He was devoted to the development of national resources and the removal of evils which militated against justice as well as domestic prosperity. His administration, fortunately, was marked by no foreign war. Under his guidance the nation had steadily advanced in wealth, and was not oppressed by taxation; he had promoted education as wall as material thrift; he had attempted to heal disorders in Ireland by benefiting the tenant class. But he at last proposed a comprehensive scheme for enlarging higher education in Ireland, which ended his administration.
The Irish University Bill, which as an attempted compromise between Catholic and Protestant demands satisfied neither party, met with such unexpected opposition that a majority of three was obtained against the government. Mr. Gladstone was, in accordance with custom, compelled to resign or summon a new Parliament. He accepted the latter alternative; but he did not seem aware of the great change in public sentiment which had taken place in regard to his reforms. Not one of them had touched the heart of the great mass, or was of such transcendent importance to the English people as the repeal of the corn laws had been. They were measures of great utility,–indeed, based on justice,–but were of a kind to alienate powerful classes without affecting universal interests. They were patriotic rather than politic. Moreover, he was not supported by lieutenants of first-class ability or reputation. His immediate coadjutors were most respectable men, great scholars, and men of more experience than genius or eloquence. Of his cabinet, eight of them it is said were “double-firsts” at Oxford. There was not one of them sufficiently trained or eminent to take his place. They were his subordinates rather than his colleagues; and some of them became impatient under his dictation, and witnessed his decline in popularity with secret satisfaction. No government was ever started on an ambitious course with louder pretensions or brighter promises than Mr. Gladstone’s cabinet in 1868. In less than three years their glory was gone. It was claimed that the bubble of oratory had burst when in contact with fact, and the poor English people had awoke to the dreary conviction that it was but vapor after all; that Mr. Disraeli had pricked that bubble when he said, “Under his influence [Gladstone’s] we have legalized confiscation, we have consecrated sacrilege, we have condoned treason, we have destroyed churches, we have shaken property to its foundation, and we have emptied jails.”
Everything went against the government. Russia had torn up the Black Sea treaty, the fruit of the Crimean war; the settlement of the “Alabama” claims was humiliating; “the generous policy which was to have won the Irish heart had exasperated one party without satisfying another. He had irritated powerful interests on all sides, from the army to the licensed victuallers.”
On the appeal to the nation, contrary to Mr. Gladstone’s calculations, there was a great majority against him. He had lost friends and made enemies. The people seemingly forgot his services,–his efforts to give dignity to honest labor, to stimulate self-denial, to reduce unwise expenditures, to remove crying evils. They forgot that he had reduced taxation to the extent of twelve millions sterling annually; and all the while the nation had been growing richer, so that the burdens which had once been oppressive were now easy to bear. It would almost appear that even Gladstone’s transcendent eloquence had lost in a measure its charm when Disraeli, in one of his popular addresses, was applauded for saying that he was “a sophistical rhetorician inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign his opponents and to glorify himself,”–one of the most exaggerated and ridiculous charges that was ever made against a public man of eminence, yet witty and plausible.
On the retirement of the great statesman from office in 1875, in sadness and chagrin, he declined to continue to be the leader of his party in opposition. His disappointment and disgust must have been immense to prompt a course which seemed to be anything but magnanimous, since he well knew that there was no one capable of taking his place; but he probably had his reasons. For some time he rarely went to the House of Commons. He left the leaders of his party to combat an opponent whom he himself had been unable to disarm. Fortunately no questions came up of sufficient importance to arouse a nation or divert it from its gains or its pleasures. It was thinking of other things than budgets and the small extension of the suffrage, or even of the Eastern question. It was thinking more of steamships and stock speculations and great financial operations, of theatres, of operas, of new novels, even of ritualistic observances in the churches, than of the details of government in peaceful times, or the fireworks of the great magician who had by arts and management dethroned a greater and wiser man than himself.
Although Mr. Gladstone was only occasionally seen, after his retirement, in the House of Commons, it must not be supposed that his political influence was dead. When anything of special interest was to be discussed, he was ready as before with his voice and vote. Such a measure as the bill to regulate public worship–aimed at suppressing ritualism–aroused his ecclesiastical interest, and he was voluminous upon it, both in and out of Parliament. Even when he was absent from his seat, his influence remained, and in all probability the new leader of the Liberals, Lord Hartington, took counsel from him. He was simply taking a rest before he should gird on anew his armor, and resume the government of the country.
Meantime, his great rival Disraeli led his party with consummate skill. He was a perfect master of tactics, wary, vigilant, courteous, good-natured, seizing every opportunity to gain a party triumph. He was also judicious in his selection of ministers, nor did he attempt to lord it over them. He showed extraordinary tact in everything, and in nothing more than in giving a new title to the Queen as Empress of India. But no measures of engrossing interest were adopted during his administration. He was content to be a ruler rather than a reformer. He was careful to nurse his popularity, and make no parliamentary mistakes. At the end of two years, however, his labors and cares told seriously on his health. He had been in Parliament since 1837; he was seventy-one years of age, and he found it expedient to accept the gracious favor of his sovereign, and to retire to the House of Lords, with the title of Earl of Beaconsfield, yet retaining the office of prime minister.
During the five years that Mr. Gladstone remained in retirement, he was by no means idle, or a silent spectator of political events. He was indefatigable with his pen, and ever ready with speeches for the platform and with addresses to public bodies. During this period three new Reviews were successfuly started,–the “Fortnightly,” the “Contemporary,” and the “Nineteenth Century,”–to all of which he was a frequent contributor, on a great variety of subjects. His articles were marked by characteristic learning and ability, and vastly increased his literary reputation. I doubt, however, if they will be much noticed by posterity. Nothing is more ephemeral than periodical essays, unless marked by extraordinary power both in style and matter, like the essays of Macaulay and Carlyle. Gladstone’s articles would make the fortune of ordinary writers, but they do not stand out, as we should naturally expect, as brilliant masterpieces, which everybody reads and glows while reading them. Indeed, most persons find them rather dry, whether from the subject or the style I will not undertake to say. But a great man cannot be uniformly great or even always interesting. How few men at seventy will give themselves the trouble to write at all, when there is no necessity, just to relieve their own minds, or to instruct without adequate reward! Michael Angelo labored till eighty-seven, and Titian till over ninety; but they were artists who worked from the love of art, restless without new creations. Perhaps it might also be said of Gladstone that he wrote because he could not help writing, since he knew almost everything worth knowing, and was fond of telling what he knew.
At length Mr. Gladstone emerged again from retirement, to assume the helm of State. When he left office in 1875, he had bequeathed a surplus to the treasury of nearly six millions; but this, besides the accumulation of over five millions more, had been spent in profitless and unnecessary wars. In 1876 a revolt against Turkish rule broke out in Bulgaria, and was suppressed with truly Turkish bloodthirstiness and outrage. “The Bulgarian atrocities” became a theme of discussion throughout Europe; and in England, while Disraeli and his government made light of them, Gladstone was aroused to all his old-time vigor by his humanitarian indignation. Says Russell: “He made the most impassioned speeches, often in the open air; he published pamphlets, which rushed into incredible circulations; he poured letter after letter into the newspapers; he darkened the sky with controversial post-cards; and, as soon as Parliament met, he was ready with all his unequalled resources of eloquence, argumentation, and inconvenient inquiry, to drive home his great indictment against the Turkish government and its friends and champions in the House of Commons.”
Four years of this vigorous bombardment, which included in its objects the whole range of Disraeli’s “brilliant foreign policy” of threat and bluster, produced its effect, A popular song of the day gave a nickname to this policy:–
“We don’t want to fight, but, by Jingo, if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money, too.”
And Jingoism became in the mouths of the Liberals a keen weapon of satire. The government gained the applause of aristocrats and populace, but lost that of the plain people.
The ninth Victorian Parliament was dying out, and a new election was at hand. Mr. Gladstone, now at the age of seventy, went to Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish conservatism, and in several masterly and memorable speeches, showing that his natural vigor of mind and body had not abated, he exposed the mistakes and shortcomings of the existing government and presented the boons which a new Liberal ministry were prepared to give. And when in 1880 the dissolution of Parliament took place, he again went to Scotland and offered himself for the county of Edinburgh, or Midlothian, making a series of astonishing speeches, and was returned as its representative. The general elections throughout the kingdom showed that the tide had again turned. There was an immense Liberal gain. The Earl of Beaconsfield placed his resignation in the hands of the Queen, and Gladstone was sent for,–once more to be prime minister of England.
And here I bring to a close this imperfect notice of one of the greatest men of modern times,–hardly for lack of sufficient material, but because it is hard to find a proper perspective in viewing matters which are still the subject of heated contest and turmoil. Once again Gladstone was seated on the summit of power, and with every prospect of a long-continued reign. Although an old man, his vigor of mind and body had not abated. He was never stronger, apparently, than when he was past seventy years of age. At no previous period of his life was his fame so extended or his moral influence so great. Certainly no man in England was more revered than he or more richly deserved his honors. He entered upon his second premiership with the veneration of the intelligent and liberal-minded patriots of the realm, and great things were expected from so progressive and lofty a minister. The welfare of the country it was undoubtedly his desire and ambition to promote.
But his second administration was not successful. Had the aged premier been content to steer his ship of State in placid waters, nothing would have been wanting to gratify moderate desires. It was not, however, inglorious repose he sought, but to confer a boon for which all future ages would honor his memory.
That boon was seemingly beyond his power. The nation was not prepared to follow him in his plans for Irish betterment. Indeed, he aroused English opposition by his proposed changes of land-tenure in Ireland, and Irish anger by attempted coercion in suppressing crime and disorder. This, and the unfortunate policy of his government in Egypt, brought him to parliamentary defeat; and he retired in June, 1885, declining at the same time the honor of an earldom proffered by the Queen. The ministry was wrecked on the rock which has proved so dangerous to all British political navigators for a hundred years. No human genius seems capable of solving the Irish question. It is apparently no nearer solution than it was in the days of William Pitt. In attempts to solve the problem, Mr. Gladstone found himself opposed by the aristocracy, by the Church, by the army, by men of letters, by men of wealth throughout the country. Lord Salisbury succeeded him; but only for a few months, and in January, 1886, Mr. Gladstone was for the third time called to the premiership. He now advanced a step, and proposed the startling policy of Home Rule for Ireland in matters distinctly Irish; but his following would not hold together on the issue, and in June he retired again.
From then until 1891 he was not in office, but he was indefatigably working with voice and pen for the Irish cause. He made in his retirement many converts to his opinions, and was again elevated to power on the Irish question as an issue in 1891. Yet the English on the whole seem to be against him in his Irish policy, which is denounced as unpractical, and which his opponents even declare to be on his part an insincere policy, entered upon and pursued solely as a bid for power. It is generally felt among the upper classes that no concession and no boons would satisfy the Irish short of virtual independence of British rule. If political rights could be separated from political power there might be more hope of settling the difficulty, which looks like a conflict between justice and wisdom. The sympathy of Americans is mostly on the side of the “grand old man” in his Herculean task, even while they admit that self-government in our own large cities is a dismal failure from the balance of power which is held by foreigners,–by the Irish in the East, and by the Germans in the West. And those who see the rapid growth of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, especially in those sections of the country where Puritanism once had complete sway, and the immense political power wielded by Roman Catholic priests, can understand why the conservative classes of England are opposed to the recognition of the political rights of a people who might unite with socialists and radicals in overturning the institutions on which the glory and prospects of a great nation are believed to be based. The Catholics in Ireland constitute about seven-eighths of the population, and English Protestants fear to deliver the thrifty Protestant minority into the hands of the great majority armed with the tyrannical possibilities of Home Rule. It is indeed a many-sided and difficult problem. There are instincts in nations, as among individuals, which reason fails to overcome, even as there are some subjects in reference to which experience is a safer guide than genius or logic.
Little by little, however, at each succeeding election the Liberal party gained strength, not only in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but even in England also, and their power in Parliament increased; until, in 1893, after a long and memorable contest, the Commons passed Mr. Gladstone’s Home Rule bill by a pronounced majority. Then it was thrown out by the Lords, with very brief consideration. This, and other overrulings of the Lower House by the Peers, aroused deep feeling throughout the nation. In March, 1894, the venerable Gladstone, whose impaired hearing and sight warned him that a man of eighty-five–even though a giant–should no longer bear the burdens of empire, retired from the premiership, his last speech being a solemn intimation of the issues that must soon arise if the House of Lords persisted in obstructing the will of the people, as expressed in the acts of their immediate representatives in the House of Commons.
But, whatever the outcome of the Irish question, the claim of William Ewart Gladstone to a high rank among the ruling statesmen of Modern Europe cannot be gainsaid. Moreover, as his influence has been so forceful a part of the great onward-moving modern current of democratic enlargement,–and in Great Britain one of its most discreet and potent directors,–his fame is secure; it is unalterably a part of the noblest history of the English people.
There is no exhaustive or satisfactory work on Gladstone which has yet been written. The reader must confine himself at present to the popular sketches, which are called biographies, of Gladstone, of Disraeli, of Palmerston, of Peel, and other English statesmen. He may consult with profit the Reviews of the last twenty-five years in reference to English political affairs. For technical facts one must consult the Annual Register. The time has not yet come for an impartial review of the great actors in this generation on the political stage of either Europe or America.