Gladstone, William

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religion and politics
gladstone's governments

GLADSTONE, WILLIAM (1809–1898), British politician.

Born in Liverpool on 29 December 1809, William Ewart Gladstone was one of the most influential statesmen and political leaders in nineteenth-century Britain. A member of Parliament (MP) for sixty-two years (1832–1895), he served as a cabinet minister many times after 1841, and as prime minister four times (1868–1874, 1880–1885, 1886, and 1892–1894). Often regarded as a quintessential Victorian, in many ways his influence set standards for later generations of politicians, including both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

religion and politics

Gladstone hailed from a family of wealthy Liverpool merchants of Scottish origin. His father, Sir John (1764–1851), was originally a Presbyterian, but his mother, Anne Mackenzie Robertson (1772–1835) belonged to the Scottish Episcopalian tradition. It was in an Anglican evangelical environment that William had his first and most influential religious experiences, most revealingly expressed in the diaries, which he kept on a daily basis from 1825 to 1896. "'Truth, justice, order, peace, honour, duty, liberty, piety,' these are the objects before me in my daily prayers with reference to my public function, which for the present commands (& I fear damages) every other: but this is the best part of me. All the rest is summed up in 'miserere."' This was Gladstone's self-perception in 1872 on approaching the zenith of his career. His intense religiosity was frequently satirized by both hostile contemporaries (quick to denounce inconsistencies in his behavior as evidence of hypocrisy), and twentieth-century historians, who operated in a much more skeptical and secular environment and had no time for piety in politics. Historians at the turn of the twenty-first century tend to take a more sympathetic view. However, there is no question that he fell short of his own (incredibly demanding) moral and political standards. Furthermore, his religious views changed over the years. During his student days at Eton and Oxford, he abandoned evangelicalism for the high church, with its tractarian emphasis on the sacraments and the apostolic succession. Later, although he remained firmly committed to the Anglican orthodoxy, he adopted many of the attitudes associated with the more liberal broad church and, for example, saw no contradiction between creation and evolution.

In politics his views changed even more radically: he started as a reactionary Tory and ended his career as the idol of left-wing Liberals and Irish nationalists. By contrast, in the field of economics and public finance, Gladstone remained a lifelong devotee of the government tradition established by Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850), who presided over a largely successful but very divisive Conservative government in 1841–1846. Peel and his foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen (George Hamilton-Gordon; 1784–1860), were Gladstone's mentors at a crucial stage of his career. It was Peel who directed Gladstone's attention and energies away from the explosive Irish question, to which he would have wished to devote himself, to the apparently dry and technical demands of the board of trade. It was an inspired choice. The academically distinguished young minister (he shared with Peel the unusual distinction of having achieved a "double" first at Oxford, in both mathematics and classics) relished the challenge and soon mastered the intricacies of British commercial legislation better than most contemporaries.

Like Peel, Gladstone became a convert to free trade and the repeal of the Corn Laws, which protected British farming from international competition and which the bulk of the Conservative Party regarded as an article of political faith. When Peel pushed repeal through Parliament (with the help of the opposition), the party split and Gladstone followed his mentor into the wilderness. However, in 1853, after a memorable parliamentary duel with Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) over the latter's proposed budget (which was defeated), Gladstone accepted to serve as chancellor of the Exchequer in a free-trade coalition government led by Lord Aberdeen. His achievements at the treasury created what historians regard as the "social contract" of mid-Victorian Britain. Balancing direct with indi-rect taxation (each targeting different social classes, so that all would contribute and none would feel unfairly exploited), Gladstone reduced duties on hundreds of items of mass consumption, thus stimulating output, domestic demand, foreign trade, and employment. The systematic reduction of state expenditure (retrenchment) enabled him to cut taxation, again a policy that appealed to all classes, especially in view of the fact that central government expenditure was dominated by the servicing of the national debt and the armed forces (social expenditure was funded through local rates raised by municipal authorities and the Poor Law boards). The fortunate coincidence between his tenure at the treasury and the economic boom of 1850 to 1873 further strengthened Gladstone's reputation.

Free trade had caused Gladstone's first clash with contemporary mainstream conservatism, but the final break came over foreign policy in the 1850s. A classicist, Gladstone had always loved Italy, spending holidays in Rome and Naples whenever possible. It was in Naples in 1853 that he first became interested in the plight of Italian patriots, many of whom had been imprisoned after the failed liberal revolution of 1848. While the Conservative Party was not prepared to criticize the Italian status quo, the Liberal leader Lord Palmerston (Henry John Temple; 1784–1865) welcomed Gladstone's pleas for reforms on the peninsula. In 1859 Gladstone finally accepted that his views on both free trade and Italy precluded any reconciliation with his old party. As chancellor of the Exchequer in the last Palmerston government (1859–1865), Gladstone came to support electoral reform in 1864, when he realized that the artisans were enthusiastic about his cherished policies of free trade and "retrenchment." After Palmerston's death, Gladstone served in the short-lived reform ministry (1865–1866) of Lord Russell (John Russell; 1792–1878) before becoming party leader and eventually prime minister in 1868.

gladstone's governments

By then the electoral franchise had been greatly extended by Disraeli and Lord Derby (Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley; 1799–1869), who presided over a minority Tory government in 1866–1868. However, Gladstone was able to secure the immediate electoral benefits of the second reform act when the Liberals achieved a large majority at the general election of 1868. His first government (1868–1874) had a mandate for further radical changes. These included the local franchise for women (1869), the separation between church and state in Ireland (1869), followed by land reform (1870), the creation of a public system of primary schools in Britain (1870), the reform of trade union laws (1871), and the introduction of the secret ballot for elections (1872). Eventually the government was defeated on Gladstone's proposal to reform Irish university education in 1873, and the Liberals lost the ensuing general election (1874), when the prime minister proposed to abolish the income tax in a further campaign to cut central government expenditure. In 1875 Gladstone resigned the party leadership and considered complete retirement from public life.

However, he was catapulted back into the limelight by the popular response to the so-called Bulgarian Atrocities (1876). Press reports of large-scale "ethnic cleansing" in Bulgaria (where Ottoman forces massacred some twelve thousand Orthodox Christians in the attempt to repress a nationalist insurrection) generated a wave of protest, which Gladstone exploited to embarrass the Conservative government. However, the latter stuck to their pro-Ottoman policy to the extent of threatening war against Russia, who had intervened on behalf of Bulgarian nationalism. Although Disraeli (from 1876 Lord Beaconsfield) managed to avoid war in Europe, he allowed his colonial proconsuls to start ill-starred and expensive wars in Afghanistan and South Africa. In 1879

and 1880 Gladstone attacked the foreign and financial policy of the government in the first of his "Midlothian campaigns." Ostensibly electoral campaigns to wrestle the parliamentary seat of Midlothian (Scotland) from the Tories, the campaign became highly publicized, national whistle-stop speaking tours that introduced Britain to electoral techniques hitherto associated with U.S. presidential primaries. The Liberals achieved a large majority at the 1880 election and Queen Victoria (who disliked Gladstone's political preaching and feared his radicalism) had no alternative but to appoint him as her prime minister.

Gladstone's second government was plagued by continuous external emergencies, especially in Egypt (which Gladstone invaded in 1882 in flagrant violation of his previous advocacy of a peaceful and multilateral foreign policy) and in Ireland (where he tried to repress rural unrest). The two crises haunted his ministry and eventually brought about its downfall in 1885. Meanwhile, however, he implemented an impressive series of reforms that targeted Irish land tenure (1881–1883) and electoral corruption (1883) and that introduced a more democratic parliamentary franchise and a more equitable distribution of seats (1884 and 1885).

In 1886 Gladstone's adoption of Home Rule (parliamentary self-government) for Ireland opened a new phase in British politics, but split the Liberal Party, a section of which crossed the floor to support a Conservative administration and preserve the Union. During the following six years Gladstone campaigned vigorously for Home Rule. His efforts might have resulted in a substantial Liberal majority at the ensuing election, had it not been for the 1890 divorce scandal that destroyed the career of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–1891), the leader of the Irish National Party, and undermined the credibility of the Liberal-Nationalist alliance. Nevertheless Gladstone managed to win the 1892 election, but his comparatively small majority was not enough to force the recalcitrant and overwhelmingly Unionist House of Lords to accept the Second Home Rule Bill (1893).

In 1894 Gladstone resigned and retired from politics. Yet, his ideas remained very influential in the party, which eventually was brought back to office in 1906, under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836–1908), on a largely Gladstonian program. He spent his last years at Hawarden Castle, the country house in Wales that he had acquired through his wife, Catherine Glynne (1812–1900), whom he had married in 1839. They formed a happy and mutually supportive couple for nearly sixty years. Gladstone died at Hawarden on 19 May 1898.

See alsoDisraeli, Benjamin; Great Britain; Liberalism; Victoria, Queen.


Bebbington, David William. The Mind of Gladstone: Religion, Homer, and Politics. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 2004.

Biagini, Eugenio F. Liberty, Retrenchment, and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860–1880. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992 and 2004.

Boyce, D. George. "In the Front Rank of the Nation: Gladstone and the Unionists of Ireland, 1868–1893." In Gladstone Centenary Essays, edited by David Bebbington and Roger Swift, 184–201. Liverpool, 2000.

Hammond, John Lawrence. J. Gladstone and the Irish Nation. New York, 1938.

Matthew, Henry Colin Gray. Gladstone 1809–1898. 2 vols. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1997.

O'Day, Alan. "Gladstone and Irish Nationalism: Achievement and Reputation." In Gladstone Centenary Essays, edited by David Bebbington and Roger Swift, 163–183. Liverpool, 2000.

Parry, Jonathan Philip. Democracy and Religion: Gladstone and the Liberal Party, 1867–1875. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1986.

Vincent, John. "Gladstone and Ireland." Proceedings of the British Academy (1977): 193–238.

Eugenio F. Biagini