English Literature Of The 19th Century:
Third Or Later Victorian Period
William Ewart Gladstone
Historical Literature Of The Later Victorian Period
Edward Augustus Freeman
James Anthony Froude
Sir Henry Sumner Maine
William Edward Hartpole Lecky
John Addington Symonds
Read More Articles About: English Literature Of The 19th Century
William Ewart Gladstone
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
In the opening sentence of an article in the "Edinburgh Review" in 1839, on Gladstone's first appearance as an author, Macaulay described him as "a young man of unblemished character and of distinguished parliamentary abilities, the rising hope of the stern and unbending Tories. . . . His abilities and demeanor have obtained for him the respect and goodwill of all parties." This description has become memorable from the fact that Gladstone in becoming the greatest of Parliamentary leaders reversed the partisan expectations then formed.
Great as is the prominence of William Ewart Gladstone in political history, this sketch must be limited to the briefest outlines. Born of Scotch parentage at Liverpool in 1809, he was educated at Eton and Oxford, winning the highest honors. In 1832, aided by the Duke of New-castle, he was elected to Parliament ,and there was a devoted follower of Sir Robert Peel. When the struggle for free trade came, Gladstone went with Peel in his con-version, and even resigned his seat. But he was still a High Churchman, and the University of Oxford chose him as its representative in 1847. The prolonged rivalry of Disraeli and Gladstone began in 1852 when the latter defended Peel against the former's fierce invectives. Lord Palmerston made Gladstone Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1853, and then the first of his famous budget speeches was delivered. By force of genius he became leader of the House of Commons in 1865, and in the next year he attempted new Parliamentary reform. But the crafty Disraeli outwitted him, persuading even the Tory party to adopt more radical measures and take "a leap in the dark." But the Liberals were soon restored to power, and Gladstone first became Prime Minister in 1868. In contra-diction of the arguments of his own early book, he soon brought about the disestablishment of the Irish Church. The Education Bill of 1870 did much to popularize instruction. The advocates of every advance movement appealed to Gladstone to take up their cause, but the body of Parliamentary supporters fell off. Being defeated at the polls in 1874, he soon announced his retirement from political strife. No competent successor was found in the Liberal party. The Bulgarian atrocities of 1877 rekindled the zeal of the Grand Old Man, and in 188o by a memorable campaign he not only carried the district of Mid-Lothian but returned to Parliament with a splendid majority at his back. Desiring to settle the troublesome Irish question, Gladstone granted, in 1881, a new land law for that island. Great as this relief was, more was demanded. Coercion failed to restore quiet. The Home-Rulers steadily obstructed Parliamentary business. Finally, in 1886, Gladstone, in a supreme oratorical effort, introduced a measure granting Ireland autonomy, but the bill divided the Liberal party, a large section becoming Liberal-Unionists. Yet in 1892 Gladstone's followers won at the polls, and he again became Prime Minister, pledged to the same policy. The Home Rule bill passed the House of Commons, but was rejected by the Lords in September, 1893. In the following March the veteran statesman finally retired from political life. He died May 19, 1898, having suffered much from cancer in the face.
Gladstone was a great Parliamentary leader, a master of finance, and after he had fairly entered on bis career, a steady advocate of reform in English government and of liberty and progress in other nations. The hostility which he encountered in the later years of his activity was due not merely to his advocacy of Home Rule for Ireland, but to his resistance to the growing desire for the expansion of the British Empire. He had special gifts as an orator a grand presence, a clear, ringing voice, a brilliant eye, a thorough sincerity, and an overpowering enthusiasm. But he had faults of speech which appeared still more in his writing and were pointed out by Macaulay even in the review already quoted : "His rhetoric, though often good of its kind, darkens and perplexes the logic which it should illustrate. Half his acuteness and diligence, with a barren imagination and a scanty vocabulary, would have saved him from almost all his mistakes. He has one gift most dangerous to a [philosophical] speculator a vast command of a kind of language, grave and majestic, but of vague and uncertain import."
It was his work on "The State in Relation to the Church" (1839), which gave Macaulay the opportunity for this criticism. Gladstone had early acquired fondness for Greek literature, and in the intervals of his political career he published "Studies on the Homer and the Homeric Age" (1858), and other similar books, including a "Homeric Primer," in which he maintained very conservative views about that poet. Still insisting that the truest relaxation is to be found in change of employment, the statesman frequently contributed to leading reviews on literary and miscellaneous topics. Many of these articles were collected in his "Gleanings of Past Years" (8 vols., 1879), but many more were written subsequently. Perhaps his most interesting essays are those of a biographical character as on Bishop Patteson, Leopardi, Daniel O'Connell. Americans are attracted by his "Kin Beyond Sea."
After he had retired from political life, he amused himself by translating Horace, and toward the close of his life, as a pious tribute to the great philosophical defender of religion, he edited "The Works of Bishop Butler."