James Bryce Bryce.

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Liberals, for in England, as in America, third
parties seldom endure. No parliamentary career
in English annals is comparable to his for its
length and variety ; and of those who saw its
close in the House of Commons, there was only

William Ewart Gladstone 413

one man, Mr. Villicrs (who died in January 1898),
who could remember its beginning. Mr. Glad-
stone had been opposed in 1833 to men who might
have been his grandfathers ; he was opposed in
1894 to men who might have been his grand-
children. It is no part of my design to describe
or comment on the events of such a life. All that
can be done here is to indicate the more salient
characteristics which a study of his career as a
statesman and a parliamentarian sets before us.

The most remarkable of these characteristics
was the openness, freshness, and eagerness of
mind which he preserved down to the end of
his life. Most men form few new opinions
after thirty-five, just as they form few new-
intimacies. Intellectual curiosity may remain
even after fifty, but its range narrows as a man
abandons the hope of attaining any thorough
knowledge of subjects other than those which
make the main business of his life. It is impos-
sible to follow the progress ot all the new ideas
that are set alloat in the world, impossible to
be always examining the loundations ot one's
political or religious beliefs. Repeated dis-
appointments and disillusion ments make a man
expect less from changes the older he grows ;
while indolence deters him trom entering upon
new enterprises. None of these causes seemed
to affect Mr. Gladstone. Me was as much
excited over a new book (such as Cardinal

4-14 Biographical Studies

Manning's Life) at eighty -four as when at
fourteen he insisted on compelling little Arthur
Stanley (afterwards Dean of Westminster, and
then aged nine) forthwith to procure and study
Gray's poems, which he had just perused himself
His reading covered almost the whole field
of literature, except physical and mathematical
science. While frequently declaring that he
must confine his political thinking and leader-
ship to a few subjects, he was so observant
of current events that the course of talk
brought up scarcely any topic in which he did
not seem to know what was the latest thing that
had been said or done. Neither the lassitude
nor the prejudices that usually accompany old age
prevented him from giving a fair consideration to
any new doctrines. But though his intellect was
restlessly at work, and though his curiosity dis-
posed him to relish novelties, except in theology,
that bottom rock in his mind of caution and re-
serve, which has already been referred to, made
him refuse to part with old views even when he
was beginning to accept new ones. He allowed
both to " lie on the table " together, and while
declaring himself open to conviction, felt it
safer to speak and act on the old lines till the
process of conviction had been completed. It
took fourteen years, from 1846 to i860, to carry
him from the Conservative into the Liberal camp.
It took five stormy years to bring him round to

William Evvart Gladstone 415

Irish Home Rule, though his mind was constantly
occupied with the subject from 1880 to 18S5,
and those who watched him closely saw that
the process had advanced a long way even in
1882. And as regards ecclesiastical establish-
ments, having written a book in 1838 as a warm
advocate of State churches, it was not till 1867
that he adopted the policy of disestablishment
for Ireland, not till 1890 that he declared himself
ready to apply that policy in Wales and Scotland

Both these qualities his disposition to revise
his opinions in the light of new arguments and
changing conditions, and the silence he main-
tained till the process of revision had been
completed exposed him to misconstruction.
Commonplace men, unwont to give serious
scrutiny to their opinions, ascribed his changes
to self-interest, or at best regarded them as the
index of an unstable purpose. Dull men could
not understand why he should have forl)()rne to
set forth all that was passing in his mind, and saw
little difference between reticence and dishonesty.
In so far as they shook public confidence, these
characteristics injured him in his statesman's
work. Yet the loss was outweighed by the gain.
In a country where opinion is active; and change-
ful, where the economic conditions that legislation
has to deal with are in a state? o( perpetual llux,
where the balance of power between the upper,

41 6 Biographical Studies

the middle, and the poorer classes has been swiftly
altering during the last seventy years, no states-
man can continue to serve the public if he adheres
obstinately to the doctrines with which he started
in life. He must unless, of course, he stands
aloof in permanent isolation ^either subordinate
his own views to the general sentiment of his
party, and be driven to advocate courses he
secretly mislikes, or else, holding himself ready
to quit his party, if need be, must be willing
to learn from events, and to reconsider his
opinions in the light of emergent tendencies
and insistent facts. Mr. Gladstone's pride as
well as his conscience forbade the former alter-
native ; it was fortunate that the tireless activity
of his intellect made the latter natural to him.
He was accustomed to say that the capital fault
of his earlier days had been his failure adequately
to recognise the worth and power of liberty, and
the tendency which things have to work out for
good when left to themselves. The application
of this principle gave room for many develop-
ments, and many developments there were. He
may have shown less than was needed of that
prescience which is, after integrity and courage,
the highest gift of a statesman, but which can
seldom be expected from an English minister,
too engrossed to find time for the patient re-
flection from which alone sound forecasts can
issue. But he had the next best quality, that

William Evvart Gladstone 417

of remaining accessible to new ideas and learning
from the events which passed under his eyes.

With this openness and flexibility of mind
there went a not less remarkable ingenuity
and resourcefulness. Fertile in expedients, he
was still more fertile in reasonings by which
to recommend the expedients. The gift had
its dangers, for he was apt to be carried away
by the dexterity of his own dialectic, and to
think that a scheme must be sound in whose
support he could muster a formidable array
of arguments. He never seemed at a loss, in
public or in private, for a criticism, or for an
answer to the criticisms of others. If his power
of adapting his own mind to the minds of those
whom he had to convince had been equal to the
skill and swiftness with which he accumulated a
mass of matter persuasive to those who looked
at things in his own way, no one would have
exercised so complete a control over the poli-
tical opinion of his time. But his intellect
lacked this power of adaptation. It moved on
lines of its own, which were often misconceiv('cl,
even by those who sought to follow him loyally.
Thus, as already observed, he was blamed for
two opposite faults. Some, pointing to ih(* fact
that he had frequently altered his views, de-
nounced him as a demagogue profuse of pro-
mises, ready to propose whatever he thought
likely to catch the people's ear. Others com-

41 8 Biographical Studies

plained that there was no knowing where to
have him ; that he had an erratic mind, whose
currents ran underground and came to the
surface in unexpected places ; that he did not
consult his party, but followed his own im-
pulses ; that his guidance was unsafe because
his decisions were unpredictable. Much of
the suspicion with which he was regarded,
especially after 1885, arose from this view of
his character.

It was an unfair view, yet nearer to the truth
than that which charged him with seeking to flatter
and follow the people. No great popular leader
had in him less of the demagogue. He saw,
of course, that a statesman cannot oppose the
general will beyond a certain point, and may
have to humour it in small things that he may
direct it in great ones. He was obliged, as
others have been, to take up and settle questions
he deemed unimportant because they were
troubling the body politic. Now and then, in
his later days, he so far yielded to his party
advisers as to express his approval of proposals
in which his own interest was slight. But he
was ever a leader, not a follower, and erred
rather in not keeping his finger closely and
constantly upon the pulse of public opinion. In
this point, at least, one may discover in him a
likeness to Disraeli. Slow as he was in maturing
his opinions, Mr. Gladstone was liable to forget

William Evvart Gladstone 419

that the minds of his followers might not be
moving along with his own, and hence his
decisions sometimes took his party as well as
the nation by surprise. But he was too self-
absorbed, too eagerly interested in the ideas that
suited his own cast of thought, to be able to
watch and gauge the tendencies of the multitude.
The three most remarkable instances in which
his new departures startled the world were his
declarations against the Irish Church establish-
ment in 1867, against the Turks and the tradi-
tional English policy of supporting them in 1876,
and in favour of Irish Home Rule in 1886, and
in none of these did any popular demand suggest
his pronouncement. It was the masses who took
their view from him, not he who took a mandate
from the masses. In each of these cases he may,
perhaps, be blamed for not having sooner perceived,
or at any rate for not having sooner announced,
the need for a change of policy. But It was very
characteristic of him not to give the full strength
of his mind to a question till he felt that it pressed
for a solution. Those who listened to his private
talk were scarcely more struck by the range of
his vision than by his unwillingness to commit
himself on matters whose decision he could
postpone. Reticence and caution were some-
times carried too far, not merely because they
exposed him to misconstruction, but because
they withheld from his party the guidance it

420 Biographical Studies

needed. This was true in the three instances
just mentioned ; and in the last of them it is
possible that earlier and fuller communications
might have averted the separation of some of
his former colleagues. Nor did he always
rightly divine the popular mind. His pro-
posal (in 1874) to extinguish the income-tax
fell completely flat, because the nation was
becoming indifferent to that economy in public
expenditure which both parties had in the days
of Peel and Lord John Russell vied in demanding.
Cherishing his old financial ideals, Mr. Gladstone
had not marked the change. So he failed to
perceive how much the credit of his party was
suffering (after 1871) from the belief of large
sections of the people, that he was indifferent
to the interests of England outside England.
Perhaps, knowing the charge of indifference to
be groundless, he underrated the effect which the
iteration of it produced : perhaps his pride would
not let him stoop to dissipate it.

Though the power of reading the signs of
the times and swaying the mind of the nation
may be now more essential to an English
statesman than the skill which manages a legis-
lature or holds together a cabinet, that skill
counts for much, and must continue to do so
while the Elouse of Commons remains the
governing authority of the country. A man
can hardly reach high place, and certainly can-

William Ewart Gladstone 421

not retain high place, without possessing this
kind of art. Mr. Gladstone was at one time
thought to want it. In 1864, when Lord Palmer-
ston's end was approaching, and jNIr. Gladstone
had shown himself the strongest man among
the Liberal ministers in the House of Com-
mons, people speculated about the succession
to the headship of the party ; and the wise-
acres of the day were never tired of repeating
that Mr. Gladstone could not possibly lead the
House of Commons. He wanted tact, they said,
he was too excitable, too impulsive, too much
absorbed in his own ideas, too unversed in the
arts by which individuals are conciliated. But
when, after twenty-five years of his unquestioned
reign, the time for his own departure drew nigh,
men asked how the Liberal party in the House
of Commons would ever hold together after it
had lost a leader of such consummate capacity.
The Whig critics of 1864 had grown so accus-
tomed to Palmerston's way of handling the House
as to forget that a man might succeed by quite
different methods, and that defects, serious in
themselves, may be outweighed by transcendent

Mr. Gladstone had the defects ascribed to
him. His impulsiveness sometimes betrayed
him into declarations which a cooler reflection
would have dissuaded. The second reading
of the Irish Home Rule Bill of i8S6 might

42 2 Biographical Studies

possibly have been carried had he not been
goaded by his opponents into words which
were construed as recalling or modifying the
concessions he had announced at a meeting
of the Liberal party held just before. More
than once precious time was wasted because an-
tagonists, knowing his excitable temper, brought
on discussions with the sole object of annoying
him and drawing from him some hasty deliverance.
Nor was he an adept, like Disraeli and Dis-
raeli's famous Canadian imitator, Sir John A.
Macdonald, in the management of individuals.
His aversion for the meaner side of human
nature made him refuse to play upon it. Many
of the pursuits, and most of the pleasures,
which attract ordinary men had no interest for
him, so that much of the common ground on
which men meet was closed to him. He was,
moreover, too constantly engrossed by the sub-
jects he loved, and by enterprises which specially
appealed to him, to have leisure for the lighter
but often vitally important devices of political
strategy. I remember hearing, soon after 1870,
how Mr. Delane, then editor of the Times, had
been invited to meet the Prime Minister at a
moment when the support of that newspaper
would have been specially valuable to the Liberal
Government. Instead of using the opportunity
in the way that had been intended, Mr. Gladstone
dilated during the whole time of dinner upon

William Evvart Gladstone 423

the approaching exhaustion of the EngHsh coal-
beds, to the surprise of the company and the un-
concealed annoyance of the powerful guest. It
was the subject then uppermost in his mind, and
he either forgot, or disdained, to conciliate Mr.
Delane. Good nature as well as good sense
made him avoid giving oftence by personal re-
flections in debate, and he usually suffered fools,
if not, like St. Paul's converts, gladly, yet
patiently.^ In the House of Commons he was
entirely free from airs, and, indeed, from any
assumption of superiority. The youngest member
might accost him in the lobby and be listened
to with perfect courtesy. But he had a bad
memory for faces, seldom addressed any one
outside the circle of his personal friends, and
more than once made enemies by omitting
to notice and show attention to recruits who,
having been eminent in their own towns, expected
to be made much of when they entered Parliament.
Having himself plenty of pride and comparative!)-
little vanity, he never realised the extent to which,
and the cheapness with which, men can be captured
and used throuofh their vanitv. Adherents were

' One of liis iiio>; inlinia'.c fiicr. ! h.i-, I liink, -,iiil \h.\[ Ii r.^'v.-i
knew wlial il was tn he hoic!." I'liitiuiatc, iii/ienl. ss^ml i h- iiuj i r-.;,
had this been mi; hut tha" iiu- wlio lia.i v.atilu-1 i'.iin Im- aii.i i-:<.>-!y
should make the statement sl-.ow > how -eiitly hoMs T.ire i a: h'- ha:vK,

I recollect his once reniaikiii'.; on ihe rajiacity tor hoiin; oo-^c ! hy
a gentleman who had been inlroduc-i au'i ha'! talked { : - r, - li:;.\';i
minute.-, to him ; hut Ids own m:.:;P.',r th.rou'^di the convert r.i' n h. id !)."ra\e !
no impatience.

424 Biographical Studies

sometimes turned into dangerous foes because
his preoccupation with graver matters dimmed his
sense of what may be done to win support by the
minor arts, such as an invitation to dinner or even a
seasonable compHment. And his mind, flexible as
it was in seizing new points of view and devising
expedients to meet new circumstances, did not
easily enter into the characters of other men.
Ideas and causes interested him more than did
personal traits ; his sympathy was keener and
stronger for the sufferings of nations or masses
of men than with the fortunes of an individual
man. With all his accessibility and kindli-
ness, he was at bottom chary of real friendship,
while the circle of his intimates became constantly
smaller with advancing years. So it befell that
though his popularity among the general body
of his adherents went on increasing, and the
admiration of his parliamentary followers remained
undiminished, he had in the House of Commons
few personal friends who linked him to the party
at large, and rendered to him those confidential
services which count for much in keeping all
sections in hearty accord and enabling the com-
mander to gauge the sentiment of his troops.

Of parliamentary strategy in that larger sense,
which covers familiarity with parliamentary forms
and usages, care and judgment in arranging the
business of the House, the power of seizing a
parliamentary situation and knowing how to

William Evvart Gladstone 425

deal with it, the art of guiding a debate and
choosing the right moment for reserve and for
openness, for a dignified retreat, for a watch-
ful defence, for a sudden rattling charge upon the
enemy of all this no one had a fuller mastery.
His recollection of precedents was unrivalled, for
it began in 1833 with the first reformed Parlia-
ment, and it seemed as fresh for those remote
days as for last month. He enjoyed combat for
its own sake, not so much from inborn pug-
nacity, for he was not disputatious in ordinary
conversation, as because it called out his fighting
force and stimulated his whole nature. " I am
never nervous in reply," he once said, " though I
am sometimes nervous in opening a debate." No
one could be more tactful or adroit when a crisis
arrived whose gravity he had foreseen. In the
summer of 1881 the House of Lords made some
amendments to the Irish Land Bill which were
deemed ruinous to the working of the measure,
and therewith to the prospects of the pacificcUion
of Ireland. A conflict was expected which might
have strained the fabric of the constitution. The
excitement which cjuickly arose in Parliament
spread to the nation. Mr. Gladstone alone
remained calm and confident. He dc; vised a
series of compromises, which he advocated in con-
ciliatory speeches. He so played his game that
by a few minor concessions he secured nearly all
the points he cared for, and, while sparing the

426 Biographical Studies

dignity of the Lords, steered his bill triumphantly
out of the breakers which had threatened to
engulf it. Very different was his ordinary de-
meanour in debate when he was off his guard.
His face and gestures while he sat in the House
of Commons listening to an opponent would
express all the emotions that crossed his mind.
He would follow every sentence as a hawk follows
the movements of a small bird, would some-
times contradict half aloud, sometimes turn to
his next neighbour to vent his displeasure at the
groundless allegations or fallacious arguments he
was listening to, till at last, like a hunting leopard
loosed from the leash, he would spring to his
feet and deliver a passionate reply. His warmth
would often be in excess of what the occasion
required, and quite disproportioned to the im-
portance of his antagonist. It was in fact the
unimportance of the occasion that made him thus
yield to his feeling. As soon as he saw that
bad weather was coming, and careful seaman-
ship wanted, his coolness returned, his language
became measured, while passion, though it might
increase the force of his oratory, never made him
deviate a hand's breadth from the course he
had chosen. The Celtic heat subsided, and the
shrewd self-control of the Lowland Scot regained

It was by oratory that Mr. Gladstone rose to
fame and power, as, indeed, by it most English

William Evvart Gladstone 427

statesmen have risen, sav^e those to whom wealth
and rank and family connections used to give a
sort of presumptive claim to high office, like the
Cavendishes and the Russells, the Bentincks and
the Cecils. And for many years, during which Mr.
Gladstone was suspected as a statesman because,
while he had ceased to be a Tory, he had not fully
become a Liberal, his eloquence was the main, one
might almost say the sole, source of his intluence.
Oratory was a power in English politics even a
century and a half ago, as the career of the
elder Pitt shows. During the last seventy years,
years which have seen the power of rank and
family connections decline, it has, although
less cultivated as a fine art, continued to be
almost essential to the highest success, and it
still brings a man quickly to the front, though it
will not keep him there should he prove to want
the other branches of statesmanlike capacity.

The permanent reputation of an orator depends
upon two things, the witness of contemporaries
to the impression produced upon them, and the
written or printed record of his speeches. hew
are the famous speakers who would be tamous
if they were tried by this latter test alone, and
Mr. Gladstone was not one of them. It is only
by a rare combination of gills that one who
speaks with so much force and brillianci; as
to charm his listeners is also able to deliver
thoughts so valuable in words so choice that

428 Biographical Studies

posterity will read them as literature. Some
of the ancient orators did this ; but we seldom
know how far those of their speeches which
have been preserved are the speeches which
they actually delivered. Among moderns, a few
French preachers, Edmund Burke, Macaulay, and
Daniel Webster are perhaps the only speakers
whose discourses have passed into classics and
find new generations of readers.^ Twenty years
hence r\Ir. Gladstone's will not be read, except, of
course, by historians. Indeed, they ceased to be
read even in his lifetime. They are too long,
too diffuse, too minute in their handling of details,
too elaborately qualified in their enunciation of
general principles. They contain few epigrams
and few of those weighty thoughts put into telling
phrases which the Greeks called yvcbfMai. The
style, in short, is not sufficiently rich or polished
to give an enduring interest to matter whose
practical importance has vanished. The same
oblivion has overtaken all but a few of the
best speeches (or parts of speeches) of Grattan,
Sheridan, Pitt, Fox, Erskine, Canning, Plunket,
Brougham, Peel, Bright. It may, indeed, be
said and the examples of Burke and Macaulay
show that this is no paradox that the speakers
whom posterity most enjoys are rarely those who

' Sermons belong to a somewhat different category, else I should have
to add the discourses of a few great preachers, such as Robert Hall, J. H.
Newman, Phillips Brooks.

William Ewart Gladstone 429

most affected the audiences that Hstened to

If. on the other hand, Mr. Gladstone be judged
by the impression he made on his own time, his
place will be high in the front rank. His speeches
were neither so concisely telling as Mr. Bright's
nor so finished in diction ; but no other man
among his contemporaries neither Lord Derby
nor Mr, Lowe, nor Lord Beaconsfield nor Lord
Cairns, nor Bishop Wilberforce nor Bishop IMac^ee
taken all round, could be ranked beside him.
And he rose superior to Mr. Bright himself in
readiness, in variety of knowledge, in persuasive
ingenuity. Mr. Bright spoke seldom and required
time for preparation. Admirable in the breadth
and force with which he set forth his own position,
or denounced that of his adversaries, he was
not equally qualified for instructing nor equally
apt at persuading. Mr. Gladstone could both
instruct and persuade, could stimulate his triends
and demolish his opponents, and could do all
these thinofs at an hour's notice, so vast and well
ordered was the arsenal ot his mind. Pitt was
superb in an e.xpository or argumentati\e speech,

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 25 of 29)