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William Ewart Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone, the British statesman, orator and author, was born in Liverpool, England, Dec. 29, 1809, his father, Sir John Gladstone, being a wellknown merchant of that city. Mr. Gladstone is of Scotch descent on both sides. He was educated at Eton, and at Christ Church, Oxford, from which he graduated in 1831. As a member of the Oxford Union Debating Society, he early showed his skill in dialectics, and gave promise of rare gifts as a debater and orator, which he was subsequently to manifest, in a remarkable degree, in moulding the political history of his country.

From that mimic parliament he passed, in 1833, to the House of Commons, having been elected, in the Conservative interest, for the borough of Newark at the general election of December, 1832. Here, in the Reform Parliament of the era, he strengthened the Tory ranks by proving himself a strong opponent of all advanced measures of political reform, which he was, in later years, to espouse. So strong at this time was his Toryism, that in the Parliament that voted twenty millions sterling for the manumission of the slaves, if not hostile to their emancipation, at least opposed to an immediate and indiscriminate enfranchisement.

In 1847 Mr. Gladstone was elected to represent Oxford University in Parliament, a connection which he maintained without a break until 1865. The transition from the Tory to the Liberal now began to show itself, in his supporting the proposal to admit Jews to Parliament, in his defense of the free-trade policy of his chief, Sir Robert Peel, and advocacy of the repeal of the navigation laws, as well as in the change that came over his views on the colonial policy of the imperial country. His strong humanitarianism also began at this time to influence his political convictions, as his speeches in the session of 1850 manifest, during the debate on Greece and the claims of British subjects against that power, and in his strenuous remonstrances with the court of Naples on its inhuman treatment of political offenders.

Sir Robert Peel's death in 1850 paved the way for a still ampler career for Mr. Gladstone, and for greater successes as a Parliamentary debater. The first of his famous oratorical successes was gained in 1852, during the debate on Mr. Disraeli's budget of that year, which led to the defeat of the Derby-Disraeli ministry and the coming into power of Lord Aberdeen's coalition government of Whigs and Peelites. This was the beginning of the long rivalry in the political arena of the two great Parliamentary athletes, Mr. Disraeli and Mr. Gladstone, a rivalry which lasted for almost a quarter of a century. Lord Palmerston having returned to power in 1859, Mr. Gladstone resumed his former post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and for some years his master hand guided the national finances, and brought an era of unwonted prosperity to the country.

But one mistake he made at this period he afterward confessed to be an error of judgment. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of the United States emphasized the fact that the majority of the inhabitant of the Northern States were opposed to the further spread of slavery; and, in the beginning of 1861, several of the Southern States formally seceded from the union. The most important manufacturing interest in England was paralysed by the loss of the raw cotton, which was obtained almost exclusively from the United States, and tens of thousands of workpeople were thrown out of employment. The distress which resulted naturally created a strong feeling in favour of intervention, which might terminate the war and open the Southern ports to British commerce; and the initial successes which the Confederates secured seemed to afford some justificat ion for such a proceeding. In the course of 1862 indeed, when the Confederate armies had secured many victories, Gladstone, speaking at Newcastle, used the famous expression that President Jefferson Davis had "made a nation".

Palmerston's death, in 1865, which called Lord John Russell to the Premiership, made Mr. Gladstone leader in the House of Commons. Gladstone's fight for reform was not without effect, for Mr. Disraeli, in the incoming administration, introduced and carried a Conservative measure (the Reform Bill of 1867) which since was expanded until it became practically household suffrage in cities and boroughs. Mr. Disraeli, on his accession to office (1868), met defeat on Mr. Gladstone's resolutions in regard to Irish Church disestablishment.

Prime Minister - 1869-1874

Gladstone, in 1869, became, for the first time, Prime Minister. The history of the next five years is Mr Gladstone's. The Irish Church abolished, he set to work with passionate good intention on the Irish land laws. The while he did so sedition took courage and flourished exceedingly, so that to pacify Ireland the constable went hand in hand with the legislator. The abolition of the Irish Church was followed by a coercion act, and the land act by suspension of Habeas Corpus. Disraeli, who at first preferred retirement and the writing of Ltlliair, came forward from time to time to point the moral and predict the end of Mr Gladstone's impulsive courses, which soon began to fret the confidence of his friends.

Gladstone had a somewhat different conception of the sovereign's functions from that of his great rival, Disraeli. Though his respect for the person and office of the sovereign was unbounded, Gladstone not only expected all people, the queen included, to agree with him when he changed his mind, but to become suddenly enthusiastic about his new ideas. The queen consequently never felt safe with him. Nor did she like his manner he spoke to her (she is believed to have said) as if she were a public meeting. The queen was opposed to the Disestablishment of the Irish Church (1869) the question which brought Gladstone to be premier and though she yielded with good grace, Gladstone was fretful and astonished because she would not pretend to give a hearty assent to the measure. Through her secretary, General Grey, the queen pointed out that she had not concealed from Gladstone "how deeply she deplored" his having felt himself under the necessity of raising the question, and how apprehensive she was of the possible consequences of the measure; but, when a general election had pronounced on the principle, when the bill bad been carried through the House of Commons by unvarying majorities, she did not see what good could be gained by rejecting it in the Lords.

Above all, many humiliating proofs that England was losing her place among the nations came out in these days, the discovery being then new and unendurable. To be brief, in less than four years the government had well-nigh worn out its own patience with its own errors, failures and distractions, and would gladly have gone to pieces when it was defeated on an Irish university bill. But Disraeli, having good constitutional reasons for declining office at the moment, could not allow this. Still gathering unpopularity, still offending, alarming, alienating, the government went on till 1874, suddenly dissolved parliament, and was signally beaten, the Liberal party breaking up.

After a time reform under Mr. Gladstone seemed to be going faster than the House or the country cared to follow; consequently, his measure known as the Irish University Bill of 1873 was defeated by three votes, and Mr. Gladstone tendered his resignation. In the following year, when Mr. Disraeli came back to power, Mr. Gladstone withdrew from the leadership of the Liberal party and occupied himself, for a time, in literary and historical studies. Besides these interests, he embroiled himself in ecclesiastical controversy, chiefly with reference to papal infallibility, a dogma then enunciated at Rome.

Mr. Gladstone's polemical fervor, about this time (1876), broke into flame over the bloodshed in Bulgaria, and the atrocities committed by the Turks in the East. Happily, Russia interposed on behalf of the oppressed Eastern nationalities, and her sword effected what diplomacy had failed to accomplish. Throughout this and other disquietudes of the period Mr. Gladstone's voice and pen were potent agencies in turning the tide of public opinion against Mr. Disraeli's imperial policy, and, as the result of the revolution in political feeling, Mr. Disraeli (now Lord Beaconsfield) was beaten at the polls.

Prime Minister - 1880-1885

Mr. Gladstone and his Liberal Cabinet succeeded to office (1880), with an unprecedentedly large majority at their backs. The early sessions of the new Parliament were chiefly occupied with harassing legacies from its predecessor, and the rudely obtrusive Irish question, the wrangling over which made a mockery of the nation's great deliberative assembly. The Irish Nationalists, incited by the Land League, resorted to acts of unseemly menace and rowdyism in the Commons.

The Boer war of 1880, and the Egyptian war of 1882, with its issuing conflict in the Soudan and the pitiful death of General Gordon, added further to the embarrassments of Mr. Gladstone's administration during the years 1883-85, though the routing of Arabi Pasha's forces by Lord Wolseley at Tel-el-Kebir and the chivalrous conduct of the British troops in the Soudan did much to placate aggrieved public opinion.

Mr. Gladstone's second administration was overthrown by a vote on the budget, and Lord Salisbury succeeded, for a few months, to power. A division of the new House on an amendment to the address rendered the Salisbury administration a short-lived one.

Prime Minister - 1886

Mr. Gladstone formed his third ministry, and signalized his return to power by declaring himself in favor of Home Rule, a declaration which split the Liberal party in two and curtailed his lease of office. On introducing his Home Rule bill (1886), its second reading in the House was rejected by a majority of thirty, and an appeal to the country was equally fatal to Mr. Gladstone and the measure. An overwhelming majority of Conservatives and Unionist Liberals was returned, and Lord Salisbury became, for the second time, Prime Minister, Aug. 3, 1886. The issue of the elections, despite Mr. Gladstone's great and commanding personality, was, as a matter of course, bitterly disappointing to the Gladstonians and their redoubtable chief. It was, however, the penalty which their leader was to pay for his loyalty to the Irish cause, a cause which, as has been shown, lost to the party many of its most influential members, who, under the name of Liberal-Unionists, now supported Lord Salisbury's administration.

This second defeat of Mr. Gladstone's chivalrous attempt to conciliate Ireland snapped the link which bound the great Parliamentarian to public life. The retirement of the illustrious leader of the Liberal party in modern England, though not unexpected, fell like a thunderbolt upon the country which had so long known his governing hand.

Gladstone's figure was essentially a unique one in the history of the century. Indeed, were it possible to unite the combined talents of a score of the more prominent public men whom he left on the Parliamentary stage would not, as had been aptly said, make a Gladstone. Nor was there an enemy who would honestly question the purity of his motives, the beneficence of his acts, or the lofty elevation of his character. At times his hold upon the masses of his countrymen was extraordinary; and while the glamor of his name was always a potent force among his admirers, no one, of his age at least, surpassed him in the gifts of Parliamentary oratory, or was more effective as an expounder and debater. Added to all this, it must be said of him that he was on the whole the best representative of the English nation's political conscience, and an exalted type of its political morality.

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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 18:34:00 ZULU