William Gladstone

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William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) was the great Liberal prime minister of Britain's golden age of parliamentary government. Along with his equally great Conservative rival Benjamin Disraeli he dominated British politics for the second half of the 19th century.[1] Gladstone served as Liberal prime minister four times (1868–74, 1880–85, 1886, and 1892–94). His financial policies, based on the notion of balanced budgets, low taxes and laissez-faire, were suited to a developing capitalist society but could not respond effectively as economic and social conditions changed. Called the "Grand Old Man" later in life, he was always a dynamic popular orator who appealed strongly to British workers and lower middle class. The deeply religious Gladstone brought a new moral tone to politics with his evangelical sensibility and opposition to aristocracy. His moralism often angered his upper-class opponents (including Queen Victoria), and his heavy-handed control split the Liberal party. His foreign policy goal was to create a European order based on cooperation rather than conflict and mutual trust instead of rivalry and suspicion; the rule of law was to supplant the reign of force and self-interest. This Gladstonian concept of a harmonious Concert of Europe was opposed to and ultimately defeated by a Bismarckian system of manipulated alliances and antagonisms.

William Ewart Gladstone, Liberal Prime Minister of Britain in the late 19th century

Considered to be one of Britain's greatest Prime Ministers, Gladstone was the inspiration for Winston Churchill and is admired as well by many American conservatives.

Early career to 1868

Gladstone was born on Dec. 29, 1809, at Liverpool, of Scottish parents. The family maintained close ties to Scotland, and Gladstone's ideas and modes of thinking were shaped by Scots, especially the novels of Sir Walter Scott. His father, Sir John Gladstone, rose from a humble Scottish origin to be Liverpool's foremost citizen after making a huge fortune in commerce during the Napoleonic wars, based on transatlantic corn and tobacco trade with the United States and on the slave-labour sugar plantations they owned in the West Indies. William was the youngest of four sons. He attended Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. A brilliant student, he learned oratory as well as English literature, history and theology. He was proficient at Greek and Latin, passing at French, poor at mathematics, and ignorant of science. At this time, he began the first of 25,000 diary entries that comprise a remarkable personal record continuing to the week of his death. Gladstone's political genius was recognized at an early age; when he was 22 the Duke of Newcastle, a Conservative party activist, provided him a "rotten borough"[2] and he entered Parliament. Gladstone's maiden speech as a young Tory was a defense of the rights of West Indian sugar plantation magnates — slave-owners — among whom his father was prominent.

Becoming Scottish

Although a son of Scottish parents, Gladstone was not initially considered a Scot by Englishmen, for he had been born and brought up in England and did not represent Scotland until 1880. However Gladstone was deeply influence by Scotland. Of Walter Scott's political admirers, Gladstone was possibly the most ardent, genuine and significant. Scott's poems and novels were among the earliest texts Gladstone read, and were seminal in the formation of his private identity, both individual and familial, including much of his self-concept, his understanding of family, and his sense of home. Scott's works crucially influenced Gladstone's political understanding of the Scottish nation and its people, and his notions of how to best serve their political interests. In 1880, he became the Liberal MP for Midlothian and his election campaigns there gave him a Scottish profile. Consequently, he was depicted by cartoonist Tenniel, in Punch, as both a Highlander and "The McGladstone".[3]


His mother, intensely religious, was an evangelical of Scottish Episcopal origins,[4] and his father joined the Church of England, having been a Presbyterian when he first settled in Liverpool. The boy was baptized into the Church of England. He had previously experienced and ignored, from motives of worldly ambition, a call to enter the Church and become an Anglican priest, and his conscience tormented him for the rest of his life. He made amends by attempting to force his political career into conformity with the pietistic religion in which he fervently believed. In 1838 Gladstone nearly wrecked his career when he tried to force a religious mission upon the Conservative Party. He published a book which argued that the State had neglected its duty to the Church of England; and he coolly suggested that, as that Church possessed a monopoly of religious truth, Nonconformists and Roman Catholics ought to be excluded from all official employments. The historian Thomas Babington Macaulay and other critics tore his arguments to shreds, and Sir Robert Peel, Gladstone's chief, was outraged. Peel was greatly attached, however, to his high-minded and extraordinarily good-looking young protégé, and he succeeded in diverting Gladstone's attention from theology to finance.

Gladstone altered his approach to religious problems, which always held first place in his mind. Before entering Parliament he had already substituted a High Church Anglican attitude, with its dependence upon authority and tradition, for the narrow evangelical outlook of his boyhood, with its reliance upon the direct inspiration of the Bible. Now in middle life he decided that the individual conscience would have to replace authority as the inner citadel of the Church. That view of the individual conscience affected his political outlook and changed him gradually from a Conservative into a Liberal.

Gladstone was a devout Christian throughout his life; religion had a profound impact on his political actions. In his early career he was intent on maintaining relations between Church and State, although he later realised that this was too idealistic and advocated 'greater autonomy' for the Anglican Church and toleration of other faiths and denominations.

Gladstone insisted on a high moral purpose in his politics, and was generally true to this commitment. This may explain his later conversion to more radical politics; campaigning for social justice and welfare for those less fortunate as a moral responsibility. It is also shown in his mission to 'pacify Ireland' in 1868, and his denunciation of the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire on Bulgarian Christians in the late 1870s.

Gladstone's evangelical stance often attracted criticism from his opponents and alienated sections of his own party. Luckily for Gladstone however, his moral crusades were generally supported by an enthusiastic political public.

Another aspect of Gladstone's religious mission was his work in rescuing prostitutes from the streets. He would aim to find them alternative employment and rehabilitate them back into mainstream society. His work was seen as controversial and criticised by many, but he continued this practice with the full support of his wife even when he was Prime Minister.


Gladstone lost his parliamentary seat in 1845 because of his free trade views but in 1847 was elected to represent the University of Oxford. He left the Tory (Conservative) Party along with Sir Robert Peel in 1846, and during the next few years he moved slowly in the direction of liberalism. In 1852 he brought about the fall of the ministry of Lord Derby by his unpremeditated but brilliant attack on the budgets of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli.

Gladstone served as President of the Board of Trade (1843–44) during the second ministry of Robert Peel. He resigned in 1845 over the Maynooth Grant issue, but returned in December as Colonial Secretary. Peel's government fell in 1846, and Gladstone followed his leader in separation from the Conservative Party. After Peel's death in 1850, Gladstone became leader of this ‘Peelite’ faction in the House of Commons.

In 1852 Gladstone became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Aberdeen's ministry (1852–55). The government resigned in 1855 over the Crimean War and Gladstone spent the next four years in the political wilderness, refusing to join Derby's Conservative Ministry on the grounds that he did not want to work with Benjamin Disraeli.


Gladstone became Chancellor of the Exchequer again in Lord Palmerston's ministry (1859–66), when he became one of the leaders of the newly renamed Liberal Party. He cut the income tax on the rich from 5% to 2%. His modest parliamentary reform bill was defeated in 1866, but his speeches did much to mold Disraeli's Reform Bill of 1867. His reputation is outstanding as a highly effective Chancellor who raised the visibility and power of the position.

Gladstone took readily to finance and achieved his greatest success in that field. He promoted balancing the budget, limiting public expenditure, and paying off national debt. His rhetoric of fiscal responsibility helped to unify the Liberal Party and differed significantly from the Conservatives in advocating fiscal simplicity, reduced government size, and direct taxation. When he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1853 he made that office, for the first time, the second most important in the government. He inaugurated an era of unexampled prosperity by applying the creed of laissez-faire to the nation's economic problems and by setting individuals free from a multitude of crippling and obsolete fiscal restrictions. His annual budget statements were eagerly awaited, and the crowning moments of the first phase of his career were the great budgets of 1853 and 1860. He popularized finance and moralized it, arguing that self-discipline in freedom is the essential condition of human strength and happiness.

Conservative to Liberal

In an historic move, Gladstone joined Palmerston's new Liberal government in 1859 as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In this post, Gladstone was steadily able to reduce income tax during his time in office. He had originally opposed further electoral reform, but by 1865, was in favour of extending the franchise to the working classes in the towns.

Liberal Leader

Palmerston died in 1865 and was replaced by John Russell, who in turn retired in 1867. Gladstone became leader of the Liberal Party. The Liberals won the 1868 general election and Gladstone became Prime Minister, in a government described as ‘the greatest of the 19th century’. A number of important reforms were passed, such as the disestablishment of the unpopular Church of Ireland in 1869, the Forster Education Act of 1870, which provided free primary education for all, and the 1872 Ballot Act, which ensured a secret ballot in all future elections.

However, not all of the new legislation was popular with the voting public. Gladstone was defeated in the 1874 general election by his Conservative counterpart Benjamin Disraeli, and soon after resigned as Liberal leader. However, Disraeli's aggressive foreign policy (particularly in the Middle East) spurred Gladstone back into frontline politics as he launched an extensive campaign against the Conservative government, (known as the ‘Midlothian Campaign’) in 1879 and 1880.

Prime Minister 1868-1874

As prime minister 1868 to 1874 he headed a Liberal Party that was a coalition of Peelites like himself, Whigs and radicals; Gladstone was now a spokesman for "peace, economy and reform." Besides important legislation regarding Ireland, he passed the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which provided England with an adequate system of elementary schools for the first time and required attendance; the abolition of the purchase of commissions in the army, and of religious tests for admission to Oxford and Cambridge; the introduction of the secret ballot in elections; the legalization of trade unions; and the reorganization of the judiciary in the Judicature Act.

Between 1870 and 1874 religious disputes played a major part in destroying the broad Liberal Party coalition. Disputes over education, Irish disestablishment, and the Irish universities showed the divergence between, on the one hand, Whigs, who wanted state control of education and the propagation of a nondenominational, morally uplifting Christianity, and on the other hand Gladstone and his supporters, who sought to guard religion's independence from a modernizing civil power. This division struck a lasting blow to prospects of agreement on future policy over education and Ireland.[5]


In 1868 Gladstone appointed Robert Lowe (1811–92) Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite Lowe's nasty attacks on Gladstone's own chancellorships, because he thought Lowe could hold down public spending. Public spending rose, and Gladstone pronounced Lowe "wretchedly deficient," a view that posterity has not challenged. Lowe was, however, a better Gladstonian than Gladstone himself. Lowe also stood out for his systematic underestimation of the revenue, enabling him to resist the clamor for tax cuts and to reduce the national debt instead, and for his insistence that the tax system be fair to all classes, which was more intense and protracted than that of any other chancellor of the age. By his own criterion of fairness - that the balance between direct and indirect taxation remain unchanged - he succeeded. This balance had never been a good measure of class incidence and was by that time thoroughly archaic.[6]

Army reform

Gladstone paid little attention to military affairs but in 1870 pushed through Parliament major changes in Army organization. Germany's stunning triumph over France proved that the Prussian system of professional soldiers with up-to-date weapons was far superior to the traditional system of gentlemen-soldiers that Britain used. Edward Cardwell (1813–1886) as Secretary of State for War (1868-1874) designed the reforms that Gladstone supported in the name of efficiency and democracy. In 1868 he abolished flogging, raising the private soldier status to more like an honorable career. In 1870 Cardwell abolished "bounty money" for recruits, discharged known bad characters from the ranks. He pulled 20,000 soldiers out of self-governing colonies, like Canada, which learned they had to help defend themselves. The most radical change, and one that required Gladstone's political muscle, was to abolish the system of officers obtaining commissions and promotions by purchase, rather than by merit. The system meant that the rich landholding families controlled all the middle and senior ranks in the army. Promotion depended on the family's wealth, not the officer's talents, and the middle class was shut out almost completely. British officers were expected to be gentlemen and sportsmen; there was no problem if they were entirely wanting in military knowledge or leadership skills. From the Tory perspective it was essential to keep the officer corps the domain of gentlemen, and not a trade for professional experts. They warned the latter might menace the oligarchy and threaten a military coup; they preferred an inefficient army to an authoritarian state. The rise of Bismark's new Germany made this reactionary policy too dangerous for a great empire to risk. The bill, which would have compensated current owners for their cash investments, passed Commons in 1871 but was blocked by the House of Lords. Gladstone then moved to drop the system without any reimbursements, forcing the Lords to backtrack and approve the original bill. Liberals rallied to Gladstone's anti-elitism, pointing to the case of Lord Cardigan (1797–1868), who spent £40,000 for his commission and proved utterly incompetent in the Crimean war, where he ordered the disastrous "Charge of the Light Brigade" in 1854. Cardwell was not powerful enough to install a general staff system; that had to await the 20th century. He did rearrange the war department. He made the office of Secretary of State for War superior to the Army's commander in Chief; the commander was His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge (1819-1904), the Queen's first cousin, and an opponent of the reforms. The surveyor-general of the ordnance, and the financial secretary became key department heads reporting to the Secretary. The militia was reformed as well and integrated into the Army. The term of enlistment was reduced to 6 years, so there was more turnover and a larger pool of trained reservists. The territorial system of recruiting for regiments was standardized and adjusted to the current population. Cardwell reduced the Army budget yet increased its strength of the army in the home islands by 25 battalions, 156 field guns, and abundant stores, while the reserves available for foreign service had been raised tenfold from 3,500 to 36,000 men.[7]

Defeat (1874) and Return (1876)

Defeated by the Conservatives at the general election of 1874, Gladstone retired in disgust from public life. He planned to devote the whole of his time, instead of his leisure as theretofore, to the task of defending Christian dogma from scientific onslaught. He coauthored a pamphlet attacking the "Vatican decrees," the newly proclaimed doctrine of papal infallibility; it sold 150,000 copies.[8]

The Eastern Question

Gladstone sprang back into political life in 1876 over his moralistic foreign policy. It was his main concern 1876-1880. Gladstone's campaign to oppose the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans led the British into a heated debate and drew the party line between Gladstone's Liberals (who denounced the immoral Ottomans) and Disraeli's Conservatives (who supported the Ottoman Empire as an offset to Russian power). Disraeli had threatened war with Russia on the issue and Gladstone argued he was wrong. Liberal opinion was convulsed by atrocities in the Balkans, in particular the massacre of more than 10,000 Christian Bulgars by Turkish irregulars. Gladstone published a ferocious pamphlet, focusing on the Turks' "abominable and bestial lusts ... at which Hell itself might almost blush" and demanding they withdraw from European soil. The pamphlet sold an astonishing 200,000 copies.[9] Gladstone felt a call from God to aid the Serbians and Bulgarians as he stumped the country like some ancient Hebrew prophet denouncing tyranny and oppression. The crowning moment was his "Midlothian campaign" in late 1879. Gladstone in four speeches charged the government with financial incompetency, neglecting domestic legislation, and mismanagement of foreign affairs. By appealing to vast audiences denouncing Disraeli's pro-Turkish foreign policy, Gladstone made himself a moral force in Europe, unified his party, and was carried back to power.

The Liberals were not so naive and idealistic as to reject the imperial heritage; many Liberals such as H. H. Asquith became active imperialists. Liberal Party policy around 1880 was shaped by Gladstone as he repeatedly attacked Disraelian imperialism. On the other hand, national interest was always paramount, and the Liberals were quick to seek common ground with the Conservatives in regard to the Berlin Treaty, in which the party lost the moral high ground as a critic of imperialism.

Later terms (1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894)

With the Liberals defeat in the elections of 1874, Gladstone relinquished leadership of the Liberal Party. He returned as prime minister in 1880, and his government lasted until 1885. Legislation passed included the Land Act of 1881 for Ireland, and the third parliamentary Reform Act of 1884.

However, this government was to become known as the ‘Ministry of Troubles’, with problems both at home and abroad.

Foreign policy

He set about disengaging Britain from a series of colonial wars, but his foreign policy, which was one of avoidance of entanglements, lacked consistency and distinction. The 1880-85 period had mixed results at best. He undermined his reputation among pacifists and anti-imperialists by his military attack on Egypt in 1882. He was then denounced by jingoes when he sent General Charles George Gordon to the Sudan then failed to rescue him as he was besieged at Khartoum for 10 months and killed 2 days before rescuers arrived.

In 1886, Gladstone was able to defeat Lord Salisbury's Conservative government through an alliance with Irish Nationalists and introduced his Home Rule Bill for Ireland. The issue split the Liberal Party and the Bill was defeated at the second reading. The government then lost the 1886 general election to be replaced by Lord Salisbury's Conservative Ministry.

In 1892, Gladstone was re-elected Prime Minister for the fourth and final time. The following year he introduced his second Home Rule Bill. It passed by a small majority in the Commons, but then was defeated in the Lords.

The Irish question

The third and final phase of his career was devoted to the Irish question. He sought repeatedly to pass a home rule bill but failed in 1886 and 1893. In 1869, however, he disestablished the Church of Ireland (that is the Protestant Anglican Church of the landowners, not the Catholic Church of the peasants), so that taxes were no longer collected for the Church. In 1870 he began to deal with the land tenure question. The Irish Land Act of 1870 gave some security to Irish tenant farmers by preventing arbitrary eviction and giving the tenants financial rights to improvements they made. The agricultural depression of the 1870s soured the mood, and Charles Stewart Parnell set up the Irish Land League that used boycotts and violence against the landlords. Gladstone's Land Act of 1881, called the “Magna Carta” of the Irish farmer, recognized the three F's (fair rent, fixity of tenure, and freedom of sale) and provided a land commission to determine what was a "fair rent." The Ashbourne Act of 1885 and supplementary acts of 1887 and 1891 provided a loan fund of many millions of pounds for tenants who wished to purchase their lands. Parnell mastered the arts of filibustering and parliamentary obstruction with 86 solid votes from Irish Nationalist MPs in Parliament he controlled. They were elected thanks to Gladstone's Third Reform Bill of 1884, which greatly extended the franchise and for the first time treated Ireland and Great Britain on equal terms, thus tripling the Irish electorate. Parnell's MP's brought down Gladstone's second government in June 1885; he was replaced by the Conservatives under Lord Salisbury.

Home Rule Bill of 1886

The Irish land proposals in Gladstone's first Home Rule Bill of 1886 was an unexpected shock to his supporters and brought down his third government in a matter of months. The bill gave all owners of Irish land a chance to sell to the state at a price equal to 20 years' purchase of the rents and allowing tenants to purchase the land. Irish nationalist reaction was mixed, Unionist opinion was hostile, and the election addresses during the 1886 election revealed English radicals to be against the bill also. Among the Liberal rank and file, several Gladstonian candidates disowned the bill, reflecting fears at the constituency level that the interests of the working people were being sacrificed to finance a rescue operation for the landed elite.[10]

Meanwhile, serious confrontations continued between the local magistrates (who represented the Protestant landowners) and the Irish National League, which replaced the suppressed National Land League, and told tenants to withhold rents from extortionate landlords. The Irish question transformed politics in Britain and was not finally settled until the 1920s.

Retirement and personality

Gladstone's long marriage (1839-1898) to Catherine Gladstone (1812-1900) reveals an ideal helpmeet and ideal Victorian wife, She was also motivated by a sense of mission; this led her to censor information her husband received, which kept him unaware of the true nature of public opinion, and her strong opposition to retirement, which kept Gladstone in office longer than he or his colleagues desired.

Gladstone never appreciated the intensity of opinion in Protestant Ulster in the north of Ireland not the refusal of the British ruling class, then at the zenith of its wealth and pride, to make concessions to terrorists and boycotters. The right wing of his party was outraged at being ordered by its leader to dismember the heart of the Empire through Home Rule for Ireland; and the left wing was equally outraged at seeing its demands for social reform postponed time and again because Gladstone refused to concentrate upon more than one subject at a time. This last phase of Gladstone's career plunged Britain into political ferment. But the Liberal Party was so completely dominated by his personality that his leadership remained unshaken after the right wing, calling themselves "Liberal Unionists," revolted and joined the Conservatives in opposing Home Rule, and after the radicals resigned from the government in protest against Gladstone's refusal to support social reform. Nevertheless, the Liberal Party's future was prejudiced by its leader's intransigence. Many people felt that an ability to compromise and to act as the prudent chairman of a board would have been a more valuable quality in a prime minister.

Gladstone retired in 1894 when he was 84 years old, after his fourth and last cabinet had revolted unanimously against his leadership. He had refused his consent to a modest increase in the Naval estimates and had called his colleagues "criminals" to their faces. That pathetic close to a great career was made more unhappy by his unkind reception at his final interview with Queen Victoria, when her longstanding dislike of him was made apparent. He brooded over it constantly and was inclined to attribute it to foul and lying stories carried to her ears by his enemies about his noble and selfless rescue work, performed one night a week throughout the whole of his life, among street-walking prostitutes in London.


Gladstone, who enjoyed superb health, was a beautifully proportioned man and a most impressive figure even in extreme old age. He was capable occasionally of unconscious self-deception, and his sense of humor, like his sense of proportion, was capricious; but he displayed always an extraordinary modesty and a delightful, old-world courtesy. His writings, which are mostly upon classical subjects with a strong religious undertone, are unlikely ever again to be widely read. He repeatedly tried to prove, for example, that the ancient Greeks were as much a chosen people as the Jews and that Homer had been inspired by God to foreshadow the Trinity. His speeches, although marvelously effective at the time of their delivery, are not of the highest or most enduring quality. They do not appeal like the Earl of Chatham's to elemental passions or like Edmund Burke's to elemental principles, and they contain few passages which gleam in the memory or which would be likely to bring a sparkle into the eye of a declaiming schoolchild. Deprived of the magic of his voice and gestures, the characteristic note of the printed texts is an expression of intellectualized sentiment.


Gladstone died at Hawarden Castle in Flintshire, Wales, on May 19, 1898, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He was survived for two years by his widow (Catherine Glynne), a much loved member of an aristocratic Whig family who had inherited the Hawarden property where her husband sank his roots. It was an ideally happy marriage, and it was widely appreciated that the Gladstones had lived their personal lives on a much more exalted and austere plane than that of their political contemporaries.


In the office of prime minister, which he held four times and for more than 13 years, Gladstone's achievement was splendid, but lesser individuals have been better fitted temperamentally for that office. He was too intent upon ideas to pay sufficient attention to persons, and upon great ends to take sufficient care of irksome means. Like Peel, Gladstone was actuated by a strong sense of public duty and viewed the party as performing a supportive role for its leader's promotion of policies in the public interest. More than Peel, Gladstone viewed himself as a national leader inspired by a political - even quasi-religious - mission and sought encouragement and validation through electoral and other appeals to the public conscience. These appeals frequently put Gladstone at odds with the Liberal Party, which he nevertheless masterfully controlled for almost thirty years.

In the last analysis, however, what Gladstone was is of vastly greater significance than what he did. If by ignoring human weaknesses he allowed the best cause to become the enemy of the good, he did more by his example than any political leader in modern times to give effect, in his private and public life, to the spirit of the Gospel message. In its service he started as the foe, became the agent, and ended as the prophet of the liberal experiment.

Gladstone and Disraeli

Writers have often exaggerated the political and especially the personal antagonism between the two men. In the 1830s they were both Tory members of Parliament with similar views, and they did not clash directly over fiscal policy until 1852. Gladstone mistrusted Disraeli and questioned his motives but greatly admired his oratory and literary skill. Disraeli appreciated Gladstone's talents and in the 1850s tried to persuade him to rejoin the Conservatives. From 1858 to 1868 one or the other was Chancellor of the Exchequer (which helped make it a visible and powerful office), and from 1868 to 1885 one or the other was Prime Minister. As rival party leaders in the 1860s and early 1870s, they clashed routinely in the Commons, but they also praised each other and had cordial contacts outside Parliament. Their political relations deteriorated in the later 1870s, which led to ill will that was briefly expressed in public. They continued to be fascinated by each other until they died. Gladstone was shocked by Disraeli's death and denied that there had been any personal hatred between them. The two men misunderstood but genuinely admired each other.[11]

Beliefs and political values

Laissez-faire policy

  • Gladstone believed in the ‘laissez-faire’ philosophy that good government does not interfere much in the affairs of individuals. His thrifty personal habits were reflected in his role as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He saw excess government expenditure as ‘a great moral evil’.

During his second term as prime minister Gladstone was confronted with a worsening agricultural and trade depression, to which his policy of laissez-faire provided no answer. Cheap grains imported from America were ruining British farmers; across the world tariffs were increasing and thus restricting British exports and causing unemployment; and a formidable growth of European armaments was menacing British security. That challenge stimulated two mass movements of British opinion, and demands arose for a policy of social reform at home and for a vigorous imperialist policy overseas. Gladstone rejected both demands. He held that the national character and prosperity would both be undercut by a welfare state of the sort that Bismark was initiating in Germany. He held that a race among the Great Powers for military and naval supremacy would quickly get out of hand if Britain either joined in or expanded its overseas empire in compensation for increasing relative weakness in Europe.


Disraeli's Conservative Party was proposing solutions that were popular and the root cause of Gladstone's anger toward Disraeli was his belief that his rival was deliberately corrupting the minds of the British people upon whom Gladstone placed their trust. Gladstone was visited by moods of black depression. At such times he spoke with an engaging but unguarded simplicity about his personal wish to retire and his public duty to remain at his post in order to execute the will of God; he was regarded in consequence by most of his enemies, and even by some of his friends, as a humbug. The most outstanding example of his lack of sophistication was his sudden espousal of the cause of Ireland.


When Gladstone arrived in politics Britain was ruled by the landed aristocracy. They were still powerful when he left, but they were now joined by an assertive urban middle class, and increasingly by a working class led by skilled craftsmen. Politically the landed aristocracy moved toward the Conservatives, and the middle class toward the Liberals. The workers were split, but after 1910 moved into the new Labour party.

In May 1864, Gladstone transformed overnight his standing in the country by declaring in the House of Commons that every man is entitled to a vote who is not disqualified by considerations of personal unfitness.[12] That plea for something like universal suffrage infuriated his chief, the Liberal Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, and cost Gladstone, to his abiding grief, the parliamentary representation of Oxford University. The great world denounced him as an unscrupulous demagogue, but he won wide popular support.

Gladstone was no demagogue; he had convinced himself that the masses who hung upon his words were less exposed than the upper and middle classes to motives of material self-interest; and he started to appeal to the masses accordingly as the highest tribunal. He held that they were entitled to be enfranchised, not because he regarded the franchise as an abstract natural right, but because the respectable way of life of the artisan class proved that it had earned the right to vote and govern as a result of having subjected itself to a rigorous preliminary process of moral self-enfranchisement, through moral self-improvement. He won the confidence of the artisans by appealing not to their self-interest but to their self-respect, and he thereby completed in the political field the work of spiritual emancipation that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had begun a century before. Despite his subsequent disillusionment with the masses, Gladstone always ridiculed the blindness and selfishness of the upper ten thousand and the House of Lords.

The British working class, however, misunderstood Gladstone. They, too, became disillusioned when he failed to become a champion of their material aspirations, to which he never gave a thought. He was committed to laissez-faire. He preferred to rely on private charity; he gave away during his lifetime the greater part of his private fortune and begged others to do the same.

Gladstone's belief that God's purpose could best be divined by consulting the uncorrupted minds and hearts of the masses was the secret of his ascendancy as well as the intense distrust which he inspired. He derived great strength from the working class and it derived great strength from him, so that each for a time became necessary to the other; the strong Christian temper of British popular democracy was the result.

When he became prime minister in 1868 he held that his principal task was to discover a series of high moral missions. He had great moral authority when he tried to rescue the Balkans from Ottoman misrule, and Ireland from British misrule. He set those missions before the nation in the confident belief that every individual would respond to the voice of God appealing to his conscience — but he did not invariably distinguish quite clearly enough between the voice of the prime minister and that of God.


  • He was opposed to war and despised the cost of military activity, reminding parliament that he ‘uniformly opposed militarism’ throughout his career.
  • Was a firm supporter of free trade—with no tariffs on imports into Britain—believing that international peace and domestic prosperity could best be maintained by removing barriers to reciprocal trade between nations.
  • Believed that success was the result of hard work and that failure showed a lack of moral spirit. He therefore believed that the poor should help themselves to alleviate their own condition.
  • A strong supporter of the British monarchy, despite Queen Victoria's dislike of him. She never liked his serious demeanor, and complained: "He always addresses me as if I were a public meeting."
  • Described himself as a ‘man in politics’ rather than a politician. He only wanted to do useful work for the good of the country and could never understand his popularity.

Gladstone on the American affairs

Originally, Gladstone had held a strong prejudice against Americans, calling them ‘a dishonest, unprincipled people’ in 1844. He was especially critical of the money-grabbing Yankee tradesmen and farmers, and shared the prejudiced view of the English upper-class that the Southern planters, with their cultivated life-style, were the closest America came to having gentlemen.

However, he did not believe that a permanent division of the American Union would be in Britain's best interests, and the violence of the Civil War sickened him. He believed that the North would never be able to restore the Union by force, and was prepared to offer diplomatic recognition to the Southern Confederacy if they prevailed.

In October 1862, Gladstone caused controversy by remarking, “There is no doubt that Jefferson Davis, and other leaders of the South have made an army. They are making, it appears, a Navy. And they have made – what is more than either – they have made a Nation.”

Gladstone shocked his Liberal colleagues by appearing to support the Confederacy. John Bright commented: 'He is for union and freedom in Italy, and for disunion and bondage in America!' Gladstone detested slavery, but saw no point in denouncing it when he believed the anti-slavery cause was lost.

His unguarded comment caused some harm to Anglo-American relations for many years, but the victory of the Union had an important effect on Gladstone's outlook. His prejudice slowly disappeared, and eventually came to regard American democracy as one of humanity's supreme achievements. He later described the American Constitution as: 'the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.'[13]

See also

Further reading

Advanced studies

Specialized studies

  • Aldous, Richard. The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs Disraeli (2007)
  • Bebbington, David, and Roger Swift, eds. Gladstone Centenary Essays (2000) online edition
  • Bebbington, David. William Ewart Gladstone: Faith and Politics in Victorian Britain (1993)
  • Biagini, Eugenio F. Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880 (1992), explains Gladstone's popularity by its congruence with popular political values
  • Blake, Robert. Disraeli (1967), 819pp standard biography
  • Buxton, S. C. Mr. Gladstone as Chancellor of the Exchequer: A Study (1901), 197pp online edition
  • Checkland, S. G. The Gladstones: A Family Biography 1764-1851 (1971)
  • Cooke, A. B. and John Vincent. The governing passion: cabinet government and party politics in Britain, 1885–86 (1974)
  • Crosby, Travis L. The Two Mr. Gladstones: A Study in Psychology and History. (1997). 287 pp.
  • Daunton, Martin. Trusting Leviathan: The Politics of Taxation in Britain, 1799-1914. (2002). 438 pp
  • Ensor, Robert. England 1870-1914 (Oxford History of England Series) (1936), 652pp excerpt and text search; online edition
  • Hammond, J. L. Gladstone and the Irish Nation (1938) online edition
  • Harvie, Christopher. "Gladstonianism, the provinces and popular political culture, 1860-1906", in R. Bellamy, ed. Victorian Liberalism: Nineteenth-Century Political Thought and Practice (1990),
  • Jenkins, T. A. Gladstone, Whiggery and the Liberal Party, 1874–1886 (1988)
  • Kinzer, B. L., ed. The Gladstonian Turn of Mind: Essays Presented to J. B. Conacher (1985), essays by scholars
  • Loughlin, J. Gladstone, home rule and the Ulster question, 1882–1893 (1986)
  • Matthew, H. C. G. "Disraeli, Gladstone, and the Politics of Mid-victorian Budgets." Historical Journal 1979 22(3): 615-644. Issn: 0018-246x Fulltext: in Jstor
  • Meisel, Joseph S. Public Speech and the Culture of Public Life in the Age of Gladstone. (2001). 382 pp.
  • Parry, J. P. Democracy and religion: Gladstone and the Liberal party, 1867–1875 (1986), 504 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Ramm, Agatha. "Gladstone's Religion" The Historical Journal, Vol. 28, No. 2. (Jun., 1985), pp. 327–340. in JSTOR
  • Ramm, Agatha. Gladstone as Man of Letters. A James Bryce Memorial Lecture (1981),
  • Rathbone, Mark. "Gladstone, Disraeli and the Bulgarian Horrors: Mark Rathbone Compares Gladstone's and Disraeli's Differing Approaches to a Crucial Foreign Policy Issue." History Review #50 (2004) pp 3+. online edition
  • Robinson, R., J. Gallagher, and A. Denny. Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism in the Dark Continent (1961) online edition
  • Schreuder, D. M. Gladstone and Kruger: Liberal government and colonial "home rule", 1880–85 (1969)
  • Schroeder, Paul W. "Gladstone as Bismarck" Canadian Journal of History 1980 15(2): 163-195. Issn: 0008-4107 Fulltext: Ebsco, sees little real difference between the two in terms of the impact on Europe
  • Seton-Watson, R. W. Disraeli, Gladstone and the eastern question: a study in diplomacy and party politics (1935) online edition
  • Shannon, Richard. Gladstone: Heroic Minister, 1865-1898 (1999)
  • Shannon, Richard. Gladstone: Peel's Inheritor 1809-1865 (1982)
  • Shannon, Richard. Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation 1876 (1963) online edition
  • Shaw, A. Gladstone at the colonial office, 1846 (1986)
  • Steele, David. Lord Salisbury: A Political Biography (2001) online edition
  • Thompson, A. F. "Gladstone's whips and the general election of 1868", English Historical Review, 63 (1948), 189–200 in JSTOR
  • Vincent, John. Gladstone and Ireland (1978), argues his commitment to Home Rule in 1886 was unprincipled and possibly insincere.
  • Vincent, John. The formation of the Liberal party, 1857–1868 (1966), suggests the party lacked deep values and that workers were misled into supporting it
  • Windscheffel, Ruth Clayton. "Gladstone and Scott: family, identity and nation," Scottish Historical Review Volume 86, Number 1: No. 221, April 2007, online at Project Muse

Primary sources

Gladstone published 348 articles, books and pamphlets (37 on the classics, 41 on history and literature, 76 on domestic politics, 60 on foreign affairs, 32 on Irish policy, and 70 on religion); his speeches filled 15,000 columns of Hansard; not to mention the private diary entries now published in 14 large volumes.


  1. "Liberal" and "Conservative" had very different meanings in 19th century Britain compared to American usage in the 21st century.
  2. A "rotten borough" was a small district controlled politically by a rich landowner. The Duke spent thousands of pounds entertaining the voters, and Gladstone polled 887 votes. Morley (1901) 1:93; Partridge, (2003) p 32
  3. Ruth Clayton Windscheffel, "Gladstone and Scott: family, identity and nation," Scottish Historical Review Volume 86, Number 1: No. 221, April 2007, online at Project Muse
  4. Partridge, (2003) p 18
  5. J. P. Parry, "Religion and the Collapse of Gladstone's First Government, 1870-1874." Historical Journal 1982 25(1): 71-101. Issn: 0018-246x Fulltext: in Jstor
  6. John Maloney, "Gladstone's Gladstone? The Chancellorship of Robert Lowe, 1868-73." Historical Research 2006 79(205): 404-428. Issn: 0950-3471 Fulltext: Ebsco
  7. Ensor, England, 1870-1914 pp. 7-17
  8. The Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance (1874) online copy
  9. Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (1876) online edition Disraeli wisecracked, of all the Bulgarian horrors perhaps the pamphlet was greatest.
  10. Graham D. Goodlad, "The Liberal Party and Gladstone's Land Purchase Bill of 1886. Historical Journal 1989 32(3): 627-641. Issn: 0018-246x Fulltext: in Jstor
  11. Roland Quinault, "Gladstone and Disraeli: a Reappraisal of Their Relationship." History 2006 91(4): 557-576. Issn: 0018-2648
  12. Asa Briggs, The Making of Modern England, 1784-1867: The Age of Improvement (1959) p 492
  13. Kin Beyond Sea. North American Review (1878). “The two constitutions of the two countries express indeed rather the differences than the resemblances of the nations. The one is a thing grown, the other a thing made: the one a praxis, the other a poiesis: the one the offspring of tendency and indeterminate time, the other of choice and of an epoch. But, as the British Constitution is the most subtile organism which has proceeded from the womb and the long gestation of progressive history, so the American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man. It has had a century of trial, under the pressure of exigencies caused by an expansion unexampled in point of rapidity and range; and its exemption from formal change, though not entire, has certainly proved the sagacity of the constructors, and the stubborn strength of the fabric.”