William Ewart Gladstone

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William Ewart Gladstone


British prime minister


Religious Upbringing. William Ewart Gladstone was born in Liverpool to John Gladstone, a prosperous merchant of Scottish origin. His devoutly evangelical upbringing profoundly influenced his life. Gladstone distinguished himself at Christ Church, University of Oxford, but after much soul-searching he chose politics rather than a career in the church. Nevertheless, his religious convictions remained strong throughout his life. In 1839 he married Catherine Glynne; they had eight children.

Political Development. Gladstone was first elected to Parliament in 1832 with the Conservative Party. Throughout the 1830s the young Gladstone opposed almost all reform; his first speeches defended slavery in the West Indies and the Church of England. In 1843 he became president of the Board of Trade in the Conservative cabinet of Sir Robert Peel. Gladstone supported Peel’s movement toward free trade, but in 1846, when Peel repealed the Corn Laws to help stave off starvation in Ireland and England, the Conservative Party lost the support of the landed elites, and Peel’s government collapsed. Between 1846 and 1859 Gladstone was politically isolated. During this isolation his views changed from conservative to liberal because of the horrific famine in Ireland and the general fear that it could lead to an 1848-style revolution as had occurred in France. Religious intolerance in Great Britain, especially the exclusion of Jews and Catholics from government, had long irritated Gladstone’s powerful religious convictions: his political isolation facilitated the transformation of this irritation into political action. He also supported the cause of Italian nationalism and unity. In 1859 he joined the Liberals and served as chancellor of the exchequer under Lord Palmerston. He gradually accepted the idea of an expanded voting franchise as a means of defusing the dangerous tensions that were building in British society; this made him a champion of the lower classes. In 1866 Gladstone proposed an amendment to the Reform Acts, which would further enfranchise the working class by using monetary amounts paid to landlords as qualifiers. This act, in effect, would allow people without land the right to vote. The proposal failed, however. Benjamin Disraeli, Gladstone’s great rival, presented an amendment that was more palatable to the British social and political elites: financial qualifications for voting rights were lowered, and householders, including many urban workers, were included in the franchise. Disraeli’s bill passed in 1867.

First Ministry. In his first ministry (1868–1874) Gladstone’s reform record was impressive. One of his most significant acts was to create a national elementary education program for all British children (1870). His government made major reforms in the justice system, making the central courts more efficient; in the civil service, basing employment on merit; and in the military, abolishing the purchase of army commissions. Perhaps Gladstone’s most difficult policy project was his effort to resolve the festering conflict in Ireland. The Irish had long demanded independence from Britain. However, the Potato Famine and the British government’s unwillingness to alleviate the situation had radicalized many formerly moderate Irish people and had led to considerable violence. The British government, which had traditionally been unwilling to grant Ireland any autonomy, was even more opposed to Irish independence after the waves of violence began. The majority of the Irish population was Roman Catholic. However, several hundred years under the yoke of British imperialism had brought many Anglican and Presbyterian settlers from Great Britain to Ireland, most of whom became powerful landlords. Gladstone removed support for the Anglican Church in Ireland: Irish Catholics were no longer forced to pay taxes to support it. Irish tenant farmers had long been vulnerable to surprise evictions by their British landlords; Gladstone ameliorated this situation by requiring that the landlords pay compensation to any evicted tenants. The wealthy and propertied of Britain, however, grew worried that the changing voting franchise would upset their traditional political power—in 1874 the Conservatives were voted into office with Disraeli as Prime Minister.

Second Ministry. Gladstone was sharply critical of the practices of the Disraeli government in Britain’s overseas empire. During the election of 1880 Gladstone’s cogent opposition to the British annexation of the South African Republic, the Afrikaner (or Boer) state in the Transvaal region of what is now northern South Africa, won him many supporters. Gladstone felt that the annexation of South Africa was morally wrong but also worried about Great Britain’s ability to protect such a distant and unstable place. His critiques were well taken by the voters; he won the election of 1880 and resumed his place as prime minister. The Reform Act of 1884 was the most important piece of legislation in Gladstone’s second ministry. This act further lowered financial qualifications for voters and extended the vote to many rural citizens. He ushered in the Land Act of 1881, which gave Irish tenant farmers greater control over the land they farmed, through Parliament, but peace remained elusive. In 1884, for example, the chief secretary and the undersecretary for Ireland were assassinated by Irish radicals. While Gladstone had come to believe that Irish home rule was necessary if further violence were to be prevented, his views were not popular in Parliament. In foreign affairs he was criticized for abandoning the Transvaal to the Afrikaners in 1881; for bombarding Alexandria during an Egyptian revolt; and for failing to get relief troops to the Sudan in time to prevent the death of Charles “Chinese” Gordon, a popular British general, in 1885. Gladstone and his cabinet were slow to react to problems in the empire—he argued that continued imperial expansion was morally unjustifiable and amounted to slavery.

Third and Fourth Ministries. Gladstone’s third (1886) and fourth (1892–1894) ministries were dominated by his pursuit of home rule for Ireland. His first Irish home-rule bill (1886) split the Liberal Party: many Liberals saw the Irish as little more than rabid animals and refused to support any reduction in British power over Ireland. In 1893 a second home-rule bill passed the House of Commons but was rejected by the House of Lords. Gladstone wanted to continue to struggle for Irish home rule, but his cabinet, many of whom worried about the effect the fight would have on their careers, refused. He therefore resigned as prime minister in 1894 and retired.

Impact. He died of cancer at the age of eighty-eight and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Gladstone mobilized an idealistic liberalism in the British public; he believed that government reform could improve life for all British citizens. His efforts to increase the voting franchise to include urban workers and farm laborers defused dangerous social tensions and probably prevented a revolution in Britain. His sponsorship of public education also allowed the children of these same laborers the hope of upward mobility. The Liberal Party grew strong under Gladstone, and his governments provided political stability in England for almost three decades. He was guided by firm religious beliefs, he distrusted imperialism, and he decried mistreatment of people throughout the world.


D. A. Hamer, Liberal Politics in the Age of Gladstone and Rosebery: A Study in Leadership and Policy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).

Roy Jenkins, Gladstone, a Biography (New York: Random House, 1997).

H. C. Matthew, Gladstone, 1809-1874 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

Richard Shannon, Gladstone (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

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William Ewart Gladstone

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