Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/William Ewart Gladstone

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2124252Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament — William Ewart GladstoneJohn Morrison Davidson




"His strength is as the strength of ten,
 Because his heart is pure."

MR. GLADSTONE has himself defined a Radical politician as a Liberal who "is in earnest." I thankfully accept the definition, and unhesitatingly place his honored name at the head of this series of biographical sketches of eminent Radicals. He is, and has ever been, pre-eminently in earnest,—in earnest, not for himself, but for the common weal. The addition, "for the common weal," is essential to the definition; for time was, of course, when Mr. Gladstone was not numbered with eminent Radicals, but with eminent Tories, whose characteristic it is, if they are in earnest at all, to be in earnest chiefly for themselves or the interests of their class. Of this latter reprehensible form of earnestness, I venture to affirm Mr. Gladstone has at no time been guilty. While yet in his misdirected youth among the Tories, he was never really of them.

"He only in a general, honest thought,
 And common good to all, made one of them."

The circumstances of his birth and education almost necessarily determined that he should enter public life as "the rising hope" of Toryism. The strength, candor, generosity and innate nobility of his nature have with equally irresistible force made his whole subsequent career a slow but sure process of repudiation of ever}'^ thing that Tories hold dear. Forty-six years ago, when he entered Parliament for Newark as the nominee of the Duke of Newcastle, he was the hope of the High Tory party; to-day he is the hope of the undaunted Radicalism of England, which, despite Conservative re-actions and Whig infidelities, knows nothing of defeat; which in adversity, like Milton,—blind and fallen on evil times,—"bates not a jot of heart or hope, but steers right onwards." Old as he is, his true place is where he is,—at the helm of the Radical bayque. Who can foresee himself?

William Ewart Gladstone is the fourth son of Sir John Gladstone of Fasque, Kincardineshire, first baronet. He was born on the 29th of December, 1809, at Liverpool, where his father, who had originally come from Leith, was then famous as a successful merchant, and as an influential friend and partisan of Canning. The name was originally spelt Gladstanes or Gledstanes; gled being Lowland Scottish for a hawk, and stanes meaning rocks. It is still not uncommon in many parts of rural Scotland to call a man by the place of his abode at the expense of his proper patronymic. In earlier times such local appellations often adhered permanently to individuals, and it is to this process that the Gladstone family is indebted for its name.

The Premier's mother was the daughter of Mr. Andrew Robertson, Provost of Dingwall, whose descent the credulous Burke traces from Robert Bruce, the patriot King of Scotland. Be this as it may, Mr. Gladstone is of pure Scottish blood,—a fact of which he has oftener than once expressed himself proud. Indeed, the perfervidum ingenium Scotorum is his in a remarkable degree; and it has its influence on public opinion across the border, notwithstanding his English training and his antipathetic High-Churchism. However England may abase herself before the gorgeous Lord Benjingo, Scotland will never turn her back on the undecorated Gladstone. There lives not a Scotsman that is not inwardly proud of him; for blood is, after all, thicker than water. Evicted from one English constituency after another for his devotion to Liberal principles, there is a sort of "fitness of things," not without a certain pathos, in the gallant and successful effort which the country of his forefathers has made to seize a seat for him from between the teeth of the great feudal despot of the North, "the bold Buccleuch," From a very tender age young Gladstone exhibited a wonderful aptitude for learning, and an almost superhuman industry, which age, instead of abating, seemingly increases. His daily autograph correspondence with high and low, rich and poor, conducted chiefly by the much-derided post-card, would afford ample employment for about six Somerset House clerks working at their usual pace. He possesses, I should say, without exception, the most omnivorous and untiring brain in England,—possibly in the whole world. No wonder that his course at Eton and at Oxford was marked by the highest distinction. A student of Christ Church, he graduated "double first" in his twenty-second year, a superlative master of the language and literature of Greece and Rome. He availed himself of every advantage the university could bestow; and, unlike most other scholars who subsequently become politicians and men of the world, he has never ceased to add to the immense store of his academic acquirements. He has published Latin sacred verses not appreciably inferior in grace to those of Buchanan and Milton; and as a Homeric student his "Studies of Homer and the Homeric Age" entitle him to no mean place among scholarly critics.

Unfortunately, however, for him, the sciences of observation—chemistry, botany, geology, natural history, and the like—were in his day almost wholly neglected at Oxford; and in place thereof an incredible mind-distorting theology was in vogue, from the evil consequences of which the Premier has not yet been able altogether to emancipate himself. It has laid him open to many false charges, and to some true ones. It made him for years a defender of the utterly indefensible Irish Establishment; and, when at last "the slow and resistless force of conviction" brought him to a better frame of mind, the change was attributed by thousands who ought to have known better to a concealed conversion to Romanism. In vain has he striven in pamphlet and periodical to rebut the allegation, and to make intelligible to the English people his theological stand-point. Newman, Manning, Capel,—the most redoubtable champions of Roman Catholicism in England,—he has met foot to foot and hand to hand on their own ground, and foiled with their own weapons. He has proved, with amazing learning and ingenuity, worthy of the schoolmen, that the Papacy has at last succeeded in "repudiating both science and history," and that his Holiness himself is next door to Antichrist. He, a simple layman, has demonstrated that he is one of the greatest theologians of the age. Still, much as I admire learning in every department of human intelligence, I must confess that I should have liked Mr. Gladstone better had he been more of a Gallio in such matters. One would almost as soon see a noble intellect like his exercising itself about the exploded theories of the astrologists or alchemists, as about the decisions of church councils, early or late.

His personal religion is, however, altogether another matter. It is the chief source of his overpowering sense of duty, of his righteous indignation, of his tender humanity. He is as much a Christian statesman as Pym, Sir Harry Vane, or Oliver Cromwell. His unaffected piety has opened up to him the hearts of his Nonconformist fellow-countrymen as nothing else could have done. Where he is best known he is most esteemed; viz., at his seat of Hawarden,—a fine property bought by his wife's ancestor. Sergeant Glynne, chief justice to Oliver Cromwell, on the sequestration of the Stanley estates, after the execution of James, the seventh Earl of Derby. Every morning by eight o'clock Mr. Gladstone may be seen wending his way to the village church of Hawarden to engage in matins as a prelude to the work of the day. Even when Prime Minister of England, he has been found in the humblest homes reading to the sick or dying consolatory passages of Scripture in his own soft melodious tones.

The best controller of the national exchequer that the country has ever had, his personal charities are almost reckless. In the course of his long walks in the neighborhood of Hawarden, his pockets have an astonishing knack of emptying themselves; and amusing stories are told of his having had to walk home inconvenient distances of ten and twelve miles in the dark because of his inability to raise so much as a third-class railway fare. As Prime Minister he refused an increase of salary; and when he quitted office he was so impoverished, that his famous collection of china is said to have been sold in consequence.

All his known habits and recreations are of the most innocent and healthy kind. He has nothing either of the jockey or the gamekeeper in his composition,—a fact which may account for a good deal of the antipathy exhibited towards him by the enlightened squirearchy of England. Yet Mr. Gladstone has none of the "lean and hungry look" of a Cassius. He is not a total abstainer; but he is next door. His is pre-eminently a mens sana in corpore sano. As is well known, he is one of the most stalworth tree-fellers in England. His skill with his axe would not disgrace a Canadian backwoodsman; and he has curious taste in carving and potter}', which is almost scientific.

Never was there a public man whose private "record" has been more blameless. In his zeal for domestic purity, he has not hesitated to rebuke the "conjugal infidelity" which, since the death of the Prince Consort, has developed itself in close proximity to the throne. In a word, he is a Christian statesman, with all the advantages and disadvantages which adhere to that character.

Let me now say a word of his renown as an orator. As a speaker I should be disposed to place him midway between Bright at his best and Beaconsfield at any time. For moral earnestness Mr. Bright is not his inferior; and in the command of pathos, humor, clear-cut thoughts, and chaste, limpid English, he is undoubtedly his superior. On the other hand, in versatility, in capacity for receiving new ideas, and of marshalling multitudinous details, Mr. Gladstone has no living equal. He is the orator of affairs. He has done what no one has ever done before him,—made budgets eloquent, and figures to possess a lofty moral significance.

Lord Beaconsfield unquestionably possesses in an eminent degree some of the first requisites of oratory. He is more witty, more ornate, and more audacious than Mr. Gladstone; but all is spoiled by levity, hopeless inaccuracy, and, I fear, essential insincerity. "Can there be," Mr. Carlyle has asked, "a more horrid object in creation than an eloquent man not speaking the truth?" Was it "the cool, conscious juggler," the "miraculous Premier" of yesterday, that the Prophet of Chelsea had in his mind's eye when, years ago, I heard him put this important interrogatory on the occasion of his rectorial address to the students of Edinburgh University? Again, I fear, yes.

Mr. Gladstone's oratory is marred by excessive copiousness of diction; yet there is a charm in this rare defect. He plunges right into a sea of words, from which there seems no possible extrication; and, when he emerges safe and sound, his hearers feel like those who, "in the brave days of old," beheld Horatius "plunge headlong in the tide:"—

"And when above the surges
 They saw his crest appear,
 All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry;
 And even the ranks of Tuscany
 Could scarce forbear to cheer."

Mr. Gladstone's Conduct as a parliamentary leader has been severely censured by professed Liberals, and his resolution to dissolve Parliament in 1874 has been specially instanced as a proof of strategic unwisdom. I distinctly demur both to indictment and proof. Those who say that he is not a good leader are not "in earnest," and such men can never be expected to follow Mr. Gladstone with much comfort to themselves. He is the natural leader of the Advanced Liberals in the House. The Brights, Dilkes, Chamberlains, Taylors, and Courtneys find no difficulty in following his lead. As for the dissolution of 1874, so much complained of, no Liberal Minister professing to govern, as every Liberal Minister is supposed to do, in accordance with the will of the people, could, in the face of the adverse by-elections which had taken place, honestly refrain from directly appealing to the constituent authority. Indeed, the pity is, it seems to me, that the appeal was not made sooner. If that had been done, all might have been well. The Conservative re-action, which gave birth to Jingo and so many sorrows, might have been nipped in the bud.

It remains to notice in very brief compass a few of the more important events in the Premier's public life, giving preference to the more remote. In 1832 he was returned for Newark in the Conservative interest, and in 1834 Sir Robert Peel made him a Junior Lord of the Treasury. In 1835 he found himself Under-Secretary for the Colonies. Shortly after, Sir Robert's administration fell; and Mr. Gladstone, in the cool shade of opposition, found leisure to write his oft-quoted works, "The State in its Relations with the Church," and "Church Principles considered in their Results." Lord Macaulay, in "The Edinburgh Review," thus spoke the judgment of posterity: "We dissent from his opinions; but we admire his talents. We respect his integrity and benevolence, and we hope that he will not suffer political avocations so entirely to engross him as to leave him no leisure for literature and philosophy."

In those days Mr. Gladstone held the untenable doctrine that it is the business of the State to uphold "the true religion." He ardently strove to find for the State Church a moral basis and justification which it can never have. In so doing he was "in earnest," but oblivious of the wisdom of One who understood the genius of Christianity better than himself: "My kingdom is not of this world." Since then "the slow and resistless force of conviction" has come to his aid. In 1841 Sir Robert Peel came back to office, and Mr. Gladstone was made Vice-President of the Board of Trade. In 1843 he became President of the Board, and for the first time his wonderful genius as an administrator had full scope. In 1845 he resigned office rather than be a party to adding to the endowments of the Romanist college of Maynooth, Ireland, which he had condemned in his work on "Church and State." Shiel wittily remarked that "the statesman had been sacrificed to the author." In point of fact, his resignation is a standing rebuke to those who have basely accused him of place-hunting.

From this time onwards Mr. Gladstone exhibited, in increasing measure and in numerous ways, his leaning towards Liberal opinions. Canningite and Oxford influences began to lose their hold over him. "I trace," he said at Oxford in December, 1878, "in the education of Oxford of my own time one great defect. Perhaps the fault was mine: but I must admit that I did not learn, when at Oxford, that which I have learned since; viz., to set a due value on the imperishable and inestimable principles of human liberty." In the budget of 1845 he defended a proposal to put slave-grown sugar on a less favorable footing than free; and, when the corn-law question became a "burning" one, he resigned his seat for Newark because of the anti-repeal views of the Duke of Newcastle. His powerful pen was, however, at the service of the repealers; and, when the battle was fought and won, he was returned in 1847 for the University of Oxford. He was still, of course, nominally a Tory; but one of his first acts was to support the removal of Jewish disabilities, to the confusion of many of those whose "rising hope" he was still supposed to be. In the session of 1849 he made a powerful speech in favor of the reform of our colonial policy, from which much benefit has indirectly flowed to the colonies.

In 1851 "circumstances purely domestic" took him to Naples, and there his humanity was stirred to its very core by the unheard-of brutalities of King Bomba. His passionate cry for redress resounded throughout the civilized world: "I have seen and heard the strong and true expression used, 'This is the negation of God erected into a system of government.'" For once Lord Palmerston was on the side of justice, and the sword of Garibaldi eventually wrought out for the Neapolitans the just vengeance which Mr. Gladstone had invoked on their tyants.

In the administration of 1859, Mr. Gladstone, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was instrumental in the repeal of the paper duty, and in contracting the commercial treaty with France. Of his remission of taxes and reductions of the national debt, it is unnecessary to speak. They are achievements engraved with an iron pen on the financial records of his country.

Two great questions, and two only, of his time has he completely misjudged,—the Crimean war and the American war. Of the first he was, to some extent, particeps criminis; and, with regard to the latter, a singularly rash and hostile utterance by implication numbered him with the friends of secession. For the former he has atoned by his late almost superhuman efforts to prevent its recurrence; and for the latter there is ample compensation in our wisest international act, the Alabama arbitration. It is no small misfortune that, in the course of his busy life, Mr. Gladstone has never found time to visit the generous land of "our kin beyond the sea." Such an experience would have taught him that it is better to be enshrined in the heart of a great people than to obtain the favor of all the courts and courtiers in Christendom.

Of the mighty impulse which he gave to the movement which ended in household suffrage being conferred on "our own flesh and blood," of the imperishable achievements of his ministry of 1868 in passing the Ballot Act and the Education Act, in abolishing purchase in the army, and, above all, in disestablishing the Church of Ireland and reforming in some measure the land laws of that unhappy country, what need to speak? To no Englishman of our time has it been given to perform such eminent service to his country and to mankind. His Radicalism, commencing to meander more than forty years ago among the stony uplands of Toryism, is now, as the limit of life is approached, a majestic river, whose ample flood will never be stinted or stayed till it is lost in the ocean of eternity.

At the general election of 1874 the British Philistine was fat, and kicked. The constituencies deliberately cried out, "Not this man, but Barabbas!" Is it necessary to add the emphatic, "Now, Barabbas was a robber"? But since then many things, as Earl Beaconsfield would say, have happened. The general election of 1880 reversed the verdict of 1874 with a decisiveness that fairly astonished all parties. In opposition, though no longer ostensible leader of the Liberal host, Mr. Gladstone had evinced a moral grandeur and an intellectual vigor never equalled by any British statesman; and on all hands he was felt to be the man of a very difficult situation, of which the end is not j-et. In proportion as he succeeds or fails will be the nation's gain or loss. In any case, if he has not done enough for humanity,—if he has still, as he says, a whole catalogue of "unredeemed pledges" to submit,—he has done enough, and more than enough, to enshrine his name imperishably in the hearts of all good men:—

"His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up,
And say to all the world, This was a Man!"