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His somewhat overstrained conscientiousness,
coupled with the practically unattainable ideal of
finish and form which he set before himself, made
him less and less disposed to literary production.
No man of first-rate powers has in our time left
so little by which posterity may judge those
powers. In his early life, when for a time he
edited the Home and Forcii^ii Rcvieiv, and wh(!n
he was connected with the Rauiblcr and the
North British Reviezu, he wrote frequently; and
even between 1868 and 1890 he contributed
to the press some few historical essays and a
number of anonymous letters. But the aversion

1 I owe this quotation to a letter of Sir M. E. C'.rant Duff's published
soon after Lord Acton's death.

39^ Biographical Studies

to creative work seemed to grow on him. About
1890 he so far yielded to the urgency of a few
friends as to promise to reissue a number of his
essays in a volume, but, after rewriting and polish-
ing these essays during several years, he aban-
doned the scheme altogether. In 1882 he had
already drawn out a plan for a comprehensive
history of Liberty. But this plan also he
dropped, because the more he read with a view
to undertaking it the more he wished to read,
and the vaster did the enterprise seem to loom up
before him. With him, as with many men who
cherish high literary ideals, the Better proved
to be the enemy of the Good.

Twenty years ago, late at night, in his library
at Cannes, he expounded to me his view of how
such a history of Liberty might be written, and
in what wise it might be made the central thread
of all history. He spoke for six or seven minutes
only ; but he spoke like a man inspired, seeming
as if, from some mountain summit high in air, he
saw beneath him the far-winding path of human
progress from dim Cimmerian shores of pre-
historic shadow into the fuller yet broken and
fitful light of the modern time. The eloquence
was splendid, but greater than the eloquence was
the penetrating vision which discerned through
all events and in all ages the play of those moral
forces, now creating, now destroying, always
transmuting, which had moulded and remoulded

Lord Acton 397

institutions, and had given to the liunian spirit
its ceaselessly-changing forms of energy. It was
as if the whole landscape of history had been
suddenly lit up by a burst of sunlight. I ha\'e
never heard from any other lips any discourse like
this, nor from his did I ever hear the like again.

His style suffered in his later days from
the abundance of the interspersed citations, and
from the overfulness and subtlety of the thought.
which occasionally led to obscurity. But when
he handled a topic in which learning was not
required, his style was clear, pointed and incisive,
sometimes epio^rammatic. Several vears ao-o he
wrote in a monthly magazine a short article u^jon
a biography of one of his contemporaries which
showed how admirable a master he was of polished
diction and penetrating analysis, and niade one
wish that he had more frequently consented to
dash off light work in a quick unstudied way.

To the work of a University professor he came
too late to acquire the art of fluent and forcible
oral discourse, nor was the character of his mind,
with its striving after a flawless exactitude of
statement, altogether fitted for the function of
presenting broad sunmiaries of facts to a youthful
audience. His prt'decessor in the Cambridge
chair of history, Sir John Seeley, with less know-
ledge, less subtlety, and less originality, had in
larger measure the gift of oral exposition and
the power of putting points, whether by speech

39^ Biographical Studies

or by writing, in a clear and telling way. No one,
indeed, since Macaulay has been a better point-
putter than Seeley was. But Acton's lectures
(read from MS.) were models of lucid and stately
narrative informed by fulness of thought ; and
they were so delivered as to express the feeling
which each event had evoked in his own mind.
That sternness of character which revealed itself
in his judgments of men and books never affected
his relations to his pupils. Precious as his time
was, he gave it generously, encouraging them
to come to him for help and counsel. They
were awed by the majesty of his learning. Said
one of them to me, " When Lord Acton answers
a question put to him, I feel as if I were look-
ing at a pyramid. I see the point of it clear
and sharp, but I see also the vast subjacent
mass of solid knowledge." They perceived,
moreover, that to him History and Philosophy
were not two things but one, and perceived that
of History as well as of divine Philosophy it may
be said that she too is ''charming, and musical as
is Apollo's lute." Thus the impression produced in
the University by the amplitude of Lord Acton's
views, by the range of his learning, by the liber-
ality of his spirit and his unfailing devotion to
truth and to truth alone, was deep and fruitful.

When they wished that he had given to the world
more of his wisdom, his friends did not under-
value a life which was in itself a rare and exquisite

Lord Acton 399

product of favouring nature and unwearied dili-
gence. They only regretted that the intluence of
his ideas, of his methods, and of his spirit, had
not been more widely diffused in an enduring
form. It was as when a plant unknown elsewhere
grows on some remote isle where ships seldom
touch. Few see the beauty of the tlower, and
here death came before the seed could be gathered
to be scattered in receptive soil.

To most men Lord Acton seemed reserved as
well as remote, presenting a smooth and shining
surface beneath which it was hard to penetrate.
He avoided publicity and popularity with the
tranquil dignity of one for whom the world of
knowledge and speculation was more than suffi-
cient. But he was a loyal friend, affectionate to
his intimates, gracious in his manners, blameless
in all the relations of life. Comparaliveh- few
of his countrymen knew his name, and those who
did thought of him chiefly as the confidant of Mr.
Gladstone, and as the most remarkable instance
of a sincere and steadfast Roman C atholic who
was a Liberal alike in [jolitics and in theology.
I)Ut those who had been admitted to his friend-
ship recognised him as one of the nnesl in-
telligences of his generation, an unsur[>assed,
and indeed a scarcely rivalletl, master of ever}'
subject which he touched.


Of no man who has lived in our times is it so
hard to speak in a concise and summary fashion
as of Mr. Gladstone. For fifty years he was so
closely associated with the public affairs of his
country that the record of his parliamentary life
is virtually an outline of English political history
during those years. His activity spread itself out
over many fields. He was the author of several
learned and thoughtful books, and of a multitude
of articles upon all sorts of subjects. He showed
himself as eagerly interested in matters of classi-
cal scholarship and Christian doctrine and eccle-
siastical history as in questions of national finance
and foreign policy. No account of him could be
complete without reviewing his actions and
estimating the results of his work in all these

But the difficulty of describing and judging
him goes deeper. His was a singularly complex
nature, whose threads it was hard to unravel.
His individuality was extremely strong. All that
he said or did bore its impress. Yet it was an

individuality so far from being self- consistent


William Ewart Gladstone 401

as sometimes to seem a bundle of opposite
qualities capriciously united in a single person.
He might with equal truth have been called, and
he was in fact called, a conservative and a revolu-
tionary. He was dangerously impulsive, and had
frequently to suffer for his impulsiveness ; yet
he was also not merely prudent and cautious,
but so astute as to have been accused of craft
and dissimulation. So great was his respect
tor tradition that he clung to views regard-
ing the authorship of the Homeric poenis and
the date of the books of the Old Testa-
ment which nearly all competent specialists
have now rejected. So bold was he in prac-
tical matters that he carried through sweeping
changes in the British constitution, changed the
course of English policy in the nearer East,
overthrew an established church in one part of
the United Kinofdom, and committed himself
in principle to the o\'erthrow ot two other
established churches in other parts. He came
near to being a Roman Catholic in his religious
opinions, yet was for the last twenty years
of his life the trusted leader of the English
Protestant Nonconformists and the Scottish
Presbyterians. No one who knew him intimately
doubted his conscientious sinc(^rity and earnt;si-
ness, yet four-fifths of the English u])iM'r classes
were in his later years wont to regard him as a
self-interested schemer who would sacrifice his

2 I)

402 Biographical Studies

country to his ambition. Though he loved
general principles, and often soared out of the
sight of his audience when discussing them, he
generally ended by deciding upon points of detail
the question at issue. He was at different times
of his life the defender and the assailant of the
same institutions, yet scarcely seemed incon-
sistent in doing opposite things, because his
methods and his arguments preserved the same
type and colour throughout. Those who had
at the beginning of his career discerned in him
the capacity for such diversities and contra-
dictions would probably have predicted that they
must wreck it by making his purposes fluctuating
and his course erratic. Such a prediction might
have proved true of any one with less firmness of
will and less intensity of temper. It was the
persistent heat and vehemence of his character,
the sustained passion which he threw into the
pursuit of the object on which he was for the
moment bent, that fused these dissimilar qualities
and made them appear to contribute to and
increase the total force which he exerted.

The circumstances of Mr. Gladstone's political
career help to explain, or, at any rate, will furnish
occasion for the attempt to explain, this com-
plexity and variety of character. But before I
come to his manhood it is convenient to advert
to three conditions whose influence on him was
profound the first his Scottish blood, the second

William Ewart Gladstone 403

his Oxford education, the third his apprenticeship
to pubHc Hfe under Sir Robert Peel.

Theories of character based on race differences
are dangerous, because they are as hard to
test as they are easy to form. Still, we all
know that there are specific qualities and tend-
encies usually found in the minds of men of
certain stocks, just as there are peculiarities in
their faces or in their speech. Mr. Gladstone
was born and brought up in Liverpool, and
always retained a touch of Lancashire accent.
But, as he was fond of saying, every drop of
blood in his veins was Scotch, His father's
family belonged to the Scottish Lowlands, and
came from the neighbourhood of Biggar, in the
Upper Ward of Lanarkshire, where the ruined
walls of Gledstanes ^ - " the kite's rock" may
still be seen. His mother was ot Highland ex-
traction, by name Robertson, from Dingwall, in
Ross-shire. Thus he was not only a Scot, but a
Scot with a strong infusion of the; Celtic element,
the element whence the Scotch derive niost of
what distinguishes them from the northern Lng-
lish. The Scot is more excitable, more easily
brought to a glow of passion, more apt to be
eagerly absorbed in one thing at a time. He
is also more fond of exerting his intellect on
abstractions. It is not merely that the taste for

^ "Glc<r" is a kite or hawk. The name was ( .hicl^lo;.. > till M:.
C'lkKistono's father (lrnj)[)e(l the fina: s.

404 Biographical Studies

metaphysical theology is commoner in Scotland
than in England, but that the Scotch have a
stronger relish for general principles. They
like to set out by ascertaining and defining such
principles, and then to pursue a series of logical
deductions from them. They are, therefore,
bolder reasoners than the English, less content
to remain in the region of concrete facts, more
prone to throw themselves into the construc-
tion of a body of speculative doctrine. The
Englishman is apt to plume himself on being
right in spite of logic ; the Scotchman likes
to think that it is through logic he has reached
his results, and that he can by logic defend
them. These are qualities which Mr. Gladstone
drew from his Scottish blood. He had a keen
enjoyment of the processes of dialectic. He
loved to get hold of an abstract principle and to
derive all sorts of conclusions from it. He was
wont to begin the discussion of a question by
laying down two or three sweeping propositions
covering the subject as a whole, and would then
proceed to draw from these others which he
could apply to the particular matter in hand.
His well-stored memory and boundless ingenuity
made the discovery of such general propositions
so easy a task that a method in itself agreeable
sometimes appeared to be carried to excess. He
frequently arrived at conclusions which the judg-
ment of the common -sense auditor did not

William Ewart Gladstone 405

approve, because, although they seemed to have
been legitimately deduced from the general
principles just enunciated, they were somehow
at variance with the plain teaching of the f^icts.
At such moments one felt that the man who
was fascinating but perplexing Englishmen by
his subtlety was not himself an Englishman
in mental quality, but had the love for abstrac-
tions and refinements and dialectical analysis
which characterises the Scotch intellect. He
had also a large measure of that warmth and
vehemence, called in the sixteenth century the
prcsfeiinduni ingenmin Scotonun, which belong to
the Scottish temperament, and particularly to the
Celtic Scot. He kindled quickly, and when
kindled, he shot forth a strong and brilliant tiame.
To any one with less power of self-control such
intensity of emotion as he frequently showed
would have been dangerous ; nor did this ex-
citability fail, even with him, to prompt words
and acts which a cooler judgment would have
disapproved. But it gave chat spontaneity which
was one of the charms of his nature ; it produced
that impression of profound earnestness and ot
resistless force which raised him out of lh(i rank
of ordinary statesmen. The rush of emotion
swelling fast and full seemed to turn the whole
stream of intellectual effort into whatexer channel
lay at the moment nearest.

With these Scottish qualities, Mr. Gladstone

4o6 Biographical Studies

was brought up at school and college (Eton and
Christ Church) among Englishmen, and received
at Oxford, then lately awakened from a long
torpor, a bias and tendency which never there-
after ceased to affect him. The so-called
" Oxford Movement," which afterwards obtained
the name of Tractarianism and carried Newman
and Manning, together with other less famous
leaders, on to Rome, had not yet, in 1831, when
Mr. Gladstone obtained his degree with double
first-class honours, taken visible shape, or
become, so to speak, conscious of its own pur-
poses. But its doctrinal views, its peculiar vein
of religious sentiment, its respect for antiquit)-
and tradition, its proneness to casuistry, its taste
for symbolism, were already in the air as in-
fluences working on the more susceptible of
the younger minds. The religious atmosphere
Mr. Gladstone had breathed in boyhood was
what used to be called Evangelical ; and
his piety retained an Evangelical tinge until,
soon after quitting Oxford, he visited Italy.
The impressions he received there, and par-
ticularly in St. Peter's and in the Cathedral
of Naples, crystallised, so to speak, a group
of theological ideas already fluid in his mind.
He became, and never ceased to be, not
merely a High-churchman, but what may be
called an Anglo -Catholic, in his theology,
deferential not only to ecclesiastical tradition,

William Ewart Gladstone 407

but to the living voice of the Visible Church,
revering the priesthood as the recipients (if
duly ordained) of a special grace and peculiar
powers, attaching great importance to the sacra-
ments, feeling himself nearer to the Church of
Rome, despite what he deemed her corruptions,
than to any of the non- Episcopal Protestant
churches. Henceforth his interests in life were
as much ecclesiastical as political. For a time
he desired to be ordained a clergyman. Had
this wish, abandoned in deference to his father's
advice, been carried out, he must eventually have
become a leading figure in the Church of Eng-
land and have sensibly affected her recent history.
The later stages in his career drew him away
from the main current ot political opinion within
that church. He who had been the strono-est
advocate of the principle of the State establish-
ment of religion came to be the chief actor in
the disestablishment of the Protestant Episcopal
Church in Ireland, and a supporter of the policy
of disestablishment in Scotland and in Wales.
But the colour which these early years gave
to his mind and thoughts was never el faced.
While they widened the range of his interests
and deepened his moral earnt.-stness, they at the
sanie time confirmed his natural bent toward over-
subtle distinctions and fine-drawn reasonings, and
put him out of sympathy not only with the attitude
of the average Phiglishman, who is essentially

4o8 Biographical Studies

a Protestant that is to say, averse to sacer-
dotalism, and suspicious of any other religious
authority than that of the Bible and the indivi-
dual conscience but also with two of the
strongest influences of our time, the influence
of the sciences of nature, and the influence of
historical criticism. Mr, Gladstone, though too
wise to rail at science, as many religious men
did till within the last few years, could never
quite reconcile himself either to the conclusions
of geology and zoology regarding the history of
the physical world and the creatures which in-
habit it, or to modern methods of critical inquiry
as applied to Scripture and to ancient literature
generally. The training which Oxford then
gave, stimulating as it was, and free from the
modern error of over-specialisation, was defective
in omitting the experimental sciences, and in
laying undue stress upon the study of language.
A proneness to dwell on verbal distinctions and
to trust overmuch to the analysis of terms as a
means of reaching the truth of things is notice-
able in many eminent Oxford writers of that and
the next succeeding generation- some of them,
like the illustrious F. D. Maurice, far removed
from Cardinal Newman and Mr. Gladstone in
theological opinion.

When, bringing with him a brilliant University
reputation, he entered the House of Commons at
the age of twenty- three, Sir Robert Peel was

William Ewart Gladstone 409

leading the Tory party with an authority and
ability rarely surpassed in the annals of parlia-
ment. Within two years the young man was
admitted into the short-lived Tory ministry of
1834, and soon proved himself a promising
lieutenant of the experienced chief. Peel was an
eminently wary man, alive to the necessity of
watching the signs of the times, of studying and
interpreting the changeful phases of public
opinion. Yet he always kept his own counsel.
Even when he perceived that the policy he
had hitherto followed would need to be modified,
Peel continued to use guarded language and did
not publicly commit himself to change till it
was plain that the fitting moment had arrived.
He was, moreover, a master of detail, slow to
propound a plan until he had seen how its out-
lines were to be filled up by appropriate devices
tor carrying it out in practice. These qualities
and habits of the minister profoundly attecled
his disciple. They became part ot the t(.'xture ot
Mr. Gladstone's political character, and in his
case, as in that of Peel, th(n' sometimes brought
censure upon him, as having locked up too long
within his breast views or purposes which he
thought it unwise to disclose till c;ik:ct could be
forthwith given to them. Such reserve, such a
guarded attitude and tendernc;ss for (,'xisting
institutions, may have been not altogether natural
to Mr. Gladstone's mind, but due partly to the

41 o Biographical Studies

influence of Peel, partly to the tendency to
hold by tradition and the established order
which reverence for Christian antiquity and faith
in the dogmatic teachings of the Church had
planted deep in his soul. The contrast between
Mr. Gladstone's caution and respect for facts on
the one hand, and his reforming fervour on the
other, like the contrast which ultimately appeared
between his sacerdotal tendencies and his politi-
cal liberalism, contributed to make his character
perplexing and to expose his conduct to the
charge of inconsistency. Inconsistent, in the
proper sense of the word, he was not, much
less changeable. He was really, in his funda-
mental convictions and the main habits of his
mind, one of the most tenacious and persistent
of men. But there were always at work in him
two tendencies. One was the speculative desire
to probe everything to the bottom, to try it
by the light of general principles and logic, and
when it failed to stand this test, to reject it.
The other was the sense of the complexity of
existing social and political arrangements, and of
the risk of disturbing any one part of them until
the time had arrived for resettling other parts
also. Every statesman feels both these sides to
every concrete question of reform. No one has
set them forth more cogently, and in particular
no one has more earnestly dwelt on the neces-
sity for the latter side, than the most profound

William Ewart Gladstone 411

thinker among British statesmen, Edmund Burke.
When Mr. Gladstone stated either side with his
incomparable force, people forgot that there was
another side which would be no less vividly present
to him at some other moment. He was not only,
like all successful parlianientarians, necessarily
something of an opportunist, though perhaps less
so than his master, but was moved by emotion
more than most statesmen, and certainly more
than Peel. The relative strength with which
the need for drastic reform or the need for watch-
ful conservatism as the case might be, presented
itself to his mind depended largely upon the
weight which his emotions cast into one or
other scale, and this emotional element made it
difficult to forecast his course. Thus his action
in public life was the result of influences differing
widely in their origin, influences, moreover, which
could be duly appreciated only by those who knew
him intimately.

Whoever has followed his political career has
been struck by the sharp divergence of the views
entertained by his fellow-countrymen a])()ut one
who had been lor so long a period under their
observation. That he was possessed of bound-
less energy and brilliant eloquence all agreed.
But agreement went no lurther. One section ot
the nation accused him ot sophistry, ol unwistlom,
of a want of patriotism, of a lust lor power. The
other section not only repelled these charges,

412 Biographical Studies

but admired in him a conscientiousness and a
moral enthusiasm such as no political leader had
shown for centuries. When the qualities of his
mind and the aptitudes for politics which he
showed have been briefly examined, it will be
fitting to return to these divergent views of his
character, and endeavour to discover which of
them contains the larger measure of truth.
Meantime let it suffice to say that among the
reasons that led men to misjudge him, this union
in one person of opposite qualities was the chief
He was rather two men than one. Passionate
and impulsive on the emotional side of his nature,
he was cautious and conservative on the intel-
lectual. Few understood the conjunction ; still
fewer saw how much of what was perplexing in
his conduct it explained.

Mr. Gladstone sat for sixty-three years (1833-
1895) i^ Parliament, was for twenty-eight years
(1866- 1 894) the leader of his party, and was four
times Prime Minister. He began as a high
Tory, remained about fifteen years in that camp,
was then led by the split between Peel and the
Protectionists to take up an intermediate position,
and finally was forced to cast in his lot with the

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 24 of 29)