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but his stately periods lacked variety. Fox, in-
comparable in reply, was hesitating and contused
when he had to state his case in cold blcjod.

' Though i)nc of Macauiay',- ^jK-cche- (thi' aL;.ii!:v [he vxclv.^i^n of thi-
Muster iif the Rolls from tli'.' Il.'ii-r L'i C' ;ii:ii. iii-) ha ! '.lie v.xf l-.'.iiour of
lurniu'' voles.

430 Biographical Studies

Mr. Gladstone showed as much fire in winding
up a debate as skill in opening it.

His oratory had, indeed, two faults. It wanted
concentration, and it wanted definition. There
were too many words, and the conclusion was
sometimes left vague because the arguments had
been too nicely balanced. I once heard Mr.
Cobden say : " I always listen to Mr. Gladstone
with pleasure and admiration, but I sometimes
have to ask myself, when he has sat down, ' What
after all was it that he meant, and what practical
course does he recommend ? ' " These faults
were balanced by conspicuous merits. There
was a lively imagination, which enabled him
to relieve even dull matter by pleasing figures,
together with a large command of quotations
and illustrations. There were powers of sarcasm,
powers, however, which he rarely used, pre-
ferring the summer lightning of banter to the
thunderbolts of invective. There was admirable
lucidity and accuracy in exposition. There was
art in the disposition and marshalling of his
arguments, and finally a gift now almost lost
in England there was a delightful variety and
grace of appropriate gesture. But above and
beyond everything else which enthralled the
listener, there stood out four qualities. Two of
them were merits of substance inventiveness and
elevation ; two were merits of delivery force in
the manner, expressive modulation in the voice.

William Evvart Gladstone 431

No one showed such swift resourcefulness in
debate. His readiness, not only at catching a
point, but at making the most of it on a moment's
notice, w-as amazing. Some one would lean over
the back of the bench he sat on and show a
paper or whisper a sentence to him. Appre-
hending the bearings at a glance, he would take
the bare fact and so shape and develop it, like
a potter moulding a bowl on the wheel out of
a lump of clay, that it grew into a cogent
argument or a happy illustration under the eye of
the audience, and seemed all the more telling
because it had not been originally a part of his
case. Even in the last three years of his parlia-
mentary life, when his sight had so failed that he
read nothing, printed or written, except what it
was absolutely necessary to read, and when his
deafness had so increased that he did not hear
half of what was said in debate, it was sufficient for
a colleague to say into the better ear a few
words explaining how the matter at issue stood,
and he would rise to his feet and extctmporise
a long and ingenious argunient, or retreat with
dexterous grace from a position which the course
of the discussion or the private warning of the
Whips had shown to be untenable. XeveT was
he seen at a loss either to meet a ncnv |joini raised
by an adversary or to make the best ot an un-
expected incident. Sometimes he would amuse
himself by drawing a cheer or a contradiction

432 Biographical Studies

from his opponents, and would then suddenly turn
round and use this hasty expression of their
opinion as the basis for a fresh argument of his
own. Loving conflict, he loved debate, and,
so far from being confused or worried by the
strain conflict put upon him, his physical health
was strengthened and his faculties were roused
to higher efficiency by having to prepare and
deliver a great speech. He had the rare faculty
of thinking ahead while he was speaking, and
could, while pouring forth a stream of glittering
sentences, be at the same time (as one saw by
watching his eye) composing an argument to be
delivered five or ten minutes later. Once, at a
very critical moment, when he was defending a
great measure against the amendment moved
by a nominal supporter of his own which proved
fatal to it, a friend suddenly reminded him of
an incident in the career of the mover which might
be effectively used against him. When Mr. Glad-
stone sat down after delivering an impassioned
speech, in the course of which he had several
times approached and then sheered off from the
incident, he turned round to the friend and said,
" I was thinking all the time I was speaking

whether I could properly use against what

you told me, but concluded, on the whole, that
it would be too hard on him."

The weakness of his eloquence sprang from its
supersubtlety and superabundance. He was prone

William Ewart Gladstone 433

to fine distinctions. He multiplied arguments when
it would have been better to rely upon two or
three of the strongest. And he was sometimes
so intent on refuting the particular adversaries
opposed to him, and persuading the particular
audience before him, that he forgot to address
his reasonings to the public beyond the House
and make them equally applicable and equally
convincing to the readers of next morning.

As dignity is one of the rarest qualities in
literature, so elevation is one of the rarest in
oratory. It is a quality easier to feel than to
analyse. One may call it a power of ennobling
ordinary things by showing their relation to great
things, by pouring high emotions round them,
by bringing the worthier motives of human
conduct to bear upon them, l)y touching them
with the light of poetry. Ambitious writers and
speakers strain after effects of this kind ; but
they are effects which study and straining
cannot ensure. Vainly do most men tlap their
wings in the effort to soar ; if they succeed
in rising from the ground it is because some
unusually strong burst of feeling makes them
for the moment better than themselves. In
Mr. Gladstone the capacity for feeling was at
all times so strong, and the susceptibility of the
imagination so keen, that he soared without
effort. His vision seemed to take in th(; whole
landscape. The points actually in cjuestion


434 Biographical Studies

might be small, but the principles involved were
to him far-reaching. The contests of to-day
were ennobled by the effect they might have in
a still distant future. There are rhetoricians
skilful in playing by words and manner on every
chord of human nature, rhetoricians who move
you, and may even carry you away for the
moment, but whose sincerity is doubted, because
the sense of spontaneity is lacking. Mr. Glad-
stone was not of these. He never seemed to be
forcing an effect or assuming a sentiment. To
listen to him was to feel convinced of his own
conviction and to be warmed by the warmth with
which he expressed it. Nor was this due to the
perfection of his rhetorical art. He really did
feel what he expressed. Sometimes, of course,
like all statesmen, he had to maintain a cause
whose weakness he perceived, as, for instance,
when it became necessary to defend the blunder
of a colleague, or a decision reached by some
Cabinet compromise which his own judgment dis-
approved. But even in such cases he did not simu-
late feeling, but reserved his earnestness for those
parts of the case on which it could be honestly ex-
pended. As this was generally true of the imagin-
ative and emotional side of his eloquence, so was
it especially true of his unequalled power of lifting
a subject from the level on which other speakers
had treated it into the purer air of permanent
principle, perhaps even of moral sublimity.

William Ewart Gladstone 435

The dignity and spontaneity which marked the
substance of his speeches was no less conspicuous
in their dehvery. Nothing could be more easy and
graceful than his manner on ordinary occasions,
nothing more grave and stately than it became
when he was making a ceremonial reference
to some public event or bestowing a meed of
praise on the departed. His expository dis-
courses, such as those with which he introduced
a complicated bill or unfolded a financial state-
ment, were models of their kind, not only for
lucidity, but for the pleasant smoothness, never
lapsing into monotony, with which the stream
of speech flowed from his lips. The task was
performed so well that people thought it an
easy task till they saw how inferior were the
performances of two subsecjuent chancellors of
the exchequer so able in their respective
ways as Sir Stafford Northcote and Mr. Lowe.
But when an occasion arrived which (|uickened
men's pulses in the House of Commons, a place
where feeling rises as suddenly as do the waves
of a Highland loch when a squall comes rush-
ing down the glen, the vehemence ot his leeling
found expression in the fire ot his eye and the
resistless strength ol his words. His ulterance
did not grow swifter, nor did the: kt;y of his
voice rise, as passion raises and sharpens the
voice in most men. But the measured torce with
which everv sentence was launched, like a shell

43 6 Biographical Studies

hurtling through the air, the concentrated in-
tensity of his look, as he defied antagonists in
front and swept his glance over the ranks of his
supporters around and behind him, had a startling
and thrilling power which no other Englishman
could exert, and which no Englishman had exerted
since the days of Pitt and Fox, The whole proud,
bold, ardent nature of the man seemed to flash
out, and one almost forgot what the lips said in
admiration of the towering personality.

People who read next day the report in the
newspapers of a speech delivered on such an
occasion could not comprehend the impression
it had made on the listeners. " What was there
in it so to stir you ? " they asked. They had not
seen the glance and the gestures; they had not
heard the vibrating voice rise to an organ peal
of triumph or sink to a whisper of entreaty. Mr.
Gladstone's voice was naturally rich and resonant.
It was a fine singing voice, and a pleasant voice
to listen to in conversation, not the less pleasant
for having a slight trace of Liverpool accent
clinging to it. But what struck one in listening
to his speeches was not so much the quality of
the vocal chords as the skill with which they were
managed. He had a gift of sympathetic ex-
pression, of throwing his feeling into his voice,
and using its modulations to accompany and
convey every shade of meaning, like that which
a great composer exerts when he puts music to a

William Ewart Gladstone 437

poem, or a great executant when he renders at
once the composer's and the poet's thought. And
just as accompHshed singers or violinists enjoy
the practice of their art, so he rejoiced, perhaps
unconsciously, yet intensely, in putting forth this
faculty of expression ; as appeared, indeed, from
the fact that whenever his voice failed him
(which sometimes befell in later years) his
words came less easily, and even the chariot of
his argument seemed to drive heavily. That
the voice should so seldom have failed was
wonderful. When he had passed his seventy-
fifth year, it became sensibly inferior in volume
and depth of tone. But its variety and delicacy
remained. In April 1886, he being then seventy-
seven, it held out during a speech of nearly
four hours in length. In February 1S90 it
enabled him to deliver with extraordinary effect
an eminently solemn and pathetic appeal. In
March 1894 those who listened to it the last time
it was heard in Parliament they were com-
paratively few, for the secret of his impending
resignation had been well kept recognised in it
all the old charm. The most striking instance I
recall of the power it could exert is to be found
in a speech made in 1S83, during one of the
tiresome debates occasioned by the refusal of
the Opposition and of some timorous Liberals
to allow Mr. Bradlaugh to be sworn as a member
of the House of Commons. This speech pro-

438 Biographical Studies

duced on those who heard it an impression
which its perusal to-day fails to explain. That
impression was chiefly due to the grave and
reverent tone in which he delivered some
sentences stating the view that it is not our
belief in the bare existence of a Deity, but the
realising of him as being a Providence ruling
the world, that has moral value and significance
for us. And it was due in particular to the solemn
dignity with which he declaimed six lines of
Lucretius, setting forth the Epicurean view that
the gods do not concern themselves with human
affairs. There were perhaps not twenty men
in the House of Commons who could follow the
sense of the lines so as to appreciate their bearing
on his argument. But these sonorous hexameters
hexameters that seemed to have lived on
through nineteen centuries to find their applica-
tion from the lips of an orator to-day the sense
of remoteness in the strange language and the
far-off heathen origin, the deep and moving note
in the speaker's voice, thrilled the imagination
of the audience and held it spellbound, lifting for
a moment the whole subject of debate into a region
far above party conflicts. Spoken by any one else,
the passage culminating in these Lucretian lines
might have produced little effect. It was the voice
and manner, above all the voice, with its marvel-
lous modulations, that made the speech majestic.
Yet one must not forget to add that with him,

William Ewart Gladstone 439

as with some other famous statesmen, the im-
pression made by a speech was in a measure due
to the admiring curiosity and wonder which his
personaHty inspired. He was so much the most
interesting human being in the House oi" Com-
mons that, when he withdrew, many members
said that the place had lost half its attraction for
them, and that the chamber looked empty because
he was not in it. Plenty of able men remained.
But even the ablest seemed ordinary when com-
pared with the figure that had vanished, a figure
in whom were combined, as in no other man of
his time, an unrivalled experience, an extraordinary
activity and versatility of intellect, a fervid imagina-
tion, and an indomitable will.

Though Mr. Gladstone's oratory was a main
source of his power, both in Parliament and over
the people, the effort of detractors to represent
him as a mere rhetorician will seem absurd
to the historian who reviews his whole career.
The rhetorician adorns and popularises the ideas
which have originated with others ; he advocates
policies which others have devised ; he follows
and expresses the sentiments which already i)re-
vail in his party. Mr. Gladstone was himself a
source of new ideas and new policies ; he evoked
new sentiments or turned old sentiments into
new channels. Neither was he, as some alleged,
primarily a destroyer. His conservative in-
stincts were strong ; he cherished ancient custom.

440 Biographical Studies

When it became necessary to clear away an
institution he sought to put something else in
its place. He was a constructive statesman not
less conspicuously than were Pitt, Canning, and
Peel. Whether he was a philosophic statesman,
basing his action on large views obtained by
thought and study, philosophic in the sense in
which we apply the epithet to Pericles, Machia-
velli, Turgot, Burke, Jefferson, Hamilton, Stein
if one class can be made to include persons
otherwise so dissimilar may perhaps be doubted.
There are few instances in history of men who
have been great thinkers and also great legis-
lators or administrators, because the two kinds of
capacity almost exclude one another. As experts
declare that a man who should try to operate on
the Stock Exchange in reliance upon a profound
knowledge of the inner springs of European
politics and the financial resources of the great
States, would ruin himself before his perfectly
correct calculations had time to come true, so a
practical statesman, though he cannot know too
much, or look too far ahead, must beware of trust-
ing his own forecasts, must remember that he
has to deal with the next few months or years,
and to persuade persons who cannot be expected
to share or even to understand his views of the
future. The habit of meditating on underlying
truths, the tendency to play the long game, are
almost certain to spoil a man for dealing effectively

William Ewart Gladstone 441

with the present. He will not be a sufficiently-
vigilant observer ; he will be out of sympathy
with the notions of the average man ; his argu-
ments will go over the head of his audience.
No English prime minister has looked at politics
with the eye of a philosopher. But Mr. Glad-
stone, if hardly to be called a thinker, showed
higher constructive power than any one else
has done since Peel. Were the memory of his
oratorical triumphs to pass completely away, he
would deserve to be remembered in respect of
the mark he left upon the British statute-book and
of the changes he wrought both in the constitu-
tion of his country and in her European policy.

Three groups of measures stand out as monu-
ments of his skill and energy. The first of these
three includes the financial reforms embodied in
a series of fourteen budgets between the years
1853 and 1882, the most famous of which were
the budgets of 1853 and i860. In the former he
continued the work begun by Peel by reducing
and simplifying the customs duties. Deficiencies
in revenue were supplied by the enactment of less
oppressive imposts, and particularly by resettling
the income-tax, and by the introduction ot a suc-
cession duty on real estate. The preparation and
passing of this very technical and intricate Suc-
cession Duty Act was a most laborious enter[)rise,
of which Mr. Gladstone ust'd to speak as the
severest mental strain he had ever undergone :

442 Biographical Studies

Kapria-Trjv St) T7p ye fji,d\rjv (fidro BvfxevaL dv8pu)v.^

The budget of i860, among other changes,
abolished the paper duty, a boon to the press
which was resisted by the House of Lords.
They threw out the measure, but in the follow-
ing year Mr. Gladstone forced them to submit.
His achievements in the field of finance equal, if
they do not surpass, those of Peel, and are not
tarnished, as in the case of Pitt, by the recollec-
tion of a burden of debts incurred. To no
minister can be ascribed so large a share in
promoting the commercial and industrial pro-
sperity of modern England, and in the reduction
of her national debt to the figure at which it
stood when it began to rise again in 1900.

The second group includes the parliamentary
reform bills of 1866 and 1884 and the Redistribu-
tion Bill of 1885. The first of these was defeated
in the House of Commons, but it led to the
passing next year, by Mr. Disraeli, of a more
sweeping measure. Taken together, these statutes
have turned Britain into a democratic country,
changing the character of her government almost
as profoundly as did the Reform Act of 1832.

The third group consists of a series of Irish
measures, beginning with the Church Disestab-
lishment Act of 1869, and including the Land
Act of 1870, the University Education Bill of

1 " lie said that this was the hardest battle of men he had entered,"
Iliad \\. 185.

William Evvart Gladstone 443

1873 (defeated in the House of Commons), the
Land iVct of 1881, and the Home Rule bills of
1 886 and 1893. All these were in a special
manner Mr. Gladstone's handiwork, prepared as
well as brought in and advocated by him. All
were highly complicated, and of one, the Land
Act of 1 88 1, which it took three months to carry
through the House of Commons, it was said
that so great was its intricacy that only three
men understood it Mr. Gladstone himself, his
Attorney- General for Ireland, and Mr. T. ^l.
Healy. In preparing a bill no man could be
more painstaking. He settled and laid down the
principles himself; and when he came to work them
out with the draughtsman and the officials who had
special knowledge of the subject, he insisted on
knowing what their effect would be in every
particular. Indeed, he loved work for its own
sake, in this respect unlike Mr. Bright, who once
said to me with a smile, when asked as to his
methods of working, that he had never done any
work all his life. The v;ilue of this mastery of
details was seen when a bill came to be debated
in Committee. It was impossible to catch Mr.
Gladstone tripping on a point of fact, or unpre-
pared with a reply to the arguments of an
opponent. He seemed to revel in the toil ot
mastering a tangle of technical details.

It is long since iMiglaiul, in this respect not
favoured by her parliamentary system, has pro-

444 Biographical Studies

duced a great foreign minister, nor has that title
been claimed for Mr. Gladstone. But he showed
on several occasions both his independence of
tradition and his faith in broad principles as fit
to be applied in international relations ; and his
action in that field, though felt only at intervals,
has left abiding results in European history. In
1 85 1, he being then still a Tory, his pamphlet
denouncing the cruelties of the Bourbon govern-
ment of Naples, and the sympathy he subse-
quently avowed with the national movement in
Italy, gave that movement a new standing in
Europe by powerfully recommending it to English
opinion. In 1870 the prompt action of his ministry
in arranging a treaty for the neutrality of Belgium
on the outbreak of the war between France and
Germany, averted the risk that Belgium might
be drawn into the strife. In 1 871, by concluding
the treaty of Washington, which provided for the
settlement by arbitration of the Alabama claims,
he not only set a precedent full of promise for
the future, but delivered England from what
would have been, in case of her being at war with
any European power, a danger fatal to her ocean
commerce. And, in 1876, his onslaught upon the
Turks, after the Bulgarian massacres, roused an
intense feeling in England, turning the current of
opinion so decisively that Disraeli's ministry were
forced to leave the Sultan to his fate, and thus
became a cause of the ultimate deliverance of

William Ewart Gladstone 445

Bulgaria, Eastern Rumelia, Bosnia, and Thessaly
from Mussulman tyranny. Few English statesmen
have equally earned the gratitude of the oppressed.
Nothing lay nearer to his heart than the pro-
tection of the Christians of the East. His sense
of personal duty to them was partly due to the
feeling that the Crimean War had prolonged the
rule of the Turk, and had thus imposed a special
responsibility on Britain, and on the members
of Lord Aberdeen's cabinet which drifted into
that war. Twenty years after the agitation ot
1876, and when he had finally retired from
Parliament and political life, the massacres per-
petrated by the Sultan on his Armenian subjects
brought him once more into the field, and
his last speech in public (delivered at Liverpool
in the autumn of 1896) was a powerful argument
in favour of British intervention to rescue the
Eastern Christians. The passion with which he
wrote and spoke to me on this subject would
have convinced me, had I needed to be convinced,
that the action he had taken in 1S76, then attri-
buted by his opponents to mere party spirit,
sprang from a disinterested devotion to justice
and mercy. In the following spring he followed
this up by a pamphlet on behalf of the freedom
of Crete. In neither of these two cases did
success crown his efforts, for the Government,
commanding a large majority in Parliament,
pursued the course upon which it had already

44^ Biographical Studies

entered. Poignant regrets were expressed that
Mr. Gladstone was no longer able to take effective
action in the cause of humanity ; yet it was a con-
solation to be assured that age and infirmity had
not dulled his sympathies with that cause.

That he was right in 1876-78 in the view
he took of the line of conduct England should
adopt towards the Turks has been now virtually
admitted even by his opponents. That he was
also right in 1896, when urging action to protect
the Eastern Christians, will probably be admitted
ten years hence, when the facts of the case and
the nature of the opportunity that existed for
taking prompt action without the risk of a
European war have become better known. In
both cases it was not merely religious sympathy,
but also a far-sighted view of policy that governed
his judgment. He held that the faults of Turkish
rule are incurable, and that the Powers of Western
and Central Europe ought to aim at protecting
the subject nationalities and by degrees extend-
ing self-government to them, so that they may
grow into states, and in time be able to restore

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 26 of 29)